2014-15 NHL Power Rankings: Inaugural Edition
The 2014-15 season is shortly about to get underway, which means the return of our NHL power rankings. The power rankings are meant to be a short-term snapshot of each team's performance, but this first one doubles as a prognosis of each team's expected outcome this season.
The opinions expressed in the text here are mine, but the position of teams is determined by a panel vote. This year's panelists are Adrian Dater, Dave Lozo, Steve Macfarlane, Allan Mitchell, Lyle Richardson, Carol Schram and myself.
Which teams are poised to improve on their 2013-14 performance? Which ones will fall off their previous pace? Our answers to those questions and others are revealed in this special preseason edition of the power rankings.
Statistics used are courtesy of Behindthenet.ca, HockeyAnalysis.com, Hockey-Reference.com, KHL.ru, NHL.com and War-on-ice.com and are current through October 3. All contract information courtesy of CapGeek.com.
30. Buffalo Sabres
Last Season: 21-51-10, 52 points, 30th in the NHL (did not qualify)
Why They're Here: Six of seven panelists voted the Sabres as the worst team in the NHL in these rankings, and it's easy to understand why. One season ago, Buffalo finished 14 points out of 29th in the league; to put it another way, the same gap between the Sabres and the Florida Panthers existed between the bottom-feeding Calgary Flames and the eighth-place Dallas Stars in the Western Conference.
By the Numbers: The Sabres are slated to have no fewer than eight pending unrestricted free agents on their opening-night 23-man roster. Most teams don't enter 2014-15 with more than a third of their players all set to leave, but then again, most teams don't expect to be dumping a third of their team for future considerations at the trade deadline.
29. Carolina Hurricanes
Last Season: 36-35-11, 83 points, 24th in the NHL (did not qualify)
Why They're Here: Despite a reasonable finish to last season, not one of our seven panelists had the Hurricanes ranked outside the bottom five in the NHL. A shallow forward group took a massive hit with the injury (broken leg) to Jordan Staal, which will cost the centre most of 2014-15, and the defence is no more than middling.
By the Numbers: Cam Ward, the proud owner of a no-move clause and a contract that has two years and $13.5 million in real salary left on it, posted a miserable .898 save percentage over 30 games last season. The good news is that it was the first time in six seasons that he fell below a .908 save percentage; the bad news is that it continued a trend of decline that now runs four consecutive seasons.
28. Florida Panthers
Last Season: 29-45-8, 66 points, 29th in the NHL (did not qualify)
Why They're Here: The members of out panel varied slightly in their individual rankings of the Panthers, but all agreed that the team belonged in the bottom fifth of the NHL. While Florida has addressed its goaltending woes, an anemic offence and porous, shallow defence leave much to be desired.
By the Numbers: The Panthers spent a combined total of $60.4 million on a sextet of free agents this July, and remarkably, they didn't land a single legitimate difference-maker. Complementary offensive weapon Jussi Jokinen was the best of the bunch, while third-line pivot Dave Bolland was the priciest.
27. Calgary Flames
Last Season: 35-40-7, 77 points, 27th in the NHL (did not qualify)
Why They're Here: Calgary comes in at the same No. 27 position where it finished last season. A number of offseason moves were made, most notably the addition of goalie Jonas Hiller, but the forward group is still largely a no-name cast that lacks any legitimate top-line players.
By the Numbers: Over the course of his NHL career, No. 6/7 defenceman Deryk Engelland has been eligible for a grand total of $2.7 million in salary. He hasn't earned that much over his career—he spent most of 2009-10 in the minors—so we can consider it a high-end estimate. He'll make $3.0 million with Calgary this season.
26. Winnipeg Jets
Last Season: 37-35-10, 84 points, 22nd in the NHL (did not qualify)
Why They're Here: The Jets have a lot of decent pieces, but they have an Achilles' heel, one that has doomed many a team before them. Winnipeg is the proud owner of a goaltending duo that is without question the worst in the NHL on paper entering the season.
By the Numbers: The Jets' hiring of Paul Maurice is widely credited with sparking a turnaround in the team's fortunes last season, but it's interesting to note what the impetus of that turnaround was.
Fenwick percentage is generally seen as the best predictor of team fortune in the long term, and under Claude Noel, the Jets managed a 50.3 percent Fenwick rating; under Maurice, that number improved only marginally, to 50.7 percent. Save percentage saw a modest bump, and shooting percentage a larger one; that may be a sign that the team's improved record is not sustainable.
