Thursday, August 22, 2013
Thursday Morning Cupcheck - Breakin’ Central 2: Division Boogaloo
Suddenly, the Stars' prospects for making the postseason look significantly better.
Good morning, hockey fans! Last week we took a time machine to the distant past to re-discover the worst over-35 free agent signings in Dallas Stars history. This week, rather then pen an open letter to the Anaheim Ducks about making the smartest offseason move of the summer, we're going to use the traditional mid-August hockey downtime to step into the much cooler kind of time machine -- the one that goes forward -- and use the twin powers of lazy ignorance and sweeping generalization in analyzing the Stars' new foes in the Central Division.
Because we're all scientific and sh*t, we're going to make this as fair and balanced as possible: that means picking and choosing advanced stats where it furthers our own biases, while ignoring said evidence when we want to get a really cheap potshot in.
Enemy #1: Chicago Blackhawks
2013 Results: 36-7-5, President's Trophy, Stanley Cup
Year Before That: 45-26-11, 4th place in the Central, first round flameout
Major Additions: Theo Peckham, Nikolai Khabibulin and wait--Nikolai Khabibulin?!?
Major Subtractions: Viktor Stalberg, Ray Emery
2013-14 Breakdown: This was the year that Brandon Saad got robbed of his rightful MVP vote. After all, this same middling meddle of Midwestern mediocrity added literally just one player to their roster last season --the aforementioned Saad-- and went from first-round fodder to Cup champs in a cakewalk. Certainly, there were other factors at work here: the maturation of home-grown players like Shaw, Stalberg and Bickell, as well as outlier career years from nearly every member of their core, particularly Kane, Toews and Crawford. The end result was that the same head coach that was a hair's breadth from getting fired throughout 2010-12 became, overnight, the same coach that won't get fired until 2015 at the earliest. Losing Stalberg hurt, but other than that this is the same squad that dominated every facet of the ice in the shortened season.
Best Case Scenario: Another walk in the park for the Blackhawks, especially now that they're in a considerably weaker division.
More Likely Scenario: The rash of injuries that failed to show up at all in 2013 will hit them doubly hard in 2014, particularly now that they're playing a "real" season. Man-games lost will translate into a tumble down the standings, as the team freefalls off the proverbial cliff and into second, perhaps even third, place. A third first-round no-show in four years caps off a massively disappointing season.
Enemy #2: Colorado Avalanche
2013 Results: 16-25-7, second-worst in the NHL
Year Before That: 41-35-6, third in the Northwest
Major Additions: Nathan MacKinnon, Alex Tanguay
Major Subtractions: Greg Zanon, David Jones, Milan Hejduk
2013-14 Breakdown: Despite the addition of MacKinnon, who is still a year or two away from rounding into form, the 2014 edition of the Avs seems geared specifically to ensure another top-three pick next summer. Defense wins championships, but a complete and utter lack of defense wins nothing but NBA scoring titles and Norris Trophies. When Erik Johnson is your top d-man, you should just consider yourself lucky enough to have played in the same division as Calgary so that nobody notices the suck. New suits Sakic and Roy's first season will be a highly entertaining one... for the other six teams in the league.
Best Case Scenario: MacKinnon emerges as The Next Crosby, O'Reilly starts playing for something other than a paycheck and a trade and Landeskog somehow avoids another season-ending injury. Between all that and Patrick Roy's "mystique," the Avs wildly overperform, just beating out the Preds to avoid the bottom of the division.
More Likely Scenario: Roy shines as a celebrity but sucks as a coach, which should be obvious after a disastrous first half in which the Avs all but lock up the #1 overall pick in the 2014 draft. Which they then lose to Calgary. MacKinnon puts up a respectable but undazzling 45 points in 70 games, but the defense continues to hemorrhage goals so it doesn't matter. A midseason trade of O'Reilly and McGinn for Ryan Miller does nothing other than confirm that both front offices have no idea what they're doing. Even the presence of the Jets can't save them from the bottom of the heap, causing Sakic to finally crack under pressure and admit in a press conference that he enjoys prancing around in women's underwear, before proceeding to do exactly that.
Enemy #3: Minnesota Wild
2013 Results: 26-19-3, 8th place in the West, first round cupcake
Year Before That: 35-36-11, 4th place in the Northwest
Major Additions: Matt Cooke, Keith Ballard, Nino Niederreiter
Major Subtractions: Devin Setoguchi, Matt Cullen, Cal Clutterbuck, Pierre-Marc Bouchard
2013-14 Breakdown: If last season proved anything, it's that Minnesota deserves to miss the playoffs for the next ten years. Few teams, if any, were more instrumental in a totally pointless lockout, and the end result was that an expensive team stacked with coveted free agents backed into the final playoff spot... over Columbus... before not bothering to show up at any point in the first round. Replacing Clutterbuck with Cooke was not an upgrade, and the loss of Cullen will hurt, though not as much as whatever injuries Niederreiter will invariably suffer that causes him to miss half the season. Again. This is a top-heavy team with one amazing forward line and one even more amazing d-pair, but with little depth for the other 70% of the game that needs to be played.
