10 NHL Teams That Have Completely Defied Preseason Projections in 2013-14

Rob Vollman@robvollmanNHLContributor IMarch 20, 2014

10 NHL Teams That Have Completely Defied Preseason Projections in 2013-14

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    Chris Schneider/Associated Press

    Every year there are at least a handful of teams that completely defy pre-season expectations. This year the consensus choices include Colorado, Tampa Bay and Anaheim. Who are the other biggest surprises this year, and how do they rank?

    First of all, let's remove my own opinion when defining pre-season expectations, because my picks were absolutely awful this year.

    Instead we can establish expectations based on an average of over 26 analysts across 16 different sites. They include, in no particular order:

    It turned out to be a crazy year. This assorted group of analysts didn't fare much better than I did. Overall only four analysts (Hartnett, Neveau, Allen and the Hockey News) had picks that were more accurate than merely assuming last year's standings would repeat themselves.

    There were a handful of teams that exceeded everybody on this list, and a few more than fooled the majority. Turn over to find out who.

    All advanced statistics are via writer's own original research unless otherwise noted.

10. Phoenix Coyotes

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    Reed Saxon/Associated Press

    Pre-Season Expectations: The most common prediction for the Phoenix Coyotes was to finish sixth in the Pacific division, a conviction held by 12 of 26 analysts.

    While several prognosticators got it right, the average expectation for the Coyotes was to end the season in fifth.

    Where They Are: Phoenix is fourth in the Pacific division with 77 points, five points back of the Los Angeles Kings, and 15th overall.


    How They Did It: It wasn't so much that the Coyotes surpassed expectations but that divisional rivals Edmonton and Vancouver missed theirs by such a wide margin.

    Give Phoenix credit for once again playing consistent hockey all season and keeping itself in the playoff mix. It was done without any individual heroics. The team has eight players with at least 38 points, including two defensemen, Oliver Ekman-Larsson and the team's leading scorer Keith Yandle.

9. St. Louis Blues

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    Alex Brandon/Associated Press

    Pre-Season Expectations: I was one of only five analysts to predict that the Blues would finish atop the Central Division. In fairness, the other 22 analysts all placed them in second.

    Where They Are: St. Louis was the first team to reach 100 points and so far the only team. The Blues are first overall with 101 points and have roughly a one-in-four chance of finishing the season with the Presidents' trophy.


    How They Did It: The Blues got off to an amazing start thanks to one of the league's top two-way lines of Alexander Steen, David Backes and T.J. Oshie.

    Their greater strength may actually reside on the blue line, which features one of the league's best top fours in Alex Pietrangelo, Jay Bouwmeester, Barret Jackman and Kevin Shattenkirk.

    Throw in Jaden Schwartz's breakthrough season and the trade deadline arrival of Ryan Miller and you have this year's greatest Stanley Cup threat.

8. Toronto Maple Leafs

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    J Pat Carter/Associated Press

    Pre-Season Expectations: Only eight analysts correctly pegged Toronto for a fourth-place divisional finish, and nobody had them any higher than that.

    Though I predicted Toronto to finish seventh, no other analyst had them finishing any lower than sixth, and the average ranking was fifth.

    Where They Are: Toronto is fourth in the Atlantic Division with 80 points, five points up on the average fifth-place expectation.

    It's quite possible for the Maple Leafs to exceed everyone's predictions, being just a single point back of Tampa Bay in third and three points back of Montreal in second. 

    How They Did It: Now that's a good question! The Leafs are currently 12th in the NHL overall despite ranking 19th in goal differential and 30th in shot differential.

    Whether you use analytics or your own eyes, it's easy to see that the Leafs spend the majority of their games in their own end, chasing the puck, just like they did last season. Only the Buffalo Sabres get outplayed and outshot as badly as the Leafs have this season, and yet they're likely to be a playoff team once again.

    Obviously goaltending is a major reason for Toronto's success. Their new goalie Jonathan Bernier has a .925 save percentage, which helps the team to an amazing shooting percentage differential of 2.2 percent. That's calculated by subtracting their opponent's shooting percentage of 7.9 percent from theirs of 10.1 percent.

    Do the Leafs take higher quality shots? Are they simply superior shooters? Are they just lucky? Regardless of the answer, it's working. 

7. Calgary Flames

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    Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

    Pre-Season Expectations: In the absence of Jarome Iginla, Jay Bouwmeester, Alex Tanguay and Miikka Kiprusoff, every single analyst predicted the Flames to finish dead last in their division, many of whom even saw them finishing last in the entire league.

