Thursday, March 25, 2010

Breaking Down the Playoff Chances: Western Conference

Welcome back to Center Ice Addict! Today, we're going to try something a little bit different. As you probably know, we usually break down the day's schedule in the NHL and tell you which games are worth watching. But taking a look at the schedule for today, there really isn't much of a point in doing that; of the 11 games on tap for today, only 1 (Phoenix @ Nashville) is between teams currently in playoff position. And as great as the hockey as been this year, there's something that's become increasingly obvious as the weeks go by. The playoff races are, to be quite frank, the worst we've seen in years.

For all the talk of parity in today's NHL, the fact is in both Conferences, most of the teams have little to no shot of making the playoffs. There is real separation heading into the final weeks of the regular season. In the West, 9th place Calgary sits 4 points behind Detroit, and with their respective schedules that will be a very difficult point differential to make up down the stretch. 10th place Dallas sits 9 points back, and Detroit has a game in hand on all the teams sitting 10th-14th. While all those teams are still *mathematically* in it, realistically they haven't got a shot in hell.

The East, for all its mediocrity compared to the West (those some 10th place Stars would be tied for 8th if they were in the Eastern Conference, and virtually everyone other than Columbus & Edmonton would still be in it in the East), isn't much better. 8th place Boston sits 3 points ahead of 9th place Atlanta, and 5 points ahead of the 10th place Rangers, with a game in hand on both. As a Ranger fan I do want to point out that our schedule, despite being road-heavy, is actually a lot easier than Boston's. If the Rangers can beat the Devils tonight, they have a real chance to go on a run against non-playoff teams: they'll play at the Maple Leafs, Islanders, Lightning, Panthers, Buffalo (the only playoff team here), then home to the Leafs again. If they can make hay on that schedule and win 5 of 6 or even run the table, then they may be able to make this race close again. Realistically, they're still out of it until they get it done, and Boston still has their fate in their own hands.

With all that said, the "parity" that we're seeing this year in the NHL has been replaced a bit by three real "tiers' of teams. You've got your Elite Tier, the teams at the top of the conferences who have put a ton of separation from everyone else (and one could argue Washington and their 108 points, which have already tied a franchise record with 9 games left to play, should be their own tier). Washington, Jersey, Pittsburgh, and Buffalo would be your elite teams in the East, with Chicago, San Jose, Vancouver, & shockingly Phoenix being the elite teams in the West. Then you have your Playoff Tier, the teams in each conference who aren't quite in striking distance of the elite teams, but who have put a great deal of separation between themselves and the non-playoff teams in each conference. Ottawa, Montreal, Philadelphia, and Boston comprise this tier in the East, while Los Angeles, Colorado, Nashville, and Detroit (maybe Calgary) comprise this tier in the West. Finally, you've got your non-playoff teams, which are everyone else.

This is what I like to call the New Parity in the NHL. Other than Washington, who like I said should be their own tier, in the East you've got the Pens, Devils, and Sabres all separated by just 1 point. In the West, Chicago, San Jose, Phoenix, and Vancouver are only separated by 4 points. Then when you get to the playoff teams, in the East 5th place Ottawa and 8th place Boston are only separated by 5 points, and in the West it's even tighter as 5th place LA and 8th place Detroit are only separated by 3 points. Finally, the non-playoff teams are just as tight: 2 points are all that separates 10th place Dallas and 13th place Anaheim in the West, while 5 points separate the 10th place Rangers and 14th place Islanders.

So while things are still tight in today's NHL, there's also a lot more separation than there are in years past, and that makes this year's playoff race seem a bit more, well, boring than usual. Like I said in my last blog, how excited can you really get for a race for 8th in the East when your "reward" is playing the most dominant regular-season team the NHL has seen in almost a decade? In the West, you have the opposite problem: all the teams in the playoffs right now seem so good and seem like they can knock off anyone, so when those eight teams just keep winning games, who could you really see dropping out of it so Calgary can get in?

But there is light at the end of this tunnel. The trade-off for having a less-interesting stretch drive than we might usually have is we may have one of the most exciting playoffs ever coming up in just a few short weeks. And that's saying something coming off one of the most exciting playoffs in almost two decades last year, but this year's has all the potential to top it. The East may not be as interesting as last year (it really looks like Washington's conference to lose, but we'll get more into that next time), but can you ever recall a time when the West was this wide open? You've got 4 teams atop the West all within 4 points of each other, and you've got an 8th place team in Detroit right now that NO ONE wants to play in the first-round. Any single one of these eight teams could win the Western conference.

