With the NHL season paused, hopeful for an eventual return to play out the rest of the regular season and playoffs, there are a number of storylines hanging out there that, as of now, remain unfinished.
From goal races, to playoff races, and runs toward futility, we’re taking a look today at five interesting storylines that we still hope to follow to conclusion, if it becomes safe to do so.
Auston Matthews‘ pursuit of 50 goals and the team scoring record
At the time of the season pause Alex Ovechkin (48 goals in 68 games), David Pastrnak (48 in 70) and Matthews (47 in 70) were all in the running for the Rocket Richard Trophy and all seemed like good bets to cross the 50-goal barrier. In Matthews’ case, he had a very good possibility of becoming the first Maple Leaf to hit that total since Dave Andreychuk scored 53 in 1993-94.
Further to that, Matthews was within striking distance of Rick Vaive’s Leafs record of 54 goals in a season (which happened in 1981-82). Matthews is scoring at a .67 goals per game clip in 2019-20 and if he were to continue at that rate over Toronto’s final 12 games, he would add roughly eight to his season total and wrap up with 55 and the record.
Alex Ovechkin’s chase of a ninth Rocket Richard Trophy
The Rocket Richard Trophy has been handed out 20 times in its history and Ovechkin has won it an incredible eight times, including the past two.
As noted above, he is getting serious competition this season from a couple of players, but Ovechkin hit the pause as the hottest scorer of the three. With eight goals in his past 10 games, Ovechkin was ahead of Pastrnak (six) and Matthews (five) in the last stretch of games we saw, with games against Detroit, Chicago and Ottawa up soon.
At 34 years old, it’s amazing to watch Ovechkin compete with, and outperform, more youthful competition as the league skews toward being about younger stars all the time. Ovechkin is defying this trend as he chases the 50-goal plateau for the ninth time.
And as a minor aside, if we don’t get any more regular season games in 2019-20, it would be another (albeit minor) hitch in his attempt at Wayne Gretzky’s scoring record. But think of all the games Ovechkin has already lost: the entire 2004-05 season should have been his rookie campaign and the 2012-13 season was shortened by 34 games due to a lockout. In the grand scheme of things, losing another 13 games isn’t as significant, but with still 188 goals between him and Gretzky, Ovechkin is going to need all the games he can get. There’s no telling when time will start taking its toll, or how hard it could hit.
Ottawa’s draft lottery odds and first-round pick scenarios
As Wayne Scanlan wrote, how the rest of the season ultimately plays out (or doesn’t), and what that means for the draft lottery is of great interest to the Ottawa Senators. At the pause, the Sens were second-last in the league, which would give them a 13.5 per cent chance at winning the first overall pick and the right to select consensus No. 1 Alexis Lafreniere out of Rimouski of the QMJHL.
But if the standings were to freeze as they are now, the Sens would also have the third-best odds (11.5%) to land the first pick because they also hold San Jose’s first-rounder and the Sharks have been falling while the Kings have surged to an 8-1-1 mark in their past 10.
The Senators even have another first-round pick, landing the Islanders’ at the trade deadline for J-G Pageau. The Isles have been tumbling for a bit and held a 2-4-4 record in their last 10 games, which left them sitting outside the playoff picture at the time of the season pause.
The Senators would be interested to know how far the Islanders could fall. Right now, that 2020 first-round pick belongs to Ottawa. But there’s a condition on the pick, so that if it ended up in the top three the Islanders would retain it and send their unprotected 2021 first-rounder to Ottawa instead.
Granted the Islanders had games in hand of everyone below them in the standings, you could see a path to them falling a few more spots. Winnipeg was surging, the Rangers have life and nothing to lose, Calgary is 6-3-1 in its past 10 and in a heated playoff race, as is Nashville. Even the Florida Panthers are just two points back of the Islanders with only one more game played, so they could still pass New York. It’s entirely possible the Islanders could still fall so far that Ottawa would pick three times inside the first 12 selections.
And the 2020 draft is regarded as very strong and deep.
The exciting playoff races in both conference
The Maple Leafs are just three points up on Florida (with one more game played) for third in the Atlantic and if either of those teams missed the playoffs there could be huge off-season implications to follow. Just three points separated five teams in the running for two wild card spots in the Eastern Conference, including the Columbus Blue Jackets and New York Rangers, who have become two of the most surprising teams this season.
In the West, the Vancouver Canucks hit the pause on the outside looking in due to the new tie-breaking rule (Nashville has one more regulation win). Here, six points separate five teams chasing a wild card spot, and the third-place team in the Pacific (Calgary for now) is in similar danger to the third place team in the Atlantic — if either gets passed by a surging divisional rival, they could not only fall out of that spot, but right out of the playoffs altogether.
The way things are shaping up, it was looking possible — even likely — that the new tiebreaker would come into play. Parity truly rules the NHL these days and seeing every team go through wild hot-and-cold swings down the stretch really drives this home — and makes for fascinating playoff races.
The Red Wings’ “pursuit” of the lowest point total in the salary cap era
The 2016-17 Colorado Avalanche were bad. Historically bad. Their 22-56-4 record brought 48 points, which was the lowest total for any team in an 82-game season through the salary cap era. Incredibly, the Detroit Red Wings could do even worse.
Detroit is 17-49-5 at the pause, which brings them to 39 points with 11 games to go. That’s still enough time to pass those Avalanche, but this “chase” would have come right down to the wire. The Wings went 3-6-1 in their last 10 games before the pause and if they put up that same record in their next 10 they would head into the last game of the season with 46 points.
By points percentage, Detroit is currently at .275, which is behind Colorado’s .293 and worse than any team in the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season (Florida’s .375 was the worst that season).
One place they would be a good bet to be even worse than the 2016-17 Avalanche is in goal differential. The Avs were -112 in their disastrous season, while Detroit is -122 right now. Would anyone expect them to suddenly be a plus team?
The worst goal differential for a team ever is -265 by the 1974-75 Washington Capitals, so the Red Wings are safe from that level of terrible. However, if the Wings averaged a minus-1 across each of their last 11 games, they would be one of the 19 worst teams ever by this measure. To crack the 15 worst teams, they would need to be a minus-20 team over their final 11 games and that’s a pace only slightly worse than their season-long average.