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: Let’s take it outside
There’s no question that outdoor games have lost some of their luster over the years.
Once the league realized they had a hit on their hands, they started packing the schedule with outdoor games – in hindsight, probably too many. Yesterday was the 22nd time the league had gone outdoors, and the 18th since the first Winter Classic just eight years ago.
The novelty factor is all but gone, and more than a few fans were scratching their heads when they realized the league was headed outdoors again before the season was even two weeks old.
But as often seems to happen with these games, a big chunk of that cynicism fades away once the event arrives. The weekend in Winnipeg was undeniably fun, starting with a star-studded alumni game on Saturday that featured nearly all of the biggest names from the Smythe Division rivalry days, an appearance by Wayne Gretzky that may well have been his last, and a dramatic last-second winner by Teemu Selanne that was right out of a storybook.
That set a high bar for Sunday’s real game.
Once things got going after a delay caused by bright sun, we were treated to a decent (if not especially exciting) 3-0 Oilers win — one that saw Cam Talbot make 31 saves on the way to his first shutout of the season.
It probably wasn’t quite the sort of show the NHL was hoping for, especially given all the young talent involved in the game. But the overall spectacle of the game still worked, with a strong crowd of nearly 33,000 present and some nice shots of the stadium setup.
We even got the return of the Ref Cam.
It may not have been a classic, but it all added up to an afternoon well spent.
The game will move back inside for the next two months or so, at which point we’ll be treated to two outdoor games in two days (just in case anyone has gone into withdrawal).
In the meantime, let’s see if we can figure out what to make of the season’s first two weeks with our second crack at the power rankings.
Road to the Cup
Here are the five teams that look like they’re headed towards Stanley Cup favourite status.
5. New York Rangers (4-2-0, +6 true goals differential*) – I don’t love this pick. I’m not even sure I like it. This week’s top five is kind of a mess, as we’ll explain below. But the Rangers have looked strong and beat the Capitals on Saturday, so sure, why not.
4. Montreal Canadiens (4-0-1, +12) – Yes, Habs fans, I know this seems too low for the only team without a regulation loss. Chalk it up as a reluctance to overreact to five games. But there’s no arguing with the numbers, and the Canadiens have looked fantastic so far this year. By this time next week, there may be no choice but to move them up the list.
3. St. Louis Blues (4-1-1, +4) – After an impressive 3-0-0 start, they headed through Western Canada and lost two of three. But they have points in five of six.
2. Washington Capitals (3-1-1, +4) – They’d probably be No. 1 if they’d held onto a 2-0 lead against the Rangers on Saturday. As it is, last year’s Presidents’ Trophy winner has still looked good for most of the early going.
1. Tampa Bay Lightning (4-1-0, +2) – The goal differential gets pulled down by their one blemish, a 4-0 loss to the Avalanche. Do I feel good about this pick? I do not, but in the absence of any clear No. 1 candidate, I’ll stick with one of the pre-season Cup favourites.
(*Goals scored minus goals allowed, without counting shootouts like the NHL does for some reason.)
Less than two weeks into the season, we’re still trying to stick with last week’s theme of avoiding overreaction.
That results in a top five that still looks a lot like pre-season rankings, with the exception of the Canadiens kicking the door down and forcing their way onto the list.
The other big change is last week’s top team, the Pittsburgh Penguins, who drop off the list completely after losing three of four and dropping to an ugly minus-7 goal differential. But other than that, this week’s top five isn’t going quite as far out on a limb as it could be, given how the standings look this morning.
I think the conservative approach makes sense for now, when we’ve still got well over 90 per cent of the schedule left to go. But it can’t last forever, and based on how the season has gone so far, I’m not even sure it can last through the next few weeks.
There are plenty of teams that have solid cases for more power ranking respect than they’re getting.
For example, how do you build a top five list without including the team that’s sitting in first place overall in the entire league?
That’s a fair question, and the answer is, well… it’s the Oilers. That’s not meant as a knock on the team, or on their long-suffering fans who finally have something to be excited about. But after years of ineptitude interrupted by occasional flashes on competence, it will take a bit more than a 5-1-0 start for anyone to honestly believe that the Oilers are one of the five most likely Cup winners.
The case gets even shakier for a team that’s one point back of Edmonton. The Vancouver Canucks dropped their first loss in regulation last night, making it slightly easier to leave them off the top five completely despite a 4-1-1 record.
Only one of those wins came in regulation, and the entire Canucks season has had a strong “this can’t continue” vibe. Maybe this current two-game losing streak is the beginning of that.
Still, wins are wins, and right now the Canucks have as many as anyone outside of the Oilers.
(Man that felt weird to type.)
