Every Monday, Sean McIndoe looks back at weekend play in the NHL and the league’s biggest storylines. You can follow him on Twitter.
Opening faceoff: Are the Penguins broken?
Almost a quarter of a way into the season, the Pittsburgh Penguins have lost more games than they’ve won. They have the league’s third-worst goals differential, having given up 17 more than they’ve scored. They’ve lost six of their last eight. And Sidney Crosby is struggling through an extended slump, one that sees him with a bigger number on the wrong side of his plus/minus (-14) than in the points column (13).
Should we be concerned here?
The knee-jerk reaction is to say no, of course not. It’s early, there are still five months to go and these are the Penguins we’re talking about. Most good teams go through a cold spell or two over the course of a season, and we shouldn’t overreact just because the Penguins’ stretch is coming in October and November instead of being buried in February when nobody would even notice.
That’s pretty much the stance we’ve been taking around these parts, where we spent October stubbornly slotting the Penguins into our top-five list even when they were losing games 10-1. That seemed fair – two straight titles should buy you some benefit of the doubt. But as the season wears on and the Penguins continue to look like a decidedly mediocre team, it may be time to start wondering.
After all, this is a team that lost a lot of last year’s roster. They were depth pieces, sure, and in theory the core was even better because Kris Letang is back. But Letang is off to a terrible start, and the team seems to miss guys like Nick Bonino, Ron Hainsey and Chris Kunitz. They’ve missed Marc-Andre Fleury too, as Matt Murray is off to a slow start and the backup spot has been a mess.
They’ve also had issues with back-to-back games. They’ve played two games in two nights six times so far this year, and they’ve lost the second game all six times. That includes three embarrassing blowouts by scores of 10-1 (against the Blackhawks), 7-1 (Lightning) and 7-1 again (Jets). No team likes to play back-to-backs, but seeing the Penguins struggle like this has to be a concern. This team has played a ton of hockey over the last two years, and you have to wonder about fatigue. Seeing them constantly look like their tank is empty in back-to-backs is a worrying sign.
Let’s circle back to those three ugly blowouts. In a weird sort of way, maybe they’re good news. The Penguins were outscored 24-3 in those three games, which accounts for that terrible goals differential. You can’t just hand-wave away a team’s worst games, but it’s not like the Penguins have been as consistently bad as a first glance at the numbers might suggest.
But there’s a flip side to that coin, and it’s that it’s extremely rare for good teams to get blown out this badly this often. Only three teams have ever lost three games by six goals or more and gone on to win the Stanley Cup that year: the 1917-18 Toronto Arenas, 1979-80 Islanders and 1983-84 Oilers. All three of those teams played in high-scoring eras. Since the year 2000, there have been only four other times where an eventual champ was blown out by six or more. On the other hand, two of those included last year’s Penguins, so maybe this is just a thing this team does.
It’s also worth noting that the Pens have been very good at home but lousy away from Pittsburgh. That’s important, because they’ve played 13 of their 19 games on the road. That’s part of a bigger issue, which is that their early schedule has been a tough one. They’ve played the Lightning, Predators and Capitals twice each, as well as the Blues, Jets and Blackhawks. That’s a tough start, especially when you’re on the road for most of it.
The bottom line is that it’s certainly too early to write off the Penguins – as bad as things have been, they’re still sitting in second spot in their division. But they don’t look much like the team that’s rolled through so much of the league since Mike Sullivan arrived on the scene. Maybe it’s fatigue, maybe it’s a lack of depth, or maybe it’s just one of those cold streaks that happens sometimes. We don’t know yet, and there’s still plenty of time to find out. But even if it’s not panic time, at least a little bit of concern seems reasonable.
Road to the Cup
The five teams that look like they’re headed towards Stanley Cup–favourite status.
5. Toronto Maple Leafs (12-7-0, +8 true goals differential*): The Leafs sneak back onto the list after winning four straight this week, despite not actually playing all that well and missing Auston Matthews. Good teams have to find ways to win when they’re not at their best.
4. San Jose Sharks (10-6-0, +7): Honestly, there’s like a half-dozen teams we could slot into the No. 4 and 5 spots. But we’ll give this spot to the Sharks even though they may not deserve it. You know, kind of like it’s a penalty shot.
3. Los Angeles Kings (11-4-2, +13): They’re still comfortably on top of the Pacific, but have now lost two straight for the first time all season.
