Five burning playoff questions

April 8, 2014 in Free Articles by Sam Hitchcock

So much is happening with every team likely to participate in the playoffs that it is hard to digest it all. The playoff picture has changed – a lot. Injuries have shaken the playoff sphere like a snow globe, and any consensus is becoming increasingly rare. By dissecting some of the popular media storylines, Hockey Prospectus hopes to help the tightly-knit hockey community gain a better understanding of the best time of the year – Stanley Cup Playoffs time.

Will the Los Angeles Kings perform “scorched earth” on the playoff competition, a la 2012?

They might. In 2012, when the Kings won the Stanley Cup, they had a top-four Corsi and Fenwick Close and became a different team after the trade for Jeff Carter. The Carter acquisition catalyzed Los Angeles to have the best shot differential in the NHL, and they have not slowed down since. (Their stampede through the 2012 playoffs was one of the most commanding championship runs in sports history.)

Last season, the Kings finished first in Corsi and Fenwick Close, but bowed out in the Western Conference finals to a similarly dominant puck possession team — Chicago. Repeating proved too hard, but this season the Kings look fresh, and the numbers are once against in their favor as they boast a first overall Corsi and Fenwick Close.

There are other similarities between the Kings’ 2012 Cup-winning squad and this season’s team. The Kings possess a smothering defense that stifles any opposing offensive tempo, and this season they made another trade deadline move to buoy their scoring. The Marian Gaborik acquisition has looked like a genius move by General Manager Dean Lombardi, as Gabby fits in nicely with Anze Kopitar and Justin Williams. Adding Gaborik allows coach Darryl Sutter to flex his center depth, with Jeff Carter moving from wing to center. (The Kings’ four centers are Kopitar, Carter, Mike Richards, and Jarett Stoll.) L. A. has also gotten energy from AHL call-ups Tanner Pearson and Tyler Toffoli, who have looked impressive in spurts.

As hockey analyst Eric Tulsky has pointed out, the Kings are excellent in the neutral zone, and their roster is stocked with players capable of making a successful zone entry and recording a shot, while staving off opponents trying to achieve the same thing in their end. That portends well for the postseason — Los Angeles achieves this collectively, and they surround that lethal center foursome with good wingers throughout. Their depth at forward and defense is a coup for this squad.

The Kings are the heaviest team in the league and are adroit at sustaining pressure in the offensive zone. They generate a lot of offensive zone faceoffs, which enable them to execute set plays to get the puck on their best players’ sticks – especially since they are an elite team at winning draws. They play a highly physical game and maul their opponents. With arguably the best defenseman in the game in Drew Doughty, two world-class forwards in Kopitar and Carter, and the premier “Money Goalie” of this decade in Jonathan Quick, they are as good a bet as any to seize the Cup.

Is Ryan McDonagh the best defenseman in the Eastern Conference?

Not yet, but he is getting closer. And here best defenseman in the Eastern Conference is being defined as best all-situations defender — which leaves Erik Karlsson and P.K. Subban out of the equation. Both of them are savants at tilting the ice, and have oodles of offensive prowess and verve that lasts for days, but they do not lead their teams on the penalty kill.

Moreover, Karlsson and Subban do not face the same level of competition and difficult deployment as Ryan McDonagh and Zdeno Chara. Chara faces slightly harder competition and deployment than McDonagh, but the significant difference lies in their Relative Corsis and Relative Fenwicks. While Chara ends up on the good side of the ledger in both of these measures despite his demanding workload, McDonagh ends up in the red.

Nevertheless, the gap is shrinking. McDonagh is getting the Chara treatment and this season has thrived in his role. He is among the best defensemen in the league, and his vision, smooth-skating, and piercing shot are bonuses. In the crunch-time minutes, McDonagh shuts down offensive superstars, and he does so with aplomb. He is a skilled puck-mover and scoring-chance generator, and as Chara nears 40, McDonagh is the logical successor for the mantle of dominant all-around defenseman in the Eastern Conference. He will have everything to do with the Rangers reaching the Cup, if that happens.

If the Anaheim Ducks get the No. 2 seed, will everything have broken right for them?

A few interesting details surrounding the Ducks make them an appealing Western Conference contender. When Cam Fowler returns (by Game 1 of the first round at the latest), this will be the healthiest team among the Stanley Cup contenders. In the conference quarterfinal, they likely will play the squad whose goaltending is a bigger question mark than their own. (The Wild goaltending situation has unraveled to such an extreme degree that Ilya Bryzgalov is their starter.)

Minnesota is not an overly physical team, and there is the possibility that the Ducks could triumph over the Wild in five or six games without too much carnage, which would give them extra rest and recovery. And if the Ducks were to advance relatively unscathed, they would get the winner of the San Jose-Los Angeles first-round bloodbath (and the Sharks are without Tomas Hertl, and the Kings’ Drew Doughty is banged up).

In the other half of the Western Conference bracket, Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Matt Duchene, and Tarasenko are all nicked up or injured. If the Ducks are going to make the Cup with Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf as their core, this is probably the season to do it.

