In the spring, an ‘x’ beside a team in the NHL standings indicates a clinched playoff berth.
We’re a long way from bestowing that happy little annotation, but some teams are already worthy of having that letter precede their name – in the fall, however, that ‘x’ carries a much different meaning.
At this stage it’s about upper-case X-factors, squads that have forecasters really emphasizing the folly of predictions. Last year’s shortened season muddies the picture in general, but even without that variable these three clubs would be identified as serious wild cards, teams that, depending on the way the puck bounces, could boom just as easily as bust.
The Caps won the Southeast last year, more or less because someone had to. The dilapidated division was mercifully put down with the NHL’s new playoff format, meaning Washington can no longer get fat feeding on slow-moving prey.
After nearly missing the playoffs in 2011-12, the Caps had an atrocious start last year, winning just two of their first 11 games under rookie coach Adam Oates. Then, Alex Ovechkin went all 2008 on us, clicking at his new right-wing position and leading the league with 32 goals.
A big late-season run granted Washington post-season access, but it was embarrassed by the Rangers in a 5-0 Game 7 loss on home ice in the first round.
Overall, it’s tempting to say the Caps are sliding in the wrong direction, but a couple factors give reason for pause. The largest, obviously, is the aforementioned resurgence of Ovechkin as a goal-scoring force.
Oates now gets a full campaign behind the bench to implement his game plan, while heart-and-soul guy Brooks Laich is back after missing the vast majority of last season with a groin injury. Nicklas Backstrom has also returned to point-per-game form after missing half of 2011-12 with a concussion, while John Carlson and Karl Alzner continue to blossom on the back end. If Braden Holtby takes a step forward in goal, things could really come together.
Still, this team – which faces much stiffer competition in the new Metropolitan Division – has a streaky nature and the franchise has chronically under-delivered, so forgive us if we don’t run out and get Mikhail Grabovski fitted for a Cup ring just yet.
Take any team outside Pennsylvania and ask whether they’d do a straight up trade of their top-six forwards for Philadelphia’s and, about 99 per cent of the time, the answer would be a resounding “Gimme-gimme-gimme!”
The problem is Philly’s definition of balance is icing a back end that’s capable of undoing all the good its forward crew achieves. Will that change with the addition of Mark Streit and the goalie tandem of Steve Mason and Ray Emery? Yeah, maybe.
As a pre-season tandem, Emery and Mason get as much benefit of the doubt as an 11-year-old walking around with a pellet gun. That said, both goalies did some stabilizing last year and, between them, it’s plausible Philly gets competent puck stopping.
Streit is an offensive guy, which is something you become by making good decisions with the puck. No doubt, with a rickety Kimmo Timonen, the Flyers blueline lacks anything resembling a true anchor, but with big boys like Braydon Coburn and Luke Schenn in the mix, it could at least reach the minimum standard for competency.
The real potential of this team, of course, lies with the gunners up front. Claude Giroux is a superstar, free agent pick-up Vinny Lecavalier is a motivated No. 2 centre and Scott Hartnell and Wayne Simmonds bring a thorny scoring touch that’s tough to match – unless, of course, we’re wrong about that whole Emery and Mason being decent thing.
This is really all about Tyler Seguin and how he responds to a new challenge.
Every team in the league stresses the significance of being strong down the middle, so if the Stars just went out and added a legit No. 1 centre who is just 21 years old, it dramatically alters the franchise trajectory.
If they added streaky guy who cuts in and out of caring, things didn’t really get much better. Seguin’s play will also have a huge impact on under-the-radar star Jamie Benn, who now moves back to his natural position at wing.
Toss in the all-world talent of Russian rookie Valeri Nichushkin and the Stars could all of a sudden be supplying new coach Lindy Ruff with some scoring punch. But that’s if everything rolls right.
It’s not an accident that this team has missed the playoffs for five consecutive years, and looking at the defence corps, it’s not hard to imagine the drought extending to six.