Weighing Eastern Conference teams’ Stanley Cup odds

How well a team succeeds in the postseason is dictated not only by personnel, but also by health, puck luck, and matchups. Ideally, teams want a path like the New Jersey Devils took in 2012 when they avoided Pittsburgh and Boston en route to the Cup. While few teams are so fortunate, there is a logic to their hope that opponents who are like Kryptonite to them lose early or experience Pyrrhic victories. (Los Angeles underwent back-to-back bloodbaths against St. Louis in 2013, and New York played two seven-game series before facing the New Jersey in 2012.)

Hockey is a random, wonky sport played at a frenetic pace. But there are statistical indicators we can use to glean why some teams will do better than others.

Pittsburgh Penguins

Why they will make the Cup:

One of the best parts of the ongoing dissection of NHL games is that, as we narrow our focus onto the finer points of play rather than the broad statistics, we keep discovering different ways to demonstrate Sidney Crosby’s greatness. In both boxcar and advanced statistics, Crosby does not so much tilt the ice as uproot it.

In its top six, Pittsburgh has four high-end impact players (Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Chris Kunitz, and James Neal) whose scoring prowess is reinforced by effective contributors, Lee Stempniak and Jussi Jokinen. The Stempniak addition looks especially encouraging thus far. Jokinen’s job for Pittsburgh is a fill-in-the-blanks, expert-of-the-minutiae role, and so far Stempniak is serving the same function on Crosby and Kunitz’s line.

When a team has the No. 1 ranked player (by a good margin) in the NHL In GVT (Crosby) and the No. 2 ranked player in the Eastern Conference in GVT (Malkin), it makes for a formidable opponent. These two superstars have helped Pittsburgh develop a deadly power play, and they also allow Pittsburgh to use creativity and misdirection in their zone entries. (New York is the only team comparable in ingenuity when entering the zone.)

Pittsburgh’s ability to make stops and play from ahead is also a coup. The Penguins are top five in the NHL in win percentage when scoring first and when leading after the first period. Their defense is sturdy: Matt Niskanen has had a terrific season, and the addition of Olli Maatta has been enormous to their back end. The Penguins are second in the Eastern Conference in shots against per game, and even when they get pinned in their own zone, they are able to fan the puck away from the middle so opposing shots come from the periphery.

Why they will not make the Cup:

Unfortunately for Pittsburgh, there is a massive drop off after their first two lines, with the third and forth lines providing slim influence. Depth is tremendously important in the postseason, and while the Penguins are deeper than they were before the trade deadline, they are still a two-line team. Just look at this chart recently done by Corey Sznajder. A top-heavy team that is chronically injury prone is concerning, and it could spell doom if they suffer one or more injuries.

Additionally, there is the large, disturbing specter of a Marc-Andre Fleury meltdown. Fleury was macabre in Pittsburgh’s last two postseasons, and the lack of experience behind him is disturbing. Pittsburgh has been stingy this season in allowing shots, but the health concerns extend to their back end as well. When will Kris Letang return to full health. Can Paul Martin stay healthy? If the Penguins run into Boston will they get bullied like last season? There are several reasons to believe that the Penguins’ Stanley Cup drought, which has lasted since 2009, will continue.

New York Rangers

Why they will make the Cup:

Former coach John Tortorella was likely fired at the end of last season because of the displeasure players expressed about his abrasive style, but there was a perception that the Rangers were stagnating anyway. Their style of play did not coordinate with their core players’ strengths.

With Alain Vigneault at the helm, general manager Glen Sather has helped reconfigure a roster that can play with tempo and patience. The Rangers average the most shots per game of any team in the Eastern Conference, but their woeful shooting percentage seems poised for a market correction, especially with the addition of offensive guru Martin St. Louis.

New York controls puck possession with the best of the league, and their offensive entries are calculated and preconceived – the Rangers have a bevy of capable puck-handlers. The Rangers still maintain a truculent disposition in spite of their lack of size, and their ability to play below the goal line is downright pugilistic. In their own zone and the neutral zone, they employ the stretch pass which gives them multiple avenues to exploit time and space.

