NHL Playoffs 2014: Strengths and Weaknesses of Every Team
The NHL's Sweet 16 are set. The best time of the year is here: the Stanley Cup playoffs.
This spring figures to be a great one. We have tradition (five of the Original Six teams are in—sorry Toronto), and we have some refreshing new faces (hello again, Colorado and Dallas). We have the defending Stanley Cup champs (Chicago) and the runner-up (Boston) back after good seasons again.
We have everything we need for two months of nightly fun. Sudden-death, hold-your-breath overtime games no doubt will grip the fanbases of most, if not all, teams. We'll see bearded men play in pain. We'll see them play with pressure at its highest.
There's nothing like playoff hockey. Every bounce of that little rubber disc takes with it the nerves of each team's fans. If you have a team in the playoffs, you might as well stock up on the antacids now. Remember, though, it's just a game. (Right.)
The following is a look at the strengths and weaknesses of all 16 teams. May your team be proved to have many more of the former than the latter when the playoffs (and your beard) have stopped.
Depth all the way through the lineup, championship experience, accountability among players—it's all there in Boston.
The Bruins are a Capital T Team, with many skilled players but playing with a hard, tough work ethic. They are big and fast with a requisite amount of skill up front. On defense, they hit hard and make the smart plays more often than not. Plus, Tuukka Rask is there when anything in front of him falters for a second.
What's been most impressive about the Bruins is their ability to adapt to different styles when needed. Some nights, they're the fancy, flying Bruins. Some nights, they're the old lunch-pail gang of yore. Many nights, they're a healthy combination of both.
Patrice Bergeron should be a lock again for the Selke Trophy. What a player he is, and he gets that much better in the playoffs. Jarome Iginla scored 30 goals and hardly got any attention at all. That's how good this team is.
Really, it's tough to come up with anything wrong with this group.
Occasionally, they have a tendency to let the foot off the gas in games. They seem to get a little bit complacent at times with a lead, which cost them a few points at the end of the year. The loss of Dennis Seidenberg has hurt the defense some, and general manager Peter Chiarelli says he likely won't return in the playoffs, via Joe McDonald of ESPN Boston.
The Penguins have the best player in the world, Sidney Crosby, who had a tremendous, mostly healthy season. He'll win the Art Ross Trophy and probably the Hart as well.
But the best news for Pittsburgh entering the postseason is the recent return to action of two-way defenseman Kris Letang. He made a remarkable recovery from a stroke and will make the Pens better in every aspect, especially on the power play—though Pittsburgh still maintained the league's best PP percentage entering the final week.
Evgeni Malkin had an OK year by his standards but is a proven playoff performer with 97 points in 83 career games.
Pittsburgh also is a very good penalty-killing team, entering the final week fourth in the league at over 85 percent.
With special teams often making the difference between wins and losses in the playoffs, the fact that Pittsburgh was in the top five in each category is one giant reason to like its postseason chances.
He had a really good regular season, but everyone partial to the Pens will be chewing their fingernails at the start of the playoffs over how Marc-Andre Fleury will perform.
In the last two playoffs he's performed, Fleury's goals against have been terrible—3.52 and 4.63, respectively. While he did rebound with a strong regular season, his save percentage entering the final weekend of .917 is lower than many others who will tend the net for their teams in the playoffs.
It may not be a weakness right now, but goaltending remains a worry in Pittsburgh.
Tampa Bay Lightning
Steven Stamkos potted 10 goals in his first 17 games after missing nearly four months of action with a broken leg, so it's fair to say that's a big positive for the Lightning as they enter a first-round series with the Montreal Canadiens.
Stamkos is probably the game's best pure goal scorer, with certainly the best one-timer in the league.
Ryan Callahan, Valtteri Filppula, Ondrej Palat and rookie Tyler Johnson make for a very nice top-six group of forwards to go along with Stamkos and young defenseman Victor Hedman, who had a great two-way season.
The Lightning play a fast, entertaining game and when Stamkos heats up, look out.
This would have been in the strength category, but the late-season injury to goalie Ben Bishop makes the Lightning's goaltending situation a giant worry. Anders Lindback takes over in net, and that's a big step down. Maybe Bishop will be back in time for Round 1, but the Bolts aren't saying much about his prognosis, which can't be a good sign.