Elsewhere, the Detroit Red Wings made a case for the bottom five with an 0-2-0 start, but four straight wins have them looking like contenders. The Florida Panthers have points in four of five. And the Minnesota Wild had looked good before last night’s 6-3 loss to the Islanders.
Any of those teams (and a few others) could have made a case for a spot in the top five, which probably says more about small sample size and Gary Bettman’s beloved “competitive balance” than anything else.
For now, we’re mostly staying conservative, and keeping the season’s biggest surprises on the outside until they earn it.
In some cases, they’re not all that far off. Give it a bit more time, and we may start seeing some weird teams in the top five. Just not yet.
Road to the lottery
Here are the five teams that look like they’re headed towards watching Nolan Patrick highlights and clicking refresh on draft lottery simulations.
5. Toronto Maple Leafs (1-1-3, even) – With four losses in five games, they were a leading contender for an even higher spot. But since when have this year’s Leafs managed to hold a lead?
4. Carolina Hurricanes (1-2-2, -4) – They’ve only won one game. And that was against the Flames, so it barely counts.
3. Calgary Flames (1-4-1, -8) – All kidding aside, they still feel like a team that will figure it out sooner than later. But this week’s schedule, which includes back-to-back road games against the Blackhawks and Blues, will be a tough test.
2. Buffalo Sabres (1-2-1, -1) – Two close losses nudge them down a spot, and the coach is maybe kind of calling out one of the team’s best young players. But at least no key pieces got hurt this week.
1. Arizona Coyotes (1-4-0, -7) – They’ve lost starting goaltender Mike Smith to a lower body injury that’s left him week-to-week. They’ve also lost four straight after opening the season with an OT win, leaving them as one of four teams without a regulation win on the year. (The Flames, Kings and Jets are the others.)
As with our top five, last week’s No. 1 team drops off the list completely.
The Columbus Blue Jackets won both their games this week to move to 2-2-0 and quiet worries of yet another season derailed by a bad start. More impressively, the wins came against two contenders in the Blackhawks and Stars.
This week features the dreaded three-game California road trip, so it wouldn’t be a shock to see the Blue Jackets right back on the list next week. But we’ll give them a break this time.
The list of teams with more games played than points also includes the Kings and the Ducks. Both of those teams still deserve some benefit of the doubt, although the Ducks still have the occasional feel of a team that may be worse than we think they are.
The Jets are there too, and their only wins are against the Leafs and Hurricanes. A slow start can be disastrous in a division as tough as the Central, but it would still seem like an overreaction to call them one of the league’s worst teams.
That leaves us with a bottom five that’s a little easier to sort out than the top of the league. But even then, none of these teams have really been that bad, with the possible exception of the disappointing Flames.
To some extent, that speaks to what we highlighted in last week’s column – that for the first time in years, nobody is coming into this season in full-on tank mode. It’s amazing what a concept like “actually trying” will do to the bottom of the standings, and it will be fun to watch these teams bounce around until some of them inevitably decided to throw in the towel and focus on the future.
Quick shifts: Ten more notable moments from around the league
• Update on the whole “P.K. Subban in Nashville” thing: Still going pretty well.
• It sounds like the issues with the ice at Barclays Center aren’t going away, with reports that the arena’s floor piping system still doesn’t meet league standards. Players have been critical of the ice quality since the Islanders moved to the arena last year, and it remains possible that the team may need to look for a new home at some point.
• Speaking of the Islanders, a funny moment from Friday’s game against the Coyotes: Ryan and Dylan Strome’s mom not knowing whether she should cheer for a Dylan goal with Ryan on the ice.
• Saturday’s Lightning win over the Senators marked Ottawa coach Guy Boucher’s first chance to face the team that fired him in 2013.
• The early season leader in goals scored: Richard Panik, who scored his sixth of the year on Saturday against the team that gave up on him.
• It’s early, but keep an eye on Jimmy Howard. After a tough 2015-16, he’s opened this year with two excellent games against good teams. If he’s going to look like the guy who was getting Vezina votes in 2013, that could be a game-changer for a Red Wings team that may have viewed him as a salary cap liability heading into the season.
• A fun story in Florida, where undrafted 27-year-old rookie Shane Harper has finally made the big leagues, and scored his first two goals on Saturday night.
• Zach Parise’s goal last night was the 300th of his career, making him the third Minnesota-born player to hit that milestone.
• Some good news, as two-time coach of the year Jacques Demers is home again after a weekend trip to the hospital with an infection. The last coach to lead the Canadiens to a Stanley Cup, Demers had appeared at Montreal’s home opener on Tuesday.
• Finally, let’s join with the rest of the league in sending best wishes to Dallas Stars play-by-play announcer Dave Strader, who was honoured by the team on Saturday as he continues his fight against cancer.