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: Central Casting
Every now and then, we like to use this space to focus in on one particular division. Last month we went through the Metro and tried to make sense of a traffic jam of teams all separated by a few points. This month’s division features slightly more separation, but no fewer question marks. Let’s take a run through the Central.
For the last few years, the Central has been the league’s standard-bearer as the top division. That perception was largely driven by the Blackhawks and their three Stanley Cups, which made sense. But despite being a mini-dynasty, Chicago didn’t dominate the division during the regular season; last year was actually the first time since the current format came together in 2013–14 that the Hawks finished first, or even had home-ice in the opening round.
Teams like the Stars, Blues and even the Avalanche have taken turns having big years, and last year’s playoffs turned into the Predators’ big coming-out party. In three of the last four years, the Central has taken both wild-card spots and sent five teams to the playoffs.
They may be headed in that direction again this year; we’re just not sure which five teams it would be. The Stars and Wild headed into the weekend controlling the two wild-card spots. Both teams were hoping to aim a little higher heading into the season, with the Wild coming off a 106-point season and the Stars loading up in the off-season to get back into the playoffs. So far, neither squad has really clicked, although both are still within range of the division’s top three.
The Stars come out of the weekend holding onto their spot, but the Wild ceded theirs after getting pummeled by the surging Avalanche, winners of five straight. That’s an impressive feat for a Colorado team that was dead last by a mile last year, then traded one of their best players earlier in the year. Joe Sakic and Jared Bednar don’t seem like punchlines anymore, and it’s starting to feel like last year’s disaster may have been more of a worst-case scenario than a real indication of where the franchise was at.
But the real action has been at the top of the division, where the Jets, Blues and Predators have taken turns leading the charge. For most of the first half, it was the Blues who looked like the best of the group, but they wobbled somewhat through December after Jaden Schwartz got hurt. That continued as they dropped a pair on the weekend, although by picking up a point against the Capitals they at least held onto second place.
That’s because the Predators have been losing ground over the last few weeks, winning just three of nine. They’ve got a key injury of their own in Filip Forsberg, who’ll be out at least a month with what we now know is a broken hand. The team has gone cold ever since that Western Canada swing in mid-December that saw them win three straight by a combined score of 13–1, although they did earn a solid win over the Kings on Saturday.
All of which opens the door for the one Central team we haven’t mentioned yet. And they probably deserve a section of their own.
Road to the Cup
The five teams that look like they’re headed towards Stanley Cup–favourite status.
5. Boston Bruins (23-10-7, +29 true goals differential*): With points in 11 straight, the Bruins make their first appearance in the top five.
4. Winnipeg Jets (25-11-7, +27): There’s that missing Central team. More on them down below.
3. Vegas Golden Knights (29-10-2, +30): With 29 wins, the Knights already rank third all-time in expansion history. They’re halfway through the season.
2. Washington Capitals (26-13-3, +10): Is this too high? It feels too high. But with four straight wins, they’re starting to build some separation in top of the Metro.
1. Tampa Bay Lightning (30-9-3, +52): If the playoffs started today, they’d face the Penguins in the first round. In related news, let’s start the playoffs today.
*Goals scored minus goals allowed, without counting shootouts like the NHL does for some reason.
Yes, it’s time to start talking about the Jets again.
I mean, we should have been talking about them all along, and many of us have been. Both those conversations typically included a lot of questions, like “Are these guys for real?” and “Is this finally the year the Jets break through and do some playoff damage?”
The answers: Yes, and to be determined.
Halfway through the season, we can safely drop the hedges and qualifiers and just flat-out say the Jets are good. They may well be the best team in the Central. Lately, they’ve at least been the most consistent, which allowed them to blow past the Blues and Predators for top spot in the division. And like those two teams, they’ve been doing it without one of their best forwards.
