Among major sports in North America, hockey appears to be the one that involves the most randomness, luck, or unpredictability. That can lead to some of the most exciting outcomes that sports can offer, like a Cinderella team defying expectations and shocking the world with a playoff run no one saw coming. Or it can lead to a good team getting poor results for half a season and being on the brink of blowing things up, only to turn it around in the second half and end up winning the Stanley Cup. Hello St. Louis Blues.
Most cases aren’t that extreme, but season over season we can expect some teams that underachieved despite having a good process to be rewarded for as the sample sizes of games get bigger. At the same time, others that overachieved are more likely to see the floor crumble from beneath them.
We’ll look at teams from both categories for the 2019-20 season, starting today with the ones who should see their results improve this season based on the way they played, and how they’ve changed.
Montreal’s play was one of the biggest surprises last season. Many expected them to be on the outside looking in to begin with, and then you had to factor in Shea Weber missing the first two months of the season. It wasn’t a great sign for potential success from the outset, but the Canadiens were an incredibly resilient club that boasted a shocking amount of depth and their new additions fit in seamlessly.
Under Claude Julien’s tutelage, the Canadiens were one of the most dominant even strength teams in the NHL last season, which allowed them to overcome a bumpy start from Carey Price and stay in the fight for a playoff spot to the very end.
They were undone and missed out in part due to the unusually stiff competition in the Eastern Conference, where the cutoff for a playoff spot was 98 points. However, the biggest reason they missed was their poor performance on the power play, where they ranked 30th in the league.
But, based on the shots they created on the man advantage, even if nothing at all changes they should be significantly better there, which would go a long way towards mitigating the expected drop off from the fact half their roster had career years at even strength in 2018-19.
The other thing working in their favour is that for the last five months of the regular season Price was the best goalie in the NHL and masked some defensive deficiencies that should be better with a healthy Weber and a sophomore Jesperi Kotkaniemi. If Price can maintain even 90 per cent of that performance level this season, good things will happen.
The Panthers should be better and the Blue Jackets worse, so it’ll still be tough for the Canadiens to squeak into the playoffs, but they have a very good chance. The Habs were one of only four teams last season to post positive differentials in every single shot quality and shot volume statistic at 5-on-5.
If there’s one thing that could bite the Canadiens this year, it’ll be controlling passes against in their own zone. Teams picked them apart last season at even strength and on special teams, which put a lot of pressure on their goaltending. Alleviating some of that should be a priority for the coaching staff.
It’s not exactly a daring pick anymore. The Hurricanes made the playoffs last season and pushed all the way to the Eastern Conference Final, but things continue to look up for a team that has been on the rise a bit slower than expected, but have still steadily improved each season.
Adding Jake Gardiner, Erik Haula, and Ryan Dzingel improves their forward depth, locking up Sebastian Aho at 77.6 per cent of Mitch Marner’s cost is a bargain, a full season of Nino Niederreiter and a sophomore Andrei Svechnikov is a lot to be excited about.
The outgoing Justin Faulk likely means more power play time for Dougie Hamilton, who was under-utilized last season and should be capable of lighting a fire for the Hurricanes with the man advantage.
Goaltending remains a question mark. Neither James Reimer or Petr Mrazek have been consistently strong performers the past few seasons, but the Hurricanes don’t give up much defensively and they’re used to not relying on their goaltending.
An area of concern is off the rush, where they didn’t manage to outpace their opponents last season. Those are the most dangerous chances at even strength, but I do wonder how much a stat like that can change simply due to a healthy Jordan Staal, not to mention that attacking off the rush happens to be an area of expertise for newly acquired Haula.
The expectations for the Hurricanes keep rising and outside of the crease they appear to be closer to contenders for the Cup than contenders for merely making the playoffs. Despite how well they did last season, their play still outpaced their goal differential by a significant margin, so they were actually unlucky. This is a scary team.
NEW YORK RANGERS
While the other two picks are, for the most part, driven by data from last season, this one isn’t backed up by data at all. To put it kindly, the New York Rangers were terrible last season.
The Rangers were awful and they weren’t particularly unlucky either. They were a little better at controlling plays at the net front than everything else, but they weren’t really good anywhere.
However, acquiring Artemi Panarin is a transformative move for the roster, and while I don’t think Jacob Trouba is that much better than the unfairly maligned Kevin Shattenkirk, he does play tougher minutes and will be utilized more effectively than Shattenkirk was. These are likely to be significant improvements.
There’s also the addition of Kaapo Kakko, a rookie with franchise forward-level talent, and Vitali Kravtsov adds more skill to the Rangers’ growing young core.
Do I think this edition of the Rangers will make the playoffs? No, I don’t see it as very likely at all. But I don’t believe they’ll be 20 points out by the end of the season either, unless they go crazy and trade Henrik Lundqvist.