Stanley Cup Final preview: Kings vs. Rangers

Here we go again: another Stanley Cup Final, another prediction. Going for six in a row.

For my previous five previews: 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013

My first reaction to a Kings-Rangers matchup, back when it looked like Los Angeles could have finished Chicago in five games, was wondering if we had a Colorado-Florida type mismatch that could end up a four-game sweep. It’s been a while since we had one of those. Los Angeles has seemed so dominant at times, while the Eastern teams in general hadn’t looked like they belonged in the same league as the Western teams.

However, after digging and analyzing a bit, I settled on Kings in six as a solid starting point.

As I do every year, I asked Rob Vollman for a prediction, knowing he would give me a strong analytics take. For instance, in 2011, I remember him saying Canucks in six, which I do think was the proper “baseline” for that series. Therefore, I was surprised that his response for Kings-Rangers was “coin toss” – and that he would take the Kings only if forced to choose.

So I stepped back to re-evaluate. Could the series really be that close?

Let’s break it down.

Even strength

Los Angeles Kings close-game Fenwick: 56.5% (Rank: 1st in NHL)
New York Rangers close-game Fenwick: 53.3% (Rank: 6th in NHL)
Total: Los Angeles Kings, +3.2%

For the second season in a row, Los Angeles led the league in Fenwick Close (after finishing fourth in 2011-12), a puck possession measure that correlates strongly to winning.

So for all of the “experts” talking about the Kings’ “heavy” style of play, they are first and foremost a ridiculously effective puck possession team. The same goes for St. Louis and Boston – teams also in the top quartile of the league in Fenwick Close for the past three seasons. Good luck to the next old school GM or owner who tries to build a “heavy” contender but without the puck possession skill.

However, the Blueshirts are no slouches, either. The Rangers have improved by this measure as well, going from 14th to seventh to fifth in the league over the past three seasons.

What you don’t want to do, though, is compare postseason stats – as many people do indiscriminately. Any idea why New York has an “edge”, 50.3% to 49.8%? It might have something to do with the Kings playing – arguably – the three toughest opponents in the playoffs, San Jose, Anaheim, and Chicago. While regular season schedules aren’t exactly apples to apples between the Eastern and Western Conference, there is no comparison in how tough a road Los Angeles had versus that of New York.

Advantage: Los Angeles Kings

Los Angeles Kings offense vs. New York Rangers defense

Los Angeles Kings offense: -21.1 GVT (Rank: 26th in NHL)
New York Rangers defense: 11.7 GVT (Rank: 8th in NHL)
New York Rangers goaltending: 14.2 GVT (Rank: 5th in NHL)
Total: New York Rangers, 47.0 GVT

What you see above, and in the following section, are the full-season Goals Versus Threshold (GVT) values showing how each team’s offense, defense, and goaltending compared against an average NHL team. GVT is equivalent to goal differential in the team context.

Two caveats, though, and they kind of wash. One is that the Rangers are a much superior team if you look at the last half or third of their season. Lundqvist’s rough start had them at a shocking -4.2 GGVT for the first half of the campaign, meaning their goaltending jumped to 18.4 GGVT for the second half.

However, the Kings’ offense has hit the stratosphere since the acquisition of Marian Gaborik (shades of the Jeff Carter deal from two years ago, also with Columbus) and in particular, during the playoffs (3.48 goals per game vs. 2.42 in the regular season). This is not surprising for teams in the Stanley Cup Final – they are clicking now, as opposed to clicking in October or November.

In any case, what is on the surface a massive advantage for the Rangers may be closer to a push.

Advantage: New York Rangers

New York Rangers offense vs. Los Angeles Kings defense

New York Rangers offense: -5.1 GVT (Rank: 19th in NHL)
Los Angeles Kings defense: 31.3 GVT (Rank: 2nd in NHL)
Los Angeles Kings goaltending: 16.4 GVT (3rd in NHL)
Total: Los Angeles, 52.8 GVT

New York’s offense has improved – they were an above-average 8.1 OGVT for the second half of the season. Still, assuming a good Jonathan Quick, the Kings have the best six-man defense in the NHL, giving a strong edge to Los Angeles.

Advantage: Los Angeles Kings

Los Angeles Kings power play vs. New York Rangers penalty kill

Los Angeles Kings power play: -6.8 GVT (Rank: 26th in NHL)
New York Rangers penalty kill: 11.7 GVT (Rank: 2nd in NHL)
Total: New York Rangers, 18.5 GVT

Here is another case where you might need to toss out regular season numbers, especially given the impact of Gaborik: a well below-average 15.1 PP% jumping all the way up to 25.4%. Though that exact rate is likely unsustainable, real improvement is there. However, the Kings face a strong penalty kill backed by the world’s best goaltender.