When Mark Scheifele went down against the Oilers in the first game after the holiday break, it was fair to wonder if the Jets’ chances at a Central crown had gone down with him. Instead, they’ve barely missed a beat, scoring at least four goals in five of their last six. A big part of that has been Blake Wheeler, having the sort of career season that 31-year-olds aren’t supposed to be capable of in today’s NHL. Between Wheeler and other productive 30-somethings like Bryan Little and Mathieu Perreault and the 21-and-under crew led by Patrik Laine and Nikolaj Ehlers, the Jets have themselves a really nice mix of veteran know-how and youthful enthusiasm.
It all leads to an interesting question: What do the Jets do in the lead-up to the trade deadline? By now, Winnipeg fans are getting sick of hearing about how GM Kevin Cheveldayoff rarely trades. But they hear about it because it’s true — he’s basically made two major deals in over six years on the job, placing him far behind just about every other GM in the league. He did fine on both of those deals, making the best of the Evander Kane situation and doing well as a seller in the Andrew Ladd deadline deal. But for the most part, he prefers the draft-and-develop approach, without all the wheeling and dealing that most of his peers like to lean on.
You could make the case that the patient approach has worked, at least based on this year’s results. But with David Poile and Doug Armstrong both sounding like they’ll be aggressive buyers at the deadline, Cheveldayoff is going to be under big pressure to keep up. If there was ever a year to come out of his shell, this seems like the one, and he’d have plenty of ammo to work with.
That might be a scary thought for the rest of the division. The Jets are good right now, and they’ll get a lot better once Scheifele returns. If they bring in reinforcements on top of that, it’s hard to see where the limit for this team might be. With the Western Conference looking wide open this year, there may be no better time to take a swing.
Jets fans have been waiting six years to win so much as a playoff game, but now they’re thinking bigger. Right now, this team has to be a favourite to win a round, a division, and maybe a whole lot more.
Road to the lottery
The five teams that look like they’re headed towards watching Rasmus Dahlin highlights and playing with draft-lottery simulations.
5. Edmonton Oilers (18-22-3, -23): We held out as long as we could, but the Oilers finally crack the bottom five. We’ll have a deeper dive into this tomorrow, but it’s ugly. Really ugly. Extremely ugly. And now the knives are out.
4. Ottawa Senators (14-17-9, -23): They’ve got a long way to go, but the Senators have found their offence and picked up a pair of home wins over the Sharks and Lightning. That shrinks their wild-card deficit down to 10 points, although with nearly half the conference to pass.
3. Vancouver Canucks (16-20-6, -27): Chris Tanev took a puck to the mouth, and the results sound awful. Also, he was reportedly lobbying to come back to finish the game. Hockey players, man.
2. Buffalo Sabres (10-23-9, -50): On the one hand, everything about their NHL season is an utter disaster. On the other hand, Casey Mittelstadt. I’d call it even.
1. Arizona Coyotes (10-27-6, -51): Their next game is against the Oilers. Is it possible for both teams to lose? Tune in to find out.
And now our tour of the Central brings us back to where we started: with the Blackhawks. The three-time Stanley Cup champion Blackhawks. The closest-thing-to-a-cap-era-dynasty-we’ve-ever-seen Blackhawks. The model-franchise Blackhawks.
The last-place Blackhawks.
Those words don’t seem to fit together properly, but here we are. At the halfway point, Chicago sits dead last in the Central. Granted, they’re just one point back of the Wild and Avalanche. And they’re still on pace for 92 points, so it’s not like they’ve been awful. But in a division that’s shaping up as the league’s toughest top-to-bottom, right now the Blackhawks are that bottom.
On one level, this isn’t a surprise, since predicting the imminent demise of the Blackhawks has basically been a sub-genre of hockey writing for years now. The cap was crushing them, the core was getting old, the depth just wasn’t there. We’d say it heading into each season, then sit back and watch as the Blackhawks rolled to another 100-point season.