    Where They Are: The Flames are sixth in the Pacific Division, four points up on the Edmonton Oilers with a game in hand.

    Calgary's 63 points, which are thanks to a 12-7-0 record since mid-January, is good for 26th overall.

    How They Did It: The Flames aren't exactly setting the league on fire (bad pun intended), but they are doing better than last year, and staying out of the league's basement.

    While their goaltending has probably been as awful as everyone expected, new captain Mark Giordano has finally emerged as one of the league's top defensemen, Sean Monahan proved to be offensively capable right out of the gate, while Mikael Backlund finally established himself as a top-six defenseman and Paul Byron as a legitimate NHL forward.

    Calgary's success (or lack of complete failure) has been a combination of many small achievements. The lesson is perhaps that its departed veterans may no longer have been nearly as valuable as everyone had thought.

6. Montreal Canadiens

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    Paul Sancya/Associated Press

    Pre-Season Expectations: Despite finishing fourth overall last year, the analysts were pretty evenly spread out in expecting Montreal to slide back down the standings and finish anywhere from third to sixth in the Atlantic Division this year.

    There were only eight analysts, including me, who had them as high as third.

    Where They Are: Montreal is tied for second in the Atlantic Division with 83 points, a division it was briefly leading in December.

    Those 83 points puts the team in third in the Eastern Conference, and eighth in the NHL.

    How They Did It: Michel Therrien's first season as head coach of the Montreal Canadiens was not the illusion that many analysts thought it was. This is his team, and he knows how to get the most out of it.

    Last year was no fluke. The Canadiens are indeed a well-constructed team that is finely balanced between young two-way talent and experienced veterans.

    Any weaknesses in their blue line and/or their possession-based play has been compensated for by a near-Vezina season from their starting goalie Carey Price.

5. Philadelphia Flyers

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    Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

    Pre-Season Expectations: The average expectation for the Flyers was almost as low as fifth in the Metropolitan Division, with at least one analyst putting them in each of seventh and eighth.

    Allen and Bleszinski were the only two analysts to correctly tag the Flyers for second, though I was one of six who had them as high as third.

    Where They Are: Despite a terrible 4-10-1 start wherein they fired their head coach Peter Laviolette, Philadelphia is currently second in the Metropolitan Division with 79 points, sixth in the Eastern Conference, and 13th overall.

    The Flyers are 10-2-1 since the start of February and have at least a nine-in-10 chance of qualifying for the post-season.

    How They Did It: Coaching changes can often do much to re-ignite a team, especially one with a superstar of Claude Giroux's magnitude.

    Giroux's slow start may have drawn out his detractors, especially those who kept him off Canada's Olympic team, but in the end he has shown his true stripes. His 71 points are fourth in the NHL, and one could make a strong case for him to be a Hart Trophy finalist.

    Steve Mason has also restored his career with a fantastic start to the season and serviceable play as the team's main man since then. Goaltending has long been an issue in Philadelphia, one the team hopes is finally resolved thanks to Mason's new three-year, $4.1 million extension.

4. Columbus Blue Jackets

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    Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

    Pre-Season Expectations: There was no real consensus on where Columbus would finish, with the analysts spread out roughly evenly between fourth and last in the Metropolitan Division.

    Where They Are: Despite a 6-10-3 start and the loss of Nathan Horton and/or Marian Gaborik for most of the season, Columbus is tied for fourth in the Metropolitan Division with the Washington Capitals. It has two games in hand on both the Capitals and the third-place Rangers, who are only two points ahead.

    In terms of winning percentage, Columbus is third in the division, seventh in the conference and 14th in the NHL, almost bang on with the league average.

    They have at least a three-in-four chance of making the post-season for only the second time in franchise history.

    How They Did It: Columbus narrowly missed the post-season last year with its best winning percentage in history and simply picked up where it left off despite most analysts thinking it wouldn't.

    Although no longer at the Vezina level, Sergei Bobrovsky has remained solid in goal, and a blue line that appeared alarmingly weak has actually held up surprisingly well. Twenty-one-year-old Ryan Johansen had his breakout season and leads Columbus with 184 shots, 26 goals and 51 points.

    There's nothing magical about Columbus exceeding expectations other than overcoming dated perceptions of the team. After years of seeing the team struggle near the bottom of the league it was just perhaps too hard for most analysts to believe that the Blue Jackets are actually a league-average team. That is something easier to see in hindsight.

