(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: Stuck in the middle with you
Most Mondays, we spend a chunk of this column trying to figure out who the league’s best and worst teams are. That makes sense – even beyond the importance of playoff seeding and lottery odds, the teams at either end of the standings are the fun ones. These days in the NHL, if you’re not truly good or truly bad, you’re nowhere.
But every now and then, it’s worth stopping to recognize the league’s mushy middle. After all, in the age of parity, that might be the most crowded category of all. So today, before we move on to the best and the worst of the NHL, let’s ask the question: Who’s the league’s most average team right now?
It’s a tougher question than you might think. Sports fans have come to equate mediocrity with being .500, but that term has become meaningless in today’s NHL. So instead, we’ll need to toss the loser point aside and focus on old school wins and losses, with some help from goal differentials and other stats.
For example, the Bruins would have been our best contender heading into yesterday’s action; they had 11 wins and 10 losses and a minus-1 goals differential. But they pulled off an impressive 4-1 win over the Lightning to nudge themselves out of the running.
The entire state of California could make a case; the Kings and Sharks both have 12 wins and 10 losses, while the Ducks are 10 and 12. In terms of goals differentials, the Sharks and Ducks are both at plus-4 while the Kings are plus-3. That’s pretty average all around, and helps explain how the Oilers are still holding down top spot in the Pacific.
You could also make a case for the Devils. Thanks to a recent cold streak, they’ve now won 10 and lost 11 while posting a minus-3 goals differential. Then there’s a team you might not expect to see here: the St. Louis Blues, who have 12 wins, 10 losses and a minus-2 differential. Thanks to three loser points and league-wide parity, the Blues are sitting seventh overall in the standings, but they’ve been a decidedly average team so far.
One of the Blues’ fellow Central Division teams nearly takes the title, as the Nashville Predators have won 10 and lost 11. They’re great at home and terrible on the road. They’ve yet to have either a winning or losing streak longer than three games. And even their possession numbers are right around dead even. Only their goals differential – they’ve scored eight more than they’ve allowed – keep them from claiming the crown.
Instead, the honour of the NHL’s Most Average Team goes to the Florida Panthers, who’ve been close to the Platonic ideal of “just OK.” After last night’s loss to the Hurricanes, they’re the only team in the league that’s dead even in terms of wins and losses, with 11 of each. They’re almost dead even in terms of goals differential, at minus-2. And their mediocrity has been a season-long pursuit; they haven’t been more than two games above or below the break-even mark at any point all year.
Congratulations, Florida. You win a warm glass of milk and a slice of unbuttered toast. And also, a new head coach. Apparently, mediocrity has its price.
Road to the Cup
The five teams that look like they’re headed towards Stanley Cup favourite status.
5. Pittsburgh Penguins (13-6-3, even true goals differential*) – It’s hard to say what’s more surprising, that Sidney Crosby is pulling away with the goal-scoring lead or that it hasn’t happened more often during his career.
4. Washington Capitals (13-6-2, +10) – They return to the top five with a two-for-three week, despite Saturday’s loss to the Maple Leafs. Five of their next seven are against the Islanders, Sabres or Canucks.
3. Chicago Blackhawks (14-6-3, +7) – Jonathan Toews has missed two games with an upper-body injury, but will reportedly be back soon.
2. New York Rangers (15-6-1, +31) – Last week’s big home-and-home with the Penguins didn’t end up clarifying much at all, as the teams split lopsided road wins.
1. Montreal Canadiens (16-4-2, +20) – One thing to keep in mind with the Habs: no team in the league has played a more unbalanced home/road split. Montreal has been at home for 14 of their 22 games, going 12-1-1; in their eight road games, they’re a pedestrian 4-3-1. They kicked off a five-game road trip on Saturday.
(*Goals scored minus goals allowed, without counting shootouts like the NHL does for some reason.)
With a familiar group of teams holding down all the top spots, who’s up for another fun round of “Hey idiot, why isn’t my favorite team in the top five?”
Earlier in the year, we went through this with the Oilers. They never did crack the list, and at least so far that seems like a reasonably good call, even as they hang around the top third of the standings.
Last week, we had the Blue Jackets, who were beating up on all the league’s best teams. They were denied a spot, and were so despondent over the snub that they lost three of four this week. It wouldn’t be a complete shock to see either the Oilers or Blue Jackets make the top five eventually, but so far, it looks like we’re two for two.
Let’s see if we can make it three. Step right up, Ottawa Senators.
After going into New York and shutting out the Rangers last night, the Senators actually are a top five team, at least according to the standings. They sit fourth overall, tied with the Penguins and a point ahead of the Capitals. They’re only two points back of the Blackhawks and Rangers for a share of second overall, and have a game in hand on both.
They’ve won four straight, they’ve got points in eight of 10, and they’ve beaten the top-ranked Canadiens twice, accounting for a third of the Habs’ losses on the season. So why aren’t they in the top five?
Well, unlike the Blue Jackets, we can’t dismiss the Senators as some sort of PDO-based fluke that’s sure to crash back to earth. The Senators are right around the 100 mark there, with some extremely good goaltending balanced by some surprisingly poor team shooting. And other than the goaltenders, nobody really stands out as outproducing what you’d reasonably expect. Sure, Kyle Turris won’t shoot over 20% for the season, but the players on the ice with him won’t keep struggling to convert either, and nobody else jumps out as doing anything unsustainable.
The bigger issue with the Senators is that if you cover up the wins and losses, the rest of their numbers don’t look like those of an especially elite team. They’ve got a true goals differential of minus-3, and their possession numbers are below average. And even their won-loss record is propped up by a 3-0 mark in the shootout, tied with Detroit for the best in the league.
