• Could six Canadian teams make the playoffs?
• Post-season crossover well in play
• Wings’ GM tree falling on hard times
As of this weekend, the NHL regular season will be four months old. We’re a few weeks away from the trade deadline, and then it’s straight into the home stretch as we head towards the playoffs. Those early-season weeks can sometimes feel like they’re dragging on, but from this point forward things start moving quickly.
That makes it a good time to check in with some of the trends that are rising and falling around the league. Let’s see how everyone’s portfolio is doing.
Stock rising: Competitive balance
It’s Gary Bettman’s favourite buzzword, and the league’s go-to example of everything that’s right with the cap era. In today’s NHL, we’re constantly told, almost everyone is a contender, and the playoff races come right down to the final weekend.
Most years, it’s just marketing. But this season, it just might turn out to be true. As of today, only the Coyotes and Avalanche are truly done, with the other 28 teams all within seven points of a playoff spot. That means the entire Eastern Conference, and almost all of the West, are either in the mix or at least close enough to seem like they are.
Is that actually a good thing? That depends on your perspective. As we covered on Monday, it could definitely mess up the trade deadline. And for a lot of fans, this league is starting to feel like we’re just flipping coins. But there’s no question that seeing your favourite team in a playoff race is more fun than having them eliminated by February, and right now 28 out of the league’s 30 fan bases have at least some vague reason to keep watching.
So what’s behind the standings mashup? The salary cap is a big part of it, but doesn’t explain why this year would be different than most. Some of that is probably just random luck, and we may see that even out as the year goes on.
But there’s another key factor at play, and it’s one the league won’t want to acknowledge: Nobody is tanking this year. In years where there was a Connor McDavid or Auston Matthews waiting at the top of the draft, some teams were willing to take a knee on the season, and plenty more joined them as soon as things started to go bad. But with apologies to Nolan Patrick, a top pick in this year’s draft doesn’t carry anywhere near the same value. And so far, nobody’s in any hurry to join the Avs and Coyotes in a race to the bottom.
And while we’re at it, we may as well give some grudging credit to one other factor: The loser point. It’s no secret that we hate it, and think that its parity-inducing properties are wildly exaggerated. But in the East, at least for this year, it really does seem to be keeping the races tighter – the average Eastern playoff team has 6.1 loser points, while the average non-playoff team has 8.6.
That’s probably a fluke. We don’t see the same effect in the West, where the distribution is the largely random sprinkling we normally see; Western playoff teams have 6.0 loser points compared to 5.3 for non-playoff teams, and the team with the fewest, Colorado, is buried in dead last. Still, for once the NHL’s loser point spin might hold true in at least one conference.
The log jam won’t last, of course — by the end of the month, anyone who’s still six or seven points out will have to acknowledge that it’s over, and the trade deadline will force teams to throw in the towel. But for now, over 90 per cent of the league still has something to play for, or at least can plausibly pretend that they do.
Stock plummeting: Coaches’ job security
Well, we knew that couldn’t last.
We’ve been doing these stock-watch posts every month of the season, and a curious lack of coaching casualties has been a running theme. We noted it as early as November, after a rare opening month without a single firing. The first shoe didn’t drop until Gerald Gallant nearly two months in, and that was it when the mid-season update ran last month.
But since then, patience has apparently run out around the league. Jack Capuano took the fall in mid-January and was followed by Ken Hitchcock. This week, it was Claude Julien, who was turfed by Don Sweeney because… well, even Sweeney doesn’t seem to be quite sure.
Still, all this movement is bad news for other coaches who may find their seats getting warm. These things can snowball, as fans (and owners) see other teams make moves and wonder why their team isn’t doing the same. Having a pair of extremely well-respected names like Hitchcock and Julien on the market might nudge a few GMs towards making a change they wouldn’t otherwise make, especially with the still-coachless Golden Knights lurking. And seeing the Islanders turn their season around under Doug Weight will give everyone something to think about.
So who’s next? We haven’t seen a Canadian team make a switch yet, but that could change. Paul Maurice would seem like a candidate, Willie Desjardins has been under the microscope all year, and Glen Gulutzan has taken some heat in year one. Elsewhere, you wonder if Jon Cooper could be in any trouble in Tampa, or whether the flailing Avalanche will pull the plug on rookie Jared Bednar to snap up one of the bigger names. Lindy Ruff reportedly doesn’t have a contract for next year, and Jon Hynes and even Dan Bylsma could be in trouble as well.
Maybe everyone survives, at least until the off-season – we’re getting kind of late into the year for GMs to try any season-saving moves. But as Julien found out, sometimes change is inevitable, whether it makes any sense of not.
Stock rising: Playoff-format panic
The NHL’s playoff format is strange. In their defence, it kind of has to be. The league has two conferences of different sizes, and wants as many division-based matchups as possible. But it also has wild-card spots, which can lead to crossover teams, which can lead to weirdness.
Most years, it all works out reasonably well. In the three post-seasons since the new format debuted in 2014, we’ve yet to see a team win a division it’s not in (which is possible) or a double-crossover in which both divisions in a conference send four teams to the playoffs, but two teams still trade places (which is also possible). Both of those scenarios are in play this year; if the season ended today, we’d get the double-crossover in the West, with the Flames becoming a Central team and the Blues heading to the Pacific.