So here's what we're going to do today. We're going to take a look at all of the teams currently in the playoffs, break down where they were expected to finish before the season started, and then break down what they could do in the playoffs. Each team will get a High and a Low, in another words where we think their potential is and where they could flame out. We'll list their records, overall, home, and away, and we'll also list their rankings among all 30 teams in the NHL in both offense & defense (goals for/goals against per game). Finally, we'll talk briefly about what their possible playoff match-ups and which ones would most benefit them. Alright folks, with all this intro out of the way, let's get started in the Western conference!

Western Conference

1st: Chicago Blackhawks
(46-19-7, 99 points, 27-7-3 at home, 19-12-4 away, 3rd in Offense, 4th in Defense)
Pre-Season Pick: Cup Favorite
High: Stanley Cup champions
Low: Second-round exit

The Blackhawks went into this season with the high expectations of winning their first Stanley Cup since 1961, and they've been right at the top of the Central division & Western conference standings since pretty much the season began. People had issue with their goaltending heading into the season, and some still do, but for the most part the duo of Huet & Niemi have gotten it done in the regular season. The big question heading into the post-season is who will be the starter, but the Hawks will at least be able to comfort themselves with the knowledge that if whoever they go with flames out, they've still got the other one to hand the ball to.

Even though the Blackhawks are currently matched-up with the Red Wings in the first round, I can't see them going out any earlier than the second. They're simply too good on both sides of the puck to get upset in the first round. A second round upset is possible if their goaltending, which just isn't playoff-tested, gives out on them. But realistically, this is probably as close as the West has to a favorite to make it to at least the Conference finals, and until someone knocks them off they have to be considered the favorite to win the West.

Possible playoff match-ups: Detroit, Nashville, Colorado
Wants to play: Colorado
Wants to avoid: Detroit
(The Hawks have had their problems with Nashville's trapping style over the years, but Detroit still has to be the most feared team to the Blackhawks and especially their fans. Despite Chicago's mastery over the Central this season, the Red Wings have already shown in recent weeks that, when healthy, they're still very capable of playing the Blackhawks evenly. I would still favorite the Hawks in any of these potential match-ups, including against the Wings, but there's no doubt they'd like to avoid facing Detroit in the first round if it's at all possible.)

2nd place: San Jose Sharks
(44-19-10, 98 points, 22-6-8 at home, 22-13-2 on the road, 4th in Offense, 9th in Defense)
Pre-Season Pick: ???
High Expectation: Conference Final
Low Expectation: First-round exit

The question marks are pretty much what everyone put down for the Sharks heading into the season. Every year this team looks great on paper, and then everyone year they find a way to flame out in the first or second round of the playoffs. So finally, almost no one picked them to win the Cup this year, saying they wouldn't be fooled again by San Jose, even after they retooled a lot of their roster, striped Marleau of the C, and acquired Dany Heatley from Ottawa. The Sharks at first did that usual San Jose domination of the regular-season, but they're recently coming off a six-game winless streak (their longest since November of 2005, and five straight losses came in regulation) that was just snapped this past week in Minnesota.

The problems with the Sharks are numerous: despite the fact that their leaders continue to bang the drum in interviews that "this isn't the same team as last year", who were their leaders last year? Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Rob Blake, Dan guessed it, they're all on the team again this year. The only difference is the aforementioned Heatley, who no one has ever confused with a clutch performer. So does changing around a bunch of role-players on the lower lines really mean this is a totally different team? I don't buy it.

There's an argument to be made that all these recent struggles is actually a good thing for a team that got it easy for most of the season, but I don't buy that, either. First of all, even though they didn't lose so many in a row last season, they had their fair share of struggles around this time last year, too, and look how well that worked out for them. Second of all, the big two problems among this team- lack of effort from backchecking and defensive-zone coverage amongst their "big guys" and sub-par/inconsistent goaltending from Nabakov (ask Russia how well he handled clutch games for them in the Olympics)- aren't just magically going to go away once the playoffs start. So that's why the farthest I can see this team going is the Conference final. I just don't see how, in a 7-game series, these guys can beat Chicago or Vancouver. Hell, I think I'd favor teams like Detroit, Phoenix, and LA against them, too. They could easily get bounced in the first-round again, and then I just have no idea where you go with this team. It might be time to blow this thing up, let Marleau walk in free-agency, and see if you can trade Jumbo Joe and let him be someone else's problem in the playoffs.