Tampa Bay's special teams were just mediocre all year, but the long loss of Stamkos no doubt hurt the power play. The defense overall might be a little too easy to play against as well. The Bolts gave up about 30 shots a game in the regular season, but Bishop bailed them out a lot. If he's out and Tampa Bay's normal shot allowance continues, it could be a short spring for the Lightning.
Canada's only playoff team is also its last to win a Stanley Cup—way back in 1993 with Patrick Roy.
Carey Price is probably Montreal's best goalie since Saint Patrick, and Habs fans fervently hope his golden winter in Sochi with Team Canada turns into a silvery spring with Montreal. The 21,273 fans who pack the Bell Centre every single game put an awful lot of nervous-nellie pressure on any goalie, but Price looked ultra-calm in Sochi under a lot of pressure too.
But there is this niggling little statistic too: 9-17. That's Price's career playoff record, with a not-so-hot .90 saves percentage. In fact, in three of the last four playoff seasons, Price's save percentages were .894, .890 and .878. The fact is, while Price was very good this year, he hasn't been a good playoff goalie in his career. But maybe Sochi will help change that.
Max Pacioretty is one of the game's best forwards, though he still seems to get little notice outside of Montreal. He was just tremendous all year for the Habs and leads a good group of forwards that includes deadline pickup Thomas Vanek.
On the blue line, P.K. Subban had some struggles with coach Michel Therrien, but he again finished among the top-scoring D-men in the league and has been good in previous playoffs. Montreal finished in the top five in penalty killing, always a plus in the playoffs.
Montreal's power play entered the final weekend still in the bottom half of the NHL, a surprise given Subban's presence. The depth on the forward lines is a bit suspect as well. Rene Bourque was once something of a star in this league, or at least a very promising player, but he has been terrible since getting a big contract.
Montreal was under 50 percent on the season winning faceoffs, hurting puck-possession time. Those are the kinds of areas that become more important in the playoffs.
New York Rangers
The Rangers play a safe, disciplined brand of hockey, finishing among the least-penalized teams in the league. But this isn't the boring, blocked-shot team of John Tortorella anymore.
The Rangers can skate and like to make plays, with forwards such as Rick Nash, Brad Richards, Martin St. Louis, Mats Zuccarello and Derek Stepan. The loss of Ryan Callahan didn't seem to hurt them much, even though St. Louis didn't score a lot for New York after coming over from the Lightning.
When the offense is having a rough night, there's still Henrik Lundqvist. It wasn't King Henrik's greatest season, but it was good enough for a playoff spot, and teams always get nervous playing him in the postseason—though a trip to the Stanley Cup Final has eluded the well-coiffed Swede still.
Ryan McDonagh is a terrific defenseman who may even merit some Norris Trophy consideration. The Rangers are also a very good team killing penalties, as they were in the top five of the league much of the second half.
Is there enough strength up the middle? Sure, Richards is still around and is a fairly productive scorer. But at even strength he just isn't the player he once was.
The Rangers were a poor faceoff team, finishing in the bottom third. If read one thing over and over in this slideshow, a point of criticism for a team's playoff chances, it will be about that percentage in the dot. In the playoffs, it's big.
New York doesn't play with a lot of fire on some nights. With a veteran, well-paid group, that lack of hunger is a worry.
Claude Giroux might have won the Hart Trophy this season if not for a bad start, which was probably due in large part to a freak offseason injury. He's been burning with motivation ever since getting snubbed by Team Canada for the Olympics too, so this playoff season could be fun for Flyers fans.
This team really overcame a lot to get into the playoffs, a huge testament to coach Craig "Chief" Berube, who took over early on for Peter Laviolette.
Steve Mason has his critics still, but he played well for Philly, and he should be good in the postseason too. He's big and worked hard to get his game back when some thought he might be out of the league before long.
Wayne Simmonds is one of the league's best power forwards, and Philly was in the top 10 on the power play most of the second half, as was the penalty killing. This is a good team, one that could be the most dangerous dark horse out there.
Defensively, the Flyers give you some chances. After 79 games, they ranked 18th in the NHL in shots allowed per game (30.4).
This team still lacks a stud No. 1 defenseman. If only Chris Pronger hadn't gotten hurt. The defense just is a bit too old and slow and maybe soft around the edges too. A telling stat in that department might be this: Entering the final weekend, Philly ranked 16th in the league in blocked shots as a team and 28th in takeaways.
