Down Goes Brown Weekend Wrap: Running Wild

Kevin Hayes scored the deciding goal in the shootout to lead the New York Rangers to a 3-2 win over the New Jersey Devils on Sunday night.

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: Running Wild

If you’re the sort of fan who likes to crunch numbers, there are various sites out there that will offer projected odds for each team making the playoffs. You can find them at sites like sportsclubstats.com, hockeyviz.com and hockeyreference.com. The sites use different methods and get different results, but there’s a solid consensus forming around several teams.

Most of those are the ones you’d expect—first-place teams like Montreal, Chicago and New York are among the locks, while teams like the Islanders and Avalanche are all but done. No shockers there.

But there’s another team that all the projections seem to think is a lock, and it’s a bit of a surprise: the Minnesota Wild, who clock in at 96 percent or better in all three systems. That seems a little strange for a team that’s not even close to leading its own division. At eight points back of the Blackhawks, the Wild are closer to missing the playoffs altogether than winning the Central.

So why is their outlook so rosy? Well, a big part of it is fairly simple—they’ve got games in hand on just about everyone. No team in the NHL has played fewer than Minnesota’s 30 games, and they’ve got four to make up on the Blackhawks, so the division is very much still in play.

But maybe more importantly, the Wild are looking like a very good team these days. They’ve won seven straight, and have picked up points in 12 of their last 13 games. They’ve also got the best goals differential in the West by a wide margin.

And they’re doing it with a team-wide effort. Sure, Devan Dubnyk has been fantastic, and would probably get plenty of Vezina love if we held the vote today. But he’s been supported by a balanced offence led by a rejuvenated Eric Staal. And in what stands as a nice change for the Wild, they’ve been getting production from some of their younger players.

There are a handful of red flags here, however: The Wild aren’t a great possession team, and they’ve got a league-high PDO at even strength. Some of that can be chalked up to score effects and Dubnyk, but it’s worth keeping an eye on.

But even with that said, there’s a nice story playing out in Minnesota, one featuring a team that many of us weren’t all that high on heading into the season. Remember, Bruce Boudreau has never had a full NHL season where he didn’t win his division. That seemed like a longshot to continue this year, but the Wild are making it interesting. And even if they can’t catch the Blackhawks, the numbers guys seem to think that they’re already all but in the playoffs.

If the Wild are a genuine contender, they’ll get a chance to show it over the next few days. After hosting the lowly Avalanche tomorrow, they’ll finish the week with back-to-back road games against the Canadiens and Rangers. It’s probably too early to talk about those games as potential Cup final previews, but Minnesota fans are allowed to at least think it.

Road to the Cup

The five teams that look like they’re headed towards Stanley Cup favourite status.

5. Chicago Blackhawks (22-8-4, +17 true goals differential*): After all of that, it’s tempting to slip the Wild past the Blackhawks and into the top five. Maybe next week.

4. Columbus Blue Jackets (20-5-4, +37): Congratulations to John Tortorella, who picked up his 500th career win yesterday in Vancouver. Here’s hoping he remembers who got him there.

3. New York Rangers (23-10-1, +37): They’re in Pittsburgh tomorrow for what looks like the game of the week.

2. Montreal Canadiens (20-7-4, +27): Going into Washington to beat Braden Holtby and the Caps was impressive. But let’s be honest, we’ll all remember this weekend for the Staredown Game.

1. Pittsburgh Penguins (20-7-5, +18): Their seven-game winning streak ended with a pair of weekend losses, although they still picked up points in both. Honestly, this week’s top five is separated by four points, and you could go with just about any order you wanted. We’ll keep the defending champs at number one for now, but it’s a tossup.

(*Goals scored minus goals allowed, without counting shootouts like the NHL does for some reason.)

Last week, we touched on the dominance of the Metro Division, where five teams are running over the rest of the league. That slowed slightly over the weekend, as the Stars finally snapped the Flyers’ 10-game win streak and the Penguins and Capitals also suffered losses. But the big five are still all sitting comfortably in playoff spots, with the Penguins, Rangers and Blue Jackets holding down the three division slots while the Capitals and Flyers control both wildcards.

The lack of balance between the Metro and Atlantic has created an odd situation among the conference’s non-playoff teams. For example, the Panthers, Lightning and Hurricanes are all tied for ninth in the conference with 33 points. But for Florida and Tampa Bay, that adds up to them being just four points out of a playoff spot, while the Hurricanes are eight back. That’s because the two Atlantic teams are chasing the Bruins and Senators, while the Hurricanes can only aim for catching the Flyers.

Mix in the Canadiens holding down what seems like a secure spot at the top of the Atlantic, and six of the conference’s eight spots already appear to be spoken for. Granted, it’s too early to call anyone a lock quite yet—one year ago today, the Habs looked safe in the East while the Penguins were fading out of the race. But we’re getting there, and unless we see an extended slump by an Eastern powerhouse or two, we may see a second half where only two spots in the conference are actually up for grabs—with both of those available only to Atlantic teams.

Those two spots are currently held by Ottawa and Boston. Neither team made the playoffs last year, and neither was an especially big favourite heading into this season. As we covered a few days ago, the Senators seems like the shakier proposition, in part due to their poor goals differential and lousy possession numbers. They’ll need to get better as the season wears on if they want to keep their spot, but they’ve built up a comfortable six-point cushion.

The Bruins are trickier. They remain the league’s best even-strength possession team, and their rock-bottom team shooting figures to improve. They’ve got great goaltending, so you’d expect them to hang tough in most games, even when the puck isn’t bouncing their way. They’re four points up on the pack, but have played more games than any of the teams chasing them.

