Weighing Western Conference teams’ Cup chances

In hockey forecasting there are no hidden truths, but there are signals that can presage better odds. The Western Conference boasts several finely-tuned machines, and in the last two weeks several teams have recalibrated their rosters to tweak their balance but keep their ethos. The arms race at the trade deadline led St. Louis to solidify their goaltending, Anaheim to bolster their defense, and Los Angeles and Minnesota to make trades they hoped would spark their offenses.

By record, St. Louis, Anaheim, San Jose, Chicago, Colorado, Los Angeles, and Minnesota are a cut above — not just in terms of the West, but in the NHL landscape. These seven teams are among the top eleven in the league in points (with Boston, Pittsburgh, Montreal, and Tampa Bay being the Eastern Conference representatives).

The best teams in the West have speed, strength, puck skills, and depth. Their idyllic style of play features puck control and five-men units moving in tempo, exploiting time and space well enough to funnel pucks toward the net continually. Movement is absolute. The metrics are mostly favorable for all of these clubs because they execute this lofty, utopian goal as best possible. But the requisite splitting of hairs is necessary to try to discern which team is better positioned for a run than its counterparts.

St. Louis Blues

Why they will make the Cup:

A popular narrative is that a team needs to be knocked down once or twice before breaking through to achieve its goal. And if this underdog has been victimized by the same bully, even better.

This is a fitting description of the Blues, with their tormentor being the Los Angeles Kings. In 2012, the Blues lost to the Kings in the conference semifinals. Last season, they drew the Kings again, this time in the quarterfinals, and dropped four straight after winning the first two contests. The silver lining was that their bloody clashes had negative reverberations for Los Angeles. The physicality of the series no doubt contributed to the Kings losing in the conference finals.

This season, the Blues have it all going on. By just about every measure, they are superb. ¬†They are third in goals per game and third in goals against. In five-on-five play, the Blues are fourth, and they are in the top ten in the NHL in Corsi and Fenwick. Their power play is fifth in the NHL, and their penalty kill is third. Among Hockey Prospectus player rankings in GVT, the Blues’ T.J. Oshie ranks seventh overall and Alexander Steen tenth among skaters.

Their defense has been boosted by the Ryan Miller trade — Miller is third among NHL goalies in GVT. St. Louis has proved up to the task by allowing the second fewest shots per game. Chicago shelled Miller last night, but prior to that game Miller’s save percentage was robust.

Aesthetically, this team wants to play a grinding forecheck game involving fluid movement from all five skaters. Through volume shooting, the Blues hope they can accumulate scoring chances that will lead to enough goals. This team competes really hard; coach Ken Hitchcock has his foot on the gas. They are a tenacious bunch, they are physical, and they have size.

Their defensemen are very skilled and active, and Alex Pietrangelo and Jay Bouwmeester function as their ace shutdown pair. Pietrangelo and Bouwmeester present the dream package for any coach: towering defenders who can skate, pass, shoot, and hit.

The Blues’ skaters employ active sticks and close out well. By squeezing the opponent to the outside, they possess the middle of the ice. They are positioned to gain home-ice advantage throughout the playoffs, and they are excellent at home. This team is tied with Boston for the best goal-differential in the league. They have as good a chance as any team in the West to advance to the Cup.

Why they will not make the Cup:

The Miller addition gives the Blues a polish they did not have before, and everything seemed to be falling into place before the Vladimir Tarasenko injury. Tarasenko is arguably the team’s most dynamic player, but with the young forward slated to miss the remainder of the regular season and some playoff time, the Blues are without a significant difference-maker.

The return of Vladimir Sobotka helps, but does not fully compensate for Tarasenko’s loss. Tarasenko’s injury places the onus on Steen, Oshie, and Jaden Schwartz to be the puck handlers on zone entries as well as the distributors. Tarasenko showed patience with the puck and ingenuity to produce scoring chances. Without him, the Blues lose an offensive creator.