They have arguably the top shutdown pair in the Eastern Conference with Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi, as well as a very, very strong back end. Their goaltending boasts a former Vezina winner (Henrik Lundqvist), so in total this team looks complete and formidable.

Why they will not make the Cup:

Everyone expects a gravitation towards the mean with the Rangers’ shooting percentage, that Lundqvist will continue to look strong and raise their team save percentage, that their scoring will fall into place now that they have St. Louis – but this team can still run cold. The fact that Carolina recently held New York to one goal should dissuade anyone who thinks this team is about to morph into an offensive juggernaut. Moreover, Vigneault’s desire to see his team push the pace and hold a territorial advantage can sometimes lead to bad turnovers. New York’s defensemen, like the rest of the team, have a lot of speed. But quick counterattacks and fast transitions can lead to loose pucks because they require a synchronization that this roster is still trying to establish.

Boston Bruins

Why they will make the Cup:

The Boston Bruins are first in the NHL in five-on-five scoring. They have dominant Corsi and Fenwick, led by the stats-community’s favorites, Patrice Bergeron and Zdeno Chara. Simply put, when Bergeron and Chara are on the ice, they will get brutal assignments and thrive, driving play significantly.

Overall, Boston is pretty awesome in all facets. The Bruins win faceoffs, get a lot of rubber on net, and concede few goals. Their style of play meshes well with what succeeds in the playoffs: Boston is a nasty, physical team that is dominant in one-on-one battles along the boards, and thrives when establishing a well-spaced forecheck.

The Bruins are blessed with depth, and have watched young players step into bigger roles and flourish. They are not quite as dynamic as Pittsburgh or New York; instead, their modus operandi is a more deliberate, layered attack with good puck support. This is a team that has incisive positioning and precisely timed set plays. They are a very well-coached team with smart, two-way players who understand how to expose inconsistencies in defensive coverages. They also utilize active sticks and are good at sealing gaps in the neutral zone and defensive zone. Tuukka Rask has the fourth best GVT in the NHL among goaltenders, and with him protecting the cage, Boston can afford a slow start and not get burned.

Why they will not make the Cup:

The loss of Dennis Seidenberg to a season-ending injury was a huge blow to this team’s back end. They also lost an electric player in Tyler Seguin after the polarizing  Seguin for Loui Eriksson and Reilly Smith swap.

Eriksson and Smith are both very good, but they do not have the playoff pedigrees  Seguin has acquired in his brief NHL career. Additionally, the Bruins have a very high PDO due to an excellent save percentage and top ten shooting percentage. A receding towards the mean might be in order. Also, making the Stanley Cup three times in four years is extremely taxing and difficult. With that said, the Bruins should be the clear-cut favorite to return to the Cup finals.

Toronto Maple Leafs

Why they will make the Cup:

There is something endearing about the irascible, disciplinarian coach who tries his best to have his overmatched squad defy the odds (literally). Toronto is the most anachronistic team in the NHL, and seems to agitate the hockey media to no end. The Leafs claim to go for quality over quantity in shot selection, they try to stimulate their offense through turnovers and not puck possession, they employ multiple enforcers, their coach is always chasing the match-up, and they rely on excellent goaltending and timely scoring to squeeze them through the nightly onslaught. Toronto treats skeptics as intruders on their old-school hockey ideology. And you know what? It has kind of worked!

This team came much, much closer to beating the Bruins last year than the Rangers or Penguins, and this year they have once again travailed their way to the top of the conference. As mentioned, there is a great deal of luck and randomness in the most fluid sport on the planet. That is why it is so perversely enjoyable to watch Randy Caryle try his best to micromanage and watch things spin sideways, and for the Maple Leafs to continue to defy the odds. Just about every statistic you can find augurs doom. “The market will correct itself” is the company line among advanced stats fans. But as of this article, it has not. Having Phil Kessel, third among Eastern Conference skaters in GVT, helps too.

