Here we go, trying to hit the Stanley Cup Finals prediction nail on the head again. Here's how I broke down the series in 2009,
2011. Not bad, huh?
I'll admit to having a tough time getting an answer out of my Magic Eight Ball this time around. My initial reaction to the series was that "Kings in six" would be the chalk pick, and sure enough, that's what the oddsmakers seemed to think, giving L.A. something like a 56-57% chance to win it. Delving into the matchup in more detail, I came away impressed by factors in the Devils favor: a better second-half and last-third season GVT (Goals Versus Threshold, i.e. goal difference) than even the red hot Kings, and ancient-history-as-it-is, two solid head-to-head wins (okay, one was a shootout) in October. Not to say that two games eight months ago with vastly different rosters has much predictive power, but at least you didn't see anything out of whack in the matchup. My mental pendulum swung to Devils in seven. Of course, I made sure to check with my "gold standard" for what cold, logical sabermetric thought would say on the matterthat's Rob Vollmanand I got Kings in seven (as I'd gotten Canucks in six from Rob last year). A good starting point.
And not that it really matters, but I looked around mainstream predictions, and saw a bunch of Kings in six, Kings in seven, Devils in six, and Devils in sevenwhich frankly is about right. The series features two very solid, hot, similar teams, so you'd figure that the steamrolling Kings would finally get a competitive series. That said, even when I felt strongest about picking New Jersey, I found it a little unsettling to see more pundits picking the Devils, given the fantastic postseason the Kings have had. Maybe they're looking to pick the (mild) upset.
All right, I've had to shake this darn thing a bunch of times, but I've finally gotten past "Reply hazy, try again", "Cannot predict now" and "Concentrate and ask again". I'm ready to break this thing down.
In our playoff preview format, we study the components of even strength offense versus defense using our Goals Versus Threshold metricwhich you'll see belowbut it's worth looking at possession proxies as well. Though many of the "possession darlings" like Vancouver, Detroit, Pittsburgh, Boston, Chicago, and St. Louis were eliminated early on (an apparent "black eye" to possession metrics), the effect of controlling the puck, and consequently, play, has been a major story for Los Angeles and New Jersey, particularly in the Conference Finals.
Looking at Fenwick Close numbers from Behind The Net as a better approximation of possession than raw shot differentials (which become skewed when a team has a significant lead, especially late in games), you see that Los Angeles was fourth (53.6%) and New Jersey 10th (51.1%) in the regular season, with each team has improving for the playoffsthe Kings to 54.8% against two strong possession teams (Canucks, Blues) and one poor possession team (Coyotes) and the Devils impressively all the way up to 57.2%
regardless of who the competition was.
New Jersey Offense vs. Los Angeles Defense
New Jersey Devils Offense: -2.2 GVT (Rank: 15th in NHL)
Los Angeles Kings Defense: +22.0 GVT (Rank: 2nd in NHL)
Los Angeles Kings Goaltending: +20.8 GVT (Rank: 4th in NHL)
Total: New Jersey Devils, -45.0 GVT
Remember how flat out awful New Jersey was at scoring during the brief tenure of John MacLean? The only two teams as bad or worse during in the post-Lockout era were this season's Minnesota Wild and the pre-Sutter, pre-Carter Kings of 2011-12. When you're hovering around 2.00 GF per game, you're some kind of wicked mix of awful and unlucky. So on one hand, it's impressive to see New Jersey as a league average offense now and instructive to how and why Los Angeles is all of a sudden a different team than their overall season numbers showbut more on L.A. in a moment.
At even strength, five Devils' regulars scored at more than 1.8 ESP/60, the mark of legit top-six forwards: Patrik Elias (2.38), Zach Parise (2.18), Petr Sykora (2.03), Ilya Kovalchuk (2.00), and Adam Henrique (1.81), with David Clarkson (1.66), Dainius Zubrus (1.61), and Alexei Ponikarovsky (1.41) in that next tier.
A few comments jump to mind regarding DeBoer's lineup decisions. First, Elias has been recently dropped to the nominal third line. It's essential for Elias (and Parise) to play key roles for the Devils. The vastly underrated Elias hasn't forgotten how to play. He incredibly scored nearly a point per game (0.96) during this, his age-35 season. He's a two-time Stanley Cup winner with the Devils, a true gamer. Andshifting to the second pointhe, Parise, and yes, Sykora were great against the Kings in the two October games. I understand how well the Devils have played with their current lineup, but in hindsight, DeBoer may rue bringing the offensive skills of Sykora into the series too late. We know how stingy the Kings defense and goaltending has beenregardless of the coach and the rosterso having an additional sniper in the lineup might give New Jersey a key advantage. Moving on, I'll mention that David Clarkson has taken the most hits in the postseason (62), 10 ahead of Bryce Salvador (52), for what that might be worth. A few extra days off should have helped everyone, though. And finally, it looks like Alex Ponikarovsky may begin the series on the Devils first/second line with Henrique and Kovalchuk. While Elias really belongs in the top six, the wily possession player does a nice job for New Jerseyso, not an awful choice.
