The Western Conference’s wild-card picture is much more of a snail race these days than some all-out charge toward the finish line. Sure, we’re a bit early to think the struggling teams won’t recover to make an actual push, or that the two teams in the race that have won more than half of their past 10 will continue to stay hot.
There is a lot to still be figured out here, with an important cut-off date coming on Feb. 25 when these teams have to decide to what degree they will buy or even sell at the trade deadline. But with the race only getting closer, we’re taking a look at all the teams that could still play a factor in this race — and there’s a lot of them. With only Calgary, San Jose, Vegas, Winnipeg, Nashville and, most recently, Dallas really separating themselves from the pack, everyone else is still alive.
Even the last-place Los Angeles Kings are just five points out, so the race for those two wild cards is wide open.
Here is our look at a case for, and against, each of the nine teams that are either in or chasing one of the two wild card spots in the Western Conference.
The case in favour: It’s clear what owner Craig Leipold’s expectation was for this season. “Certainly it’s to win the Stanley Cup,” GM Paul Fenton told NHL.com. How that influences Minnesota’s trade deadline tactics remains to be seen, but the Wild’s streak of six straight seasons of making the playoffs shows a roster that should be strong and deep enough.
The case against: They’ve lost four in a row, with a coach growing more frustrated by the day, and a very tough stretch on the schedule that starts at the end of February. After already losing key defenceman Matt Dumba earlier in the season, Mikko Koivu sustained his own season-ender this week and unless Joel Eriksson-Ek or trade acquisition Viktor Rask picks up the consistency, the Wild may not have the centre depth to hang with some other teams.
ST. LOUIS BLUES
The case in favour: They might be playing the best hockey of all these teams right now. Vladimir Tarasenko has seven goals in his past 14 games as he bounces back from a slow start; 25-year-old goalie Jordan Binnington has helped stabilize the position since being promoted to the team in December, allowing more than two goals just once in 12 appearances; Ryan O’Reilly hasn’t stopped being a stellar off-season pickup; the team’s 11-6-1 record since Dec. 27 is eighth-best in the league.
The case against: Will they sell anything off at the deadline? Just being in the playoff race hasn’t held up GM Doug Armstrong from trading off expiring contracts the past two seasons. Pat Maroon is an obvious candidate. but what about Jay Bouwmeester? Hey may not be in his prime anymore, but still logs more than 20 minutes a game and is a significant PK contributor. Their special teams aren’t anything special either, with both the PP and PK ranking in the bottom half of the league. In fact, since Christmas when the Blues have actually been winning, their power play ranks 29th and their penalty kill is last in the NHL.
The case in favour: Elias Pettersson is the game changer who has put Vancouver here, but Jacob Markstrom is also notable for his excellent play over the past two-plus months. Since Dec. 1 his 12 wins are tied for fifth in the NHL and his .923 save percentage in that time is well-above league average and just behind the much more celebrated Carter Hart. There’s also some semblance of centre depth here now, with Bo Horvat and Pettersson on the top two lines, followed by Brandon Sutter, Jay Beagle and even 2018 Hobey Baker winner Adam Gaudette — currently in the minors — earning praise.
The case against: Losing Alex Edler for a short period of time hurts, but they’ve also played more games than every team on this list besides Anaheim and Chicago. And although Pettersson is this freakish rookie who can turn a game in the Canucks’ favour on a dime, there is a question if there’s enough offence in the rest of the lineup. Over the past five weeks, only Los Angeles, Dallas and Anaheim have averaged fewer goals than Vancouver. And while Boeser is an elite sniper on the wing, the next-highest goal-scoring winger is Jake Virtanen with just 12 on the season. Fourteen times since Dec. 1, Vancouver has played against a team that was in a playoff spot at the time of the game, and they managed a total of just 14 goals in those contests.
The case in favour: They were the best team on this list by a fairly wide margin for the first two months of the season. The Avs were 15-6-5 on Dec. 1, which was the fifth-best record in the league at the time. Everything was clicking. Semyon Varlamov was strong, the ‘Rocky Mountain Line’ was making a hard push as the best trio in the league, their power play was ranked No. 1 and their penalty kill was a top 10 unit. Recapturing any level of that would put Colorado on another plane.
The case against: Since Dec. 1 the exact opposite is true. It’s hard to believe, but the Avalanche have the fewest wins in the NHL over the past two-plus months and they’re currently on a five-game losing streak, showing no signs of improvement. Neither goalie has a save percentage of even .880 in that time and the team defence has completely broken down. “Defensively we’re taking too many chances, giving up too many quality chances and we’re not getting a big save,” Avs GM Joe Sakic recently told the Denver Post. “If we can shore up our defensive play, our play away from the puck and be a little more committed to checking, we can turn this thing around.”
