And…Here We Go!

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In a just a few hours, the Toronto Maple Leafs and Ottawa Senators will kick off the NHL’s 100th season.

More than ever before, this season will be exemplified by a bevy of young guns under the employ of the Leafs, the Oilers, Flames and especially the Carolina Hurricanes.

I haven’t been around for all those seasons but have to say I’ve been a fan since before games were televised and, hopefully, will be around for a few more.

The game has changed tremendously over the decades and I have to say its current iteration featuring skill and speed as witnessed at the recent World Cup has me salivating for the upcoming games despite the insistence of coaching systems that are determined to slow the game to a crawl. Hopeful, the success of the Penguins last season will rub off on those who yearn to win by preaching safe, boring defensive hockey. We’ll soon see.

The Battle of Alberta

To me, as an almost life long Albertan, the greatest intrigue this season will be the relative ascendance of the two Alberta teams that are rising from the ashes of the past decade of ineptitude and failure.

Of course, the Edmonton Oilers have been re-building for almost an entire decade while the Calgary Flames have made a much quicker turnaround under Brian Burke and Brad Treleving.

Going into the season, it’s pretty easy to see that the renaissance in Calgary has been more successful despite the Oilers having a string of #1 picks and, while you can debate the relative merits of the forward corps on each team, the Flames are clearly better on the back end and, with even league average goaltending, should make an aggressive move up the standings.

But, I think it prudent to question whether the Oilers’ forward group is better than the Flames…I don’t think it is.

Here is the Flames’ announced forward group for tonight’s game:

I’ve seen a couple of Tweets today (from Oiler fans) suggesting that second line will get killed by the Oilers but, if we can agree the Oilers/Flames top lines are pretty much a saw off and remember that Brouwer, situationally, can move up to the top line, I don’t think the Oilers second line of Pouliot-Hopkins-Kassian is clearly superior.

In fact, I’m expecting Sam Bennett to break out in a big way this season after an 18G 18A season….I’m thinking 25G and 30A should be reasonable with the two gig wingers he’ll be playing with.

Brouwer should be good for at least 20 now that he’s getting second line minutes with skill and Tkachuk, who was superb in pre-season creates a huge net front presence that will also help Bennett.

Farther down the lineup, The Flames third group is built on two veterans who bring a very strong two way game, something that Maroon-Draisaitl-Puljujarvi will have a tough time with.

While fourth lines don’t make a huge difference in any game, The Flames group is clearly superior to Pitlick-Letestu-Slepshyev in experience.

The Back End

Calgary’s new coach is trying some unusual pairings for tonight’s game…splitting up Giordano, Brodie and Hamilton to carry Wideman, Engelland and newly-signed Niklas Grossman but I doubt that approach lasts all that long and he has the option of re-uniting his top D at any time.

What we really need to remember here is that the Flames D will be very much involved in the offensive side of the game, something the Oilers have little or no answer for.

In goal…Cam Talbot has a decent first season with the Oilers but he;s playing without a safety net while the Flames have added last season’s top goaltender by save percentage as well as a capable NHL quality backup.

How Brian Elliot adapts to a new team will be critical for the Flames this season but even if he performs at career average, the Flames should take a big step up the standings.

A Bold Prediction

I have the Calgary Flames going on a huge run this season…finishing second in the Pacific Division with the potential for a long playoff run.

I think both Anaheim and Los Angeles will falter somewhat allowing the Flames to move in behind the Sharks in second spot.

Which of the Ducks or Kings gets bumped will likely depend on luck and/or injury but the signs of a small regression are there.

Another Bold Prediction

The Edmonton Oilers are going into another season with dreadful depth in key positions and almost any injury could sink their season again.

If any of  McDavid, Eberle, Hopkins, Klefbom or Talbot missed any significant time due to injury, they just don’t have the horses to replace them.

Considering that pretty much every one of those players has a significant injury history, a prudent bettor wouldn’t count of them all being around all season.

I think you’ll see the Oilers and Canucks scrambling to stay out of last place in the Pacific Division and the Western Conference as all of Colorado, Arizona and Winnipeg finish ahead of them.

