This sports season, the guru of Grantland, Bill Simmons, bought Los Angeles Kings season tickets. He was under the impression the NBA wasn’t going to have a season, and he’s always had a passing interest in hockey (playoffs only, mind you), so he figured he’d chronicle his adventures along the path to true-blue hockey fandom. Er, true-black, white and silver, that is. And sometimes yellow. With purple.
Well, the NBA came back, and his NHL love affair cooled. But he still goes to some of the games apparently (I have no idea what percentage), and recently wrote a column called “Re-Throning the Kings” that included the following paragraph:
Once the NBA season started after Christmas, Kings season tickets started to seem less and less of a good idea — but not for the reasons you’d think. For over three months, the Kings were really, really, really boring to watch. They didn’t have a discernible identity — you wouldn’t call them old, young, good, bad, fast, tough, plodding, lazy, anything. They didn’t fight, didn’t bang bodies, didn’t score, didn’t do anything except play games that ended 1-0 or 2-1. Their best player? Goaltender Jonathan Quick. That’s all you need to know.
Hmm. Wow. That’s a really great point, actually. I’m annoyed that someone with a passing interest noticed that before me.
“…you wouldn’t call them old, young, good, bad, fast, tough, plodding, lazy, anything. They didn’t fight, didn’t bang bodies, didn’t score, didn’t do anything except play games that ended 1-0 or 2-1.”
That’s just about the best description I’ve heard of the Los Angeles Kings all year. Since the Jeff Carter-for-Jack Johnson trade, they are starting to come around a bit - they’re up to 28th in the NHL in goals-per-game from 30th, and they’ve scored 4+ goals in 10 of their last 18 games – but they still lack a certain “who are they?” It seems they may find it just in time to annoy the shit out of some team in the first round, but they still aren’t quite there yet.
The best teams in the League rarely have the “identity” issue. Let’s be honest – the 2010-2011 Stanley Cup champion Bruins were the most definable group in NHL since the Broadstreet Bullies, and they played the same way. They weren’t going around anyone, they were going through them.
Like most seasons, they five best teams in the NHL (via my personal opinion and nothing else) have pretty clearly defined identities. Let’s take a look at those:
#5 The Nashville Predators
Explanation: There’s a reason Predators’ head coach Barry Trotz’s name comes up every year for the Jack Adams – he almost always finds a way to field a competitive team despite the obvious lack of superstars. This isn’t as true this year, as Shea Weber and Ryan Suter have blossomed into legit superstars, but the point remains the same – this team does it the right way, and they do it together. Like the Coyotes, they do it without ego, and without second-guessing their leader. They know they can rely on each other.
Question: No team on this list deserves a “question” like Nashville – that description above doesn’t sound like the type of team that wants self-interested superstars, does it? So, will Alex Radulov upset the team dynamic? I’m a guy who thinks his addition is a good thing for the Preds, who could use a dynamic player, but there is a little part of me that wonders: if he’s not in the right position in the neutral zone, and his teammates feel like they can’t trust him, does this team get worse with his addition? A weak link in their chain could be trouble.
#4 The Vancouver Canucks
Identity: Skill and sandpaper
Explanation: Last season the Vancouver Canucks won the President’s Trophy, and won 15 playoff games, largely thanks to the ridiculous skill of their back-to-back Art Ross winning twins, great puck-moving D, and good goaltending. But one of the underrated aspects of this team is their pest factor. They’ve become one of the League’s most-hated teams with the likes of Alex Burrows, Max Lapierre, Zack Kassian, Kevin Bieksa, Ryan Kesler and on and on. They can rile teams up, and they can score at will (well, not right now, but usually).
Question: Both of the things that make up their identity require a lot of energy. After last year’s long season and 70-plus games this season, do their 30-plus year old offensive stars and their pests have enough juice to do it again?
#3 The New York Rangers
Identity: One-ness, family
Explanation: The Rangers remind me of the mob (which fits a NY-area team nicely), and I think that stems from their coach, John Tortorella – there’s a really feeling of “I’ve got your back, you’ve got mine” with this team. And, they have enough team skill, and certainly the goaltending to make a playoff push. When you mess with one guy on this team, you mess everybody, which a pretty decent formula in a seven game series. “Ahhh, I think maybe I’ll just mess with nobody.”
Question: The “family” concept is wonderful, I’m just curious if they can parlay that into enough offense to win. Marian Gaborik is a talented offensive player, I’m just not sure that he’s the type to hold up when opponents turn their focus to making his life a living hell, which is what happens in playoffs. They currently sit 11th in the NHL in goals-per-game – I’m not worried about them defensively, but it remains to be seen if they can put up enough goals to help out their Vezina-level keeper.
#2 The St. Louis Blues
Identity: Fully bought in, systematic
Explanation: This team doesn’t have a player in the top-70 in NHL scoring, has nobody near the top of the shots-per-game chart, and has no real superstar. Yet they’re leading the race to the President’s Trophy with 100 points because they pack it in together, play solid team defense, and get contributions from all over. It’s a reflection of their coach – they’ve all bought into the system, and know that if everybody is pulling in the same direction – which they are – they can accomplish something big.
Question: Let’s say the Blues draw the San Jose Sharks in the first round (very possible). Or the Los Angeles Kings (very possible). Are you confident they’re going to roll over either opponent? Pulling together is great, but without the true difference-making game-breaker up front, it can be tough to win the tight games (speaking of offense, the Blues are 19th in the NHL, averaging just over 2.5 goals-per-game). The Bruins proved you don’t need a true top-end guy to get it done, but throughout history, they’re the exception, not the rule.
#1 The Pittsburgh Penguins
Identity: Harlem Globetrotters
Explanation: I remember one of the first games I played in the AHL – it was against the Hartford Wolfpack, who then had PA Parenteau and a bunch of other names that are now in the NHL. It was one of the few times I remember thinking “I might not be good enough to play in this game.” That’s how teams look against the Penguins when they’re healthy and jamming – like minor leaguers. They’re the best team in the NHL by a sizable margin when they have Crosby, Malkin, Neal, Staal, Letang and crew going. That simply makes other teams look like the Washington Generals. Or worse, the Capitals (I kid, I kid – the Caps are gonna be tough in playoffs).
Question: Health, as always. There’s a reason we haven’t seen this team together very often. Staal is injury-prone, Malkin’s not immune to some struggles, Crosby and Letang have a combined four concussions this season, and playoffs aren’t easy. Here’s to hoping they can stay healthy.
If you find yourself thinking about your favourite team and the characteristics that define them, and it takes you a minute before you go….”Y’know, I’m not really sure what we do well,” they’re probably not Stanley Cup favourites. You can win the big prize a lot of different ways, but your best bet is to pick one and run with it. No one team can do everything.