25. Edmonton Oilers
Last Season: 29-44-9, 67 points, 28th in the NHL (did not qualify)
Why They're Here: Every year about this time, pundits wonder if this is the season the Oilers take a major step forward. We're skeptical; the team's unproven goaltending and underwhelming defence are going to act as drags on a decent forward corps that got a massive upgrade in the offseason.
By the Numbers: The word "massive" has two meanings, as Edmonton emphasized size in its offseason additions. Including rookie pivot Leon Draisaitl in a group that includes a number of veteran NHL acquisitions, the average size of the six skaters brought in over the summer is 6'3", 209 pounds.
24. Arizona Coyotes
Last Season: 37-30-15, 89 points, 18th in the NHL (did not qualify)
Why They're Here: The Coyotes, now rebranded to represent the entire state of Arizona, have managed to be a pretty decent hockey team despite a seemingly endless run of off-ice issues. But as well-coached and well-managed as the team is, it's hard to see where the scoring is going to come from.
By the Numbers: It's going to be very interesting to see what happens with Arizona's eight pending unrestricted free agents. Of the group, the most interesting is Antoine Vermette, an exceptional pivot with a range of abilities. Even though he's 32 years old, he's likely to command more than his current $3.75 million cap hit in free agency next summer.
23. Toronto Maple Leafs
Last Season: 38-36-8, 84 points, 23rd in the NHL (did not qualify)
Why They're Here: The Maple Leafs front office embraced analytics this offseason after a disastrous finish to 2013-14 left them outside the playoffs, but they still have the same head coach and the same core that fell nine points short of a postseason berth a year ago.
By the Numbers: The funny thing is that a lot actually broke Toronto's way last season. The club shot 9.0 percent in five-on-five play, which was one of the highest totals in the NHL and went 9-4 in the skills competition that decides games. They also got exceptional goaltending from Jonathan Bernier in his first season as a starter.
Bernier looks like a quality netminder, but if the five-on-five shooting percentage and the shootout record each take a hit, Toronto will struggle even more than it did last season.
22. Ottawa Senators
Last Season: 37-31-14, 88 points, 21st in the NHL (did not qualify)
Why They're Here: Ottawa is another example of a team slotting in pretty close to where it left off a year ago. The Sens went 8-2-0 down the stretch to finish 21st in the NHL and lost both team captain Jason Spezza and trade-deadline revelation Ales Hemsky in the offseason. The team still has a strong goaltending group, an underrated defence and a by-committee scoring core with some upside to it.
By the Numbers: Ottawa was one of just five teams in the NHL to allow more than three goals per game on average in 2013-14. Some of that was on netminders Craig Anderson and Robin Lehner, who weren't anything special last season, but most of it came from a high-event style of play that saw the Sens surrender more shots than any team other than Toronto.
21. Washington Capitals
Last Season: 38-30-14, 90 points, 17th in the NHL (did not qualify)
Why They're Here: The Capitals were a bubble team in the East last season and finished with 90 points, which gave them more than any other team outside the playoffs in 2013-14. Much of that was owed to a 10-11 shootout record, however; in terms of regulation/overtime wins, Washington was tied with Calgary at 28. Depending what view one takes of the roster and its performance last season, either method of appraisal could be considered valid.
By the Numbers: Braden Holtby doesn't get the respect he deserves. In the four seasons since he entered the NHL, exactly two goalies (minimum 3,000 minutes played) have posted a better five-on-five save percentage than he has. Holtby's .931 save percentage ties him with Sergei Bobrovsky and puts him back of only Henrik Lundqvist and Tuukka Rask.
20. Nashville Predators
Last Season: 38-32-12, 88 points, 19th in the NHL (did not qualify)
Why They're Here: Nashville generated a range of opinions from our experts, with one expecting it to fall into a bottom-five position in the NHL and another predicting it to finish inside the league's top 10. Maybe that should be expected; this is a team rife with uncertainty.
In net, Pekka Rinne has elite potential but has been hampered by injuries and has not looked good in consecutive seasons. The defence relies on some highly talented but very young rearguards. The offence needs several reclamation projects and a post-Evgeni Malkin James Neal to perform to stay on track. For the first time in franchise history, Barry Trotz isn't behind the bench. If it all comes together, this is could be a very good team; if it all falls apart, it could be a very bad one.
By the Numbers: Nashville served up youth on the blue line and is poised to do so once again. Of the team's expected top-six defencemen, fully two-thirds (everyone other than Shea Weber and Anton Volchenkov) are 24 years of age or younger.