2. St. Louis Blues (13-4-1, +12): A loss to the Islanders snapped their latest winning streak. Now they head out for a three-game swing through western Canada.
1. Tampa Bay Lightning (14-2-2, +24): Make it four straight weeks at No. 1, and if anything the gap between them and the rest of the league is growing.
(*Goals scored minus goals allowed, without counting shootouts like the NHL does for some reason.)
Not much movement this week, as for the first time all year there isn’t a single first-time team in the top five. The Leafs move back into the five-spot, the Blue Jackets drop out, and everything else stays pretty much the same.
But speaking of the best of the best: It’s Hall of Fame weekend in the hockey world, as the hall prepares to formally induct players Danielle Goyette, Teemu Selanne, Paul Kariya, Mark Recchi and Dave Andreychuk, plus builders Jeremy Jacobs and Clare Drake. So today, let’s join in the Hall of Fame fun with a debate we like to break out this time of year: Which game from the weekend featured the most future Hall of Famers?
The first team we usually turn to whenever this topic comes up is the Blackhawks. According to the NHL they have three active players who are already among the best 100 to ever play the game. In theory, that means Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Duncan Keith are already locks, with Corey Crawford playing like a guy with at least a shot of entering the discussion someday. Even without counting Marian Hossa, who’s still technically on the team but not playing, that makes the Hawks a formidable starting point. But they faced the Hurricanes and Devils over the weekend, two teams that don’t have any sure-thing candidates to offer, so we’ll have to keep looking.
We could turn to the top team in the league right now. The Lightning are a young enough team that boasts no sure things quite yet, but Steven Stamkos is close and Nikita Kucherov and Victor Hedman look like they’re on the way. They played Anaheim, which means we can add Ryan Getzalf in the “probably” category and maybe Corey Perry, too. But Getzlaf didn’t play due to injury, so that’s probably not our game.
If we stay in California, last night’s Kings/Sharks matchup has a decent case to make. Joe Thornton is a lock, Drew Doughty is pretty close, and Anze Kopitar, Brent Burns and Jonathan Quick all have a shot. The Sharks played the Canucks too, where the Sedins probably give us a two-fer. Elsewhere, the Oilers/Rangers matchup had one sure-thing in Henrik Lundqvist, plus Connor McDavid and maybe Rick Nash or Leon Draisaitl. And the Wild/Flyers game featured two solid maybes in Ryan Suter and Eric Staal, plus Claude Giroux, Jakob Voracek and various younger guys with a shot.
Those Bruins/Leafs games make for another sneaky candidate. Boston has one lock in Zdeno Chara, another getting close in Patrice Bergeron, and two more veterans with outside shots in Tuukka Rask and Brad Machand. It’s still too early to start inducting Auston Matthews and friends, but the Leafs do have Patrick Marleau, and their young roster (plus Boston’s David Pastrnak) could produce a few Hall candidates down the line. And even the Jets/Coyotes game, despite not featuring any sure things, had enough young talent that it could be a dark-horse pick.
But our winner is probably going to be one of the games involving those slumping Penguins. They’ve got only two locks in Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, but Kris Letang has a shot, Matt Murray is starting down the road and Phil Kessel could have an outside chance. They faced the Predators on Saturday, who have some decent candidates in P.K. Subban, Pekka Rinne and a few of the younger guys. That’s a solid combination.
But the weekend’s most HHOF-rich game likely came on Friday, when the Penguins faced their old pals, the Capitals. With Alex Ovechkin locked in, Nicklas Backstrom on pace to join him, Braden Holtby possibly on the way and even Evgeny Kuznetsov as a down-the-road candidate, this one feels like our winner.
Road to the lottery
The five teams that look like they’re headed towards watching Rasmus Dahlin highlights and playing with draft-lottery simulations.
4. Detroit Red Wings (8-8-2, -3): Might want to work on the 2-on-0’s, guys.
3. Florida Panthers (5-9-2, -8): They won a game for the first time in two weeks. It was against the next team on our list, but they’ll take it.
1. Arizona Coyotes (2-14-3, -30): Four more games, four more losses. And as we’ll see down below, it gets even worse.
So the Coyotes have been terrible. They’ve won just two games all season, neither of which came in regulation. You don’t need me to tell you that their start has been bad.