And yes, part of this is that unlike teams such as Pittsburgh and Washington, nobody expected the Senators to be all that good this year. We’re a quarter of the way into the season, so we’re past the point where pre-season expectations trump on-ice results. But they don’t get completely forgotten about either; the Senators will need to show a little more before they get the same benefit of the doubt that other teams would.
Could the Senators do exactly that and prove me wrong? It’s possible. Could they show up in the top five as early as next week, given that they’ve got three very winnable home games coming up? Could happen. Am I picking my spots by doing this right now because Ottawa sports fans are all happy today so nobody will get too mad at me? Cannot confirm or deny.
Bottom line: The Senators are a good team enjoying a great season. They’re not a top five team in the NHL, at least not yet.
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. Colorado Avalanche (9-10-1, -13) – A shootout loss to the Canucks is enough to welcome the Avalanche back to the bottom five.
3. Vancouver Canucks (9-11-2, -18) – They’ve alternated losses and wins ever since a November 5 loss against Toronto. That was the Nazem Kadri blindside hit game, by the way; the long-awaited rematch is this Saturday.
2. Arizona Coyotes (8-10-2, -15) – After spending a few weeks holding down the number one spot, back-to-back wins over the Oilers is enough to bump the Coyotes up a notch.
1. New York Islanders (6-10-4, -13) – Last week, we highlighted Jack Capuano’s hot seat and wondered if a poor California trip could spell the end. The Isles earned just one shootout win on the trip, and don’t have a regulation win since three weeks ago. But it looks like Garth Snow is a man of his word, and Capuano remains safe for now.
We’re still seeing more movement at the bottom of the league than at the top. Eleven teams have appeared in the bottom five at least once this season (compared to nine at the top of the list), and there’s been a lot more movement in terms of who’s holding down which spots. That will almost certainly change as the season wears on and teams that realize they’re out of contention decide to pull the chute and fire up the tank, but for now there’s still some volatility in the league’s cellar.
So given all that, which teams that haven’t shown up in the bottom five yet seem like they could be headed in that direction? There are a few contenders, including three that earned some consideration this weekend.
Let’s start with the Flyers. They’ve been treading water for much of the year, losing six of their first nine and trying to get back to break-even ever since. They’ve spent the last few weeks losing to good teams like the Lightning and Rangers while beating struggling teams like the Jets and Panthers. Given that, last night’s win over the Flames probably comes as no surprise. Coming off of a surprising playoff appearance last year, the season has been a disappointment, but they’re not bottom five contenders quite yet.
Then you’ve got the Jets, who went into yesterday’s matchup with the Predators riding a five-game losing streak that had dropped them down to a disappointing 9-12-2 before snapping that skid in a 3-0 win that saw Connor Hellebuyck make 42 saves for the shutout. That’s not exactly what you’d call an impressive showing for the team, but at this point a win is a win. They got one, and even if it doesn’t end up being the turning point of their season, it was enough to keep them out of the bottom five for at least another week.
Finally, let’s turn to the team that’s been plummeting towards a bottom five spot for weeks now: The Red Wings. They’d lost four straight before pulling out a pair of wins against the Sabres and Devils, then almost earned another on Saturday, dropping a shootout decision to the Canadiens.
That’s five points in six games, which is enough to at least stop the bleeding. But it feels like it’s been a very long time since Detroit was reeling off six straight wins near the start of the season. The last game of that streak came on October 27, and the Wings have only managed one regulation win since.
To make matters worse, now the Wings have lost one of their few positive stories to injury, as Jimmy Howard will miss at least a week after hurting his groin on Friday. Detroit doesn’t belong on the bottom five list quite yet, but at this point, it’s starting to feel closer to “when” than “if”.
Quick shifts: Ten more notable moments from around the league
• The Panthers’ utter averageness aside, the firing of Gerard Gallant comes as a surprise, given that he’s coming off a 103-point season in which he was a Jack Adams finalist and received an extension. But a lot has changed in Florida since then, and Gallant was apparently butting heads with management behind the scenes. You can do that when you’re winning. When you’re not, you’re left waiting for a cab.
• GM Tom Rowe takes over behind the bench. That’s a decidedly old school move from one of the league’s more progressive franchises, and you wonder if it could lead to the Panthers being busy on the trading front over the next few months. The “GM who wants to see what he’s got first-hand” move is rarely a precursor to standing pat.
• One last thought on Gallant: Typically, when a coach is fired we wonder if they’ll be a candidate for the next opening. But this year, there’s already a next opening, and it will stay that way until the Golden Knights find their man. Gallant could be that guy.
• Friday’s game between the Rangers and Flyers featured New York’s first fight of the year. And it was an unlikely player involved, as Brandon Pirri had to drop the gloves with Travis Konecny after a hit on Brandon Manning.
• Breaking: the Coyotes may have figured out a way to stop Connor McDavid.
• We saw a nice comeback story as Michael Leighton made his return to the NHL yesterday, guiding the Hurricanes to a 3-2 win over the Panthers. It was the 2010 playoff hero’s first appearance for Carolina, first NHL start since 2013, and first win since 2010.
• Best save of the weekend, and quite possibly the year, goes to this Petr Mrazek robbery from Saturday night.
• Not that you couldn’t tell just from looking at him, but Barry Trotz is one tough coach.
• Finally, a reminder: The loser point is awful, and it exists for no other reason than to fool gullible fans into thinking their teams are doing better than they are.