Maybe they do it again this year, too. If any team has earned some benefit of the doubt, it’s this one. But this season does feel different. The warning signs on the dashboard that were blinking for years are now starting to spark and smoke.
Much of the blame could be directed towards the blue line. Duncan Keith is still Duncan Keith, but he’s pretty much being asked to be a one-man show these days. The young guys are coming along, but none have been difference-makers yet. And Brent Seabrook‘s decline has reached a point where it’s probably fair to start talking about his contract as one of the league’s worst. The Hawks are on the hook for a $6.875-million cap hit for six more years after this one, most of which include a full no-movement clause. Stan Bowman has wriggled out of bad deals before — it’s pretty much his specialty — but this one might be his greatest challenge yet.
Up front, the Jonathan Toews/Patrick Kane combo continues to be about what you’d expect, which is to say very good but not necessarily “top two cap hits in the entire league” good. Alex DeBrincat looks like a second-round steal, and Nick Schmaltz could be a find. But Brandon Saad‘s return has been a letdown, and after that there’s not much to get excited about. We knew the loss of Marian Hossa would hurt, but they may be missing him even more than we expected.
The one strength had been goaltending, where Corey Crawford was having his best regular season yet. But now he’s hurt, and the Blackhawks will only say that he’s out “indefinitely.” Jeff Glass is a nice story and all, but he and Anton Forsberg don’t inspire a ton of confidence if they need to hold down the fort for an extended period.
Add it all up, mix in a flatlining power play, and the situation sounds dire. So dire that it’s easy to forget that this team is still one good week from being right back in a playoff spot. But at the risk of trying to close the casket on these guys too early yet again — no fan base keeps receipts like Blackhawk fans — it’s hard not to look ahead and wonder what happens if the second half goes like the first. For years, there have been rumours of a schism between Bowman and Joel Quenneville, including last spring’s firing of longtime assistant Mike Kitchen. If the Hawks miss the playoffs, does Bowman take the opportunity to part ways with the second-winningest coach in NHL history?
We may find out. Or we may not, because the Blackhawks find a way to look like the Blackhawks again, and we all have to listen to another round of “I told you so.” It wouldn’t be the first time. But for now, this team is in uncharted territory: looking up at everyone else in the division.
Quick shifts: 10 more notable moments from around the league
• It sure sounds like we’re on the verge of the end of Jaromir Jagr’s run in Calgary. Now the question becomes whether we’ve seen the last of him in the NHL.
• Despite the Jagr drama, the Flames earned a big win on Saturday thanks to a last-minute winner by Dougie Hamilton:
That win kept the Flames within a point of the final wild-card spot.
• The hockey world lost longtime referee Bruce Hood on Friday. Hood refereed over 1,000 NHL games, including the Good Friday Massacre and Bobby Orr’s legendary Cup-winner, among many others. He was 81.
• No team needed a win more than the Islanders, who’d dropped five straight and lost Josh Bailey to injury. They got it yesterday, beating the Devils 5-4 to move into a three-way tie for the final Eastern wild card.
• The Canucks dropped a pair of road matchups with Canadian rivals, losing a shootout to the Leafs on Saturday and a 5-2 final to the Canadiens last night.
• Education is fun, and we all got to learn a new rule on Friday. Apparently, if the puck hits a camera on the way over the glass, it’s not a penalty. Who knew?
• Milan Hejduk had his number retired by the Avalanche on Saturday. Here’s their tribute video:
• Best performance of the weekend isn’t an especially tough call: Patrice Bergeron had a career-high four goals as the Bruins smoked the Hurricanes on Saturday. The second goal also gave him 700 points on his career.
• With all due respect to Bergeron, though, goal-of-the-week honours have to go to the Butt Goal.
• Finally, a reminder that bye weeks return this week, which means that incessant complaining about teams struggling after a bye returns next week. Luckily, we won’t have to endure much of that this season, since the league crammed all the byes into a two-week period.