By Joseph Yanarella
The season of hope for NHL teams is opening night, when the records are all the same and everyone has a shot, at least theoretically. That hope wanes at different points for every team but one. For everyone else, the holiday season is a time of joy and hope, so let’s have a little fun and see what each team would like to wake up to under their Christmas trees. Some teams have multiple wishes, but asking the Panthers to pick between better goaltending and more even-strength scoring would be like asking teenage me to pick between an Xbox or a PS3; I’d be ecstatic to get either one.
Anaheim Ducks: For the offence to continue
From the beginning of the season until the end of November, the Ducks scored 60 goals in 27 games, an average of barely more than two per contest and 29th in the league. In the month of December alone they’ve scored 32 in 10 games, won 7 of those last 10 and propelled themselves back into the playoff race. Injuries played a part in the Ducks early-season woes and with a relatively healthy roster they’re playing more like the team we thought they’d be. Playoff spots in the Pacific look ripe for the plucking, but the Ducks have to sustain this pace in order to capitalize on the opportunity.
Arizona Coyotes: Someone to step up
There was optimism abound even after a terrible season for the Coyotes after last year, predicated on the emergence of Clayton Keller, the second-half run, and the extension of OEL. This season is doing little to deliver on the promise, with the Coyotes again near the league’s basement. Clayton Keller is doing his part, leading the team in points and tied for the team lead in goals, but the rest of the team has to step up their production if the Coyotes want any hope of finishing outside the bottom-5.
Calgary Flames: Stay out of the box
The Flames have been a bit of a surprise this year, even with all of their young talent. Bringing in forwards James Neal and Elias Lindholm has allowed other guys to move down into more fitting spots in the lineup, and everyone is benefitting. While they’re scoring at a great pace – 126 goals, 3rd in the league – and not giving up too many – they’ve allowed the 8th fewest – their penalty differential sits at -58, second worst in the league. For what it’s worth, Nashville, Tampa, and Toronto all have similar penalty differentials, but only Nashville is penalized more than the Flames. Calgary gets their chances and capitalizes on them often, but keeping the oppositions’ to a minimum would behoove the Flames in their efforts to keep a hold on their lead in the Pacific.
Edmonton Oilers: A scoring winger
Kind of ironic that the team that traded away Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle needs a scoring winger now, isn’t it? No? I didn’t think so either. And before you say Alex Chiasson, do you really think they guy who’s never scored more than 13 in a year before this season, the same guy who’s shooting at a ridiculous 31.3% clip will keep it up? No? I didn’t think so either. Even with his ridiculous numbers, the Oilers still sit at 20th in goals-for. RNH has acquitted himself well as a top-6 winger, but wouldn’t it be terrifying if they could line him up behind McDavid and Draisaitl as a third-line center? Finding someone who can produce consistently on McDavid’s, Draisaitl’s, or preferably boths’, wing would give them that option while making the top-6 even more dangerous. Pete Chiarelli has two strikes with Milan Lucic and Jesse Puljujarvi failing to produce, a third – and second consecutive playoff miss – could cost him dearly.
Los Angeles Kings: A Lottery Pick
This one is a bit cynical, but hear me out. It’s no secret the Kings are a massive disappointment, but what could you expect from a team that got swept in the playoffs and then touted 35-year old Ilya Kovalchuk as their main offseason addition? Rob Blake tried like hell to add other pieces, but swung and missed on Max Pacioretty, John Tavares, Phil Kessel and Erik Karlsson. The Kings have their franchise center and defenseman, two of the most critical pieces to a champion, but lack impact talent elsewhere. They also lack the alluring future assets and cap-space to add that player via trade or free agency. The Coyotes showed us last year that even a ridiculous second-half run can be stymied by a poor start to the season. That leaves the draft as their best option, and they’re positioned well so far. It’s no certainty, but winning a lottery pick this year would position the Kings nicely in 2019 and beyond, a tantalizing prospect for a team looking to make the most of the twilights of two great careers.
San Jose Sharks: More Depth Scoring
The Sharks are hard to nitpick. They shoot and score plenty. Their special teams are fine. They find themselves in the top half of the league in almost every category that matters. They’ve not been dominant – aside from the PK – in any category, but they haven’t been bad in any category. They’ve been relatively healthy. They have a few players playing at or close to a point-per-game pace. They should once again be considered a threat come playoff time. The only real “issue” I see with the Sharks is that outside the top-6, there are opportunities for them to score more. Eric Karlsson and Brent Burns certainly aren’t depth guys, but recent history suggests they should score a little more, too. If they shore up one of the few weak aspects of their game, then there’s really blood in the water for opponents.
Vancouver Canucks: Keep playing the kids
This one is pretty simple. Everyone knows this is a bridge year for the Canucks as they build their team back to contention post-Sedin twins. The future in Vancouver is in their young talent, and the commitment to the kids is paying off. The Canucks’ five leading scorers are all 23 or younger, with electrifying rookie Elias Pettersson, - also known as Dekey Pete, or the Alien, or whatever you guys are calling him now – leading the way. A continued commitment to the youth movement could have the Canucks contending much sooner than anyone felt possible. It Pettersson keeps his tree up until summertime, he’ll probably find a Calder trophy sitting under it, with the hope he brings this franchise as the bow on top.
Vegas Golden Knights: Keep play out of the circles
While the magic of last season seems to have faded, the precipitous dropoff that many expected for the Knights hasn’t happened. They’re not lighting the league on fire, but they sit comfortably in the playoff picture despite extended injuries to key players like Max Pacioretty and Paul Stastny. One of the Vegas’ greatest strength’s from last year however, has turned into a weakness: their team save percentage of .901 sits near the bottom of the league. Looking at the numbers, it’s hard to see why. Their penalty kill is exceptional. They don’t give up many high-danger chances, 6th-fewest in the league to be exact. They play a highly disciplined and structured system under Gerard Gallant. But numbers don’t tell all. A look at the shot charts for Marc-Andre Fleury and Malcolm Subban tells a lot more, particularly that these two face a large number of shots from below, and in between the faceoff circles. Fleury in particular is peppered with shots from this region. The Knight’s paltry faceoff percentage is partially for blame for sure, but structure and discipline play a role as well. If Gallant can scheme his way out of this one, the Knights may surprise a few more people this year.
NHL.com, Fox Sports, Natural Stat Trick, NHL Injury Viz, and Sean Tierny’s Tableau – which is an amazing resource for NHL sabermetrics – were used for research for this article.