And what can you say about the Kings defense? Winning the possession battle shows up in the team's Defensive GVT, thanks in part to fantastic two-way players like Anze Kopitar (6.9 DGVT) and Dustin Brown (6.6 DGVT), with shutdown veteran defensemen like Willie Mitchell (9.6 DGVT) and ex-Penguin Rob Scuderi (5.8 DGVT) adding another layer to the D. And at age 26, Jonathan Quick has broken out with his best season by far, his .929 save percentage easily trumping his previous best .918 from 2010-11. It will be very hard to score on the Kings, who made a habit of winning a bunch of 1-0 games this season.
Advantage: Los Angeles Kings
Los Angeles Offense vs. New Jersey Defense
Los Angeles Kings Offense: -30.2 GVT (Rank: 29th in NHL)
New Jersey Devils Defense: +19.9 GVT (Rank: 4th in NHL)
New Jersey Devils Goaltending: -4.8 GVT (Rank: 21st in NHL)
Total: Los Angeles Kings, -45.3 GVT
On the other side of the puck, things have changed since the first half of the season, but the overall effect is similar. As previously stated, L.A. has been a different team under Darryl Sutter and after the trade for Jeff Carter. Not only did they jettison possession-bleeding defenseman Jack Johnson to the Blue Jackets, but they've had more luck hitting twine
and you need to give Sutter credit for having the Kings playing smart hockey. The effect is that Los Angeles has been a league-average offense for the second half of the season, coming in at -0.7 GVT. It's been even better since Carter joined, as the Kings averaged 3.00 GF per game in the final 21 games with the ex-Flyer.
Looking at ESP/60, three Kings have been superior, Kopitar (2.25), playoff revelation Dwight King (2.11), and Justin Williams (2.10), with Dustin Brown (1.77), Jeff Carter (1.56), and Mike Richards (1.55) disappointingly under the 1.80 threshold.
But it's not just the Kings that improved. While New Jersey's defense kept shots on goal down throughout the entire season, Martin Brodeur
turned around a year-and-a-half funk by playing .920 goaltending for the second half of the season and the playoffs. And really, the future slam dunk Hall of Famer has been even better than that in the playoffs. A horrible performance on the penalty kill in the Florida series (part Brodeur, part Devils, part bad luck) masks a .944 even-strength save percentage, only fractionally behind the outstanding .947 of Jonathan Quick. And we know that Brodeur isn't going to crack. He might get beat, but he won't crack. While we don't have any flashing Roberto Luongo alarm lights going off about Quick, the fact is that he's unproven on the biggest stage.
Advantage: New Jersey Devils
New Jersey Power Play vs. Los Angeles Penalty Kill
New Jersey Devils Power Play: -7.2 GVT (Rank: 26th in NHL)
Los Angeles Kings Penalty Kill: +15.1 GVT (Rank: 4th in NHL)
Total: New Jersey Devils, -22.3 GVT
Well, that looks like a complete mismatch, not only considering the regular season numbers, but especially considering the fact that Los Angeles has scored as many short-handed goals (5) as they've given up on the power play.
New Jersey has some potential, though. Not only have they scored at an above-average 18.2% clip during their run to the Finals, but their Kovalchuk-led power play may be better than you think, with a better than average first power-play unit dragged down by a dismal second power-play unit during the regular season. In the small sample of a series, it's possible that we could see a few more Devils PP markers than commonly expected.
Advantage: Los Angeles Kings
Los Angeles Power Play vs. New Jersey Penalty Kill
Los Angeles Kings Power Play: +3.5 GVT (Rank: 8th in NHL)
New Jersey Devils Penalty Kill: +17.8 GVT (Rank: 1st in NHL)
Total: Los Angeles Kings, -15.3 GVT
Surprised to see that the Kings' power play was in the top third during the regular season? Hard to remember, given their dreadful 8.1% conversion rate for the playoffs. So yeah, this is a big potential X factor for the Finals, if L.A. can somehow go to school on the New Jersey penalty killI'm sure they've studied plenty of video on the Panthers series. Andcough, coughthey have a penchant for drawing penalties. That said, the overall numbers for Devils PK are fantastic.