Perry and Getzlaf are second and fourth in GVT, respectively, and in May both will turn 29. If they are not at their apotheosis they are close. As Eric Tulsky pointed out, forwards take a scoring nosedive when they reach 30, so this duo’s prime performance is probably nearing its end.

The Ducks’ Corsi and Fenwick Close are middle-of-the-pack; their Eastern Conference facsimile appears to be the Penguins, who are similarly pedestrian in puck possession. But while Pittsburgh has four star forwards, a few complementary pieces, and flotsam, Anaheim has some impressive youth and deceptively skilled forwards – Nick Bonino and Mathieu Perreault in particular have both been very good. With due respect to Pittsburgh’s Craig Adams and Tanner Glass, any Ducks forward that dresses is better than either of them. The bottom-six for Pittsburgh is frighteningly ineffective, but the Ducks can score with their third and fourth lines.

There seems to be a large drop-off after Perry and Getzlaf, but this is because these two are superstars while the rest of the Anaheim’s forward roster is comprised of solid players at different points in their career paths. Lastly, the Stephane Robidas addition has seen mixed results, but at the very least it added important depth to a defensive corps that needed it. Nabbing the No. 2 seed over the next week would present the Ducks with the most favorable path to the Cup.

Can Philadelphia overcome their shortcomings to reach the Eastern Conference Finals?

The Philadelphia Flyers are wildly intriguing, yet fundamentally flawed. The positives are evident in their forward group: they have one of the best playmakers in hockey in Claude Giroux, their top-nine is stacked with size and offensive skill, and in 25-year-old rookie Michael Raffl, they have found another winger who can add complementary scoring.

Yet, the Flyers have crucial defects that cannot be dismissed. They are in the bottom third of the NHL in Corsi and Fenwick Close. This stems from a clunky defensive corps that is not adept at puck retrieval and outlet passes, hampering the team’s transition game. Too often Philadelphia gets hemmed in their zone, and their forwards do not provide enough support to drive the puck north. Steve Mason’s save percentage is .916 this season, which is lifted by his white-hot October and November. He seems to have stabilized after a putrid December and January, but Mason has the second-worst save percentage among Eastern Conference playoff goalies (assuming Columbus clinches the last spot).

Overall, this is a club that is below average in five-on-five scoring (17th), shots against (18th), and faceoff win percentage (16th). For as much firepower as they possess in their forward group, they do not light up the scoreboard at a dominant rate (they are tied with Toronto for 11th in goals per game).

But match-ups are extremely important, and the Flyers being on the opposite half of the Eastern Conference bracket from Boston is an enormous advantage. If the Flyers can emerge from their series with the New York Rangers, they would then face either the Pittsburgh Penguins or the Detroit Red Wings. The Bruins will need to fight and claw for playoff wins just like everyone else, and if both the Flyers and the Bruins make it to the Eastern Conference finals, Philadelphia might face a wounded Boston team.

The Flyers have outstanding depth up the middle and a very favorable road to the Stanley Cup (they have split the season series against the Blueshirts). However, any success Philadelphia has would likely be fleeting because of a maladroit blue line and a goaltender whose performance too frequently oscillates between very good and awful.

Is Jaden Schwartz the Biggest X-Factor in the Stanley Cup Playoffs?

Left winger Jaden Schwartz may be that superstar difference-maker that the Blues were looking for; that is how quickly he has ascended this year. Despite his slight stature, he is adept at slithering his way into the offensive zone for a good entry and has a good shot and strong playmaking skills. He also excels at finding the soft spots on the ice and placing himself in the passing lanes in a Patrice Bergeron-esque manner. At 21, he is just beginning to discover his full potential.

With Vladimir Tarasenko injured, the Blues’ offense has sputtered. Tarasenko was first on the team in Relative Corsi and Relative Fenwick, and second in points per 60 minutes. The Blues have seen their average goals per game fall by one goal. St. Louis should be without Tarasenko for at least the first round, and if they want to avoid a prolonged series or upset they will need their most dynamic player – Schwartz – to carry the workload for generating scoring chances when there is no room.

T.J. Oshie, David Backes, and Alexander Steen are all tremendous players (Oshie is seventh in GVT and Steen is tenth), but none of them provides the same game-breaking ability as Schwartz. By clinching the No. 1 seed in the West and home ice advantage, the Blues have provided themselves with the upper hand over the rest of the conference. Making quick work of a first-round opponent is crucial for the Blues because it would give them extra time to rest while their adversaries are battling it out.

The Ryan Miller trade positions this team to win now. Their goaltending is no longer a weakness (Miller is fifth among goaltenders in GVT). In all facets they are impressive. The Blues have the forward depth, the highly skilled back end, and the top-notch goaltender to win this season. They are a very good puck possession team and are at the top of the NHL in just about every conceivable metric. But if Schwartz is not in superlative form, they will not reach the Cup finals.

Sam Hitchcock writes extensively about the NHL and is the founder and writer of intelligenthockey.com. You can follow him on Twitter @IntelligHockey.

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Sam Hitchcock