Advantage: New York Rangers

New York Rangers power play vs. Los Angeles Kings penalty kill

New York Rangers power play: 0.4 GVT (Rank: 14th in NHL)
Los Angeles Kings penalty kill: -6.8 GVT (Rank: 16th in NHL)
Total: New York Rangers, 7.2 GVT

Conversely, New York has struggled with a poor 13.6 PP% in the playoffs, with a long stretch of futility through most of the first two rounds. That said, for all of their five-on-five acumen, Los Angeles has been pedestrian on the penalty kill, both in the regular season (83.1%) and during the playoffs (81.2%).

Advantage: New York Rangers

Season Series

The teams split the season series, with each team winning on the road in regulation.

Alain Vigneault’s first win as Rangers head coach came in a 3-1 win at Staples Center on October 7. Brad Richards scored twice, and Quick memorably gave up a fluke goal on a long shot fired by Ryan McDonagh.

Los Angeles returned the favor with a 1-0 shutout at Madison Square Garden, though the netminding was done by the now-departed Ben Scrivens, covering for an injured Quick in net. Tyler Toffoli had the lone tally.

Advantage: Even

Faceoffs

Los Angeles Kings faceoff percentage: 52.8% (Rank: 3rd in NHL)
New York Rangers faceoff percentage: 48.8% (Rank: 22nd in NHL)
Total: Los Angeles Kings, +4.0%

Not only do the Kings have a significant advantage over the Rangers at the center position – in general – but they even rule the faceoff circle. Both teams’ rates have stayed very consistent in the postseason (52.9%, 47.5%).

New York’s three pivots who took the most regular season draws are all below average, Stepan (45.2%), Richards (49.8%), and Brassard (48.0%) – and Stepan has dropped to a miserable 41.5% in the playoffs, making him a liability to deploy on key draws. Moore (54.6%) and Boyle (52.9%) were above average.

Conversely, all of the Kings’ most frequent faceoff men were outstanding: Kopitar (53.3%), Stoll (54.7%), Richards (53.9%), Carter (52.2%).

Advantage: Los Angeles Kings

Injuries, Suspensions, Coaching, and Intangibles

Despite a persistent reputation as a solid stay-at-home defenseman, the potential return from injury of lumbering 34-year-old Robyn Regehr stands to make zero impact on the Kings. On the other side of the ledger, third pairing D-man John Moore is finishing out a suspension for his hit on Montreal’s Dale Weise, while agitating bottom sixer Dan Carcillo will sit out the remainder of the postseason. They are all bit players, though. Overall, it is amazing, given the grueling run of games, that all of the key contributors appear to be intact.

Not every coach that wins a Cup is a great coach, and not every great coach wins a Cup. However, Darryl Sutter cemented his status as a great coach by taking a mediocre Kings club to another level after replacing Terry Murray in December 2011. Likewise, the fortunes of the Rangers and Canucks – ships passing in the night – have proven what us stats geeks assumed about Alain Vigneault’s quality. In my opinion, this is the best coaching matchup for the Final in years.

And intangibles? Other than the Kings’ experience in winning a Cup in 2012, and the hunger of key Ranger veterans to win one for themselves? None. I am not buying, and refuse to spell out, any of the simplistic, worn-out narratives.

Advantage: Even

Prediction

Los Angeles Kings: 32.0 GVT (Rank: 7th in NHL)
New York Rangers: 25.0 GVT (Rank: 10th in NHL)
Total: Los Angeles Kings, 7.0 GVT

Here is the case for New York winning in seven games:

  • After a rough start, facing the toughest teams of the Western Conference as part of a long road swing to kick off the season, New York has been one of the Eastern Conference’s best teams. So there is an argument that they may be better than is commonly perceived.
  • Start the series quick in Los Angeles, against a worn-down Kings team that may not respect the Rangers enough. New York has been good on the road, which helps.
  • Henrik Lundqvist is the best goaltender of the past 10 years, and he is having an excellent playoffs (.928 SV%, .935 ESSV%), representative of his talent level. If he can steal a couple of games on his own, then we’re talking.
  • Jonathan Quick continues a disappointing .906 save percentage clip, a far cry from his Conn Smythe form. A shakey game or two could give a decided advantage to New York.
  • The Kings offense has been too good to last.

I buy some of that, but not enough of it.

So here is the case for Los Angeles winning in six games:

  • They are the NHL’s best possession team of the past two seasons.
  • They just beat three of the four best teams in hockey, by my estimation (Boston would be the fourth).
  • They look pretty dominant for a team that has been pushed to three Game 7s. The play in the Western Conference Final was on another level from what the Rangers have experienced.
  • The Kings’ offense and power play is firing on all cylinders since the Gaborik acquisition.
  • They are deeper than New York, and particularly strong at center.
  • Quick should be at his best on the big stage.

The range of realistic results for the series goes from Kings in four to Rangers in seven, so I will go with:

Los Angeles Kings in six games

Timo Seppa is Editor-in-Chief of Hockey Prospectus, one of its founding authors, an author and editor of all four of its annuals, a long-time contributor at ESPN Insider, and a frequent guest on NHL Network Radio’s The War Room, as well as a hockey analytics consultant.

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