Why they will not make the Cup:

Toronto’s puck possession statistics are horrendous (only Buffalo has worse). They have a very high PDO, are 30th in the NHL in shots against, and are 25th in faceoff percentage. They are glaringly top-heavy at forward, and their defensive corps is ungainly with the puck and sloppy with their passes. Toronto has allowed 40+ shots in 19 games this season (the most in the NHL), and is poised to tie or break the club record of 25 from 1983-84.

The Leafs are constantly at a territorial disadvantage, partly because they are ham-handed with their puck control, and partly because they have defensemen who should not be getting regular NHL minutes. They have a few reliable puck-handlers, and their defensive coverage and giveaways are very problematic. Sometimes when they breakout from their zone after getting hemmed in their own end, they will punt on puck possession just because that provides the only opportunity to change lines. This team is full of flaws.

Tampa Bay Lightning

Why they will make the Cup:

After Martin St. Louis brazenly requested a trade to the New York Rangers and got his wish granted, Ryan Callahan is now with Tampa Bay. Still, this is a team that has one of the most gifted scorers the NHL has ever seen in Steven Stamkos, and a lot of players who compete really hard. Tampa Bay is not stocked with game-changers in their top-six forwards, like Pittsburgh, Boston, New York, or even Toronto. Rather, they are a hardworking club that pursues the puck relentlessly and tries to play fast off the puck.

So far, that is working. The Bolts are on the fringe of the top ten in Corsi and Fenwick, and they boast an impressive five-on-five scoring ratio. Losing St. Louis will negatively affect their power play, but the Lightning man advantage percentage was not good to begin with. Their game plan is to outwork the other teams, and Callahan fits into that mold perfectly. He plays a reckless style that welcomes injury, but he is a decade younger than St. Louis.

Tampa Bay’s back end does an effective job exiting the zone as quickly as possible and providing a serviceable first pass to jolt the transition. This philosophy of immediate exodus is starkly different than that of the Penguins or Bruins, who are comfortable displaying patience and waiting for an outlet pass opportunity that can lead to a good counter. When teams can protect the paint as well as these two can, they can endure own-zone discomfort.

However, Tampa Bay does have a gigantic strength along its blue line: Victor Hedman.  He is adept at skating the puck out of danger on his own, and his ability to drive play positively is very impressive. Hedman has lived up to his potential as the former No. 2 overall pick, and is not far off from being one of the NHL’s premier defensemen. His Corsi and Fenwick relative suggest he is closer than non-Lightning fans realize. Ben Bishop is first among the league’s goaltenders in GVT, and general manager Steve Yzerman’s trade with Ottawa for this talented, young goaltender looks like one of the best, if not the best, heists of the last 12 months.

Why they will not make the Cup:

There is just not enough there for a successful Cup run. Tampa Bay has some really good auxiliary talent, but not enough primary players to battle with the best lines of the Eastern Conference. Tampa Bay has been bad in its last ten games, but this is still a good team. Their swoon is more likely the result of the slog of the marathon season.

Fortunately, the Lightning have the No. 3 pick from the 2013 trade in Jonathan Drouin.  Drouin is currently in juniors, but he is expected to be an unbelievable talent who will provide the all-world puck skills that can probably take this team to another level in the future. Tampa Bay has assembled some really good pieces, but this is a young team.

Montreal Canadiens

Why they will make the Cup:

Carey Price did not have an onerous workload in Sochi for Canada, but he did show that he could raise his game when he saw action. If Montreal were to make the Cup, it would be because Price played up to his ceiling; when he is at that level, he can steal games. For Montreal to advance to the Cup they would need to lead in the majority of their games; they have very good statistics when scoring first, leading after the first period, and leading after the second period. This is a team that is going to win games 2-1 or 1-0. Montreal wants to cycle the puck, and draw penalties while converting on seldom chances when they get them. This team does not have much firepower, but they can win if they dictate the terms of the game.

