With the All-Star Game and break this week, it is time to evaluate which Eastern Conference teams have the best Stanley Cup chances at this juncture.
1. Tampa Bay Lightning
Through nearly 50 games, the Bolts have demonstrated that they are the favorites to come out of the Eastern Conference. They lead the NHL in ROWs (regulation and overtime wins) and have elite possession statistics, a phalanx of skilled forwards, and a defensive group that continues to improve. Their depth down the middle – Steven Stamkos, Tyler Johnson, and Valtteri Filppula – stands up against the centers in the top nine on any roster in the NHL. Tampa Bay is first in goals per game and fourth in shots against. The Bolts squash teams at even strength, which is a good predictor of playoff success.
And there are more encouraging signs aesthetically. Tampa Bay supports and passes the puck very well. They can play fast, but they can also vacuum up pucks in the neutral zone and counter attack swiftly off the turnover. Or they can pass it back to the defenseman for a well-spaced and systematic reset.
A closer look at the Lightning’s Team Hextally chart (per war-on-ice.com) reveals that the volume of shots from the slot and low slot are markedly higher relative to the league average. The Bolts are prospering because they are getting to the best real estate on the ice to generate scoring chances.
So what could stymie this team and prevent it from a Cup run? Goaltending is the biggest area of concern. Tampa Bay’s even-strength save percentage is 22nd in the league. Ben Bishop’s save percentage is .912, which is less than stellar and a far cry from his Vezina-caliber performance last season.
Tampa Bay may be so good it does not matter. They have young legs and a ruthless, killer instinct when they take a lead. As a group, the Bolts have prolific finishing ability and can score goals in bunches and in a short time frame. But inconsistent goaltending is a concern if Bishop does not improve over the next 30-ish starts. If he flounders, it could potentially sink a team well equipped to possibly win the Stanley Cup.
2. Pittsburgh Penguins
The two germane questions regarding the Pittsburgh Penguins are: If not this season, when will the Pens win another Stanley Cup, and is it possible that Pittsburgh could be relatively healthy come playoff time? After all, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are not getting any younger. And the omnipresent misfortune that bedevils this team is mystifying, and anything less than their full complement may not be enough to come out of an improved Eastern Conference.
The glass-half-full version of how Pittsburgh makes a Cup run looks like this: Crosby and Malkin are two of the best five forwards in the NHL and they give the Penguins a distinct advantage when healthy. The power skating, playmaking, and shooting from those two make them the center of gravity on the ice. Malkin handles more of the puck-handling duties on his line, but Crosby’s off-the-puck operations are so high functioning that he only needs to touch the puck a few times in a shift to generate scoring chances. That could be subject to change in the playoffs when Pittsburgh will lean on Crosby to dominate every shift.
After their two elite centers, defenseman Kris Letang’s play is a reason for unfettered optimism. Some of us – like this website – may have been too quick to write off Letang because of health problems. But Letang is now playing like a No. 1 defenseman, pitted against the toughest competition and posting absolutely devastating possession statistics.
Letang’s mobility and puck skills give the Penguins’ defensive group teeth, and they needed Letang’s skating and scoring prowess after the departure of Matt Niskanen, and the extremely unfortunate health problems with Olli Maatta. Letang was with Pittsburgh last season, but when he was on the ice, he was not this Letang. Without Letang’s phenomenal play, it would be difficult to take Pittsburgh seriously as a Cup contender.
The final point is that the new additions appear to be good fits. Christian Ehrhoff has been very good in a featured role in the defensive group, and Patric Hornqvist and David Perron have understandably loved playing with superstars. The coaching change has been a welcome addition as well, and the Penguins’ improvement in puck-possession metrics has some relation to the new bench boss.
The case against this team is that they are still thin at forward. Brandon Sutter has been less than advertised. And can you win a Stanley Cup with Rob Scurderi as your No. 4 defenseman? What if goalie Marc-Andre Fleury has his annual playoff meltdown?
The Perron trade was shrewd, but to feel really good about the Pens’ chances it would be encouraging if they could get two or more impact skaters, especially forwards. Yesterday’s game against the New York Rangers demonstrates why, despite ranking the Penguins at number two, IH is deeply concerned that this is too high.
