Sean McIndoe (aka Down Goes Brown) will be contributing to sportsnet.ca on a regular basis. Follow him @DownGoesBrown
With the trade deadline now behind us and just under five weeks left in the regular season, this is the time of year when we’d normally be focused on the playoff bubble.
Typically, we’d have something like a half-dozen teams in each conference fighting it out for a limited number of playoff spots that were still up for grabs. It’s great drama, and lots of fun.
Unfortunately, this year’s bubble is shaping up to be a bust, with only one team in each conference sitting within five points of a playoff spot. That would be the Philadelphia Flyers and Colorado Avalanche; according to Sports Club Stats, nobody else in the league has even a five per cent chance of making the post-season.
And it's not just the bubble that's lacking late-season drama. The Washington Capitals are running away with the Presidents' Trophy. Patrick Kane is doing the same with the Art Ross race, and probably the Hart Trophy too. Kane's the only one who looks to have any shot at catching Alex Ovechkin for the lead in goals. And the rookie scoring race is a rout, with Artemi Panarin leading by 16 points and not enough time left for even the ridiculous Connor McDavid to make that up (probably).
So what's a hockey fan looking for a little drama to do? We're going to have to dig a little deeper, skipping the usual suspects and focusing our attention elsewhere. Luckily, there are still a few candidates for late-season intrigue. Here are five storylines to watch as the regular season schedule winds down.
The Capitals chase history
As of Tuesday, the Capitals have 49 wins through 66 games, putting them on pace for 61 if we round up. That's pretty impressive, and you'd think it would be a bigger deal. Sure, it's tough to compare eras when today's teams get a boost from the shootout and three-point games. But in an era with more league-wide parity than we've ever seen, having a shot at the all-time wins record is a major accomplishment.
So you could forgive fans in Washington if they were shouting from the rooftops about a team that has a chance to join that ultra-exclusive 60-win club. But it's hard to shout too loud when you're curled up in the fetal position, which is where many Caps fans seem to be these days as they wait for the playoffs to start. It's hard to blame them, given the history here, and it's true that the regular season doesn't matter much if you don't win the Cup – just ask those '96 Red Wings, who were knocked out in the conference final by their soon-to-be arch rivals in Colorado. If the Capitals' story ends with yet another playoff heart-breaker, their regular season win total won't be much consolation.
But that's a worry for down the road. As far as the rest of the regular season goes, the Caps are having one of the best years we've ever seen. That's worth celebrating, no matter how it ends.
The other three division titles
The Caps will win the Metro along with the Presidents’ Trophy. But the other three divisions are still up for grabs, and each has a lot more riding on it than who'll get to raise a banner next year.
Just a month ago, the Pacific seemed to be all wrapped up for the Los Angeles Kings. But the Anaheim Ducks’ recent win streak moved them into first, and it now looks like this one will come down to the wire. The winner will get a Central crossover team, while the runner-up will get the San Jose Sharks, and whichever way it goes, both the Ducks and Kings will be heavy favourites in their first-round series. But maybe more importantly, the division winner will claim home ice advantage in what feels like an inevitable meeting in round two.
The Atlantic is a three-team race, with the Tampa Bay Lighting finally catching the Florida Panthers while the Boston Bruins quietly lurk. Home ice is worth watching here, as both Tampa Bay and Florida have lopsided home records (while the Bruins are actually far better on the road).
But the biggest race will be in the Central, where we've got a three-team pile up with the Chicago Blackhawks, Dallas Stars and St. Louis Blues all having a shot at taking the division crown. The key here is that the two teams that lose out will have to play each other in the opening round. That's going to be a brutal matchup – as of today, the three Central powerhouses all rank in the top four league-wide – and you have to wonder if whichever team survives it would have enough left in the tank to last three more rounds.
The disappearing 200-PIM club
The ongoing decline of fighting and the diminishing role of the enforcer have been well-documented, and we're seeing the trend continue this year. Depending on how the last few weeks turn out, that could include an historic first at the top of the PIM leaderboard.
Since the NHL switched to an 80-game schedule in 1974, there's never been a full season where the league's penalty minutes leader didn't top the 200 mark. For years, the 200-minute club wasn't even especially exclusive – it's been joined a whopping 553 times, and through the 80s and most of 90s, the number of players crossing the mark each year was typically in the double digits. You'd have to go back to 1967-68, when the season was 74 games long, to find a full season without a 200 PIM player. (Colton Orr led the league with 155 in the lockout-shortened 2013 season; pro-rated to a full year that would have put him on pace for 265.)