For the Canucks to prevail, they, like the Oilers, need everything to go right this season and, if experience teaches us anything, it seldom does.

So, for Shits and Giggles…

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WC

  1. Chicago
  2. Dallas
  3. Nashville
  4. St. Louis
  5. San Jose
  6. Calgary
  7. Minnesota
  8. Anaheim
  9. Winnipeg
  10. Los Angeles
  11. Colorado
  12. Arizona
  13. Vancouver
  14. Edmonton

You’re welcome

 

 

 

Predictive Value

So, here we are moving into the second round of the playoffs with, in my opinion very few surprises.

The Calgary Flames have to be the David to Anaheim’s Goliath but I’ve been telling you all season that the Flames should NOT be discounted.

I suspect they will have a tough time advancing to the 3rd round just based on Anaheim’s size and skill but, then again, folks who have been trashing Calgary for their inability to show well in the “advanced” stats don’t understand what Calgary is doing, how and why.

I thought it would be interesting to go back and take a look at what the Statzis were predicting this season based on “puck possession” and hold their feet to the fire a bit.

The following graph is lifted from an article on SportingCharts.com and you’ll see pretty quickly how poorly the author performed in predicting how the teams in the WC finished in league standings based on their possession metrics.

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The first thing you’ll notice is that almost half of the teams predicted to finish in the playoffs didn’t even make the post season.

The other striking errors are the Kings finishing 1st in the west and Minnesota finishing 13th.

And therein lies the major problem of using past performance to predict future success or failure using nothing more than a statistical approach without raising your eyes from your spreadsheet to rationally assess how the ever shifting lineups of teams are affected by new additions, injuries, progression by young players, coaching changes and a host of other things that are reflected in the “advanced” stats.

If you’ve been following along, you will know that I have been predicting big things for the Wild all the way back to last season and, despite an early season scare caused by dreadful, goaltending, the Wild have been the best team in the NHL for months.

My being bullish on the Wild has been based on roster makeup, systems execution and coaching.I could go on at great length about those things but I’m going to address them a little later in this post when we look at some predictions for the second round.

Before leaving the Corsi/Fenwick debate behind, I’d like to remind you that there are many devotees of “advanced” stats that will tell you that those metrics can accurately predict who will win in the playoffs and win a championship. Really?

Here are the Top 16 CF% teams in the league from the 2014/15 season…let’s see how predictive of post season success that metric has been:

LAK 55.4

CHI 53.6

DET 53.5

TBL 53.0

PIT 52.8

NYI 52.7

NSH 52.7

WPG 52.5

CAR 52.5

DAL 52.1

STL 51.8

BOS 51.7

SJS 51.5

WSH 51.4

FLA 51.3

MIN 51.0

I think you would have to agree that using “possession ” stats to predict playoff success is pretty much useless and while any fool would agree that having the puck is better than not having the puck, there are so many other moving parts in play, that ignoring them leads to embarrassing moments like the article linked to above.

I’m sure the author was all agog that he was on to something brilliantly insightful but Maggie the Monkey could not have done a poorer job.

So, what about the Flames?

Why have they been so successful despite being 28th this season in CF%?

If you watched the Flames/Canucks series with a critical eye, you will have seen exactly the factors that can overcome or ignore the current “possession” fad a lead a team to win more games that they lose.

Bob Hartley (who should win the Jack Adams trophy hands down) has designed his systems play around the personnel he has and has and has received total buy in from his team.

There are several facets to what he is preaching:

1) Relentless forechecking and puck retrieval.

2) Pounding the opposition D in their own end to wear them down.

3) Keeping opposition shots to the outside

4) Blocking shots

5) A mobile D that turns pucks the other way with accuracy and speed.

5) Speed through the neutral zone

6) Crash the net.

There’s nothing magical about his formula and it only works if executed relentlessly but it doesn’t lead to Corsi success…it overcomes that metric.

Interestingly enough, I think you’ll see that Anaheim plays a very similar style although their personnel are bigger and more experienced.

That likely gives the Ducks the advantage in the series between the 17th and the 28th ranked CF% teams but I expect the Flames won’t go quietly and could upset the Ducks if they outwork them and execute better.