Columbus Blue Jackets
Sergei Bobrovsky showed his Vezina Trophy of last year wasn't a fluke with a big second half for the Blue Jackets, leading them to just their second postseason in team history.
"The Bob" is a beast when he's on, which is often. A hot goalie entering the playoffs is always the biggest source of worry to any supposedly superior opponent, which the lower-seeded Jackets are facing.
This is more than just a one-man team riding a hot goalie, though. This team is very physical, always finishing its checks and trying to get under the skin of the opposition. Columbus stood tied with Los Angeles for most hits by a team entering the final weekend. It should be well primed for the playoffs, which are always more physical.
The Jackets are also very good with the puck when they have it, at least in one key fundamental way: They had the second-fewest giveaways in the NHL, behind only St. Louis.
On faceoffs, Columbus was in the top 10 in the league.
You worry some about their ability to score goals, though they can in bunches at times. Still, the Blue Jackets were in the bottom half of the league in shots on goal, and if the top line isn't going, it's usually a tough night.
Ryan Johansen is a premier young center, but after him the Jackets don't have a lot of high-end skill. That is a worry in big playoff games, where the scores usually tend to be lower anyway but often require game-breakers to pull out in the end.
Detroit Red Wings
You have to give it up for coach Mike Babcock. Getting this team into the playoffs was going to be a big chore without Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg and others, but Babcock pulled it off. Barely, but he did it.
Youngsters such as Tomas Tatar and Gustav Nyquist helped make up the difference, and the Red Wings made the playoffs for the 23rd straight season. Amazing.
Still, this figures to be a short spring for the Wings. No way are they good enough to beat one of the East's two best teams, Boston or Pittsburgh.
Zetterberg is skating again, but it's highly doubtful he'll be ready to return for the first round following February back surgery. Datsyuk is back, though, and as long as they have this marvelous player, there will be hope in Motown. Otherwise, there really isn't a lot to get excited about with this team offensively.
The defense isn't bad at all, though, with Danny DeKeyser and Niklas Kronwall playing lots of minutes. The Wings still can be scary in clutch moments, and Babcock knows how to win with lesser talent. He proved that this year.
Jimmy Howard was real good down the stretch, but otherwise it was an average year at best in net. Sorry, but I don't see him as a stopper against the Bruins or Penguins.
Tatar and Nyquist have added some nice young freshness to the forward group—otherwise you're still looking at a bunch of really old guys who get hurt a lot. They were a good little story getting into the postseason again, but the Wings will be done in a couple weeks at most.
Anaheim quietly had a great season, led by big, rugged forwards Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry.
The two have the best chemistry of any two linemates in the league and just cycle you to death. There may be a steep drop-off in household name recognition after that (aside from the ageless one, Teemu Selanne), but coach Bruce Boudreau's group is full of solid muckers and grinders. Center Nick Bonino is one of the best players you've never heard of.
The defense is solid, with deadline addition Stephane Robidas one of the most underappreciated pickups by GM Bob Murray. Goaltender Jonas Hiller is very good, though his save percentage is among the lowest of any starting netminder in the playoffs.
For a team that piled up as many points as it did, it did so without great performances from its special teams. Both finished poorly in the league, which on the power-play side of the ledger was all the more surprising with Perry and Getzlaf out there all the time.
Hiller's lack of playoff pedigree is a worry, and he wasn't all that great in the first round last year, when the Ducks lost in seven games to the Red Wings.
The main worry with Anaheim remains that it is too top-heavy of a team offensively, making it vulnerable to increased defensive attention in the playoffs.
This is a team whose year-long motto has been "Why Not Us?", as suggested at an early-season team dinner in Boston with former Av Ray Bourque. The fans' reaction at the end of the year to this team was, "Can you believe it?"
Nobody expected the Avs to do as well as they did. It's a tribute to rookie coach Patrick Roy, who almost certainly will win the Jack Adams Award. This team has a strong group of young, speedy forwards, led by Matt Duchene, Nathan MacKinnon, Gabe Landeskog, Ryan O'Reilly and Paul Stastny. The goaltender, Semyon Varlamov, set a franchise record for wins, breaking the old mark of his coach.
Colorado won the most one-goal games in the league and got better-than-expected years from defensemen such as Nick Holden, Andre Benoit and Tyson Barrie.
Whether Duchene (knee) can make it back or not for the first round appears to be an iffy proposition at best, and a late-season possible concussion to Barrie represents a major new worry for Roy. But if any team can overcome obstacles, why not this one?
