Quest For The Stanley Cup: Breaking Down Weaknesses Of Western Conference Playoff Teams
BOSTON (CBS) – Yesterday we broke down the weaknesses of the Eastern Conference playoff teams, so it’s only fair that we turn our heads to the West and do the same. Problems for Western Conference teams may be harder to see on the surface, but every team has its flaws. There’s no such thing as a perfect hockey team.
St. Louis Blues
Weaknesses: Discipline, Inexperience
Discipline is an issue for the St. Louis Blues as they currently lead the league in misconduct penalties, while they remain only 14th in fighting majors. Gritty center David Backes has taken three misconduct penalties this season, and none were related to fighting. That means St. Louis’ captain has spent half an hour in the penalty box for simply being undisciplined. If this trend continues come playoff time, it could come back to haunt St. Louis. They can’t afford to have their best players watching from the sin bin.
Throughout their history, the Blues have made the playoffs 37 times and they’ve never hoisted Lord Stanley’s hardware. Bobby Orr flew the last time they made a Cup final in 1970. That was three years before Lynyrd Skynyrd released “Free Bird” for those keeping score at home. In more recent history, they haven’t been to an Western Conference final since the 2000-01 season, when current Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville was behind the bench for them. It’s safe to say that history isn’t exactly on St. Louis’ side.
Weaknesses: Injuries, 2013 Cup Fatigue
Superstar forward Patrick Kane left the ice during the second period of Wednesday’s tilt against the Blues with an apparent knee injury. Coach Quenneville reported that he’s expected to miss at least three weeks, and that might mean the remainder of the regular season. Kane was instrumental in the Blackhawks’ Stanley Cup run last season, taking home the Conn Smythe Trophy as the postseason’s most valuable player. Knee injuries tend to linger longer than three weeks. Even if he is back for the first game of the postseason, he may not be the same player if he’s not 100 percent or if he’s dealing with the rust of not playing in weeks.
Winning the Stanley Cup in back-to-back seasons has become nearly impossible in the modern NHL, no matter how loaded a team has been. Nobody has completed the feat in sixteen seasons, with the last team being Scotty Bowman’s 1997-98 Detroit Red Wings. Factors that seem to contribute are the short offseason, free agency and the grind of the postseason. Consider the stacked teams that haven’t been able to accomplish it: the 2001-02 Avalanche, Scott Stevens’ Devils, Sidney Crosby’s Penguins, etc. It’s not to say that the Blackhawks can’t make history, but there’s a reason that it’s become a rarity.
Weaknesses: Power Play, Inexperience
For the amount of talent on their roster, the Ducks have an inexplicably poor power play. They’re currently sitting at 21st in the NHL at converting on the man advantage, and that ranking falls to 25th when they’re on the road. Away from the Honda Center, Anaheim is only converting on 12.8 percent of their power plays. The only teams worse are Buffalo, Winnipeg, Carolina, Edmonton and Florida. That’s not exactly a group you want to be included in. Being able to capitalize on an opponent’s mistake is a big part of postseason success on the road, and the Ducks will have to improve their power play if they want this to be a possibility.
Because Anaheim’s core of veteran players has been the same for a number of years now, the common perception of the team is that they’ve been successful when the playoffs roll around. However, the Ducks haven’t been out of the first round since their 2008-09 campaign, and were eliminated by a flawed Red Wings team in the Western Conference quarterfinal last season. Head coach Bruce Boudreau also doesn’t exactly have a reputation as a great playoff coach, as he was at the helm for a perennially underachieving Washington team before he came to Anaheim. Some of the aura may be because Teemu Selanne is on the roster, but history has shown that the Finnish Flash can’t do it alone.
San Jose Sharks
Weaknesses: Physicality, Postseason Overtime
The Sharks currently sit 27th in the NHL in hits. They boast just two players in the top 100 in the league in hits, and Brad Stuart is their only defenseman in the top 300. Playoff hockey is different from the regular season in that it is a far more physical game, and with the way the Sharks roster is composed they’ll have to take their physicality to the next level to win a Stanley Cup.
The Sharks currently have the second-most points in the Western Conference, but only have the fourth-most ROW (regulation and overtime wins). What does that mean? The Sharks’ point total has been inflated by the shootout. Better than one out of every five San Jose wins this season has come from the shootout; they’ve recorded 10 wins this season in that fashion. There are no shootouts to bail a team out if they can’t put a win away in the playoffs.