Meanwhile, you’ve got the Panthers and Lightning lurking, and even the Red Wings, Maple Leafs and Sabres are within six points. That leaves five teams in the Atlantic sitting closer to a playoff spot than Carolina, even though the Hurricanes are technically ahead of all of those teams in the standings.

So yeah, things are a little strange out East right now. And if you really want to complicate things, consider the possibility of a Metro team tanking for a better playoff matchup.

Things won’t necessarily stay this way, and maybe a team like the Flyers goes cold and we get back to something that looks closer to normal. But right now, the Eastern Conference is a lopsided place. And it’s a place that may not provide us with much in the way of postseason suspense.

Road to the lottery

The five teams that look like they’re headed towards watching Nolan Patrick highlights and clicking refresh on draft-lottery simulations.

5. New Jersey Devils (12-12-7, -19): After last night’s 3–2 shootout loss to the Rangers, they’ve now lost six straight. That’s enough to make them the twelfth different team to make an appearance in the bottom five this season.

4. Vancouver Canucks (13-16-3, -22): They had a decent weekend, taking three of four points against the Lightning and Blue Jackets. Now it’s time for a weird two-game series with Winnipeg where both games are in Vancouver. That’s not what “home and home” means, guy who makes the NHL schedule.

3. New York Islanders (11-4-6, -17): I don’t think they’re catching the Rangers, you guys.

2. Arizona Coyotes (11-15-5, -29): A mini two-game win streak came to an end when they ran into the Wild on Saturday.

1. Colorado Avalanche (11-18-1, -30): A week after snapping a six-game losing streak, they’ve now lost three straight. Let’s talk about them.

So what exactly do you do now if you’re the Colorado Avalanche?

You’re dead last overall. You’ve got the worst goals differential in the league. You’ve scored fewer goals than anybody. And you’re already 11 points out of a playoff spot. Barring a miracle, you’re done. The season is over.

So now what?

When things go this badly, most teams have a checklist of options they can look at. The first of those is to fire the coach. But Jared Bednar has been on the job for only a few months, having stepped in after Patrick Roy’s bizarre exit in August. He didn’t even get as much prep time as most offseason hires get, so you can’t hang this on him.

Do you aim higher and fire the GM? I suppose you could, but that’s easier said than done when that GM is also one of the most popular players in the history of the franchise. Would watching Joe Sakic clean out his desk really make Avalanche fans any happier? Doubtful.

OK, so what about blowing up the roster? Call it rebuilding or call it tanking, but shipping off as many veteran pieces as possible while collecting prospects and draft picks has become the league’s go-to method for regaining respectability. It’s not fun, but hey, if you’re going to lose you may as well do it with a purpose.

But the Avalanche aren’t really your typical rebuild candidate. You rebuild to get younger; for the most part, the Avs are already young. Their top three scorers, their top defenceman and their captain are all 25 or younger. Their starting goaltender is 28, as is there No. 2 defenceman. They’re not young like the Maple Leafs or Coyotes are young, but the core is still in its prime. It would seem strange to hit reset on that already.

And of course, the Avalanche already went through that whole “hit rock bottom for a few years” thing fairly recently. They had top-three picks in three out of five drafts beginning in 2009, including the first-overall pick in 2013. When you have the top pick, you don’t expect to be back to square one just three or four years later.

But at the same time, this doesn’t feel like a team where preaching patience is the right call. Other than one fluky lockout-shortened season, they haven’t been good in a long time. They’re on their fourth coach since their last playoff-series win. Sakic’s front office hasn’t exactly done much to inspire confidence. And even if they have some lottery luck and add a top young player in this year’s draft, is anyone going to be picking them to make noise in the Central next year?

So we’ve got a team that can’t stay the course, but can’t change much. It’s not an easy situation. There are a handful of veterans that the team can move as the deadline approaches, and Jarome Iginla could still bring a nice return if he can get his game going.

But that’s not going to be enough to turn the franchise around. At this point, it’s hard to figure out what will be.

Quick shifts: Ten more notable moments from around the league

• If you missed it on Saturday, here’s Mike Myers’s Hockey Night in Canada intro.

• Scary moment in Saturday’s game between the Penguins and Maple Leafs, as Marc-Andre Fleury takes a skate to the throat. He was OK, and returned to the game.

• Speaking of returning goaltenders, it sounds like Corey Crawford could be ready to go soon.

• The Canucks will be without Erik Gudbranson indefinitely after the big defenceman required surgery on his wrist. There’s no firm timetable on his return, but it could be months.

• The Jets have snuck back to within one point of a wildcard, and now have those back-to-back games against the Canucks.

• This is quite possibly the most Canadian thing of all-time.

• Chalk up another shutout for Tuukka Rask, who blanked the Kings in a 1–0 win yesterday and now shares the league lead with Sergei Bobrovsky.

• Jaromir Jagr was held pointless on Friday, and remains three points back of Mark Messier for second on the all-time list. He’ll have a chance to earn the honours at home this week, as the Panthers host the Sabres, Bruins and Red Wings.

• Skates: It turns out they’re kind of important.

• Finally, a reminder that the league will be taking next weekend off due to Christmas. We’ll get a busy schedule on both Thursday and Friday, followed by three days off before action resumes the following Tuesday. Meanwhile, the annual holiday trade freeze takes effect tonight at midnight, to give us a break from all those blockbuster deals we’ve been seeing all season.