But it’s the Metro that’s really screwing things up. The division is so top heavy with good teams that its playoff scenarios start to get downright bizarre. With four of the league’s top teams clumped in one division, that means we could see the league’s third and fourth best teams face each other in the first round. Right now, that would be Columbus and Pittsburgh, with the Pens having to start on the road despite having a better record than 26 other teams.
Things could get even stranger in the wild card, where the Metro’s fourth-best team could cross over to the Atlantic and face a first-place team with a worse record. That would be the case today, with the Rangers heading to Montreal as a road team to face a Habs team that’s trailing them in the standings.
Meanwhile, it’s possible that the conference’s seventh- and eighth-best teams would finish second and third in the Atlantic, facing each other and guaranteeing one a trip to the second round.
That’s all strange, but you could argue that it’s ultimately just a harmless quirk – after all, you’re typically going to have to beat three or four good teams to win the Stanley Cup, so you might as well get some out of the way early. But it could create some interesting strategic scenarios. If the standings still look like this as the season winds down, do you really want to finish third in the Atlantic, when finishing fourth and punching a wild-card ticket to the Atlantic would seem to offer an easier playoff path? And if the race at the top of the Atlantic tightens up, would you rather drop down to second and “earn” an easier first-round matchup?
This isn’t the first time we’ve faced the possibility of some playoff weirdness, and so far the NHL has largely dodged that bullet (although there were some suggestions of shenanigans last year). Maybe we avoid it again this year. But fans of those Metro juggernauts are starting to notice how all this could play out, and they’re not happy.
Stock holding steady: Trade-deadline excitement
So far it’s quiet. Almost too quiet. This is the time of year when the bigger deals start to roll in – it was exactly one year ago today that the Leafs and Senators hooked up on the Dion Phaneuf deal, and almost two years ago that the Jets and Sabres pulled off the Evander Kane/Tyler Myers blockbuster.
But so far, nothing. There have been only 14 trades since opening night, and none would qualify as especially major. When your “biggest trade of the year” debate centres on names like Nikita Nesterov and Nail Yakupov, you know it’s been a dry spell.
Maybe teams have just been biding their time for a frantic finish. Maybe everyone’s waiting for the Golden Knights to tag into the fray, at which point some expansion-draft clarity might free up GMs to make other moves. Or maybe we’re going to get another deadline dud, thanks to all that parity and a rumoured flat cap that will tie everyone’s hands.
We don’t know yet. We will within a few weeks.
Stock rising: The Canadian playoff picture
You know what… let’s not even mention this one. After last year’s disaster, in which not a single Canadian team made the post-season for the first time since 1970, it feels wrong to even talk about the country’s chances this year. We don’t want to jinx anything. Let’s just move on.
But the Canadiens and Oilers are already pretty much locks.
[Whispering even more quietly]
And the Senators and Leafs are pretty much guaranteed one spot between them, and might still grab two. And if they did, they’d probably play each other, so that could give us at least one Canadian team in the second round.
And assuming Montreal wins the division and doesn’t get stuck facing a Metro powerhouse in a crossover scenario, they’d have a good chance of making the second round, too, setting up an all-Canadian Atlantic Division final and guaranteeing the country a spot in the final four for only the second time since 2010.
[Blinking frantically in Morse Code]
And the Flames are still right in the mix. And even the Jets and Canucks aren’t totally out of the running yet. Those three teams are all fighting for the two wild-card spots, and it’s very possible that the Kings and Blues could grab both of those. But there’s still a possibility that five Canadian teams could end up making it, and a non-zero chance it could even be six.
So yeah, nothing to see here. Next topic.
Stock falling: The Red Wings GM tree
It’s been a rough year for Ken Holland. While he still seems to be widely respected all around the league, he’s been taking heat in Detroit as the Red Wings falter. It’s becoming apparent that this is shaping up to be the year that The Streak ends and the Wings miss the playoffs. Even more concerning, there doesn’t seem to be much of a plan in place to get them back to the post-season in the near future.
Granted, that’s not all on Holland. He didn’t know that Pavel Datsyuk was going to bolt, and it’s not his fault that Jimmy Howard got hurt in the middle of a comeback season. But he does own responsibility for the team’s rotten cap situation, spotty free-agency record and middling prospect pipeline. After nearly two decades as Red Wings GM, Holland went into the season facing questions about job security for the first time.
That’s re-opened an old wound for some Detroit fans, who’ve seen the franchise part ways with a pair of bright young minds in recent years. Both Jim Nill and Steve Yzerman did their front-office apprenticeships under Holland; both went on to be hired as GMs elsewhere when it became clear the Detroit job wasn’t going to open up; both have had plenty of success ever since. Yzerman rebuilt the Lightning into Cup finalists and has won five playoff rounds in the last two years, while Nill’s Stars were the West’s top seed last year. Either could have been the next Red Wings GM, but it didn’t happen, at least partly because Holland didn’t want it to.
So if you’re a Wings fan, that might still bother you. But this year, Nill and Yzerman aren’t doing any better than Holland. The Lightning and Stars went into the season among the Stanley Cup favourites, but both have crashed and burned. And neither GM has exactly had a stellar year – Yzerman still hasn’t found a home for Ben Bishop, while Nill hasn’t managed to upgrade his goaltending. (That still seems like it could be a two-birds-with-one-stone situation, but who are we to say.)
A year or two ago, the three-headed Wings GM tree would have been considered the best in the league. These days, not so much. Life comes at you fast.