(Every Monday, Sean McIndoe looks back at weekend play in the NHL and the league’s biggest storylines. You can follow him on Twitter @DownGoesBrown.)
Opening faceoff: A moment of parity
We’re living in the NHL’s age of parity. That’s been well-established for a while, and whether fans like it or not, most of us have come to accept that this is just how the league works now.
Anyone can beat anyone else on any given night, the loser point means almost everyone finishes over .500, and aside from a few outliers at either end, the gap between good and bad is smaller than ever.
But even given that reality, something weird is happening in the NHL these days.
We’re used to parity being something that reveals itself over the course of a season, where there’s enough time for the occasional hot and cold streaks to balance out. But these days, you don’t even have to take a long view to find league-wide parity. It’s playing out over the course of a few weeks.
Last Thursday, a reader sent me a note with an interesting observation: Heading into that night’s action, 27 out of the league’s 30 teams had won either four, five or six of their last ten games. That’s a full 90 per cent of the league within a game of breaking even.
The other three teams weren’t even extreme outliers; nobody in the NHL had won more than seven or fewer than three of their last ten.
Take a look at the standings today, and you’ll see a similar story — although not quite as extreme. Twenty-four of the 30 teams fall within that four/five/six-win range, and again, nobody is outside of that three-to-seven range.
That’s not quite as extreme as we saw last week, but still less than what we’d expect if we were just randomly flipping coins.
Meanwhile, only one team in the league (the Philadelphia Flyers) has an active winning streak longer than three games, and only one (Colorado Avalanche) has lost more than that many in a row.
None of this is to say that some teams aren’t playing especially well or poorly lately, as we’ll see in the sections below. But even those teams aren’t really seeing any dramatic swings in their win/loss records these days, and the practical impact has been that we’re not really getting all that much movement in the standings.
Nobody is soaring or plummeting; instead, we’re seeing a handful of teams move up or down by a spot or two, but nothing that feels like a big change.
There’s still a lot of season left, as we’re constantly reminded. That might be good news for NHL teams who aren’t happy with their place in their standings and are hoping to make a move.
The way everyone’s going these days, it may take a while to get anywhere.
Road to the Cup
The five teams that look like they’re headed towards Stanley Cup favourite status.
5. San Jose Sharks (15-9-1, plus-9 true goals differential*) – Yeah, I know, I’m not completely sold on this pick either. With the Capitals and Lightning struggling, it was either the Sharks or the Blue Jackets, and the Sharks have won six of seven.
Besides, I still want to see one more solid week from Columbus. (My current plan is to say that every week for the rest of the season and hope nobody notices.)
4. New York Rangers (17-8-1, plus-31) – This seems low, right? It probably is, but see the section below.
3. Pittsburgh Penguins (15-7-3, plus-4) – I did not have “Pittsburgh hosting Ottawa on a Monday night in early December” on my list of key games in sorting out the Eastern Conference, but here we are.
2. Chicago Blackhawks (16-8-3, plus-5) – They’ve lost two straight without Jonathan Toews and now Corey Crawford, who’ll miss 2-3 weeks after undergoing an emergency appendectomy.
1. Montreal Canadiens (17-6-2, plus-18) – They’re slowly but surely coming back to earth.
Luckily, earth is a place where you can be far from perfect and still be among the NHL’s top teams.
(*Goals scored minus goals allowed, without counting shootouts like the NHL does for some reason.)
Is there something wrong with the New York Rangers?
On the surface, not really.
They’re sitting in first place in the Metropolitan Division, even briefly passing the Canadiens for top spot in the East on Saturday night. (The Habs reclaimed the spot yesterday).
The Rangers have still got the best goals-differential in the league by a wide margin, and while they’re not racking up wins at the same rate they were earlier, they’re not exactly cold right now – they’re one of those many teams to have won five of their last ten.
And yet, something seems… off.
Their scoring rate has dropped, which we all knew was coming – their team shooting had been humming along at a completely unsustainable rate over the season’s opening month.
After consistently filling the net for weeks, including a stretch of five straight games with five goals or more, they’d gone five straight without managing more than three until Saturday’s 4-2 win over the Hurricanes.
Again, we knew that would happen, and if an offensive downturn was all that was happening in New York you could shrug it off.
But it’s not.
They’ve recently gone from being a below-average possession team to an outright awful one, getting pummeled on the shot clock. That doesn’t always translate to losses – they were getting crushed over the first half of that Hurricanes game before putting together a late rally to claim the win – but it’s a big blinking warning sign on the dashboard.
Meanwhile, Henrik Lundqvist has been good, but not his usual dominant self. He’s even occasionally doing stuff like this:
As Rangers beat reporter Larry Brooks recently pointed out, the Rangers have yet to win a game where they score two or fewer goals, and you wonder what they’ll look like as the season wears on and games get tighter.
If you’re a Rangers fan, maybe you’re happy that a team with this many red flags is still in great shape in the standings. And hey, it’s not like there’s a long list of teams out there charging up to take their spot.
But something’s going on in New York, and if they can’t figure it out soon then what seemed like a Cup-contending season may be about to get very interesting.
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. Buffalo Sabres (9-10-5, minus-11) – Last week, we said we couldn’t really evaluate the Sabres until Jack Eichel made his return. He’s back — and with three goals in three games, he looks sharp. Now let’s see if the Sabres can get back into the race.
4. Vancouver Canucks (11-12-2, minus-19) – They won the big grudge match against the Maple Leafs, so everyone in Vancouver is probably pretty happy with how things are going right now.
OK, Canucks fans, meet me down below.
