Now that the first month of the 2013-14 NHL season is in the books, I'm starting to see the competition League-wide take shape. It might be a little early to predict a Stanley Cup winner, but you can see which teams are emerging as legitimate contenders.
The way I usually identify top teams, especially this early in the season, is by looking at organizational depth. It's not just about which teams have the biggest stars scoring the most goals. You have to take a closer look at the NHL's top teams to distinguish the contenders from the pretenders.
In theory, the stars cancel each other out. I really believe that you can only go deep in the playoffs and have a chance to win or even play for a Stanley Cup if you have depth. That's why the smart teams do a good job of continuing that development of their depth players. They empower their depth players and help them get better. It's a big part of the organizational philosophy. You can't just lean on depth players under the white-hot lights of the playoffs. You can't all of a sudden say, "Hey, fourth line, we want you guys to go out and kill a penalty now."
It doesn't work like that. I think the Chicago Blackhawks are a great example of that.
Michael Frolik and those role players had huge playoffs. Marcus Kruger, Nick Leddy, Michal Rozsival. Each of those guys played a real impactful game. Did anyone project Bryan Bickell to be on the first line? Did anyone think Brandon Saad was going to develop the way he did, or that the Frolik line would be so key? Behind the scenes, they got leadership from veteran Jamal Mayers, whether he was in the lineup or not. A lot of those players who bring intangibles are needed to go deep.
Yes, it's early in the season, but you've got to start finding that early.
Look at the Anaheim Ducks right now. Is anyone demonstrating better organizational depth? Look at their goaltending. Last year, they had Viktor Fasth and Jonas Hiller. Now you have Fasth, Hiller and Frederik Andersen. Oh, and by the way, you also have John Gibson, who is awesome and was named the American Hockey League's goaltender of the month for October. The credit for all of that has to go to the Anaheim organization.
I've got to give Anaheim goaltending coach Dwayne Roloson a lot of credit. And I give credit to Sudarshan Maharaj, their goalie consultant down in Norfolk. All of a sudden, you've got four goaltenders doing the job in one organization. I don't know if there is another NHL franchise that has four guys capable of regularly winning games right now.
The Blackhawks don't have four top-flight goalies, but they have done the same thing with Rockford in the American Hockey League. Now Brandon Pirri is getting his opportunity with the Blackhawks just one year after Saad had a great rookie season.
These standout teams are the ones that have that solid top-to-bottom organizational structure. And that all starts with the general manager.
The number of established elite GMs is short. You have Dean Lombardi and what he and his team has done with the Los Angeles Kings. They got Slava Voynov, who was somebody nobody had heard about. And they added other pieces like Alec Martinez, Jordan Nolan and Dwight King. They had Jonathan Quick and Jonathan Bernier in net. That's pretty impressive stuff.
Another team nobody is giving much credit to is the Toronto Maple Leafs. They're having a great turnaround, and it was just a year ago that their AHL team, the Toronto Marlies, was playing in the Calder Cup Final. Some of those young guys are playing for the team now, but some of them were also used as trade chips. They're all assets.
Of course, the Detroit Red Wings have been doing that for years. They now have some of their young guys who have jumped up and helped the team. And their AHL team in Grand Rapids just won the Calder Cup.
So, in identifying which teams are for real in the NHL, you don't just look at it in terms of what is happening with the parent team. You have to look at your AHL team and your international scouting, which helps you get a guy like Frederik Andersen.
One thing I'm seeing a lot more of this time of year is goals coming directly off the forecheck. I think forecheck-related goals right now are at a very high level. Almost every game you watch right now, there's a goal that is a direct result of a forecheck. That is something that is different.
On a nightly basis, no matter which team it is, we're seeing it on a game-by-game basis.
Look at both teams in last season's Stanley Cup Final. That was a big part of the Boston Bruins' game, and it became more a part of Chicago's game for them to win the Cup. When Chicago's big boys decided they were going to forecheck and cycle the puck more, they out-Bostoned Boston in Games 5 and 6.
Look at a team like the Kings. They won the Cup in 2011-12 with a big, strong, rugged team. They hunted down the puck. If the opposing team had it, L.A. sent its forwards in, forced turnovers and made the other team uncomfortable. With all the success those three teams have had, I think it's become more of a feature in the game.
It's not just forechecking in the traditional sense in the offensive zone either. We've seen teams pay more attention to their neutral-zone forecheck. As a result, they are creating turnovers and being able to go the other way and generate chances. It's happening more from the neutral zone on in.
So, if you want to identify which teams have a real shot at winning some hardware this summer, organizational depth and forechecking are two things to consider.