19. Philadelphia Flyers
Last Season: 42-30-10, 94 points, 13th in the NHL (eliminated in ECQF)
Why They're Here: Philadelphia was a controversial team for our panel, ranging anywhere from a 13th overall finish down to 25th. The forward corps is undeniably good, but the defence may struggle minus Kimmo Timonen, and goaltender Steve Mason's checkered career makes him a real risk.
By the Numbers: Mason posted a .911 even-strength save percentage for four consecutive seasons, from 2009-13; that puts him about 10 points below the NHL average. In 2013-14, the league average was .922, and he managed a .923 number. If he can keep it up, the Flyers should be fine, but if he reverts to form, it will be a disaster.
18. Vancouver Canucks
Last Season: 36-35-11, 83 points, 25th in the NHL (did not qualify)
Why They're Here: Every one of our experts agreed that Vancouver would be better after a season in which everything went wrong, but the range of improvement was where we differed, with some projecting marginal progress and others a postseason berth. The losses of people like Ryan Kesler and Jason Garrison surely factored into those calculations, but the correction of the John Tortorella mistake is unambiguously a positive.
By the Numbers: The fall of the Sedin twins a year ago was a key factor in the Canucks' collapse, but it should be (at least in part) reversible. The on-ice shooting percentage for each fell by a third, from around nine percent in 2012-13 to the six percent range in 2013-14.
17. New York Islanders
Last Season: 34-37-11, 79 points, 26th in the NHL (did not qualify)
Why They're Here: There was a surprising amount of unanimity in our panel, with our voters slotting the Islanders between 16th and 20th overall without exception. It's a big jump and reflects a busy offseason in which the team overhauled its goaltending position with the addition of Jaroslav Halak and added some high-profile free agents up front, most notably Mikhail Grabovski. Defence was supposed to be a problem, but the additions of Johnny Boychuk and Nick Leddy on the eve of the season have helped significantly.
By the Numbers: Grabovski's reputation suffered after a humiliating buyout by the Toronto Maple Leafs, but the team should really be embarrassed. Over the last five years, Toronto has out-Corsied its opposition 53-47 and outscored it 54-46 in five-on-five play. He is an exceptional No. 2 centre behind John Tavares.
16. New Jersey Devils
Last Season: 35-29-18, 88 points, 20th in the NHL (did not qualify)
Why They're Here: The Devils just sneak ahead of the Islanders in our vote, but there was no consensus here, with the range of opinion placing New Jersey anywhere from 11th to 24th in the NHL. Overall, the trend leans toward improvement, which makes sense, as the Devils will no longer be giving Martin Brodeur legacy starts and will be hard-pressed to go 0-13 in the shootout again.
By the Numbers: The Devils' record was better with Brodeur in net than with Cory Schneider, but it's hard not to chalk the majority of that up to luck, given that the younger goalie had a .921 save percentage while the elder posted a miserable .901.
15. Detroit Red Wings
Last Season: 39-28-15, 93 points, 15th in the NHL (Eliminated in ECQF)
Why They're Here: Detroit is another club that drew a range of responses, with panelists ranking the team anywhere from 12th overall to 25th. On the one hand, the Wings are an old team with many key stars in their twilight years; on the other, the team's youth fared well when pressed into duty as a result of the club having been decimated by injury.
By the Numbers: On the injury front, Detroit ranked second in man-games lost (417) in 2013-14, but according to the blog Springing Malik, the team finished first overall in terms of cap hit lost to injury, with those man-games equating to nearly $18 million in total losses.
14. Columbus Blue Jackets
Last Season: 43-32-7, 93 points, 14th in the NHL (eliminated in ECQF)
Why They're Here: While there was some disagreement from our voters on whether the Jackets would improve or disappoint, the final consensus puts them in the same slot they occupied last season. Naturally, we have no way of knowing the length of time the impasse between the team and star centre Ryan Johansen will last, which will certainly impact Columbus.
By the Numbers: Johansen led the Jackets' forward corps in goals (33), points (63) and average time on ice per game at both even strength (14:17) and on the power play (2:38).
13. Colorado Avalanche
Last Season: 52-22-8, 112 points, third in the NHL (eliminated in WCQF)
Why They're Here: Every single expert polled predicted some form of regression for the Avs, with the only question being the degree; the team ranked anywhere from ninth to 18th on individual lists. There's an advanced-stats case for this, but some of it is simple common sense. This is a team that jumped from 29th overall to third last season, and it's hard to fathom that it won't slip to at least some degree.
By the Numbers: TSN's Travis Yost has demonstrated persuasively that Colorado's fantastic even-strength shooting (8.77) and save (.931) percentages can be expected to regress mightily, falling back close to league norms. Based on a sampling of previous teams, that shift alone would represent a loss of 12 points in the NHL standings.