The acquisition of Perron, the claim of Mark Arcobello off waivers, and how tight the Metropolitan division race has become make one think that Pittsburgh is not done constructing this team. But if the Penguins stay idle, believing in them means believing that their best players will pave the path to the Cup.
3. New York Islanders
With regard to talent, the New York Islanders can go toe-to-toe with Pittsburgh. The Penguins have their skill more concentrated in a handful of guys, while New York’s skill is spread across its forward and defensive groups. Even in goaltending, where the Penguins would seem to have the edge, doubt persists because of past postseason foibles by Fleury.
So why are the Penguins ranked higher? Because experience matters. There is some logic in thinking that playoff success requires a learning curve. The playoffs are a different beast. Mistakes metastasize. The physicality ramps up. There is less room to operate and winning a game in different fashion becomes important. In the Penguins’ postmortem last May, Crosby acknowledged this fact after the Game 7 loss to the New York Rangers.
Not every playoff contest is low scoring. The Chicago Blackhawks and Los Angeles Kings are great examples of teams that can win 6-5 or 2-1. Talent can be a trump card, but talent needs reps. If healthy, Pittsburgh has a collection of players who have been through the ups and downs of a playoff series, as well as the pendulum swings that occur in a single game.
John Tavares is a fantastic player, and the Tavares-Kyle Okposo combination stands along Corey Perry-Ryan Getzlaf, Claude Giroux-Jakub Voracek, Tyler Seguin-Jamie Benn, and Nicklas Backstrom-Alexander Ovechkin as the NHL’s best forward duos playing on the same line. Centers Brock Nelson and Ryan Strome are going to be difference-makers in the NHL; they have arguably been the best forwards this season after Tavares and Okposo.
Between Tavares, Nelson, and Strome, there is depth at center, but Nelson is 23 years old and Strome is 21. The fact that, between them, Nelson and Strome have only one game and less than eight minutes of postseason experience will matter when the playoffs arrive.
Still, this isn’t to take anything away from the Islanders. They are first in Fenwick close and second in shots per game. They are second in shots against and fourth in goals per game. Nick Leddy and Johnny Boychuk give New York more postseason experience on the back end. The early returns on Calvin De Haan are very good. Travis Hamonic can attack from the blue line and relieves some of the pressure on Tavares, Okposo, Nelson, and Mikhail Grabovski when they assume puck-handling duties. Jaroslav Halak is an improvement over the prior substandard goaltending.
This season will provide invaluable postseason experience to the young players who will help Tavares and Okposo bring this franchise to a possible Stanley Cup final. The Islanders can sow chaos through the forecheck and slow down the rush enough to hit the third or fourth guy trailing or shooting up the far side. They exit the zone efficiently and rapidly. Those are skill plays that contenders make. There are plenty of reasons to feel very encouraged about the present and future for the Islanders.
4. Boston Bruins
It wasn’t too long ago when people were writing off the Boston Bruins. The Tyler Seguin trade has evolved into a blockbuster gaffe, and the Bruins’ struggles to score this season amplified the uneven swap. There was also some murmuring that maybe Johnny Boychuk meant more to the Bruins than they realized.
But these conclusions are oversimplifying. The Seguin trade did not work out as Boston planned – clearly — but they netted two top-nine forwards in the trade who play in all situations. The Boychuk trade was unfortunate, but necessary, because of the salary cap. The defense is not quite as good as last season, but it is still above average.
Most importantly, it was ridiculous to dismiss Boston because the Bruins have two excellent centers, a first-rate defensive pair which includes a Norris Trophy winner, and last season’s Vezina Trophy winner. This season has been fraught with underachieving core players, but a lot of that underachieving was a result of key players being injured. Now that Boston is healthy, the ship has begun to right itself. The Boston Bruins’ entropy has been exaggerated; it is a long season and the core that helped them reach two Stanley Cup finals remains intact.
Moreover, the Bruins have not fundamentally changed how they play. They still bring back pressure through the middle and push the opponent to the perimeter. They still like to overload on the power play and then run the backdoor play. The Bruins still want to hammer teams on the forecheck and send multiple players to crash the net and obstruct the vision of the opposing goaltender. Milan Lucic is still the power forward hated by everyone outside of New England. David Krejci is still a wizard at passing and manufacturing offense. Patrice Bergeron still loves to retreat to the middle-to-high slot for that one-timer. This is still the Bruins of recent years; they were just executing the vision poorly and had too many inexperienced players in the lineup.