Best Case Scenario: Fresh off winning Olympic gold for their country, Parise and Suter use their mystical forces of will to drag the Wild, kicking and screaming, into the postseason... where they are rewarded for their hard work and solid effort with another first-round matchup against the Blackhawks.
More Likely Scenario: A victim of St. Paul's rowdy nightclub scene, Brodin's sophomore season is a Tyler Myers-esque dud, exposing Suter for the d-fraud he really is. The team implodes, Parise gets injured trying to beat out an icing against the Swiss, and the Wild settle into their comfortable role as Central Division doormats for the remainder of Parise/Suter's contract.
Enemy #4: Nashville Predators
2013 Results: 16-23-9, 2nd worst in Western Conference
Year Before That: 48-26-8, 2nd place in Central, almost swept by the Coyotes in the second round
Major Additions: Matt Cullen, Viktor Stalberg, Seth Jones, Eric Nystrom
Major Subtractions: Sergei Kostitsyn, Scott Hannan, Hal Gill
2013-14 Breakdown: While they certainly overpaid for their new additions, Nashville did make some pretty shrewd offseason signings in Cullen, Stalberg and Nystrom, while lucking into landing Jones at the draft. Bastards. Still, this is a last-place team juggling bottom-six chairs that, despite the presence of Shea Weber, was still the fourth-worst defense in the West last season and the rock-bottom last place team in the entire NHL when it came to offense. Barry Trotz has been coasting by on the wholly undeserved "more with less" tag now for the better part of two decades, but this year might finally be the one where people sit up, take notice that he can't coach his way out of a wet paper bag, and send him to the guillotine.
Best Case Scenario: Seth Jones and Filip Forsberg lead a hungry group of young players that pull Nashville out of the dank slave pits of the lottery and out onto the golden shores of mediocrity. A midseason trade for their old friend Jordin Tootoo proves that Tootoo is a big piece of the puzzle, rather than a big piece of sh*t.
More Likely Scenario: Weber's early season regressions continue, as the hulking blueliner drags his team down with him to Avs-like hopelessness. The team somehow manages to score even less than they did the year before, exposing Pekka Rinne for the overpriced mediocrity that he is. Trotz makes it to the end of the season because hey why not, but is seen selling pencils in the street this time next summer.
Enemy #5: St. Louis Blues
2013 Results: 29-17-2, 2nd place in Central, first round no-show
Year Before That: 49-22-11, 3rd best in the NHL, swept by an #8 seed in the second round
Major Additions: Magnus Paajarvi, Derek Roy, Maxim Lapierre
Major Subtractions: David Perron, Kris Russell
2013-14 Breakdown: The second most boring team in hockey once again gets a chance to put crazed, rabid fans into a coma-like stupor. Defense is not boring, but what the Blues do can hardly be called 'defense,' since it more closely resembles Phoenix or Nashville's five-goalie system than anything even remotely interesting. While this way of gaming the system results in plenty of close games that go to overtime, "playing not to lose" becomes a predictably horrible strategy come playoff time, as the post-Stars career of Ken Hitchcock, Trotz and Tippett have proven, time and time again.
Best Case Scenario: Taking advantage of a weak division and a swath of Blackhawks injuries, the Blues rocket to the top of not just the Central but also the entire NHL. Falling just short of the President's Trophy, the Blues are considered Stanley Cup favorites heading into their first-round matchup against an overmatched (insert struggling divisional patsy here). But the tables are turned when said doormat actually plays to win, rather than keep four guys back even when trailing by one, and the Blues once again are bounced early by a technically inferior team.
More Likely Scenario: Actually, that one sounds about right.
Enemy #6: Winnipeg Jets
2013 Results: 24-21-3, 3rd place in the Southeast
Year Before That: 37-35-10, 4th place in the Southeast
Major Additions: Devin Setoguchi, Michael Frolik
Major Subtractions: Ron Hainsey, Alex Burmistrov
2013-14 Breakdown: After locking up a solid-if-unspectacular core until 2525, the Jets seem primed to do, well, something. That is, until you consider that this was the same core group of players that failed to get them anywhere near the playoffs in the last two seasons, despite playing in the Southeast, hockey's version of a U8 Special-Ed T-Ball league. The Central, while weak, is not that weak, but while modest improvement should follow the Jets to their new digs, "modest improvement" is not exactly going to keep the fans from staying in their igloos to watch their .501 team.
Best Case Scenario: Breakout seasons for everyone!! Career years for Wheeler, Bogosian, Ladd, Kane, Little and somehow even Pavelec! Olli Jokinen becomes something other than the worst player in the worst division in hockey!! A 4th-place finish in the division!!
More Likely Scenario: While they won't suck the chrome off a fender like the Avs and Preds, the Jets will still manage to continue their annual tradition of solid regular season disappointment, followed by the loudest and shortest celebration in all of Canadian history when they barely squeak into the playoffs over the Wild, only to get swept by the Blues or Blackhawks in the first round. Still, even a sweep at this point would be a tremendous accomplishment.
That's it for this week's Cupcheck. Tune in next week when we discuss Throwing Quarters at the Wall: a More Manly Sport Than Staring at the Sun? The answer may surprise you.