I’ve likely watched about 50-55 Flames games this season and I can honestly say that I have never seen the team take even ONE shift off.

We’re about to find out if they want it more than the Ducks.

Nostradamus Redux

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Before the 2014/15 seasons began, I went out on a limb and predicted where the WC teams would finish in the standings and, of course, I had some hits and misses.

I had these as the teams that would make the post season…in this order:

STL

CHI

ANA

DAL

LAK

COL

MIN

VCR

Well, I got only 5 out of 8 right but I certainly over-rated Colorado thinking their your stars would be enough to overcome their defensive deficiencies but, as a group, they underperformed and their season was done.

I believe, if Dallas had received even average goaltending, they would have made the playoffs but one very hopeful sign for the Stars is their 7-3-0 record in the last 10 games. Jim Nill, with a ton of cap space available should be able to shore up his D and G positions and the Stars should be very dangerous next season.

The Kings were sunk, very simply, by an abysmal record in 1 goal games and shootouts (2-8). Reports have surfaced that there is tension between the King’s players and coach Sutter so I think we may see some changes there in the offseason. It would be very amusing if the Kings fired Sutter and replaced him with Todd McClellan if he gets fired in San Jose.

I obviously under-rated the Winnipeg Jets (who didn’t?) but, after having watched them this season, I doubt I or anyone else is going to do that again. Their a big, talented, hardworking team with a bevy of youngsters either breaking in or just a few months away.

No one I saw predicted Calgary would make the playoffs so I’m going to give myself a partial pass for missing that pick because I did manage to frame their issues:

The Calgary Flames

The Flames, as everyone knows, are rebuilding and they are doing it the right way. They’ve shored up their goaltending with Jonas Hiller, they have a legitimate top pairing on D and they now have tremendous centre depth if their two recent #1 picks develop according to their pedigree.

They lost some goal scoring with the departure of Mike Cammalleri but I expect Johnny Gaudreau, Mason Raymond and Sam Bennett will more than compensate.

Sean Monahan produced a 30+ goal season and Gaudreau was even better than advertised but the big surprise was the play of Jiri Hudler with the two youngsters, As you know, Bennet was derailed by shoulder surgery so expect the Flames to look pretty good going into next season if they can wisely use their bounty of cap space to add a couple more big pieces.

I said this about the Nashville Predators:

The Nashville Predators

It’s really hard to know what to expect from the Predators. They have added a lot of potential goal scoring in James Neal and Mike Ribiero as well as a new offensively minded coach.

Their defense and goaltending are stellar and their centre depth is something else so there is potential for them to return to the playoffs.

This likely comes down to whether or not they can adapt to a totally new style of playing so they are a team that could surprise.

Well, they did surprise to an extent but I’m not sure they are as good as their regular season record would seem to indicate.

At the bottom of the heap, here is how I called things:

 The Edmonton Oilers

The Oilers seem to have improved somewhat but there are still tremendous holes in the lineup (what else is new?)

Their centre depth remains the worst in the league, they don’t have ONE top pairing defenseman and their goaltending is questionable.

At centre, they are a RNH injury away from disaster, it appears they will play Nikita Nikitin as a top pairing D (yikes) and have decided Ben Scrivens is as least an average NHL goaltender. Scrivens was very good early in his Oiler career but was very pedestrian as the season wore on.

The Oilers don’t score much and they are dreadful defensively (although they should improve somewhat) and the addition of some mid level defensemen, some cast off wingers and a couple of more rookies are NOT the answer.

Man…I called that one perfectly…except for the part where I said “improved somewhat”. They were actually worse.

 The Arizona Coyotes

There is word tonight that the NHL is trying to find a new buyer for the Coyotes. Source

The current owners reportedly lost $24 million last season (who could have seen that coming?) and need to bail.

At some point, the off ice activity has to have an effect on the on ice performance and I’d guess that it going to happen this season.

The Coyotes lost their two top scoring forwards in Mike Ribiero and Radim Vrbata and replaced them with Martin Erat and Kyle Wellwood Sam Gagner.

The previously defensive stalwart Coyotes sprung some leaks last season and unless Mike Smith has a Vezina level performance this season, this team is doomed.

Nailed it again.