Why they will not make the Cup:

Carey Price’s post-Sochi injury has helped demonstrate his importance to his club – the Habs’ goalie has the second-best GVT in the NHL – as the club has floundered without him. Montreal has poor five-on-five scoring, and their all-important power play has sunk to 15th. Reigning Norris Trophy winner P.K. Subban is as exciting and talented as they come, and Max Pacioretty is an exhilarating winger, but the Canadiens’ lack of other high-end offense puts an unfair burden on this defenseman and forward.

Thomas Vanek was acquired by Montreal at the trade deadline with the hope of increasing the team’s scoring, but so far he has barely moved the needle. Plagued by lack of size and high-end puck skills, as well as too many sedate defensemen, the Habs’ best hope of winning is by establishing a forecheck and scoring ugly. They have inadequate Corsi and Fenwick percentages, and on average more shots are taken against them than they put on goal. Their PDO is at the mean, so they have not been buoyed by unsustainable luck, but this is a young team that is still a piece or two away from being a legitimate contender. Moreover, concerns about their plodding defense are very warranted.

Philadelphia Flyers

Why they will make the Cup:

The Flyers are flush with offensive talent – they have more depth up the middle than any team in the Eastern Conference. Claude Giroux is having another superb offensive season, once again showing his value as a prime distributor. Jakub Voracek has evolved into a star, and Wayne Simmonds and Scott Hartnell look comfortable after rocky starts to their season. The team’s power play and penalty kill are steady, and Philadelphia has been getting hot of late.

Why they will not make the Cup:

The Flyers do not have an elite skill, and are miserable in several important areas. Philadelphia takes the most penalties per game of any team in the league, its Corsi and Fenwick are dreadful, and its five-on-five scoring is below average. Offensively, the Flyers should be great, but they are not. They are 19th in shots per game and  middle-of-the-road in faceoffs.

They have one of the worst save percentages in the NHL, and their defense is plodding. Their defense is so unwieldy that it stunts their ability to transition. Moreover, the Flyers’ forwards do not commit themselves to a two-way effort, and their skaters get hemmed in their zone for long periods of time. This team is still too reckless with the puck, too sloppy in their own end, and too unscrupulous for the NHL rulebook.

Columbus Blue Jackets

Why they will make the Cup:

The Blue Jackets are closer to the Tampa Bay Lightning than they are to the Flyers. Essentially, they have some good, young players, some strong supplementary pieces, and their goaltending is a strength. Also, their cap sheet is not gruesome and confounding like the Flyers.

For Columbus to make the Stanley Cup, they would need defenseman Ryan Murray to return to full health. Murray is poised beyond his years, and the barrage of pressure on Columbus in the first half of its win against Detroit was a nice reminder of what the young talent brings. Forward Ryan Johansen has shown flashes of being a No. 1 center, and his sinewy frame belies his strength on the puck and ability to procure scoring chances.

This is a squad which lands in the upper half in puck possession stats, and the Blue Jackets five-on-five scoring is in the top ten. They are scoring at an impressive pace (8th overall), and that has come on a top-four-ranked shooting percentage – which likely will regress. The return of Nathan Horton has not quite added the offensive spark that Columbus’ front office was hoping for, but Horton’s puck possession numbers are robust and, if he can stay healthy, he projects as a solid addition to their top-six forwards. Brandon Dubinsky has been a perfect fit in Columbus, and he will need to continue to add edge and power. This is a precocious team that has a promising future if they can stay healthy.

Why they will not make the Cup:

For starters, they are 0-7 against the Pittsburgh-Boston duo. None of those losses came in a shootout either. They are 23rd in shots per game, and 22nd in shots against. Their special teams are average. They are good in a lot of areas, but they do not have a deadly skill or a lethal player – yet. They do have the reigning Vezina Trophy winner in Sergei Bobrovsky, and it is conceivable he could steal a series; but this team is thin due to injuries and would need more forward and defensive depth to go any further. Blue Jackets coach Todd Richards has preached the precept of hard work and grinding below the hash marks, and this team looks good on the cycle. But the Blue Jackets are likely a player or two away from serious contention when healthy, and they are not at full health right now.

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