Also, St. Louis is by far the most penalized team among this Western Conference group. Their penalty kill has been prolific this season, but too many PIMs is playing with fire.

Anaheim Ducks

Why they will make the Cup:

Hockey Prospectus’ GVT metric indicates that Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf have been playing at an elite level all season; currently they rank in the third and fourth spots, respectively. The two play on the same line, driving play impressively – especially considering the Ducks are not particularly adept in that facet. The Ducks’ play away from their own end is similar to the Blackhawks’ in that they do not physically punish their opponents like the Blues or Kings do. However, they are opportunistic at forcing turnovers, and strike violently and effectively on the counterattack.

Anaheim might not tilt the ice like the Kings, but they are still good at finding the shooting lanes – they are ninth in shots per game and tied for third in goals per game. When the Ducks progress the puck into the offensive zone, their forwards play the cycle game well. Their attackers are skillful at stretching the defense, allowing their defensemen at the point to be active contributors.

This team is tied for second in the NHL in five-on-five play, and while the Ducks may not dominate puck possession, they still do not allow many shots to get through, ranking eighth in the NHL in shots against per game. Anaheim is a confident and dangerous group and should be a difficult out in the postseason. Among Western Conference teams, the Ducks have the most regulation and overtime wins. This season presents their best opportunity to return to the finals since their Stanley Cup win in 2007.

Why they will not make the Cup:

Anaheim has excellent depth, but after Getzlaf and Perry, their next three lines are more uniform. Chicago’s ability to separate Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, or San Jose’s luxury of splitting Logan Couture and the Joes (Pavelski and Thornton), gives those teams a sizeable advantage with their scoring lines. Additionally, the Ducks have an inflated PDO, enhanced by their NHL-leading shooting percentage, which screams regression.

The Anaheim goaltending is good, and their team save percentage is top-ten ranked, but the goalie situation parallels what the Blues experienced pre-Miller: depth, but no A-grade stopper. As Neil Greenberg astutely pointed out in a recent article, Anaheim has an extraordinary record in one-goal games, another trend that tends to correct itself as the sample size grows. Too much of a burden is placed on Getzlaf and Perry to dictate play, and a goaltender who is unable to steal games is a red flag for a team with real Cup aspirations. How the Ducks finish in the standings could present problems as well since Anaheim is a much better team at home than on the road.

San Jose Sharks

Why they will make the Cup:

San Jose’s early-season thumping of the New York Rangers was a nice introduction to the speed and pace this team possesses. With Logan Couture healthy, the Sharks have two dynamic scoring lines, and their bottom-six forwards present a healthy dose of skill and energy too. The Sharks manufacture the most shots per game of any team in the NHL, and their goals per game and goals against are both in the top seven. They are a high-end faceoff team that attacks for all sixty minutes. Their goaltending can stymie a good opponent, and they are among the best teams at distributing the puck to their marksman.

The Sharks are probably the most creative team in the Western Conference in the variety of ways they attack the net. They are jam-packed with clever face-off plays and tricky misdirection, both of which yield a successful gaining of the zone on the entry. They have difference-makers at forward and defense, and excel on the transition. San Jose is a top-five puck possession team. Joe Pavelski ranks second among skaters in GVT. Marc-Edouard Vlasic demonstrated what a valuable defenseman he was in Sochi. From top to bottom, this team has impact players who play aggressively.

Why they will not make the Cup:

General Manager Doug Wilson has retooled this team to be quicker and have more finesse — but if they get matched up with physical teams like Los Angeles and St. Louis, will they be able to hold their own? In 2012 and 2013, the aforementioned were the two teams who knocked the Sharks out of the playoffs, and San Jose’s replacement of power players with speed players changes their dynamic.