Possible playoff match-ups: Nashville, Colorado, Detroit
Wants to play: Nashville
Wants to avoid: Detroit
(Seeing a pattern here? No one wants to play the Red Wings in the first round. The Sharks have had, for the most part, an easy time with the Predators this season, including that five-goal 3rd period explosion at home. The Wings, on the other hand, have beaten up on the Sharks all season, even when they had a ton of people out with injuries. If the Wings can climb into 7th and face San Jose, we'll probably be looking at yet another first-round exit for the Sharks.)

3rd Place: Vancouver Canucks
(45-25-4, 94 points, 27-8-2 at home, 18-17-12 on the road, 2nd in offense, 7th in defense)
Pre-Season Pick: Dark Horse
High: Stanley Cup champions
Low: Second-round exit

Coming into the season I saw the Canucks as a classic dark horse team: a team that is not quite as strong as the real favorites, but should one or two of them get knocked out, is very capable of winning the West. Now, with less than 10 games to go in the regular season, I think they have to be upgraded to Cup favorites right alongside Chicago, and if you're looking for the reason why, it's their offense. No one would have predicted Vancouver, who has always been a good defensive team (and one could argue that 7th, as good as that is, is actually a little disappointing for the Canucks, who you'd probably expect to be in the top 5), would be the 2nd-best *offensive* team in the NHL. In fact, they have the best offense in the Western conference, ahead of the likes of Chicago & San Jose.

Their Achilles heel is their lackluster road record. If they can't turn that around in the post-season, well, they'd better hope they can climb into one of the top two seeds down the stretch or someone eliminates them for them, because they'll need home-ice throughout the playoffs. You also have to keep in mind that as great as Roberto Luongo has been in the regular season, he's yet to really get it done in the playoffs (remember last year's game 6 meltdown against Chicago?), and that's why I think they could still get knocked out in the second round. They should make it through the first round easily, however, and I'm personally placing bets on a Chicago-Vancouver re-match in the Western Conference finals, which would be a hell of a show.

Possible playoff match-ups: Colorado, Los Angeles, Nashville
Wants to play: Colorado
Wants to avoid: Nashville, I guess
(Of the teams sitting 5th-7th that Vancouver is most likely to play, they really haven't had any trouble with any of them this season. Whoever it is, the Canucks would be the heavy favorite.)

4th Place: Phoenix Coyotes
(46-23-5, 97 points, 26-10-2 at home, 20-13-3 on the road, 26th in Offense, 3rd in Defense)
Pre-Season Pick: Misses the playoffs
High: Conference Final
Low: First-round exit

If you honestly said you thought the Phoenix Coyotes would be sitting not just in fourth place, but comfortably in 4th place and only 1 point behind division-leading San Jose at this point in the season, you, sir, are a liar. This is a team that has taken everyone by surprise, and make no mistake about it, they are *the* story this year in the NHL.

Unfortunately for Phoenix, there will be a ton of issues that will probably prevent them from carrying that success over to the playoffs. The most obvious one is their 26th-ranked offense. Yes, they are really, really good defensively, but traditionally the teams that make it far in the playoffs are teams that are top 10 (or at the very least, top 15) in both categories, not 3rd in one and 26th in the other. The second issue is one that happens to a lot of Cinderella teams: I like to call it the "exhale" factor. In another words, this team played so far out of their minds to defy everyone and just make it into the post-season, there might be a bit of unconscious exhaling, so to speak. They make it to the playoffs and they think to themselves, okay, we made it. And then they exhale and relax a little bit, which naturally leads to you playing worse than you played when you were on that mission in the first place.

Now, if there's any coach who might be able to combat the "exhale factor", it's Dave Tippett, who is about as big of a lock to win the Jack Adams as I've ever seen in my lifetime. And that's why I'm still giving this team a chance to run all the way to the Conference final if they can get the right combination of goaltending and timely goals they've been getting all season. But this is a team that could also very easily go out in the first-round, and then the challenge will be not to turn into next season's version of the Columbus Blue Jackets or St. Louis Blues; that is, a team that made a huge run to the post-season they weren't supposed to make (albeit on a bigger scale for the 'Yotes) and then flames out next year under the newfound pressure of expecting to make it this time.

Possible playoff match-ups: LA, Colorado, Nashville
Wants to play: Colorado
Wants to avoid: LA
(Phoenix hasn't played too badly against any of these teams, but of the three, to me the team with the most dynamic offensive potential is the Kings. They're 2-2-1 against the Kings this year, not bad but not great, and since any first-round match-up will be them relying on their defense, you don't want to have to worry about shutting down all the Kings' weapons throughout an entire series.)