This season has been especially interesting because the Bruins were exposed to a degree. Maybe Tuukka Rask isn’t as good we thought he was if he doesn’t have Zdeno Chara keeping his sight line clear and his crease clean. Maybe Lucic is a limited player who is just very fortunate to be teamed with Krejci.
But really, that’s not the point. When Krejci, Chara and Bergeron are all healthy, this team wins playing Bruins hockey. And that starts with defense. Boston had one of the best offenses in the NHL last season, but one of the reasons for that was because of how well they played in their own zone. Opposing offenses are subject to a series of one-and-dones and forceful breakouts.
During Boston’s skid, the defensive coverage was a mess. The Bruins’ positioning was always a strong point and suddenly it was a disadvantage. But that is starting to change. In the month of January, the Bruins have not allowed more than three goals, and they outshot and beat the Tampa Bay Lightning and New York Rangers consecutively. The Bruins want to hem teams in their own zone, and cycle endlessly. That’s the way they will need to play like if they want to return to the Cup final this season.
5. Detroit Red Wings
Remarkably, the Detroit Red Wings have staved off mediocrity and irrelevance and constructed another playoff-bound team of lefties who are detail-oriented and agile. And good health from superstars Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg has been crucial.
The Red Wings are a top-four team in Fenwick close, goals against, and shots against because they are quick to the win the race for the puck and make the right decision once they get there. The players know each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and understand where to find certain players on the ice. The layers of support are always there.
The Red Wings are sensational at making little passes off the half-wall and below the goal line, or touch passes in the neutral zone. If a side of the ice is open, the stretch pass is coming and a player is moving to that side to exploit it. Although most good teams do this, how quickly you execute is salient — and Detroit’s execution is one of its biggest advantages.
The NHL is faster than it has ever been, and having intrinsic knowledge of where a player is and where they are likely going allows a team to expand the sequence of time and slow the game down. If the opposing defensemen are too far apart, the Red Wings’ forward will know to cut off his skating route and expose the gap up the middle. That stuff matters, and the focus on details is pervasive in the Red Wings’ lineup. Their decision-making really stands out, and a lot of that stems from continuity.
Detroit is often praised for being terrific at drafting, but the development of the Red Wings at the AHL level has become legendary in recent years. Players are trained and molded a certain way, all becoming clones of each other. The most skilled players, like Gustav Nyquist and Tomas Tatar, utilize the instruction to become better high-impact NHL players.
Defensively, the Red Wings covet a right-handed defenseman who can play a top-four role, and they will be in pursuit of one at the trade deadline. Even without that player, the defensive group is mobile and the balance between the forwards and defensemen is palpable. The forwards make every effort to help the defensemen with protecting the net and on breakouts. Conversely, the defensemen provide shooting and passing from the point and are good at fulfilling the forwards’ entreaties when they are ready to attempt a zone entry. When Detroit does not have possession, their skaters anticipate how the puck will be advanced with impressive precision and utilize well-timed assaults on the puck-carrier with their stick and body to grab possession back.
Ultimately, this team will go as far as Datsyuk, Zetterberg, and Niklas Kronwall take them. All the members of the trio are well into their 30s, so if they do not get worn down by the marathon regular season, the Red Wings’ Cup nucleus passes the smell test. The supporting cast is very strong, and there is probably not a team in the NHL that protects the puck better when it claims possession. The Red Wings’ defensive group is good, and the goaltending is above the threshold to win a Cup. In the final year of coach Mike Babcock’s contract, how Detroit fares will be riveting.
6. Montreal Canadiens
The Montreal Canadiens’ best asset is also their worst weakness. They play a game that is risk averse and reduces mistakes — for better or worse. They are fifth in goals against and 26th in shots per game. They are poor in possession metrics. They squeeze out the necessary scoring to win and flood the area below the circles to stifle their opponents’ offense. And that works, kind of. According to Team Hextally, opponents’ shooting rates are disturbingly high in the high, middle, and low slot against Montreal, relative to the league average. If Carey Price’s play starts to slip, the Canadiens could free fall.