But this year, the 200-PIM club might end up empty. The league's current PIM leader is Vancouver's Derek Dorsett, who has 158 through the team's first 65 games. With 17 games left, that puts him on pace to end the year with 199. For comparison's sake, that total would have been good enough to rank him 38th back in 1987-88 – two minutes back of Jeff Beukeboom.
There's still time for Dorsett or someone else to make a run at the mark; these days, one or two well-timed f-bombs at a misconduct-happy official might be all it takes. But if not, we'll end up with something we've never seen before in the 80-plus game era.
That Maple Leafs' first-round pick
Toronto Maple Leafs fans knew the deal heading into the season, and for the most part things have played out as expected. The team is bad, but the future looks promising. And that means that for the next few weeks, it's all about that first-round draft pick.
No, not that one. The other one.
Most fans seem focused on the Leafs' own pick, one that figures to be near the top of the draft as the team plummets towards a last-place finish. But that pick will be subject to the whims of the draft lottery ping-pong balls, meaning that other than a few percentage points here and there, the rest of the season won't change much.
No, Leafs fans should be focused on the team's other first-round pick – the one they only kind of own. That would be the Pittsburgh Penguins 2016 first-rounder, sent to Toronto as part of last summer's Phil Kessel trade. But there's a catch: the Leafs only get the pick if the Penguins make the playoffs. If Pittsburgh misses out, the first-rounder flips to 2017. And if they miss again, it disappears altogether, becoming a 2017 second-rounder instead.
That's kind of a big deal for the rebuilding Leafs, and with the Penguins holding down an Eastern wild-card spot, this one could go either way. A Pittsburgh slump that knocked them out of the post-season would cost the Leafs a first-rounder at this year's draft and maybe beyond. On the other hand, the Penguins just barely sneaking into the playoffs would give Toronto a pick in the mid-teens, their best possible outcome from the Kessel deal.
It's all quite complicated – we haven't even mentioned the second-rounder that the Leafs have to send back to Pittsburgh if they end up with a first, one that gets significantly more expensive if the picks are pushed back to 2017. And it led to some only somewhat tongue-in-cheek suggestions that the Leafs should have sent some freebie reinforcements to Pittsburgh at the deadline to help nudge the Penguins across the finish line.
But for Toronto fans, cheering for the Penguins to win might be a nice change from rooting for the Leafs to lose. And keeping an eye on that conditional pick should be a bigger deal than worrying about a few percentage points in a draft lottery that the Edmonton Oilers are just going to win anyway.
OK, so maybe we won't get much suspense around the identity of the league's playoff teams. But there's still the seeding to figure out, and that means we can start looking ahead to possible matchups. And there may be some good ones.
For example, if the Bruins can win the Atlantic (and the Red Wings don't have a late-season surge), we'd get the first-ever meeting between the Lightning and Panthers. Granted, these days the two teams are state rivals in only the strictest technical sense, but every rivalry has to start somewhere, and an opening-round matchup is as good a place as any.
If you'd prefer some more familiar opponents, root for the Hawks to win the Central; there's a good chance they'd face the Minnesota Wild in the first round, marking the fourth straight year that the two teams met in the post-season. We could also get the Kings and Sharks in the Pacific, in what would be their fourth meeting in six years.
If you work in the NHL's marketing department, you're already thinking ahead to a potential Penguins/Capitals meeting. The two teams used to face each other all the time, including seven matchups between 1991 and 2001, but they've only met once before in the Crosby/Ovechkin era, back in 2009.
And then there's the big one. With the Caps running away with the Metro, that leaves only a late surge by the Penguins to break up a potential Rangers/Islanders meeting, the first between the two historic rivals since 1994. While younger fans may not remember it, there was a time when the Rangers/Islanders rivalry was the best in hockey. And while it's been decades since that was true, plenty of bad blood still lingers between the fan bases – there's a reason that "Potvin Sucks" will never die.
A young Islanders team looking to finally win its first playoff series since 1993, at the expense of a veteran Rangers team whose championship window is rapidly closing? Yes, please.
(Seriously, Penguins – don't ruin this for us.)