3. New York Islanders (9-10-5, minus-8) – Last week’s number one rides a three-game win streak out of the basement, despite dropping an OT decision to the Red Wings last night.
2. Arizona Coyotes (8-11-4, minus-17) – Mike Smith had one of the better games in recent NHL history on Saturday. But in the end, it added up to another Coyotes loss.
1. Colorado Avalanche (9-13-1, minus-19) – A disastrous five-game home stand yielded one point and left them nine points out of a playoff spot. Now they head out for four on the road, and it feels like their season is already on the line.
So apparently it’s “rip on Trevor Linden” week.
The Canucks president gave an in-depth interview to Sportsnet’s Luke Fox last week, one that touched on a number of subjects including player safety, his approach to his role, and Troy Stecher’s bike.
It’s a fascinating look into the day-to-day decision-making that goes into the job, and well worth the read for fans of any team.
But the biggest takeaway, at least according to fans on social media, was Linden’s comments about the possibility of a rebuild.
While acknowledging that the team isn’t where he’d like them to be — and the need for what he calls a “next chapter” — Linden pushed back on the idea of a full rebuild. And he made some interesting comments about the team’s veteran core — particularly this one:
“We have Daniel and Henrik Sedin here, who are very important to this organization and icons in the city. They’re not going anywhere. I don’t know how I walk into the room and tell these guys, “Strip it down.” I’m not sure it’s fair to these guys.”
The backlash from fans, while certainly not unanimous, was loud and immediate.
Linden was putting feelings ahead of facts. He’d rather avoid a tough conversation than do what he knows needs to be done. He was kicking the can down the road, sentencing Canucks fans to two or three more years of chasing long-shot wildcard status and not much more, all to shelter two players from a reality they can no doubt already plainly see.
As a longtime Leafs fan who suffered through the Ferguson/Burke eras, this all sounds familiar.
I know that the denial phase of the rebuild is the worst of them all, and that it can drag on for years — sometimes close to a decade.
But I’m also going to defend Trevor Linden.
For one thing, it’s important to pay attention to the words he’s using here. Nowhere does Linden say that there’s no rebuild coming.
There’s no definitive statement that the organization is staying the course. There’s a lot of “I don’t know” and “I’m not sure.” That leaves him some wiggle room.
And realistically, it’s about as far as he can go early in a season in which his team is still on the fringe of the playoff race.
But more importantly, Linden may be acknowledging something that frustrated Canucks fans will need to get used to: a traditional burn-it-all-to-the-ground rebuild just may not be possible in Vancouver.
The typical first step in that sort of process is to trade the team’s best veteran players to contenders for high picks and top prospects.
For the Canucks, that’s the Sedins.
But even putting loyalty and nostalgia aside, how do you make that deal? Both have no-movement clauses, so they’re not going anywhere unless they want to, and at this point they don’t.
And even if they changed their minds, trading one $7-million cap hit in today’s NHL is difficult; trading two as a package deal would be all but impossible. There just aren’t many contenders out there with $14-million in cap space sitting around.
Unless two players who’ve been joined at the hip for their entire hockey careers suddenly decide that playing together isn’t a priority, a Sedins trade is all but dead in the water.
Beyond that, who do you move? Loui Eriksson isn’t going anywhere with that contract. Ryan Miller could, and you’d get something for him. But after that, who goes? Maybe Alexandre Burrows, or a healthy Alex Edler.
But this isn’t a team that’s stocked with prime trade bait. When Linden talks about not knowing how to strip it down, he may be being more honest than we give him credit for.
In the end, of course, it’s all moot if Canucks ownership isn’t on board. But even if Linden and GM Jim Benning get the green light to blow it all up, it’s going to be easier said than done.
If you’re a Vancouver fan waiting for the grand rebuild to begin, the unfortunate reality is that you’ve got far bigger hurdles in front of you than the team president’s soundbites.
Quick shifts: Ten more notable moments from around the league
• Some really interesting stuff from Panthers GM (and new coach) Tom Rowe on Saturday. (You can watch the interview at the top of this post.)
The biggest takeaway was Rowe being very clear about the fact that none of this was his decision, and that owner Vinnie Viola made the call to dismiss coach Gerard Gallant. It’s not unusual for an owner to be involved in a change, but hearing a GM acknowledge it so openly is rare.
• Don Cherry weighed in on the Gallant situation on Coach’s Corner later that night.
• As if things weren’t bad enough for the Avalanche, they lost Erik Johnson for up to two months after he broke his fibula blocking a shot.
• Joe Thornton has passed Brendan Shanahan to claim a spot in the all-time top 25 for points. He could realistically end the season as high as the top 20.
• Johnny Gaudreau is back, and it didn’t take long for him to have an impact. He scored two minutes into the Flames’ 8-3 thumping of the Ducks.
• The reigning Presidents’ Trophy winners may be in trouble. With three straight losses, the slumping Capitals have dropped into a tie with the Bruins for the East’s final wildcard spot.
• The good news for New York Islanders fans: Ownership is reportedly looking to make changes.
The bad news: Those changes will apparently involve finding a former NHL star to take over as president. Just a thought, but perhaps the Islanders should be more focused on finding the best possible candidate for the job, rather than limiting themselves to NHL alumni.
• As expected, we did get the promised Matt Martin vs. Erik Gudbranson scrap on Saturday. Everyone lived.
• P.K. Subban: Still good. After an awful start, he and the Predators are slowly but surely climbing back into the Western playoff race.
• Finally, a fun story: A Philadelphia practice rink employee got to serve as the Blackhawks’ backup on Saturday after Crawford’s appendectomy.