There’s no disputing that the Chicago Blackhawks are the best team in the West, if not the entire NHL, this season. They are 10 points ahead of the second-place Anaheim Ducks and lead the league in goal-differential by a wide margin. Starting the season with 24 straight games without a regulation loss tends to have that effect and the Blackhawks are currently on another streak, winning 6 straight and going 9 games without a regulation loss.
Everything’s going right for the Blackhawks: their offence, defence, and goaltending are among the best in the league. Astonishingly, they’ve had incredible success this season with a thoroughly mediocre powerplay. Considering the offensive talent they have at their disposal, I shudder to think of how good the Blackhawks could be in the playoffs if their powerplay starts clicking.
So, if the Blackhawks are so clearly the best team in the Western Conference, which team is second best? That question is a lot more difficult to answer.
The team with the second best record in the West is the Anaheim Ducks, who have 59 points and look set to comfortably win the Pacific Division. There’s a lot to like about the Ducks: Ryan Getzlaf is having a career year offensively after struggling last season, Francois Beauchemin has received Norris trophy buzz, and 30-year-old rookie Viktor Fasth has been outstanding in net.
The issue, however, is that their record looks like it might be a house of cards. The Ducks are currently 23rd in the league in Fenwick Close and 21st in Fenwick Tied. Basically, when it really matters, the Ducks are in the bottom third of the league when it comes to puck possession. They have been consistently out-shot at even-strength when the score is close and that isn’t a recipe for future success.
The Ducks also have the second highest PDO in the league, behind only the Toronto Maple Leafs, who are also likely to regress. Their even-strength shooting percentage is 10.20%, which is unsustainably high. The average team shooting percentage at even-strength is generally around 8.5% and, given a large enough sample, teams tend to finish pretty close to that mark.
It seems likely that the Ducks wouldn’t remain in second spot in the conference over a full 82-game season and I have to think that the Ducks might be in trouble in the playoffs once they face a stronger puck possession team.
The reigning Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings would seem to be an obvious choice. After all, they are essentially the same team that dominated the 2012 playoffs en route to the first Cup in franchise history. They also lead the league in both Fenwick Tied and Fenwick Close and are an even better puck possession team than they were last season.
The Kings have a potent offence, with Anze Kopitar leading the way. Jeff Carter is tied for third in the NHL in goalscoring with 24 goals. They also have a strong powerplay to back up their dominant even-strength play and a great defence corps anchored by Drew Doughty.
The Kings’ only weakness is, bafflingly, goaltending. Jonathan Quick, who was the runner-up for the Vezina Trophy last year, has had a woeful season. Astonishingly, he currently has a save percentage of .900, ranked 40th in the league among eligible goaltenders. If the Kings weren’t such a dominant puck possession team, Quick’s awful save percentage would be a much bigger story, but since the Kings allow the third least shots against per game, his struggles have not affected the team.
In a 7-game series against a tough opponent, however, Quick will have to be a lot better. The Kings do have Jonathan Bernier, who has had a very good season, in reserve in case Quick falters, but that’s likely a worst-case scenario for Kings fans.
Then there are the third-place Canucks, who are a hard team to judge thanks to missing Ryan Kesler for the bulk of the season. The addition of Derek Roy at the deadline and the return of Kesler from injury would seem to boost their centre depth to among the best in the league, but then there’s the issue of chemistry. The Canucks have just a few games to figure out their lines with the addition of two centres to the lineup and it’s up in the air how they’ll gel together.
Like Chicago, they’ve had a surprisingly terrible powerplay this season, contributing to their decidedly average goals-per-game. With questionable offensive production and a shaky defence that doesn’t seem to play as well on the ice as they look on paper, the Canucks have leaned hard on their goaltending this season. Fortunately for them, Cory Schneider has been lights out, while Roberto Luongo has been nearly as good.
That goaltending doesn’t make up for their issues elsewhere, however, and they’re a far cry from second best in the West.
I have no idea what to make of the Sharks: after a hot start, their offence faltered, going 12 straight games without scoring more than 2 goals. As a result, they’re 25th in the league in goals-per-game. Their defence and goaltending, however, have been superb and they boast one of the best penalty kills in the league. The Sharks are a strong puck possession team, but they haven’t shown enough consistency this season.
The Wild are better this season than they were last season, but they’re still not a strong puck possession team and feel like they’re still a couple seasons away from competing for the Cup. The Red Wings aren’t the same team without Nicklas Lidstrom and may lose their playoff spot to the Columbus Blue Jackets — let that sink in.
That leaves the St. Louis Blues, who are a big, physical team that looks to be made for playoff hockey, with many of their top offensive players also possessing size and a mean streak. Their top goalscorer, Chris Stewart, can punish you both physically and on the scoreboard and David Backes is a beast.
They also boast one of the most formidable defence corps in the league, adding Jordan Leopold and Jay Bouwmeester prior to the trade deadline to a group that already had Alex Pietrangelo, Kevin Shattenkirk, Roman Polak, and Barret Jackman.
Their biggest question mark is, like the Kings, in net. Last season, Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott were the best goaltending tandem in the NHL, winning the William M. Jennings trophy for the fewest goals against, allowing just 165 goals, the lowest total since the 2004-05 lockout. This season, they have both been awful, with both posting sub-.900 save percentages. With that said, Elliott is heating up at the right time, allowing just 3 goals against in his last 5 starts with 3 shutouts in that time.
If Elliott can continue his hot streak into the playoffs, the Blues will be a tough team to beat. Still, they’re not second best in the conference.
That spot has to go to the Kings. Despite Quick’s struggles in net this season, the Kings are still a dominant team at even-strength. Some may suggest that they’ll lack motivation after winning the Cup last season, but that intangible should balance out with the intangible of having the experience of knowing what it takes to win the Cup. Both are about as measurable as the other.