The Sharks can forecheck and hem opponents in their own end, and they do have some edge with players like Brent Burns and Tommy Wingels, but heavy-forechecking clubs will try to wear down San Jose. The metrics show this team as good as any entering the playoffs, but some matchups will be more favorable for the Sharks than others. It seems unlikely they will avoid both the Blues and the Kings. If they draw only one of them on a long playoff run, that will improve their chances.

Chicago Blackhawks

Why they will make the Cup:

When the Blackhawks are playing well, they look awesome. There are few teams who can wallop the Blues in a prime-time game, but Chicago did last night – even with Patrick Kane leaving early because of injury. From a personnel standpoint, they probably have the best players. They can sling the puck around so quickly sometimes that their opponent ends up spinning like a centrifuge. The playoffs are typically incompatible with visually stimulating teams like Chicago, who push the pace and go for the pretty plays. Still, the Blackhawks are gushing with so much hockey aptitude at forward and defense that they can get away with it.

The Blackhawks are first in the NHL in goals per game, and that offensive firepower should not diminish when the constraining play of the playoffs stresses the precise and concise. Chicago is just below Los Angeles in Corsi and Fenwick, performing fantastically in five-on-five scoring. This team is second in shots per game, and fourth in shots against. In defenseman Duncan Keith, they have the likely Norris Trophy winner for this season. Forwards Patrick Sharp and Jonathan Toews are top-level, two-way forwards who rank five and six, respectively, in GVT. Patrick Kane is a savant offensively, and his ability to make the puck stick like gum to his blade allows his teammates to slash and dip in advantageous ways – a nightmare for the opposing defense. Chicago’s goaltending is not great, but Corey Crawford is good enough.

Why they will not make the Cup:

The Blackhawks were the best team from beginning to end last season – they won the Presidents’ Trophy and the Stanley Cup in the same year. But a noticeable difference between last season’s and this season’s club is that last year the Blackhawks were first in goals against. They dominated all facets of play, including their own end.

This season’s team has not accomplished that, with the Blackhawks being more prone to get hemmed in their own end. They are such a good passing and skating team that they can get sloppy, and their turnovers in critical quadrants of the rink can get them into trouble. When not playing at their peak, they can lose the one-on-one battles.

A divisive issue in hockey is how debilitating participation in the Olympics is to a team’s players when it comes to their Cup chances, and whether there are identifiable negative post-Olympics effects. So far, the evidence is inconclusive. Still, Chicago had ten participants in Sochi – tied for the most in the NHL.

Even a fleck of fatigue to one of the Blackhawks’ core players could be a death knell in the playoffs where there is no margin for error. People forget now, but Chicago was down 3-1 to Detroit in last season’s Western Conference semifinals before mounting an incredible comeback. A Cup team’s best players need to be at their best, and Chicago has had phenomenal luck in avoiding crippling injury over a marathon of games during the last 15 months. The injuries to Saad and Kane will only keep them out in the regular season.

Colorado Avalanche

Why they will make the Cup:

Colorado is a fast-growing power in the conference because of an excellent forward group who plays extremely fast. The Semyon Varlamov experiment has been a tremendous success — he is fifth in GVT among goaltenders. The Avalanche are second among Western Conference teams in ROW. They are sixth in the NHL in goals per game and ninth in five-on-five scoring. They have a deadly power play, led by mega-talents Matt Duchene, Nathan MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog, and Ryan O’Reilly. People keep waiting for them to falter, but they have won seven of their last ten games. Colorado is playing with house money – this season has already been an enormous success because it was so unexpected.

Why they will not make the Cup:

Colorado has two visible weaknesses: their Corsi and Fenwick are bottom-five-in-the-league bad, and their defense is wobbly. Tyson Barrie has played very well this season, and Erik Johnson and Jan Hejda have played above their skill level, but this back end likely will not fare well against the menacing skill and power forwards on other contenders. As Corey Pronman noted in his updated Rookie Rankings this week, this team has one of the best young cores in hockey. The Avalanche could maybe win a round, and with some luck even two, but a Cup final appearance is far-fetched.

