Projecting a tale of two seasons
Based on past winners, the Washington Capitals measure up for the Cup
Note: A version of this story and rankings appears in ESPN The Magazine's NHL Preview, part of the Boston Issue, on newsstands now.
Wearing khakis and a T-shirt on a May afternoon at the tony Congressional Country Club in Maryland, Brooks Laich realized pretty quickly that he was underdressed.
Fresh off the Capitals' latest postseason flameout, the free agent forward was meeting GM George McPhee for a lunch that would decide Laich's future. But first came a gift from the pro shop.
"He bought me a collared shirt," says Laich.
Then McPhee convinced him to stay.
The Capitals have earned a reputation the past few years for dominating the regular season without sniffing a championship. And they aren't alone. Only seven of the past 25 Presidents' Trophy winners (for best regular-season record) have lifted the Cup. History has shown that winning in the NHL postseason often requires totally different assets -- namely, having a full stock of players who block shots, grind out games and don't shrink in the clutch.
That's why, in July, scrapper Joel Ward, who scored just 10 regular-season goals but netted seven in the playoffs, got a four-year, $12 million deal to leave the Predators for Washington. And that was just one part of McPhee's master plan. The GM signed veterans Roman Hamrlik and Jeff Halpern from the Canadiens and ex-Panthers goaltender Tomas Vokoun. He also traded for winger Troy Brouwer, just a year removed from a Stanley Cup in Chicago.
The Capitals weren't the only team building for the playoffs. The perennially underachieving San Jose Sharks not only got a franchise defenseman in Brent Burns from the Wild but a boost of grit with Michal Handzus (Kings), Colin White (Devils) and Jim Vandermeer (Oilers). Meanwhile, the resurgent Rangers inked former Conn Smythe winner Brad Richards from the Dallas Stars, and the Kings added postseason-tested Mike Richards from the Flyers. "We consciously thought, How is this guy going to perform in the playoffs?" says Kings GM Dean Lombardi.
Laich, a seven-year vet whose deal is worth $27 million for six years, understands that mentality. Now the Caps' new outfit has him thinking big. "There's nothing else we can do to put ourselves in a better position to win the Stanley Cup," he says.
Of course, what looks good in the fall doesn't necessarily look good come spring. With that in mind, The Mag split this year's NHL preview ratings into two distinct camps: regular season and postseason.
We started by scraping the numbers of every post- lockout team to find the stats that correlate most closely to the past six Stanley Cup winners. That led to 10 categories: 1) Record vs. the top eight teams; 2) Goal differential per game; 3) Shot differential per game; 4) Goals per game; 5) Shots on goal per game; 6) Goals allowed per game; 7) Shots on goal allowed per game; 8) Save percentage; 9) Power play percentage; and 10) Penalty-kill percentage. We then assigned weights according to the benchmarks that matter more (like a .500 record or better against the NHL's top eight teams) versus ones that matter less (power play and penalty-kill percentages). Next, we used the projections of Hockey Prospectus author Tom Awad and AccuScore game simulations to determine the regular-season finish for each of the 30 NHL teams. Finally, we compared those projected numbers to our 10 indicators for Cup success. The better a team performed against those categories -- regardless of its predicted regular- season finish -- the better its odds of winning the Cup. (You can see the methodology in full, click here.)
The end result? Two-tiered findings that weed out which regular-season dynamos will wilt in the playoffs (Sabres, Blackhawks) and which ones will elevate their games in the postseason (Penguins, Bruins).
As for Laich and the Caps? As you can see below, it looks like McPhee's makeover may pay off.
Our rankings below project both the regular season finish (denoted numerically) and their postseason strength (orange bar) -- calculated as the sum of the benchmarks cleared. Each benchmark cleared, listed to the right of the power meter, is weighted based on its correlation to past Cup winners. The benchmarks are abbreviated as follows:
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