5th place: Los Angeles Kings
(42-24-6, 90 points, 21-12-3 at home, 21-12-3 on the road, 9th in Offense, 10th in Defense)
Pre-Season Pick: Playoff bubble
High: Dark Horse
Low: First-round exit

The Kings have followed the Chicago/Washington model to perfection: they've built from within with a ton of young players (Kopitar, Brown, Johnson, Doughty, Quick, Frolov, Simmonds....I could go on), added a few big pieces in free-agency and trades (Handzus, Smyth, Williams, Scuderi), and now after almost a decade out of the playoffs they're skipping the bubble and heading in right near the top of the Conference. If they can keep it up down the stretch and stay right around the 5th spot (or maybe even climb into 4th if Phoenix or San Jose falters), they have to be considered the West's dark horse pick to make it to the Cup finals.

The numbers back it up: the Kings have identical home and road records, meaning they can get it done at home or on the road if they're a lower seed in a series. Teams that are top 10 in both categories tend to get it done in the playoffs, and they're sitting right there at 9th in offense and 10th in defense. They can play pretty much any style of hockey: they have a ton of guys who love to hit and get gritty down in the corners (which is playoff hockey), and then they've got their skilled guys like Kopy & Frolov who can make a breathtaking move in the slot, too. They've got perhaps the best TEAM cycle-game of any team in the NHL (Vancouver has the Sedins that do it better, but LA has FOUR LINES that can cycle the puck down low like demons). They have to worry about that same "exhale factor" I talked about for Phoenix, but their run hasn't been quite the Cinderella story that Phoenix's has been. Yeah, they're maybe a year ahead of schedule according to some pundits, but this team was called "the sexy pick" to make the playoffs before the season started. In another words, they're out of nowhere, but not out of NOWHERE.

Potential playoff match-ups: Phoenix, Vancouver, San Jose
Wants to play: San Jose
Wants to avoid: Vancouver
(Some people will think I'm insane for saying the Kings want to play the Sharks, but hear me out here. If the Kings do in fact play San Jose in the first round, it will be because, barring a total meltdown by the Kings, the Sharks lost out the division to Phoenix and fell into that 4-5 hole with them. That's a wounded animal already. The Kings also play the exact kind of hockey that wins in the playoffs, and the exact kind of hockey the Sharks seem to shy away from too often: that is to say, gritty, dig-the-puck-out-of-the-corners hockey. They've got a good record against them in the regular season, including scoring 7 goals against them twice, once in their own building. Yeah, I'd favor the Kings in that match-up. The Canucks, on the other hand, have had the Kings' number all season, so avoiding falling into 6th and having to deal with them in the first-round is really, really important for them.)

6th place: Colorado Avalanche
(41-25-7, 89 points, 23-11-2 at home, 18-14-5 on the road, 6th in Offense, 11th in Defense)
Pre-season pick: Misses the playoffs
High: Second-round exit
Low: First-round exit

Avs fans will probably cry out that I'm not giving enough respect to their team, and they might have a case. They do have some pretty good numbers in the two stat categories; they just barely miss being top-10 in both of them. What stops and gives me concern for the Avalanche's playoff hopes are three things: the aforementioned "exhale factor" we talked about for the Coyotes, as the Avs were also picked to miss the playoffs and probably used that as motivation all season long. Secondly, the overwhelming youth of this team has to be a concern. So much of the Avs have never gotten in done in the playoffs before, including their netminder Craig Anderson. You could say the same about the Kings and their own netminder, but they have more of a veteran presence than the Avs do to go along with all that youth.

Finally, the Avs' road record is cause for great concern considering they will almost certainly not have home-ice advantage in the first round and throughout the playoffs. The Avs are only 4 games above .500 on the road, and that kind of play isn't good enough in a Conference loaded with teams who are much, much better road teams. I think that with some bounces they could win their first-round series, but I wouldn't favor them to do it in any stretch of the imagination, and I definitely can't see them getting any farther than the second round. Still a hell of a story, though.

Potential playoff match-ups: Vancouver, San Jose, Phoenix
Wants to play: San Jose
Wants to avoid: Vancouver
(Unfortunately for the Avs, the team they're currently slated to play in the first round is the Canucks, who are a dominating 4-1-0 against them this season. If they fall back into 7th with San Jose at 2nd or climb into 5th with the Sharks falling to 4th, that will be a much better match-up for them, as the Avs have played the Sharks well all-season, including an opening night win.)

