5 for fighting back: Turnaround teams in the NHL playoffs
Montreal, Toronto among most improved
When it became apparent that there would be a 48-game season, NHL fans were prepared for some quirks and strange occurrences. At the risk of trotting out the sport media cliché "Could anyone have predicted …", well, could anyone have predicted five of the seven worst teams in points from the 2011-12 season making the playoffs?
Heading into the final night, there was a chance that both Minnesota and Columbus could have qualified to make it six of seven, but playoff staple Detroit negated that possibility with a victory. The Jackets didn't quite fit the playoff bill this time around.
The only team from last year's group of seven worst that was not really a factor in the final two weeks of the 2013 season? Sorry, Oilers fans.
It remains to be seen how many of these teams are truly on the upswing, or if the change in fortune truly is the product of a unique campaign.
At any rate, it's something to ponder, especially for the teams entered in this week's NHL draft lottery. These five turnarounds can only inspire hope.
Here's a look at the teams back in the playoffs after experiencing doldrums last season, in terms of how they did it, who keyed the turnaround and the scope of their improvement. We've extrapolated their points-per-game averages over an 82-game season to mark their improvement, which is probably bogus statistically — it's unlikely all five would have maintained their standard with 34 more games — but more interesting, editorially speaking.
From smallest to biggest improvement:
- From: 35-36-11 to 26-19-3.
- Improvement: 13 points.
The Wild went 13-4 from Feb. 26 to the end of March, allowing them to absorb a string of April games that nearly resulted in a choke job. Let's call it like it is: The Northwest was the weakest division in the conference, and the club took advantage, going 12-5-1. Minnesota went from being 22nd in road performance to 12th this year, with the second best road power play. They were one of just two teams in the league not to allow a short-handed goal. The only team of this list of five who ranked in the top 10 in terms of holding leads at the 40-minute mark.
The returnees: Mikko Koivu was solid as always, Cal Clutterbuck finally gets to toil in a playoff game after all his body's been through, and most importantly, Niklas Backstrom was dependable, earning more wins than in the past two seasons despite fewer games to work with.
New blood: But really, this year was about reaping the results of an infusion of talent marked by huge contracts to Zach Parise and Ryan Suter, a Norris Trophy candidate. Rookies Jonas Brodin (D) and Charlie Coyle (F) helped improve depth, and Jason Pominville had some key games after coming over at the trade deadline.
New York Islanders
- From: 34-37-11 to 24-17-7.
- Improvement: 15 points.
New York came on like gangbusters, with a 16-6-5 mark over the final two months. They boasted a winning road record in each month. The Islanders feasted on the Southeast, going 10-2-3. They were seventh in goals per game, in the top 10 for winning percentage when scoring first, and 11th on the power play. Along with the Wild, the only ones in the NHL not to give up a short-handed goal. The club also made a discernible gain in cutting down goals against.
Returnees: John Tavares was a more deadly marksman, with just three fewer goals and three fewer game winners than in a full 82-game campaign in 2012-13. He actually had two more power-play goals, and his accuracy shot up seven percentage points. It's among the reasons many consider him a Hart Trophy candidate. Evgeni Nabokov probably won't get Vezina consideration, but he should. The Isles got points in about 75 per cent of his starts, and his stats were impressive enough. More importantly, remember that in each of the past two seasons, through injuries and ineptitude, New York used five different goalies. Just knowing there was a proven NHL goalie in the crease helped his teammates greatly.
New blood: As pointed out last week by Anatoily Metter at The Hockey Writers, the often-maligned Garth Snow has been adept at waiver wire finds and decidedly non-flashy additions. Brian Strait, Thomas Hickey and Keith Aucoin are among the former group (Nabokov and Michael Grabner came this route in years past), while Lubomir Visnovsky and Brad Boyes have fit in after potentially being at the end of their NHL careers.
Toronto Maple Leafs
- From: 35-37-10 to 26-17-5.
- Improvement: 17 points.
While the two other East teams on the list victimized the Southeast, the Leafs instead improved their lot by no longer being doormats for the best of the Northeast and Atlantic. They took three of a possible four points in late-season sets against both Boston and Pittsburgh, for example. The Leafs were sixth in goals, one of the better teams statistically coming from behind, and most impressively, second on the power play after some dire results in recent years. They never enjoyed any eye-popping win streaks, but neither did they lose as many as three regulation games in a row. Were able to stay off the rails despite the drama off the ice, from a GM change on the eve of the season to reported dalliances with other goalies right up to the trade deadline. The blue-line wasn't great, but for once the Leafs had a semblance of depth. Randy Carlyle tinkered with combos such that eight blue-liners appeared in at least 12 games, and the banished Mike Komisarek and late addition Ryan O'Byrne combined for another dozen.