But at the same time, in last season’s playoffs Montreal was able to crush Tampa Bay in the first round (albeit the Bolts were without Ben Bishop), and defeat the Bruins in the Eastern Conference semifinals. They achieved that by playing this style of play. Their best players were able to score when it counted, and Price – and the post – made some monumental stops when the Bruins spent long sequences in the offensive zone.
Can the Habs make a Cup run with Alex Galchenyuk/David Desharnais as their No. 1 center and Tomas Plekanec as the No. 2 pivot? Galchenyuk has a very promising future and Desharnais and Plekanec are good players, but the lack of experience and punch at the center position is an issue going forward. The defensive group is fine, but not exceptional. The nucleus and system the Canadiens play will keep them competitive in most games, but too much pressure on Price and not enough depth limit this team’s ceiling.
7. New York Rangers
The biggest knock on the New York Rangers reaching the Stanley Cup is that they made it last season. Reaching back-to-back Cup finals is really, really hard. But from a roster standpoint, there is a lot to like about this squad. The faith placed in Derek Stepan and Derick Brassard to man the top two center spots looks savvy, and the defensive group is tremendous. Rick Nash is playing superb hockey, and the passing and speed that allowed New York to survive the Eastern Conference bracket and compete very well with the Kings in the Cup final is still there. Good luck stopping the Rangers on the transition, because they can still whip it around on the rush.
But the underlying stats are mixed. The Rangers are tied for fifth in goals per game and third in goals against. Their 5 on 5 Goals For/Against is fourth. They have the best goal differential in the conference. And yet, they are 29th (!!!) in faceoff win percentage. Their possession statistics are pedestrian. Partly, that stems from the injuries to key players that plagued the Blueshirts for much of the first half of the season. And the Rangers’ depth that was so prominent last season is slightly diminished.
Entering the season, the Rangers needed Nash and Martin St. Louis to provide scoring from the wings. Check. They needed Dan Boyle to come in and improve the power play while contributing to the fast pace the Rangers want to employ. Check. New York needed Brassard and Mats Zuccarello to play in expanded roles and thrive. Check. The only question that has not been checked is that Chris Kreider was expected to taken a bigger step forward than he has. Nevertheless, what made this team special last season is still present. And they have arguably the best goaltender in the NHL, which certainly doesn’t hurt. After a rocky start to the season, Henrik Lundqvist is now playing very well.
If the Rangers can overcome the massive toll caused by fatigue when a team makes deep runs in consecutive playoffs, it will be an incredible feat.
8. Washington Capitals
In recent seasons, Alexander Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom have had to shoulder too much of the scoring burden, and the lack of structure and effort on defense led to the Capitals toiling closer to the middle than they liked. They were not a Cup contender, but not a doormat. So what changed? The coaching hire of Barry Trotz turned out to be a brilliant move, as Trotz has instilled a focus on defense that was not present before.
In addition to the reduction of the boneheaded mistakes that had routinely hurt this team, the emergence of young talent has played a large role in changing the optics. Evgeny Kuznetsov and Andre Burakovsky add much needed dynamism to a corps whose firepower had become too condensed in recent seasons. The creativity those two have with the puck allows the Caps to strike quickly, and spread out their depth.
Finally, the additions of Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik have given the Capitals two NHL-caliber defensemen. The reshuffling that resulted from acquiring these two, along with the coaching mandate on defense and playing with more structure, makes Washington look a lot more polished than they have in a few years. They have been a top-ten possession team all season, and goaltender Braden Holtby has thrived too. (Some attribute his improvement to goaltender coach Mitch Korn, who came with Trotz to Washington from Nashville.)
The Caps can drop their wingers below the circle, but still get out to the point in time to front the opposing defensemen and block the shooting lanes. In this way, they create the desired expand-and-contract accordion effect expected in their defensive set.
In recent seasons, the Capitals had doses of passing and shooting, but their composure with the puck and hockey awareness was lacking. Since Trotz’s arrival, the latter have improved and continue to get better. At first, it was jarring seeing Washington players tracking when opponents made rushes up the ice and forwards consistently recognizing where they needed to be positioned.
Whether these improvements make them a Cup contender remains to be seen, but a franchise that seemed to be in major turmoil at the end of last season has recalibrated and appears to be heading in the right direction. This might not put the Capitals at the top of the power rankings, but there is a lot of season left for things to change.