Weaknesses: Shots On Goal, Youth At Forward
The Colorado Avalanche are currently 22nd in the NHL in shots per game, averaging 29.3 shots per contest. They’re 26th in the league in shots allowed, giving up 32.7 per game. This three-shot differential may appear nominal during the regular season when they’re playing inferior opponents, but come playoff time those three shots can be the difference between winning and losing. There’s a reason the old cliche says that, “Good things happen when you put the puck on net.”
Colorado boasts a lineup full of young offensive firepower. Among the four leading scorers, Matt Duchene is the elder statesman at the ripe old age of 23. He, Ryan O’Reilly, Gabriel Landeskog and rookie phenom Nathan McKinnon have racked up an impressive 234 points between them so far this season. However, they have a combined 12 games of postseason experience, accounting for one goal and three assists. It seems to be a process for young players to adapt to the postseason grind, and if teams can take advantage of that and shut down these four young guns, the Avs will have a tough time advancing.
Los Angeles Kings
Weaknesses: Scoring Goals, Penalties
To say the Kings have struggled to score this season would be an understatement. They’re 28th in the league in goals per game, averaging only 2.3 tallies per contest. Mike Richards has become the poster boy for their offensive underachievements, as the former 30-goal scorer has only potted nine this season in 70 games. If not for stellar goaltending from the group of Jonathan Quick, Martin Jones and formerly Ben Scrivens (all of whom have GAA under 2.08), they may be singing a different song in L.A.
The Kings have also hurt themselves by taking an excessive number of penalties. They’ve been shorthanded the third-most in the league, and while their penalty kill numbers aren’t bad, 29.5 percent of the goals L.A. has allowed have come when they’re a man down. That is by far the highest percentage in the league, and it’s evidence that defensively they’re playing great 5-on-5 hockey. If they can limit their infractions and stay at even strength, they’ll have a much better shot at making a run for the Cup.
Weaknesses: Goaltending, Secondary Scoring
The Wild ran into some terribly bad luck at the goaltender position this season. Josh Harding was the best goalie in the NHL through 29 starts before his MS forced him to the IR, and then backup Niklas Backstrom strained an abdominal muscle pretty seriously, forcing him out of the lineup for months. That’s left them with 23-year-old Darcy Kuemper and master of the universe Ilya Bryzgalov moving forward — not an ideal position for a team whose goaltending seemed to be their strength to start the season.
Minnesota’s secondary scoring has also been non-existent this season. The big dogs are carrying their share of the load, as Jason Pominville has been excellent and Zach Parise has come as advertised. But then there’s a significant drop-off after that, as nobody else on the roster has scored 14 goals with the team. The Wild might as well put out a missing-persons report on Dany Heatley at this point. The guy who has scored 50 goals more than once in his career is sitting pretty with 12 in 70 games. At age 33, his radical decline is a head-scratcher.
Weaknesses: Penalty Kill, Top-End Talent
The Coyotes’ penalty kill is 27th in the NHL, killing penalties at a 79.4 percent clip. Their struggles are even worse in Glendale, as only Toronto struggles more to kill penalties on home ice. It’d be one thing if they had an aggressive PK that was sacrificing a few goals to generate shorthanded chances, but they’re second-to-last in that category too, only notching three shorties all season. The Coyotes need to be able to kill penalties if they want to have any postseason success.
Phoenix is really a victim of circumstance when it comes to being managed poorly, but the fact remains that the Coyotes don’t have much top-end talent at all. When a defenseman is leading your team in points — albeit a talented one in Keith Yandle — it’s not a good sign. A top line of Martin Hanzel, Martin Erat and Radim Vrbata doesn’t exactly strike fear into the heart of any opponent.
Weaknesses: Goaltending, Winning Games
When a team goes out and gets Timmy “The Tuna” Thomas at the trade deadline, you know its goaltending situation is floundering. Kari Lehtonen isn’t a bad starter, but he’s not going to steal a playoff series for you, and that’s what Dallas needs given their make-up. It seemed like Stars management was aware of this when they traded for Thomas, but he’s been flat out bad since getting to the Lone Star State. In five starts with Dallas, the former Vezina winner has posted a GAA of 3.55 and a save percentage of .884.
At the end of the day, the Stars simply aren’t that good at winning hockey games. They’re sitting at 32-26-11 through 69 games, meaning they’ve won 32 games this season and lost 37, including OT and shootouts. When it’s come down to a shootout, they’ve only won three of eight games, and they’ve given up more goals than they’ve scored in 2013-14. They’re struggling during their stretch run right now, winning only five of their last 13 contests. If Dallas wants to jump up to the final wild card spot, they’re going to have to start winning some hockey games.
To run through the weaknesses of the Eastern Conference playoff teams, click here.
Christopher Mason is an intern at 98.5 The SportsHub