12. New York Rangers
Last Season: 45-31-6, 96 points, 12th in the NHL (eliminated in SCF)
Why They're Here: A somewhat surprising Stanley Cup finalist (save for our Dave Lozo, who was repeatedly mocked for his pre-playoff prediction of a Cup win by the team), the Rangers lost some important pieces over the summer, but they still have Henrik Lundqvist in net and aren't likely to have the terrible start to the season that they did in Alain Vigneault's first campaign as coach.
By the Numbers: Strangely, the Rangers posted a losing record at home and a winning one on the road in 2013-14. Including shootouts, the team won 20 and lost 21 at Madison Square Garden but went 25-16 away from home.
11. Dallas Stars
Last Season: 40-31-11, 91 points, 16th in the NHL (eliminated in WCQF)
Why They're Here: A big offseason for the Stars is reflected in the respect they're getting here. The additions of Jason Spezza and Ales Hemsky add two-thirds of an extremely competent second line behind stars Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin. Dallas has the forwards and the goalies to compete with anyone, but the defence is still a work in progress.
By the Numbers: Spezza's minus-26 rating last season doesn't get a lot of attention, and that's probably just; the goaltending with him on the ice in five-on-five situations was a lousy .884. Even when you take into account that he sees high-end opponents who finish their chances, that's the lowest number of his career.
Of more interest, Spezza and Hemsky managed a 53.9 percent Corsi rating together after the deadline; their obvious chemistry may mean they end up together in Dallas too.
10. Minnesota Wild
Last Season: 43-27-12, 98 points, 11th in the NHL (eliminated in WCSF)
Why They're Here: In 2013-14, the Wild were able to build on their 2012-13 playoff appearance (the first in five years for the team), advancing to the second round and taking the Blackhawks to six games before bowing out. An impressive group of young forwards has been bolstered by some big-name free-agent additions, including Thomas Vanek.
By the Numbers: Ryan Suter led all players in the NHL with more than 2,400 minutes of ice time, playing an average of 29:24 per game for all 82 contests. That represents more than three full hours of time on ice over second-ranked Erik Karlsson (27:04).
9. San Jose Sharks
Last Season: 51-22-9, 111 points, fifth in the NHL (eliminated in WCQF)
Why They're Here: San Jose didn't make many substantive changes in the offseason, though it talked a blustery gale about the need for the club to rebuild following a devastating first-round loss to L.A. in which the Sharks blew a 3-0 series lead. But it's hard to knock the team too far down the standings when basically the same cast is returning from a season ago.
By the Numbers: Seven different Sharks have some form of no-trade clauses, limiting the team's ability to restructure itself. That list of seven includes all six players on the roster earning more than $4 million per season.
8. Montreal Canadiens
Last Season: 46-28-8, 100 points, ninth in the NHL (eliminated in ECF)
Why They're Here: Montreal has a decent set of forwards, but the strength of this team is on the back end. Carey Price is one of the NHL's very best goaltenders, and elite defender P.K. Subban headlines a strong unit on defence. The X-factor is Alex Galchenyuk, the third overall pick in 2012 who should certainly be capable of finding another gear.
By the Numbers: Max Pacioretty, who somehow continues to be woefully underrated, proved himself one of the game's best goal scorers with a 39-goal outburst in 2013-14. While his shooting percentage was a touch over his career average, only six players have scored more goals than the Montreal sniper over the last three seasons.
7. Pittsburgh Penguins
Last Season: 51-24-7, 109 points, sixth in the NHL (eliminated in ECSF)
Why They're Here: Despite a change in both general manager and coach, the Penguins remain what they have been for years: a team that knows how to get it done in the regular season but has struggled when the level of competition amps up in the playoffs.
As long as Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are part of the team, there isn't much worry about the club falling down the standings, but it must figure out how to get enough from its other players to contend for a Cup.
By the Numbers: Mike Johnston is not yet a household name around the NHL, but his Portland Winterhawks were an absurdly successful team. In parts of five seasons at the helm of the club, Johnston managed a 217-80-16 record as head coach, though we'd be remiss if we failed to note that he also landed one heavy set of sanctions too.
6. Anaheim Ducks
Last Season: 54-20-8, 116 points, second in the NHL (eliminated in WCSF)
Why They're Here: Very, very few teams can compete with Anaheim's collection of talent up front. The superstar duo of Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry got a boost in the offseason with the addition of Ryan Kesler as the team's second-line centre. The defence is a little more suspect and the goaltending is inexperienced, but this is a club with awesome firepower.
