Every Monday, Sean McIndoe looks back at weekend play in the NHL and the league’s biggest storylines. You can follow him on Twitter.
Opening faceoff: The aftermath
This time last week, we figured we were counting down to something, even if we weren’t quite sure what. Well, the deadline has come and gone, and we were right. That was… something.
A week ago, it looked like we could be in for a deadline that would shake things up as far as the top contenders were concerned. Instead, while we saw plenty of deals over the course of a busy 72 hours or so, it’s fair to say that the Earth didn’t exactly shift beneath the road to the Stanley Cup.
The biggest-impact players on the block didn’t go anywhere, as Joe Sakic and the Avalanche decided to wait until the summer to break up their flailing core. Other big names, like Patrick Sharp, Shane Doan and Radim Vrbata, also stayed put for various reasons. Most of the top contenders chose to tinker rather than bring in major reinforcements. And the two best players who did move ended up going to the teams that were already sitting at one and two in our power rankings.
So was it all just a big waste of time? Not quite. For one, the Capitals’ grip on overall-favourite status got a lot tighter, and barring some sort of late-season slump we can pretty much pencil them into the top spot for the rest of the year. The Wild made it clear that they’re all-in to emerge from the Western Conference. And even the Senators signaled that they’re serious about emerging from the Atlantic, recognizing that there may never be a clearer path through the division than the one in front of them right now.
But we didn’t get the sort of seismic change we might have seen if, say, the Rangers had landed Kevin Shattenkirk or a team like the Canadiens had pulled the trigger on Matt Duchene. Time will tell if those teams end up regretting their cautious approach, although history tells us that big deadline moves can backfire at least as often as they work.
So sure, the balance of power shifted, even if only slightly and mostly in the direction of the teams who already had it. Now we find out how much any of it ends up mattering.
Meanwhile, a contender that’s been in and out of the top five all season has caught fire and shot up the rankings. That could end up being more important than any of the deals that did or didn’t get made last week. More on that in the next section.
Road to the Cup
The five teams that look like they’re headed towards Stanley Cup–favourite status.
5. San Jose Sharks (38-19-7, +26 true goals differential*): They came out of last night’s showdown in Minnesota with a regulation loss, the first time in eight games they haven’t managed a point.
4. Pittsburgh Penguins (40-16-8, +43): When they’re healthy, the Penguins still seem like they have as good a shot as anyone to win it all. But right now, Kris Letang is hurt, and this didn’t sound good.
3. Minnesota Wild (42-15-6, +62): That win over the Sharks moved them back into first place in the Central. And yet…
2. Chicago Blackhawks (42-18-5, +32): Well, look who’s back. I’m sure the rest of the league is just thrilled to see the three-time champs casually stepping on the gas at the quarter-pole.
(*Goals scored minus goals allowed, without counting shootouts like the NHL does for some reason.)
We’ve broken some new ground in this week’s top five: For the first time all season, Western Conference teams occupy the majority of the slots. The East has been owning the section all year, even taking four of five spots for some stretches. But for one week, at least, the West is holding down the spotlight.
Why? Well, part of this is some common sense reckoning that’s probably overdue. The list is supposed to represent the teams with the best shot at winning the Stanley Cup, which means it doesn’t really make sense to have four Metro teams clogging it up. For example, the Blue Jackets might be a fantastic team enjoying a dream season, but the reality is that their path to the conference final probably goes through Pittsburgh and Washington. Could they beat both of those teams? Maybe, but a team like the Sharks sure seems to have an easier road.
Earlier in the season, it made some sense to just focus on which teams were the best and not worry too much about playoff scenarios that were months away. But with the Capitals making the biggest improvement at the deadline, it’s time to start nudging some of those other Metro teams down the rankings. For this week, at least, that means the Rangers and Blue Jackets get bumped. (Of course, whichever Metro team finishes fourth will cross over to the Atlantic and get a much easier playoff path; we’ll figure out how to account for that as we go.)
But with apologies to the Capitals and their division-altering trade, they’re not the biggest story at the top of the rankings. That would be the Blackhawks, who’ve spent the last few weeks looking like, well, the Blackhawks. I heard from plenty of Chicago fans who thought their team should have been in the top five last week, and they’re probably right. And that was before Stan Bowman went and did his usual routine of bringing in reinforcements even though we’d all been told he had no cap room. (Apparently, he once again missed the leaguewide memo about trading being too hard.)
This week, the Blackhawks didn’t leave anyone with much of a choice, chalking up three more wins to run their streak to seven straight. That was enough to move them back into first place in the Central for the first time since mid-January. It was short-lived, with the Wild regaining top spot with last night’s win, and Minnesota still holds two games in hand. But at the very least, any thoughts of Bruce Boudreau’s squad running away with the division can be put to rest.
