Stanley Cup Windows Part I: Chicago, St. Louis, and Los Angeles

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With the trade deadline fast approaching and the regular season nearly 75 percent finished, what is at stake for each franchise in the upcoming playoffs begins to materialize. Possessing star players is invaluable to achieving a long playoff run, and having depth is essential, but the salary cap puts a timeline on both.

And the bad news does not just start there. A poor matchup could squash a team despite incredible success in the regular season and in prior series, like the Boston Bruins experienced last postseason. An injury to a franchise player could capsize a team as it did for San Jose with Marc-Édouard Vlasic against the Kings in their first round matchup from 2013-14. And luck plays a huge part as well. Many teams are built to win this season, and franchises that see themselves as contenders in the future should be cognizant that a title window never lasts as long as an organization wishes.

In four games, a year’s worth of preparation can vanish. This is a results business, and anything less than hoisting the silver chalice is a failure. IH begins a multi-part series that looks at Cup windows and surveys each team’s readiness.

Chicago Blackhawks

What’s At Stake: If they win their third Stanley Cup in five seasons, this Chicago nucleus becomes iconic. The NHL would justifiably ramp up Chicago’s visibility to grandiose proportions. Furthermore, a Cup would pad the careers of Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews and burnish Marian Hossa’s HOF case. Even Corey Crawford would earn elevated status!

The Blackhawks are the favorites. And there is a loud buzzing reminding the organization that the best time to win the Cup is now. Johnny Oduya, Brandon Saad, Brad Richards, Michal Rozsival, David Rundblad, and Marcus Kruger all have expiring contracts that will need to be addressed (or dismissed) in the offseason. Anyone who thinks Oduya is expendable is insane. The time to win is now.

Team Digest: The Blackhawks are unique because they can fail for long stretches with their puck management and still come away with a victory. For Chicago, the reward of their finesse style of play can be an A-grade scoring chance. Ultimately, that overrides the risk of a costly turnover, and Crawford has a knack for making the big save to keep the score close. It is the way the Blackhawks prefer to operate. They are confident that more often than not, they have the skill to make high-end passes and space-creating dekes.

They take chances on breakouts too. The Blackhawks are not a team eager to chip the puck out and forfeit possession. They are going to pass it out, hopefully directly, always with the intention of gaining speed through the neutral zone. They can accomplish that because they are skilled, but also because they are self-assured. Duncan Keith, a two-time Norris Trophy winner, is guilty of some egregious turnovers in the Blackhawks’ zone because he has confidence that he can thread the puck through two guys to Patrick Kane. Keith believes he will successfully make that pass, and hell, why would you not want to give Kane as many rush opportunities as possible? More often than not, the pass connects with Kane and springs him for the opportunity on the transition.

Naturally, this leads to the way teams try to suppress the Blackhawks. If a team can clog the neutral zone and close passing lanes, and step up and challenge Chicago’s prominent puck-handlers, then this team can wrest the puck from Chicago. The only game where Chicago lost this season by more than three goals was against Winnipeg in a 5-1 defeat on December 23rd. In that game, the Jets’ executed this plan to perfection and the Blackhawks foundered.

The most interesting line schematically right now is that of Patrick Kane, Brad Richards, and Patrick Sharp because all three players are so aggressive in trying to generate scoring chances each shift. Kris Versteeg has seen time in Sharp’s role during recent games, but he does not alter the assertive attitude of the line.

More than any other line, Kane’s unit will drop all three forecheckers below the dots. And Duncan Keith is often the defenseman who is out with Kane’s line, which makes that unit exposed to an odd-man rush by the opponent if they can chip it by the second level of Blackhawks skaters. In the defensive zone, this line looks to push the tempo, which can result in a costly takeaway if an opponent anticipates where the pass is going and is sufficiently dogged on the puck-carrier.

Against Chicago, opponents need to find any edge they can get. The possession metrics, Team Hextally chart on war-on-ice, and basic statistics on tell the story of a team that records a ton of shots but has not experienced reasonable puck luck. The Blackhawks get to the prime real estate on the ice, but they haven’t seen the puck go in as frequently as expected. (This is especially true around the crease and low slot.)

Last season, the Rangers were one of the best possession teams in the NHL but had one of the worst shooting percentages. But in the playoffs, the puck luck shifted and they reached the Stanley Cup final. That same preliminary narrative is true with Chicago (and Winnipeg, for readers’ edification).

Chicago is a team that employs a pace-and-space game that emphasizes the stretch pass and plays with speed through the neutral zone. Even if the opponent tries to clog the neutral zone, Chicago can cycle and forecheck effectively. The Blackhawks have demonstrated that they can win the low-scoring, tight-checking game or the high-scoring, trading-chances track meet. Brute physicality does not make them timid. The blue print an opposing team needs is to make Chicago play more defense than offense, and spend too much time trying to exit the zone. Opponents also need to reduce Chicago’s passing and speed. If they can somewhat accomplish that, Chicago is left susceptible.

St. Louis Blues

What’s At Stake: If the playoffs started today, the St. Louis Blues would be subject to a rematch against the Blackhawks in the first round. And that would be unfortunate, because there is an argument to be made that the Blackhawks and Blues may be the two best teams in the Western Conference.

The Blues are a team built to win right now. Tarasenko needs a long-term contract and the goaltender of the future, Jake Allen, needs an extension. Barret Jackman, Ian Cole, and Chris Butler are all on expiring contracts. Jaden Schwartz will need a new long-term contract next summer, and St. Louis will have to make decisions on David Backes, Carl Gunnarsson, Jori Lehtera, and Dmitrij Jaskin.