By the Numbers: Anaheim had an incredible 10.0 shooting percentage in five-on-five play last year, a total that led the NHL. That's incredible, but the question is whether it's sustainable. During the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season, the Ducks ranked fifth in the league with a 9.4 shooting percentage, but during the league's last 82-game campaign, that total was just 8.2 percent, below the NHL average.
5. Tampa Bay Lightning
Last Season: 46-27-9, 101 points, eighth in the NHL (eliminated in ECQF)
Why They're Here: The expectation of our panel seems to be that the Lightning take another step forward this year. Certainly, the team has a lot going for it at every position. Steven Stamkos leads a ridiculously young and capable forward corps, defenceman Victor Hedman is a true No. 1 at the head of a group that was heavily augmented over the summer and Ben Bishop is coming off a campaign in which he looked like a franchise goalie.
By the Numbers: Stamkos won't turn 25 until February, but he's practically a greybeard on this team; the Lightning dressed six forwards younger than him in the playoffs last season, and that doesn't include 2013 third overall pick Jonathan Drouin. Drouin was returned to the QMJHL last year, and he treated the league like a chew toy, posting a ludicrous 108 points in 46 games and added 41 more in 16 postseason contests just for good measure.
4. St. Louis Blues
Last Season: 52-23-7, 111 points, fourth in the NHL (eliminated in WCQF)
Why They're Here: The Blues are pretty close to perfect on paper. A big, talented and deep forward group provides the team with four lines that can play, and with newcomer Paul Stastny and team captain David Backes, the club has a great one-two punch down the middle. The defence has three good pairings and a franchise talent anchoring the group in Alex Pietrangelo. Only in net is there a degree of uncertainty, though both Brian Elliott and Jake Allen have shown flashes of brilliance.
As always, though, the challenge for the Blues will be coming out of the brutally tough West in the postseason.
By the Numbers: The KHL giveth and the KHL taketh away for the Blues. On the way out is Vladimir Sobotka, who, as of this writing, has 12 points in 12 games for the Avangard Omsk. The Blues insisted on playing hardball with his salary and ended up with a victory in the contract dispute, but it was only a Pyrrhic one.
Coming in is Jori Lehtera, a second-round pick in 2008 who scored 44 points in 48 games last year and has been in the point-per-game range for three seasons now in the world's second-best league.
3. Boston Bruins
Last Season: 54-19-9, 117 points, first in the NHL (eliminated in the ECSF)
Why They're Here: Most of the key pieces on the East's best team remain in place, and as a result, the Bruins are pegged by our experts near the top of this list.
Two chief concerns face the team at this juncture. The first is a lack of salary space, which may entail sacrifices even beyond the Johnny Boychuk trade and will make it difficult to address problems identified by midseason; the other is the age of Zdeno Chara, the franchise defenceman who will turn 38 in March and could be less effective at any point.
By the Numbers: Boston, like Anaheim, built a portion of its success last season on shooting percentage. The team fired at a 9.1 percent clip in 2013-14, the third-best total in the game. Sustainability is a concern; just one year earlier, the Bruins converted shots to goals at a rate of 7.9 percent, which ranked 19th in the league.
2. Chicago Blackhawks
Last Season: 46-21-15, 107 points, seventh in the NHL (eliminated in WCF)
Why They're Here: Chicago has won two Stanley Cups in the last five years, and the club came extremely close to winning another in 2013-14. With all due respect to the Kings' other opponents, the seven-game series between L.A. and Chicago was the best and toughest of the postseason, and it basically came down to a coin toss in Game 7.
By the Numbers: The summer addition of a real second-line centre in Brad Richards will make a good team even better; Chicago hasn't had a good option in that role for years. Michal Handzus, occasionally given that job, managed to go minus-eight in 19 playoff games and post an astonishing minus-35.0 relative Corsi rating.
1. Los Angeles Kings
Last Season: 46-28-8, 100 points, 10th in the NHL (won Stanley Cup)
Why They're Here: Shockingly, our panel has opted to place the defending Stanley Cup champions in the No. 1 slot on this list. We know it's going to be a controversial decision, but we understand and accept that and are willing to suffer through the consequences.
By the Numbers: Over 45 games with Los Angeles, including the postseason, Marian Gaborik scored 19 times, for an 82-game pace of 35 goals. That may be a touch high, as his shooting percentage over that span is a little better than his career average, but even adjusting for that, he should be capable of scoring 30 if he stays healthy. That will be a big boost for the Kings, who have struggled to score in recent years.