What’s more, that seven-game streak comes on the heels of a five-gamer, leaving the Hawks with 12 wins in 13 games since the start of February. There haven’t been many cheapies in there; all but one of the wins came in regulation, five were by three goals or more, and they’ve been held to fewer than four goals only twice.
The Blackhawks will now get some welcomed time off, as they don’t play again until Thursday. Then it’s three in four nights, the last of which will be a Sunday showdown with the Wild. It will be the third meeting between the two teams in a month, with Chicago having won the last two. Another Chicago win, and we might have start dialing back those references to a “wide-open” West; the Blackhawks will be the clear favourites. If they’re not already.
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. New Jersey Devils (25-28-12, -41): Make it seven straight losses, and two shutouts in their last three. They get a rematch with the Blue Jackets tomorrow.
He walked that back a bit after last night’s win.
2. Arizona Coyotes (23-35-7, -57): Last night’s loss to the Hurricanes means that the Coyotes still haven’t managed regulation wins in back-to-back games all season.
The Vancouver Canucks may have won the week.
To be clear: That doesn’t have much to do with them actually winning hockey games. Weekend decisions over the Kings and Ducks snapped a four-game losing streak, and gave them consecutive wins for the first time since mid-January, which is all well and good.
But when you’re a half-dozen points and multiple teams back of the playoff bubble, the game-to-game results don’t really matter all that much. Instead, you’re looking at the bigger picture. And after a year in which the Vancouver front office came under almost constant criticism for a variety of odd roster decisions and (more importantly) an apparent franchise-wide philosophy that this was a good team that could make the playoffs, the Canucks went out and did what everyone knew they had to do at the deadline: They sold.
Granted, doing the obvious shouldn’t be especially worthy of praise. But it was how Jim Benning and the Canucks went about the selling that raised some eyebrows. Both deals that they pulled off earned rave reviews, with the team adding two good young players, not to mention a conditional pick that could turn into a first rounder.
That’s a better haul than anyone expected Benning and friends to manage. And it left Canucks fans pondering a question that had seemed unthinkable even a few weeks ago: Wait, are these guys good at this?
We should be careful with the Canucks-related optimism around these parts. Two months ago, they were riding a winning streak and we were using this space to ask if they were legitimate playoff contenders. The answer we settled on was basically “probably not, but maybe”; in hindsight, the correct answer was something more along the lines of “good lord, no.”
But after the deadline, Canucks fans might be feeling a different type of optimism. This isn’t the short-term “maybe we can squeak into a playoff spot we don’t really deserve” hope of earlier in the season. This is the “we might be building something here” variety, which is far better.
Nobody should be hanging a Mission Accomplished banner anywhere at Canucks’ headquarters quite yet. The Canucks’ deadline wasn’t perfect – a Ryan Miller trade would have been nice – and there’s still plenty of work left to do. Vancouver fans should get ready for lots of the sort of one step forward, one step back routine we saw on Saturday, when newcomer Nikolay Goldobin scored a nifty breakaway goal early and was then almost immediately benched for the rest of the game.
The stretch run can be lots of fun if your team is fighting for a playoff spot, or for home ice. But if there’s nothing left to root for apart from lottery odds, it can be a pretty miserable few weeks. The only antidote to that misery is a measure of hope for the future. After a pair of unexpected deadline wins, Canucks fans might actually have some.
Quick shifts: 10 more notable moments from around the league
• Congratulations to the Montreal Canadiennes, who beat the Calgary Inferno to claim their fourth Clarkson Cup title as CWHL champions.
• The Antoine Vermette saga appears to be over. The Ducks’ veteran decided not to appeal his suspension for abuse of officials to an arbitrator, and will sit out the full 10 games.
• Connor McDavid: still playing a different sport from everyone else:
They face the Bruins tonight in what currently stands as a first-round preview.
• Speaking of playoff previews, the Canadiens’ 4–1 win over the Rangers sure looked like one, which is not good news for New York. Meanwhile, Montreal has won five straight.
• The hottest team in the NHL right now outside of Chicago is the Calgary Flames, who’ve won seven straight and have built up a comfortable eight-point cushion over the ninth-place Kings. And just like that, a Battle of Alberta first-round pairing is suddenly in play.
• Did Nikita Kucherov do this on purpose?
It sure looks like it.
• Finally, the GMs will hold their annual meeting this week, because what better time to get every GM in a room together than right after the trade deadline? Topics to be covered will include offside reviews, goalie equipment and bye weeks, and none of the things you actually want them to talk about.