This team was not the darlings of the advanced statistics set. The Avs had poor Corsi and Fenwick numbers in tie games. Critics say the playoffs will expose their lack of puck-possession skills, and they may prove to be right. This is not a dominant team. It was one that won a lot of games late and a lot of games in which it was outshot badly.
There is not a lot of offense from the third and fourth lines, and the penalty killing can be spotty at times.
The lack of depth on defense can be a problem too. Varlamov will have to stand on his head as much as he did in the regular season if this is to be more than just a nice regular-season story at best.
St. Louis Blues
Everything here should be prefaced with "Before all the injuries at the end of the year hit..."
Several key Blues forwards were injured at the end of the season, and the secretive world of injury disclosures come playoff time means we probably won't know much about the ongoing status of guys like David Backes, T.J. Oshie, Patrik Berglund, Brenden Morrow and Vladimir Tarasenko.
Before that, these guys were the conference leaders, seemingly set to have home-ice advantage through all rounds until the finals. The good news: This is still a tough team, and coach Ken Hitchcock finds ways to adapt.
The Blues will have to really get a lot from big deadline acquisition Ryan Miller now. He slumped down the stretch, but Blues management got him for the playoffs. It's time for him to earn his money now, and he's capable.
The defense is still mostly intact and very good. Jay Bouwmeester, Kevin Shattenkirk and Alex Pietrangelo represent a strong top three, and veterans such as Barret Jackman and Jordan Leopold are solid. As long as the D and goaltending hold up, and if the Blues get some of those top forwards to trickle back into the lineup, this remains a formidable group.
The team is fast, smart and very physical. Don't give up on it yet.
Even before the injuries, you worried about whether there was enough high-end skill up front. The Blues haven't had a dominant first-line center in years, and it's hurt them come playoff time. GM Doug Armstrong opted for goaltending at the deadline, when some thought he should have been looking more for an elite forward.
Hitchcock tends to get very conservative in playoff games, which opens him up to criticism that he is too quick to want to change his team's style this time of year. If the injuries to the forwards persist, he'll have no choice but to be that way again.
San Jose Sharks
Some think this is an older, slower team. Granted, two of the top forwards remain on the wrong side of 30, Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau. But this is anything but a slow team. Marleau remains a freak of nature, faster than most guys a third his age.
The Sharks had another outstanding season, led by their strength up the middle. Thornton, Logan Couture and Joe Pavelski give San Jose as good a one-two-three center combination as anyone in the league. Pavelski plays on the wing sometimes but usually in the pivot. Led by Thornton and Pavelski, the Sharks entered the final weekend tied for best faceoff percentage in the league at 52.8 percent.
The Sharks have a good goalie in Antti Niemi, who has won a Cup before. Of course, the Sharks are still looking for their first in franchise history despite many previous great seasons.
One thing this team doesn't lack is playoff experience. Combined, the players on the roster have 1,252 games of postseason history.
The penalty kill is excellent, sixth-best in the NHL. There's not much not to dislike about this group. Of course, that's seemingly always the case with the Sharks. It's just that elusive Cup that remains missing.
While Marc-Edouard Vlasic played for Team Canada and had a fine season, and Dan Boyle is still around, the Sharks may still lack that big-time, shutdown D-man. Maybe that's nit-picking, but to me that's what the Sharks have lacked all these years in the playoffs.
Sometimes the Sharks let up a bit after getting a lead, which drives coach Todd McLellan crazy. Their winning percentage when leading after one period (.750) is just 14th in the league.
The defending Stanley Cup champs stumbled down the stretch, losing home-ice advantage in the first round because of it. Granted, they were without Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane.
Both are expected back for Round 1, so this is good news for coach Joel Quenneville. Toews and Kane completely change things, so let's not make too much of the final couple weeks. OK, maybe there's room for some concern. More about that below.
Chicago had a very good season, well over 100 points. Beyond the two injured star forwards, the usual suspects are still around. Marian Hossa, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Patrick Sharp, Brandon Saad, Andrew Shaw—real good players all.
The power play is a top-10 unit; it wins 52 percent of faceoffs, and the top guys have two Cups in the last four years. The Blackhawks still have swagger, and nobody likes to have to play in the United Center in the spring against them.
Corey Crawford looked jittery down the stretch. He had a good, not great, season. Crawford has a Stanley Cup ring, so nobody is questioning his credentials here. But the fact is, he's beatable.