The case in favour: They have the best offensive player in the world. Aside from the obvious, just getting Oscar Klefbom back in the lineup should be a big help, because the splits with and without him are egregious. With him, the Oilers average 30.12 shots-against per game and have an 18-13-2 record. But in the stretch from mid-December to this past week when he was out to injury, the Oilers averaged 32.6 shots-against per game and showed a 6-12-3 record.
The case against: The winger scoring depth is even more of a concern here than it is in Vancouver. Only one winger, Alex Chiasson with 17, has more than seven goals this season and it’s taken him an unsustainable 24.3 shooting percentage to accomplish. If Ken Hitchcock unites one of Ryan Nugent-Hopkins or Leon Driasaitl with Connor McDavid the centre depth takes a hit, but if he doesn’t, scoring becomes an issue. They don’t appear to have assets to make any substantial deadline pickups. There’s also the matter of goaltending: Despite already re-signing Mikko Koskinen to a three-year extension, Cam Talbot has arguably been the better puck stopper over the past couple of months with a well-below average .901 save percentage since Dec. 1.
The case in favour: Patrick Kane is still a top-end superstar and might be the quietest Art Ross contender out there with 79 points in 54 games. Jonathan Toews has had a huge bounceback season and, still one of the better two-way threats, is on pace for the best offensive season of his career as well. And then there are the kids. Dylan Strome has 10 goals and 27 points in 31 games since being picked up in trade. Erik Gustafsson has taken over as the top power-play quarterback and is the NHL’s eighth-highest scoring blueliner since Dec. 1. Alex DeBrincat has already equaled his rookie goal total and has a shot at 40 on the season. And 24-year-old goalie Collin Delia looks like the real deal(ia) with a 6-2-3 record and .923 save percentage since he joined the roster in December. They’re the second-hottest team on this list next to St. Louis and have won six in a row.
The case against: We know it’s hard to make up points in a league that rewards teams who lose in extra time so the fact Chicago has to leap over four teams just to get to the second wild-card spot is a big deal. Plus, with 55 games played, everyone above them except Vancouver (also at 55) has games in hand. And while their power play has been great, Chicago’s penalty kill is the worst in the league and not improving at all.
The case in favour: Despite a long list of injuries that can only be rivalled by Anaheim over the full season, the Coyotes are hanging around the race. Even though no one has hit 40 points on this team, team defence has been the story of their season, with a 30.5 shots-against average that ranks top 10 league-wide. As a result, most of the five goalies they’ve utilized have played well, and Darcy Kuemper is the one carrying the flag these days. Arizona has the best penalty kill in the league and their 12 shorthanded goals are second to only Calgary.
The case against: We’ve seen this kind of promise before from Arizona when they were considered out of it. In 2017-18, from Jan. 1 until the end of the season, they went a very respectable 20-14-7. After another bad start in 2018-19, the Coyotes again began recovering to get into the playoff picture, but just as it was getting within reach a four-game losing streak against Montreal, San Jose, Dallas and Nashville, has kept them from actually getting in. Where some teams on this list have scoring depth problems, the Coyotes have little scoring anywhere. If it’s true the NHL is a star-driven league (and it is) the Coyotes don’t yet have a forward who fits that description.
The case in favour: After being so injured all season, they’re starting to get healthy again. Granted, key players Ondrej Kase and Patrick Eaves are still out, but the IR situation isn’t as bad as it’s been most of the season. John Gibson has been stellar through most of the campaign and prior to the all-star break was making a strong case for the Vezina, and even the Hart. Ryan Getzlaf is still a force.
The case against: To be honest, there are far more reasons against the Ducks. They have been bleeding shots-against all season and have a minus-209 shot differential at 5-on-5 that is better than only Ottawa this season. This fact was concealed by Gibson’s play all year, but all this bending is starting to cause even him to break. After allowing more than three goals just six times from October until Jan. 1, Gibson has seven of those such games since the calendar flipped to 2019. Meantime, there is no offence going on here. Although Getzlaf is not the issue, his 34 points are the lowest for any team leader in the NHL.
LOS ANGELES KINGS
The case in favour: Winners of six of their past nine, it is worth noting this playoff team from 2018 is just five points out. On the periphery of the race, and without much pressure after the hockey world has written them off, maybe the Kings can mount enough of a comeback to make a push. Jonathan Quick is still above average, but when he’s slipped a bit backup Jack Campbell has been there to catch him with a .933 save percentage in 16 games.
The case against: There’s way too much that needs to go right for the Kings. They have as much of a problem on offence as any team on this list and have to jump over seven teams to get to the playoffs. That’s too much. The only reason Los Angeles has managed to stay on the fringe with a 7-6-1 record since Jan. 1 is because so many other teams have struggled more in that time. Odds are at least one of them (and probably more) will start stringing some wins together and leave the Kings in the dust. Plus, with Jake Muzzin already moved out, they figure to further sell off pieces from the roster.