The 2019-20 NHL season is in flux, and even if we do get playoffs, the results will likely be drastically different than if we were proceeding with the normal schedule.
Fans from all markets miss watching their teams close out the season, but some teams are being burned worse by this pause than others, especially if things don’t calm down enough for the NHL to find a way to stage some kind of post-season.
Specifically, four teams stand out as clear Stanley Cup contenders above the rest. Here’s a breakdown of the strengths and weaknesses of each of those four teams.
On the face of it, the Bruins’ differentials don’t look as strong as the other teams here, barely above water from the slot at 5-vs-5 for example, but in the first half of the season when they were winning games left and right, their play wasn’t actually that strong. David Pastrnak’s goal scoring and the combination of Tuukka Rask and Jaroslav Halak really buoyed them while they slowly turned it on. Since about December, they’ve been the Bruins we’re used to seeing, one of the strongest teams in the league.
One of the Bruins’ biggest strengths is puck movement: they produce the fourth-most one-timers in the league both at even strength and in all situations. But as great as they are offensively, they’re better defensively. Only the Carolina Hurricanes have allowed fewer one-timers against from the slot, but the Hurricanes don’t have Rask and Halak. That dynamite goalie tandem is made even better by the Bruins allowing the third-fewest chances against in the league, bettered only by the Dallas Stars and Minnesota Wild.
As great as the Bruins are, they play a relatively low event game at 5-vs-5, and when they get frustrated, they tend to shoot from the perimeter a lot. Only the Los Angeles Kings take a higher per centage of their shot attempts from the perimeter than Boston at 67.4 per cent. If a team is able to take a quick lead and play a clean game that doesn’t give the Bruins’ second-ranked power play many opportunities, they can be their own worst enemies. The issue is getting a lead in the first place. Even if you do break through Boston’s stifling defence, you have to beat Rask or, in a less likely scenario, Halak. Not an easy feat.
Injuries have taken a chunk out of the Avalanche this season, you would think. But the results speak for themselves for this high-flying offensive team. The Avalanche may lack a little in the grit department compared to some of the other top-end teams, which is why their differentials from the inner slot aren’t as impressive as other areas, but the way they dominate the high slot is something to behold.
No team hits harder off the rush than the Avalanche do. Speed is the name of their game, and they’re not afraid to let their forwards get creative. Nathan MacKinnon is the only player who produces as much off the rush as Connor McDavid, and the Avs as a whole have scored 56 goals off the rush at 5-vs-5, 11 more than any other team. Despite controlling the puck the majority of the time, the Avs also lead the league in odd-man rushes at 5-vs-5 with 263. Interestingly, the Avs are just as excellent at defending plays off the rush, with rookie Cale Makar leading the league in the per cent of entry attempts against him that end with no scoring chance against, at 81 per cent. The young phenom is emblematic of the Avs as a whole: being an offensive dynamo with underrated defensive acumen.
If someone is going to beat the Avalanche in a seven-game series, odds are they do it by clogging the neutral zone and creating more puck battles in that area. The Avalanche are bottom-five in the league at winning puck battles in the neutral zone, and clogging things up there has the added benefit of hurting their quick-strike rush offence. The Avs still get tons of scoring chances off the cycle, but their conversion rate there is much lower, ranking 15th in the league.
Another Atlantic Division team, another slow start, but the Lightning have been the league’s hottest team in the second half. Maybe there was a crisis of confidence with everything going wrong for them in their sweep at the hands of the Columbus Blue Jackets last season, but whatever was holding them back earlier in the year isn’t doing so now.
The cycle. Only the Maple Leafs have produced more chances off the cycle than this Lightning team, but they have the elite defence and goaltending to take more advantage of their offence. The Lightning are only mid-range at creating controlled entries, but when they do get one they have the second-highest rate of turning one into a scoring chance off the rush at 26.5 per cent, beaten only by Pittsburgh. What makes the Lightning so dangerous isn’t so much any one area, but that they are so strong nearly across the board, so it’s tough to stop them.
For a team that boasts a lot of speed and some great transition players, the Lightning don’t attack off the rush much, ranking 13th in rush chances in the league. Oddly, they struggle even more defending the rush, allowing the sixth-most rush chances against of any team. If a team can play into that and attack with speed, it’s possible the Lightning would get upset again. Another avenue an opponent could take is to keep the game on special teams as much as possible, since the Lightning are far less dominant there.
Everything you can do, they can do better. I’ve talked about team speed a few times, and the Golden Knights exemplify what makes that such an advantage. With easily the best differentials of any team this season, the Golden Knights are flat out scary when their goaltenders can stop a puck. Marc-Andre Fleury’s subpar play this season resulted in a coaching change, but the addition of Robin Lehner was the big key to this team going from underwhelming results to Stanley Cup favourite.
Vegas is one of the league’s best defensive teams, essentially mirroring Boston while allowing fewer rush chances and forecheck chances against. The Golden Knights thrive on putting pressure on opposing puck carriers, causing their opponents to have the highest turnover rates in the league in the neutral zone and overall, and third-highest in the defensive zone. They’re second behind the Avalanche in chances off the rush, and have produced 102 more scoring chances at 5-vs-5 than the next best team. Vegas is the ideal combination of elite offence and elite defence that hits hard in every style of play.
If the Golden Knights decide to go with Fleury, goaltending is a question mark for them that could lose a series. Fleury has the potential to give great performances, but he has always been an erratic goaltender who can lose his space when he’s struggling. As we saw with Vegas last season, it only takes a couple minutes of panic to lose a series. The only other glaring weakness the Golden Knights have is a tendency to give up rebound chances, with only five teams giving up more than they have this season, all five of which are non-playoff teams. That could be a function of poor rebound control by their goalies, but it’s an area an opponent should look to exploit if the playoffs ever happen.