Chicago wasn't a good penalty-killing team in the regular season either (19th in the NHL). That's a worry. So is the fact that Toews and Kane will have had so much time off before the playoffs. Did rust build up? Or was that just what they needed—a nice little vacation after having played so much hockey the last few years?
We'll find out soon, but betting against Toews is particularly risky. He has two Stanley Cups and two Olympic gold medals in the last four years.
Los Angeles Kings
The Kings didn't make a lot of news this season. They just had another quietly effective 82 games for the most part and are back in the playoffs, only two years removed from winning a Cup.
Goalie Jonathan Quick is the biggest reason for hope of another in Tinseltown. Of all the starting goalies in the Western Conference playoffs, the former Conn Smythe winner had the lowest goals-against average in the regular season.
Quick will need to be very good again probably, as the Kings struggled offensively and on the power play. Of course, in 2012, when they won the Cup, they finished 29th in overall offense.
With Anze Kopitar, Jeff Carter, Mike Richards and Jarret Stoll down the middle, there is a lot to like there. Add in experienced wingers such as Dustin Brown, Marian Gaborik and Justin Williams, and there's even more to like. So why don't the Kings score more? It's a question that has vexed many a Kings fan.
Drew Doughty is a premier defenseman, and coach Darryl Sutter is a master at getting his team to play suffocating team defense when it matters. Los Angeles enters the postseason having allowed the fewest goals in the Western Conference. The Kings are 27-17 in the playoffs the last three seasons, so they have the right experience.
The power play finished in the bottom third of the league, which, again, nobody can really figure out. So there's that.
It's an older group up front, making health a concern. Can Gaborik really make it through a rugged Western Conference playoffs physically?
Is this team maybe a bit too mentally fatigued having played so much hockey the last two years—with several of their top stars also having played in Sochi? Is that primal hunger so necessary to win a Cup still there, or is this a team primed to run out of gas? It figures to be an interesting storyline, but playing these guys figures to be no fun for anyone.
You can really fall in love with the Wild roster. Zach Parise, Ryan Suter, Mikko Koivu, Jason Pominville, Matt Moulson, Mikael Granlund, Charlie Coyle—this is a star-studded group.
So why was scoring goals such a problem with this group? It's a vexing question for Wild fans, who are impatient for real success after all that money spent a couple years ago on Parise and Suter, along with other big trades. The Wild finished 24th in goal scoring and 29th in shots on goal.
Yet they're in the playoffs. Suter deserves a big hand for that. He's the calmest D-man in the league, almost always making the right play. The Wild can count on 30 minutes a night of that in every playoff game.
The offense started to pick up a bit in the final weeks, so it is the hope of coach Mike Yeo that things continue. The defense was stingy all year, and assuming that continues, the uptick in offense could produce very good things in St. Paul, Minn.
Ilya Bryzgalov actually played well down the stretch and may be the playoff starter. That would have seemed unthinkable just a couple months ago, as the Wild were set with Josh Harding and Nicklas Backstrom. But both are now out with ailments, so it's Breezer and Darcy Kuemper in goal. They may be fine, but it's a worrisome area.
But again, defense and goaltending really weren't the Wild's issues during the season. It was offense.
The Wild have one playoff win in the last three seasons. They have gained a reputation for not showing up in the big games. There is talent (and certainly the payroll that goes with it) to expect more.
Well, the first line isn't too bad. Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin and Valeri Nichushkin were among the best trios in the league, with Seguin leading the way at center with a tremendous year.
The Boston Bruins got good value in return for Seguin and Rich Peverley (who unfortunately is out for the playoffs following a heart condition), but Seguin showed he is a big-time performer too.
First-year coach Lindy Ruff did a nice job steering this club into the playoffs for the first time since 2008. The team's biggest strength is that Benn-Seguin combination, but goaltender Kari Lehtonen is capable of stealing victories.
Eight players on this team have won Stanley Cups, so that might count for something too. But let's face it, Lehtonen is going to have to stand on his head for two months if a Cup is to come to Big D.
You'd have thought these guys would have a better power play, but they finished in the lower rung of the league at under 16 percent. The penalty kill wasn't much better.
While Alex Goligoski is a nice D-man, there are issues on the back end. There is some size and brawn, but not quite enough reliability. It should be fun to watch Dallas in the first round, but just don't expect more than one round and done. Next year, it can build on things.