But how bad? There are a few ways you could look at it. For example, we could think about it in terms of their playoff chances. Last year, it took 94 points to earn a Western Conference wild card. In order to hit that total this season, the Coyotes would have to earn 87 points over their last 63 games; over a full season, that’s a little better than a 113-point pace. Three times in the salary-cap era, that would have been enough to win the Presidents’ Trophy. In other words, their awful start means the Coyotes would have to play like the best team in the league, or very close to it, for the rest of the season just to sneak into a wild-card spot on the season’s final weekend.
So that gives you a sense of how bad it is in the context of today’s NHL. But what if we looked back even further? How bad has the Coyotes’ start been in terms of the entire 100-year history of the league?
Pretty bad, as it turns out.
The Coyotes’ 17 losses in their first 19 games ties them with four other teams for the most ever. Some of the worst teams in history didn’t start this badly. The 1943-44 Rangers lost only 15 games of their first 19. The full-on tank-mode Sabres of 2013-14 and 2014-15 lost 16 and 15, respectively. The depressing 2009-10 Maple Leafs, who’d just traded away their first-round pick, lost 16. Same with the disastrous 1990-91 Maple Leafs, as well as the terrible 1991-92 expansion Sharks. Even the 1974-75 Capitals, often called the worst team of all-time, lost only 15 of their first 19.
And sure, some of those teams played in the days when there were still ties, so it was easier to not lose. But that was also before the NHL entered its age of ultra-parity. It’s not supposed to be possible to be historically bad anymore. And yet here the Coyotes are.
So who were those four other teams that started with 17 losses in their first 19 games? And can they offer any hope for this year’s Coyotes? Not really, no. Two of those seasons came in the NHL’s early days; the 1924-25 Bruins did it in their very first year in the league, and the 1930-31 Philadelphia Quakers did it in their only one. Both teams ended up finishing dead last.
The 1992-93 Senators also hit the 17-loss mark. That was their first season in the league, and they also ended up dead last, although in their case they were tied with another terrible team, the second-year Sharks.
And then there’s our final team, and the only NHL team in history other than this year’s Coyotes to lose 17 of 19 in anything other than their very first season in the league: the 1983-84 Devils. They were another historically awful team, one probably best remembered for Wayne Gretzky calling them “a Mickey Mouse organization”. And here’s where we can find something that looks like good news for the Coyotes: That year’s Devils didn’t finish dead last. They climbed all the way to, uh, second-last. It can be done!
Just one problem: Not finishing last was the worst possible thing that could have happened to those Devils. By finishing three points ahead of the Penguins, they missed out on the first pick in that year’s draft. And that means they missed out on Mario Lemieux.
A terrible start, a punchline of a season, and you still don’t even get the first pick. Chin up, Coyotes fans. Apparently it can always get worse.
Quick shifts: 10 more notable moments from around the league
• Max Pacioretty‘s OT winner against the Sabres was the 10th of his career, establishing a new franchise record:
The Canadiens have climbed to within three points of a playoff spot.
• It was a good weekend for the two Ontario teams. The Maple Leafs earned a pair of wins against the Bruins, while the Senators swept the Avalanche in Sweden.
• The Rangers are the league’s hottest team, with six straight wins. They’d briefly moved into an Eastern wildcard spot before the Caps bumped them back down with last night’s win over the Oilers.
• Patrik Laine is hot again, scoring in five straight to help the Jets hold down second spot in the Central.
• New Predator Kyle Turris had a goal and an assist in his debut to help Nashville beat the Penguins. For his part, Matt Duchene was held pointless through two games as a Senator, so you know what that means: The Predators won the trade.
• Here’s what Jimmy Vesey looked like after finishing Saturday’s game with a tooth lodged in his lower lip. Don’t click the link if you’re having breakfast.
• Roberto Luongo moved past Curtis Joseph into fourth place all-time with Friday’s win over the Sabres, the 455th of his career. Next up is Ed Belfour, at 484. And Braden Holtby’s win over the Penguins was his 200th, making him the second-fastest goalie to hit that mark.
• Have you been enjoying the ongoing arena drama in Calgary, compete with vague threats about the team someday leaving? Get ready for the upcoming sequel in Ottawa.
• Weird stat from Minnesota, where Jason Zucker has scored six times in three games, accounting for every Wild goal over that span. That’s all Devan Dubnyk has needed lately, as he’s put up back-to-back shutouts.
• Finally, this feature on Hall of Famer Paul Kariya is well worth a watch on induction day.