7th Place: Nashville Predators
(42-27-5, 89 points, 21-13-2 at home, 21-14-3 on the road, 14th in Offense, 16th in Defense)
Pre-Season Pick: Playoff bubble, probably out of it
High: Second-round exit
Low: First-round exit

The Predators are another surprising story in a year full of them in the Western conference. This is a budget team that year after year manages to stay consistently around the bubble, and this year they're in even better shape than usual to make the playoffs after missing last year. The Preds' were always a good defensive team (and at 16th they're probably having a bit of a down year for that, oddly enough), but their 14th-ranked offense is nothing short of a huge shocker. They're getting contributions up-and-down their line-up, and their dynamic, high-scoring blueline is a big factor in their success.

Of the three teams that I'm picking to finish out of the playoffs by the second-round (Phoenix, Colorado, and the Preds), the Predators have probably the biggest chance of proving me wrong. They've got that dynamic back-end lead by Olympians Shea Weber (Canada) & Ryan Suter (US), they've got some of the most underrated goaltending in the league from both Pekka Rinne & Dan Ellis, and they've got some decent forwards who play gritty, playoff-style hockey (Arnott, Dumont, Tootoo, etc.) I still can't see them getting past the second round and it will be enough of a struggle to make it past the first, but who knows.

Potential playoff match-ups: San Jose, Chicago, Vancouver
Wants to play: San Jose
Wants to avoid: Chicago
(The Predators haven't played their Central rival Blackhawks very well at all this season, so they want to avoid that match-up if at all possible. They've had pretty good showings against both the Sharks & Canucks all season, but I'm still going with San Jose as their "want to play" just because I think all of the lower seeds probably want to play the Sharks if they can help it.)

8th place: Detroit Red Wings
(37-23-13, 87 points, 21-10-5 at home, 16-13-8 on the road, 15th in Offense, 8th in Defense)
Pre-Season Pick: Dark Horse
High: Conference final
Low: First-round exit

Ah yes, we finally make it to the elephant in the proverbial room that is the NHL playoffs. No one wants to play these Red Wings in the first-round. The only reason they're sitting so low in the West is because of their incredible streak of injuries earlier in the season: now that they're finally healthy again, they've been on an absolute tear since the Olympic break, to the tune of 8-2-1. But saying that this is the same team that went to the Cup finals two years in a row now is a little bit of an over exaggeration. The fact is, they're still missing key guys on offense (Hossa to the Hawks, Samuelssson to the Canucks, Hudler to the KHL) and they're going with a rookie in goal instead of Chris Osgood, whose game has finally appeared to fall off once and for all this season. They've made up for their decrease in offensive production by climbing up to having the 8th-best defense in the league, which is up significantly from a poor defensive season last year.

It's also worth pointing out that the Wings, along with the Penguins, have played more hockey than any other team in going to those back-to-back Cup Finals. While all those injuries may have actually helped the Red Wings by giving their key players some rest, all that still tends to add up, especially once you get back into the post-season grind. Along with their lackluster road record, that's why I can't see the Wings getting farther than the Conference final this year. They also have the potential to be eliminated in the first-round, like any other lower seed. Still, it won't be an easy out for any of the high seeds, by any stretch, and you can bet none of them will be happy to draw the Red Wings in the first round.

Potential playoff match-ups: Chicago, San Jose, Vancouver
Wants to play: San Jose
Wants to avoid: Chicago
(I honestly think Detroit would be comfortable playing any of these three teams in the first round, but of the three they've had their most success this season against the Sharks. Like I said before, even when they were suffering from all their injuries, they still went into San Jose and won. There's something about the Red Wings that just seem to scare the crap out of the Sharks. Of the other two, the Red Wings have a 2-2-1 record against Chicago, so that's probably not the best match-up for them. But don't get me wrong, no one in Chicago will be happy about that match-up should it come to fruition.)

Alright folks, that will *finally* do it for this very, very long blog. I'll be back at some point, maybe tonight or maybe tomorrow (since it's a 3-game schedule so once again not much of a point in doing a Today's Games to Watch) to break down the Eastern conference. Until then, try to enjoy the hockey we've got left and keep in mind, the playoffs are right around the corner!


  1. Wow, was this thorough! Thanks so much for taking the time to find out the records, analyze their season and postseason play, and break down exactly what may happen to them. I am always a little confused this time of year because the teams jostle around so much in the standings, and I can never keep track any given night of who needs to beat who to land in which spot, etc. This helps A LOT.
    I can't wait for the East! I'm interested to see your analysis of the weaker Conference. I think although Washington is a powerhouse, the other 7 teams will battle each other to the death to face the Caps and reach the Conf. Final--especially since they had to fight so hard to get in the playoffs in the first place.

  2. Sorry, that was obviously meant to be face the Caps IN the Conf. Final.