But if the Blues can emerge from the West and win the Cup, a glossier outlook surfaces for Schwartz and Tarasenko. Alex Pietrangelo and Kevin Shattenkirk would further solidify their places among the top defensemen in the league, and it would be another achievement in a very stellar career for the veteran Jay Bouwemeester. Alexander Steen could win the Stanley Cup that his father never won.

Team Digest: Any playoff run is dependent on health, matchups, and luck. The ugly injury to Backes in last postseason’s first-round bloodbath against Chicago was a harsh reminder of that fact.

The Blues’ brass has constructed a roster with depth at forward and defense, as well as size, speed, and skill. The Blues manage the puck well, achieve zone exits quickly, and support well on their transitions. They can strike off the rush with speed, or they can slow it down after gaining the zone and find the weak-side trailer. They can stretch the ice on their passes or dish the puck in tight spaces. Their forecheck is effective and they like to get their defensemen involved. Versatility, adaptability, call it what you want, but St. Louis has demonstrated that they can win a hockey game in more than one way. St Louis’ possession metrics aren’t elite, but they qualify as very good. The Blues need to use their size and physicality to clear traffic and keep the sightlines clear for Brian Elliott. If they do so, he is a very capable goaltender.

The Blues have experienced robust shooting percentages in the high slot and outside the middle of the ice, but they also do a good job at collecting more shots in the higher regions of the home plate area, and in the off-slot, than the rest of the league, per war-on-ice. Conversely, they do a good job at limiting their opponents’ shots from the low slot and from the perimeter.

The Blues also have a very good coach in Ken Hitchcock who has seen it all and can devise clever game plans against formidable opponents. In the Blues’ game last Thursday, St. Louis recognized that the Bolts’ defensemen struggled to retrieve pucks and would experience lapses in their recognition and execution of on-the-fly defensive coverage. The Blues’ skaters would throw the puck into the boards behind the goal line, away from goaltender Ben Bishop, and force Tampa Bay into races for the puck. The ability to diagnose strengths, weaknesses, and areas that can be exploited is invaluable. Yet, there are still concerns. If Shattenkirk isn’t healthy, it is hard to see this team winning three rounds, no less four.

And there is the issue of shooting percentage. The Blues are eighth in even-strength shooting percentage, and if that dips in the playoffs they will need Elliott to help them win the 2-1 or 1-0 game. The Blues are built to do that, but the tight-checking, every-save-is-magnified contest needs the winning goaltender to at least match his adversaries’ performance. The Blues are depending on Elliott to be that guy.

Los Angeles Kings

What’s At Stake: The last team to win three Stanley Cups in four seasons was the Edmonton Oilers in 1987, 1988, and 1990. Obviously, no team has achieved this feat in the Salary Cap era, and those Oilers teams had Wayne Gretzky on two of three rosters and Mark Messier for all three Cup wins. So it is a massive deal that the Kings are even in this position.

Team Digest: Currently, the Kings are outside the playoff bubble. The 332 games that Los Angeles has played since the beginning of the 2011-12 season, their first Stanley Cup win, has visibly taken their toll on a team laden with veterans.

Los Angeles looked dead to rights as recently as February 5th after a third straight loss, this time to a very young Florida Panthers team. The season seemed to have slipped away. But the Kings are never dead! They have predictably ripped off five straight wins and beat Tampa Bay (twice), Calgary, and Washington in that stretch.

Schematically, the Kings are taking a more aggressive approach on the forecheck. The F2 and F3 can sink deeper, and the strong side defenseman is more prone to step up and try to hold the zone. Los Angeles will take shots from the perimeter because they are confident that their forward(s) driving the middle and toward the net will be able to create a better scoring chance on the rebound opportunity.

However, their ability to attack off the rush should not be discounted; they are still a ferocious team on the counterattack. They are adept at identifying the matchup that can be exploited: turning a 3-on-2 into a 2-on-1; shooting far side for a rebound by the linemate crashing the net; or slowing the rush down to open up a seam pass to the trailing skater. Los Angeles knows that a good counterattack works the puck into the middle of the ice, and the players off the puck work doggedly to help the puck-carrier accomplish that.

Losing Slava Voynov and Willie Mitchell, the Kings’ second pair on defense, was a traumatic blow to the defending champs, As Rob Vollman noted earlier this season in his excellent piece that explained what was wrong with the Kings, the reconfigured defensive group saw Los Angeles allowing more controlled entries (carry ins) than last season.

But that seems to be shifting of late. The Kings have been keeping tighter gaps. They are challenging opponents in the neutral zone and forcing dump-ins. They have soared up the standings in puck possession metrics. The zone exits have been quicker, the layers of puck support are there, and they are boxing their opponent out and establishing that territorial advantage. Since December, the Kings have outshot teams in 27 out of 32 games, and twice they tied for shots on goal.

But even royalty can experience bad fortune. The Kings are leading the NHL in OT/Shootout losses, which indicates that they have had bad luck. Still, these guys are a terror at five on five, and they seem to be getting better and better as the season progresses. Los Angeles won two of the last three Stanley Cups by embracing the role of the schoolyard bullies; that persona has begun to manifest itself and it should scare the hell out of the rest of the NHL.

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Posted in the Category of: Features


  1. Enjoy your stuff… keep it up


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