3. Anaheim Ducks

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    Mark Avery/Associated Press

    Pre-Season Expectations: On average the Anaheim Ducks were expected to finish fourth in the Pacific Division, and possibly as low as sixth.

    Only four of the 26 analysts, Allen, Peters, Blanchard and Lepore, saw the Ducks finishing second, and no one predicted the division crown.

    Where They Are: Anaheim is tied for first in the Pacific Division, with a game in hand on San Jose. That puts it third in the entire NHL behind St. Louis and Boston.

    How They Did It: Anaheim didn't really "do" anything. Its winning percentage was .688 in 2012-13, and it inched forward to .703 largely on the backs of its two superstars Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry.

    It's not so much that the Ducks improved, but that they didn't collapse like almost everybody thought they would.

    I asked Chris Peters why he didn't join the club and predict a collapse in California, but he simply didn't see the team as being any worse than last season. He felt that last year's success was perfectly legitimate, and largely a consequence of Bruce Boudreau's excellent coaching.

    Peters also felt that the addition of Jakob Silfverberg and rookie Hampus Lindholm would more than make up for the loss of Bobby Ryan.

    There are teams that play over their heads, and the Ducks have a lot of analysts fooled into thinking that they were one of them. They weren't.

2. Tampa Bay Lightning

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    Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

    Pre-Season Expectations: Other than Andrew Dewitt, who had Tampa Bay finishing fourth in its division, every analyst had Tampa Bay somewhere in the bottom three Atlantic positions, well outside the post-season picture.

    And even those modest expectations were based on the belief that Steven Stamkos and Martin St. Louis would each play the full season in a Lightning uniform.


    Where They Are: Tampa Bay is tied for second in the Atlantic Division, but with one game in hand over Montreal. That puts the Lightning third in the Eastern Conference and tied for eighth overall.

    They also got here despite Stamkos missing the majority of the season and Martin St. Louis being dealt to the Rangers at the deadline.

    How They Did It: The lesson to learn is to watch out for teams with an abundance of young talent together with a new coach. All they need is a hot goalie, like Ben Bishop posting a .928 save percentage, and you could have a projection-defying team.

    That's what Dewitt saw before the season began, the only analyst who saw the Lightning as a potential playoff participant. When I asked him to explain his selection, he obviously pointed to their two elite players (Stamkos and St. Louis), but also emphasized the success Jon Cooper had with their AHL affiliate, a team that included many of their incredibly talented young players. In all, nine of Tampa Bay's 18 skaters this year were rookies.

    Every year there are a handful of goalies that break out, and Dewitt correctly foresaw that Bishop had the talent to be one of them.

    One final element worth mentioning is Valtteri Filppula. He was a free agent signed to a five-year deal with an annual cap hit of $5 million. These types of deals generally only have about a one-in-five chance of paying off, and the Lightning hit that jackpot (in year one, at least).

1. Colorado Avalanche

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    Pre-Season Expectations: All but five analysts had the Avalanche finishing in one of the bottom two spots of the Central Division.

    Only Dewitt had the Avalanche third, while Bleszinski and Greenberg had them fourth. Of the remaining 23, only Hockey Prospectus and Ciskie even had Colorado finishing fifth.

    Where They Are: Colorado is currently third in the Central Division, one point behind Chicago. The Avalanche are tied with Pittsburgh for sixth overall.

    The Avalanche got off to an amazing 14-2-0 start and remained a solid 30-18-5 since then.

    How They Did It: The combination of young talent and a new coach can often cause a team to dramatically exceed expectations. This is especially true when combined with the leading cause of blown predictions—goaltending.

    Andrew Dewitt was the only analyst who correctly foresaw Colorado's great season, and when I asked him how he did it, he confirmed those points. He saw three things that led to his prescient prediction:

    • The incredible collection of top-three picks over the past four drafts, in Matt Duchene, Gabriel Landeskog and Nathan MacKinnon
    • Having new coach Patrick Roy replacing an unpopular Joe Sacco
    • The perceived lack of quality in the Central Division beyond Chicago and St. Louis

    Add in a hot goalie, like Semyon Varlamov's save percentage improving from .903 to a career-high .925, and you have the right ingredients for an expectation-defying season.

    Rob Vollman is author of Rob Vollman's Hockey Abstract, co-author of the annual Hockey Prospectus guides and a featured ESPN Insider writer. @robvollmanNHL.


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