The returnees: Goalie James Reimer is the primary reason Toronto's penalty killing made such a leap, which also made his save percentage slightly misleading. The hotter the goalie trade rumours around the team, the better he seemed to play. Nazem Kadri was the primary revelation among the skaters, providing spunk and consistent offence. When the goals weren't coming, Phil Kessel simply made plays for his teammates. The goals game often for Joffrey Lupul, but unfortunately the hard-luck forward was limited in games played by injuries. On the blue-line, Dion Phaneuf didn't try and take the team on his shoulders as much, and Cody Franson thrived under a change of coach.
New blood: James van Riemsdyk was streaky, but produced enough to, along with Kadri, take the pressure off Kessel to be the primary source of offence. But the fact is, this Toronto team surprisingly turned around with much of the same core group from last season's second-half slide. The new guys were mostly depth players who made key contributions and went to bat for their flashier teammates: forwards Jay McClement and Leo Komarov, defenders Mark Fraser and Mike Kostka, and enforcer Frazer McLaren.
- From: 31-35-16 to 29-14-5.
- Improvement: 29 points.
Montreal had a lot of players eager to bounce back from a sub-par 2011-12, while impressing a no-nonsense coach who demands effort. They had 10 players over 27 points, and led the NHL most of the season in terms of offensive production from the back end. The Habs lost just seven times in regulation through 34 games at the end of March. A front-heavy schedule allowed them to bank points and have others chasing. The Canadiens destroyed Southeast teams, going 13-2-0. They were impressive in most statistical indicators: fourth in goals, fifth in the power play, second in terms of road record. Aside from a particularly poor series of games over the final two weeks of the season, which saw their goals-against dip to 14th overall, it was difficult to write Montreal off in most games. Accordingly, they were in the top 10 in terms of their ability to win games despite allowing the first goal.
Returnees: Andrei Markov could almost be considered new blood, given his absence from the team for most of the past two seasons. He wasn't quite the same two-way player, but picked up where he left off in terms of being a power-play engineer. So too was P.K. Subban, and he finished with a plus-12 to mollify any hard feelings from his early contract holdout. Carey Price was worthy of Vezina talk through the end of March, and may still be despite his April struggles. Up front, Lars Eller progressed to be a reliable producer alongside the likes of Max Pacioretty, Tomas Plekanec and David Desharnais. If you want to get really granular, backup Peter Budaj essentially delivered the division title. Budaj won twice against Boston, once coming off the bench.
New blood: Brendan Gallagher is already one of the most annoying players in the league from an opponent's perspective (that's a compliment). Teen Alex Galchenyuk recorded points in more games than not in the final month of the season, and "new" old faces Francis Bouillon, Jeff Halpern and Michael Ryder were welcomed back for roles.
- From: 34-36-12 to 30-12-6
- Improvement: 33 points
Only Chicago was better over the first two months, with the Ducks 22-3-4. Went from sixth worst on the road last season to third best this time around. More than any of the other four teams profiled here, got extra points in the shootout, with a 6-3 record. They were statistically excellent across the board, in the top 10 in power play, 5-on-5 situations and when scoring or trailing first. In the top half in penalty kill and goals against.
Returnees: Much like Montreal, the goal wealth was generally spread around among Anaheim's returning forwards. Corey Perry's points-per-game rate was closer to his optimum years, although it should be pointed out that half his point total came during one torrid 12-game stretch. While Perry was inspiring Hart talk at his hottest, it was Ryan Getzlaf who bounced back from a down 2011-12 with a sturdier year-long campaign. He never went more than three games without a point. Jonas Hiller responded from a shaky start and threat to his No. 1 status by putting together a strong final stretch of the season. Francois Beauchemin had a season to rival his first two full campaigns in Anaheim.
New blood: Viktor Fasth was too old to be eligible for the Calder, but was the biggest revelation among first-year NHLers. He won his first eight starts and rarely gave up more than three goals in a game. Elsewhere, a whole lot of depth additions: Daniel Winnik and Sheldon Souray were the mainstays for the entire season, while Ben Lovejoy, Radek Dvorak, Dave Steckel and Matt Lombardi were added later.
There's no one route to turning it around. But because we're in an era where players are increasingly locked up for long-term deals in their early 20s, teams can't make dramatic turnovers from one year to the next. Finding the right "character guys" as the supporting cast has been critical.
Toronto, Montreal and Anaheim were all in the top five in the NHL in terms of road record, so there's that commonality. You could also make the case that all of these teams received stronger goaltending than last year.
Another prosaic explanation is health. These teams suffered their share of injuries, but nothing as key as losing Markov for a full year or Reimer to a concussion. You could hardly imagine the Wild and the Isles, given the depth chart situation behind Nabokov and Backstrom, thriving without their top goaltenders.