Advantage: New Jersey Devils
Season Series Results
Eastern and Western Conference teams frequently meet only once per season, so it was interesting to have two games to go back and watch, albeit from October. Keep in mind, of course, that the rosters are vastly different. Johan Hedberg was in goal for five of the six periods (after a Brodeur shoulder injury), and Jonathan Bernier for three. Names like Rod Pelley, Brad Mills, Nick Palmieri, Mattias Tedenby, and Cam Janssen were in the Devils lineupnot to mention likely scratches like Adam Larsson, Petr Sykora, and Henrik Tallinderwhile Jack Johnson, Ethan Moreau, Kyle Clifford, Kevin Westgarth, and Trent Hunter were featured by the Kings. Simon Gagne, questionable for this series, scored the lone L.A. goal in a 2-1 shootout loss in New Jersey on October 13. Despite a surprising 3-0 Devils win at Staples Center on October 25though without Jonathan Quick in net and with star blueliner Drew Doughty on the shelf for L.A.the games were evenly played at the possession level.
Advantage: Essentially even
New Jersey Devils: 47.1% (Rank: 29th in NHL)
Los Angeles Kings: 51.5% (Rank: 7th in NHL)
Despite a lot of press that faceoff superiority gets in sabermetric circles, these are the two worst faceoff teams of the playoffs, at 48.2% for Los Angeles and 47.5% for New Jersey. If you're wondering, the Rangers ranked 14th at 48.4% and the Coyotes sixth at 51.4%.
Mike Richards has been the go-to man for the Kings in the playoffs, with the most draws and a 51.2% success rate, though Anze Kopitar was better in the regular season (53.8%) than in the small sample of the playoffs (46.8%). The best percentage, and most attempts, in the regular season went to Jarret Stoll (55.0%), who's been slightly worse than a coin flip thus far in the playoffs (49.6%). Carter is an above-average choice when used at center. The only Devils to have a substantial number of regular season attempts were Patrik Elias (44.1%) and Adam Henrique (48.8%), but remember that Travis Zajac only returned from his Achilles injury during the last handful of games. A generally superior two-way player, Zajac has taken the bulk of New Jersey's postseason draws, and with the most success (56.5%).
Advantage: Los Angeles Kings, by a hair
Injuries and Intangibles
Simon Gagne may return for the Kings and Henrik Tallinder for the Devils. Both are talented, older players, but the question is whether their inclusions, potentially rusty and out of condition, will disrupt the excellent chemistries of the teams. Gagne is worth a try as a sheltered PP specialist (two seasons removed from 5.68 PPP/60), to help try to shake the Kings funk on the man advantage.
I like the leadership on Devils, taking Parise and Elias over Brown and the ex-Flyers. Most of the recent Cup winners have had excellent player-leaders (Pronger, Lidstrom, Crosby, Toews, multiple Bruins). Both sides have Cup winners and playoff veterans, but I wouldn't discount Parise from that group. The Devils captain proved himself to be a good big game "playoff" competitor in the Olympics, especially with his tying goal in the dying seconds of the gold medal game.
I see two excellent coaches, so that's evenbut probably less important than the on-ice leadership.
I like that the Kings have a star defenseman in Doughty. Again, most of the recent Cup winners have that as well (Niedermeyer, Pronger, Lidstrom, Gonchar, Keith and Seabrook, Chara).
With a significant number of days off, and given only the moderate physicality of the teams, I don't believe that wear will be a huge factor. The effect of drawing penalties should be minimized, given the relatively ineffective power plays.
As previously stated, I like the experience of Brodeur over Quick in a long series. The Kings have been playing from ahead for the entire playoffsas a "bully" teamso I'll be interested to see if they can respond if put under a bit of pressure.
And I suppose I need to mention it. The last three Cup winners started play in Europe, so Los Angeles could make it four. No explanation for that one.
New Jersey Devils: +19.0 GVT (Rank: 9th in NHL)
Los Angeles Kings: +15.0 GVT (Rank: 11th in NHL)
Total GVT Difference: New Jersey Devils, +4.0 GVT
If you look at the second half of the season or the last third, both New Jersey and Los Angeles' rankings rise, with the Devils actually marginally ahead on GVT in either casethey were both top-five teams for the second half. That said, part of the Devils' regular season success was due to the shootout, so if you take that out, you get pretty much a dead heat.
So I'm back to what I've watched over the course of the postseason. Los Angeles beat a Presidents Trophy-winning Canucks squad (albeit without Cory Schneider and Daniel Sedin until they fell behind), an excellent but stumbling Blues team, and the possession-starved Coyotes. The Devils struggled to outlast the mediocre Panthers, beat up on the Jekyll and Hyde Flyers with Ilya Bryzgalov in net, and outclassed a worn-out Rangers team. Neither run is as impressive when you mention the caveats, but the Kings have still been the better team. Almost without exception, they've been dominant.
I still could see the series going either way, but most likely, L.A. will raise the Stanley Cup in the end. Quick, Kopitar, and Brown are all worthy candidates for the Conn Smythe.
Los Angeles Kings in six games
Timo Seppa is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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