Los Angeles Kings

Why they will make the Cup:

The Kings hog the puck to such a dramatic effect that they make the average opponent appear like facsimiles of the Edmonton Oilers. They are first in the NHL in Corsi and Fenwick, they deluge the opposite net with rubber, and they are first in the NHL in goals against. This is a team with one of the best two-way players (Anze Kopitar), arguably the best defenseman (Drew Doughty), and one of the biggest gamers (Jeff Carter). In Sochi, that trio performed exceptionally. Like St. Louis, this team is a pain in the butt to play against because they box out around the goal mouth, and are so combative to opposing puck carriers. They are tied for first in the NHL in faceoff win percentage, and their forwards, defensive corps, and goaltending are all top notch.

Why they will not make the Cup:

Justin Williams has been near the top of driving play and puck possession statistics all season, and really there could not be a more perfect player who epitomizes the good and the bad of the Kings. His boxcar statistics of 17 goals and 19 assists are fine, but Williams’ January-February-March totals in conventional statistics are not good. In 28 games, he accrued four goals and seven assists. And this guy is a pivotal player on one of their scoring lines!

His incredible 2.6 shooting percentage in January was begging for a gravitation towards his norm in February and March, and the numbers have shown that. Plus, Williams’ scoring drought has mirrored the team’s. This team’s major scoring issues are systemic with their forwards. They struggle like hell to put the puck in when it is around the net. Being able to convert on opportunities below the circles and in the slot is an invaluable skill, and the Kings’ difficulty in doing so is a real cause for concern.

Minnesota Wild

Why they will make the Cup:

The Minnesota Wild are somewhat similar to the Montreal Canadiens in that they have some players who are great in driving possession (Zach Parise, Mikko Koivu), but as a team, they are below the demarcation line for what is acceptable. Still, they have some juicy parts that make this team a handful. Ryan Suter plays half of an NHL game, and his presence on the ice is a consistent boon to Minnesota.

The Wild’s top-six forwards looks more formidable after the Matt Moulson deadline move, as the former 30-goal winger adds soft hands around the net. Jason Pominville is a sniper who performs his job well. Mikael Granlund has been playing terrific hockey since Sochi, and Charlie Coyle’s maturation is coming along nicely. The Wild are very good (8th) on five-on-five scoring and are stingy in their defense (tied for 4th). A run to the Cup is highly unlikely, but general manager Chuck Fletcher has assembled a very competitive squad that will be a difficult matchup for any favorite.

Why they will not make the Cup:

Their back end is better than people realize, and their scoring is getting better, but neither is a dominant strength. Additionally, their goaltending is a huge question mark. Goaltender Darcy Kuemper has performed well, but he is an unknown commodity. There is only a slim chance the Wild could make the Conference finals, and a miniscule chance they play for the Cup.

With all that said, Minnesota is in an ideological transition from the constricting offensive philosophy of the dump-and-chase to a more free-flowing transition game that emphasizes puck possession and territorial advantage from the zone entry. Elliotte Friedman touched on this in his 30 Thoughts column in November, and they look much more comfortable in it.

Phoenix Coyotes

Why they will make the Cup:

If Phoenix were to make a Cinderella run it would be behind an outstanding postseason by defensemen Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Keith Yandle while their surprisingly deep center position helped with timely goals and good defense (Martin Hanzal, Mike Ribeiro, and Antoine Vermette). Also, goaltender Mike Smith would have to stand on his head for three consecutive rounds.

Why they will not make the Cup:

The Coyotes do not have enough game-changers on offense, nor the depth to make a Cup run, although they have some good building blocks for the future. They are very good in some areas, middle-of-the-road in others, and downright bad in others still. But they do not have one facet that separates them from their peers. They are fighting with Dallas for the No. 8 spot right now. Getting into the playoffs, and advancing a round, would be a big achievement for the organization.

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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