The 2014 NHL free agency has opened and started with a bang, as GMs across the league are looking to put the pieces in place for what they hope will be a Stanley Cup-worthy roster.
The ingredients needed to be a champion aren’t a guarded secret. Having depth down the middle at the center position, quality top-pairing defensemen, and an elite goaltender capable of stealing games will provide a team with their best chance to win. When you add in wingers that can finish — a la Patrick Kane or Marian Gaborik — a team will become near unstoppable.
Looking at the past five years, the Stanley Cup has been shared by three teams: the Chicago Blackhawks twice, the Los Angeles Kings twice and the Boston Bruins once. Had the Bruins won in 2013, the Cup would have still been shared between three teams. The following three tables show team metrics over the past five years and how the teams in the top five have been Stanley Cup finalists (in green borders) and winners (in red borders).
5-on-5 Corsi for percentage, measuring the best possession teams:
5-on-5 goals against, measuring team defense:
5-on-5 save percentage, measuring team defense and goaltending:
It’s clear that the Bruins, Blackhawks, and Kings have the ingredients to win — led by their depth at center. A clear indication of this were the nominations for this year’s Selke Trophy; centers Anze Kopitar, Jonathan Toews and the winner, Patrice Bergeron. All three teams have additional depth at center and boast complimentary wingers on the top lines to generate offensive production. Defense is also a strength with Drew Doughty, Zdeno Chara, and Duncan Keith being cornerstones of their blue line groupings. Finally, each team got performances from their goaltenders that kept them in game, a recent highlight being Jonathan Quick giving the Kings an opportunity to erase an all-but-insurmountable, 3-0 series deficit against the Sharks.
With the blueprint to be a champion pretty clear, let’s look at which teams have made the big step in the right direction through this year’s free agency.
The Stars made their splash with a trade to get Jason Spezza from the Ottawa Senators. This immediately adds center depth, as Spezza (66 points in 2013-14) will increase the production at the position after Tyler Seguin had a breakout season (37g, 47a). Spezza’s 52.1 Corsi for percentage may not have been a league leading stat, but he still contributes to positive puck possession.
The Stars also brought on another former Senator in Ales Hemsky, signing the winger to a three-year, $12 million deal. Hemsky and Spezza played together after the Senators acquired Hemsky from the Oilers last season. In 20 games with Ottawa, Hemsky posted 4-13-17 totals. The chemistry that Spezza and Hemsky started to build could continue with the Stars, making them markedly better than they were prior to free agency.
St. Louis Blues
The Blues have focused on their center depth, led by signing top center free agent Paul Stastny. In addition to Stastny, the Blues extended Patrik Berglund and signed 2008 draft pick Jori Lehterä. Stastny was a crucial part of the Colorado Avalanche’s turnaround from cellar-dwellers in 2012-13 to Central Division champs this past season. He scored 25 goals and added 35 assists during the regular season, and turned in a tremendous performance in the playoffs (10 points in seven games) alongside linemates Nathan MacKinnon and Gabriel Landeskog. The Blues have definitely taken a step forward to strengthen their center depth and can play around with lines to find excellent offensive chemistry.
The Blues have defensive depth with Alex Pietrangelo, Jay Bouwmeester and Kevin Shattenkirk all secured to contracts. The Blues were fourth in 5-on-5 goals against during the 2013-14 season, and their defense is in a good position to have another top performance next season. Their biggest question may be in net, where they chose to move away from trade-deadline acquisition Ryan Miller. Miller has signed with the Vancouver Canucks, giving primary responsibilities to Brian Elliott with Jake Allen currently in line to back him up.
Tampa Bay Lightning
Tampa’s highlight move was signing Anton Stralman to a five-year deal, immediately strengthening their blue line. They hope to give Ben Bishop, who was a Vezina Trophy finalist, some stronger play in front of him. The Lightning also re-signed Ryan Callahan, who was acquired from the Rangers when they traded Martin St. Louis, and extended center Alex Killorn. Finally, the Lightning looked to add some toughness and additional depth down the middle by signing ex-Ranger Brian Boyle. The Lightning will have a new look and aim to be more competitive in an Atlantic Division that the Boston Bruins dominated last season.
The Wild reeled in Thomas Vanek, who had been a name tied to the team for some time now. Vanek will reunite with longtime Sabres teammate Jason Pominville. The University of Minnesota alum will be expected to come in and produce offensively, which he didn’t have great success doing during the playoffs with the Canadiens. Other than signing Vanek, the Wild have been quiet, relying on Mikko Koivu to lead the center grouping and Ryan Suter to continue to be the cornerstone of the defense. The Wild put up an impressive performance in the playoffs last season, beating the Avs before losing a hard-fought battle against the Blackhawks in the second round. Getting additional scoring will help make them a better contender in a competitive Western Conference.
The Ducks were another team that strengthened their center group via trade, acquiring Ryan Kesler from the Canucks. They had to part with Nick Bonino in the deal, but the combination of Ryan Getzlaf and Kesler as top centers will make the Ducks a tough team to play. Kesler put up 25 goals and 18 assists on a Canucks team that struggled and failed to make the playoffs. The Ducks took the Kings to a Game 7 and it is clear that Anaheim is making it a point to strengthen their team to battle against the Kings next year.
Speaking of the Kings, they wasted no time in extending Gaborik, rewarding him for his excellent playoff performance with a seven-year contract. With the moves that happened in the Western Conference, it is clear that the Kings have been marked as the team to go after. Dallas and St. Louis have definitely put themselves in a position to be more competitive, while pieces like Vanek to Minnesota, James Neal to the Nashville Predators, and Jarome Iginla to the Avalanche show commitment from fringe teams to be prepared to generate more offense. The Blackhawks themselves acquired Brad Richards to add depth at center, as they prepare to extend Kane and Jonathan Toews, who are both entering the final year of their contracts. In the East, teams like the Florida Panthers looked to strengthen their forward lines by signing Dave Bolland and Jussi Jokinen, and the Islanders have taken steps to rebuild their entire team with moves impacting the forward group, defense and goaltending.
The need for center depth, cornerstone defensemen and strong goaltending has driven this year’s free agency. It remains to be seen which moves will prove to be successful, but there are teams that have made significant improvements in the first few days of free agency that’ll provide for some competitive divisional battles next season.