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 Mild West
In the NHL, we’ve spent the better part of the last two decades knowing we could count on at least one simple truth: When it comes to the conferences, West was best.
The conference boasted the best teams, and most of the best players. They didn’t always win the Stanley Cup, although they did win most of them.
And even when they didn’t, it was the exception that proved the rule.
Sure, an Eastern team won this year, we could say, but look how much easier their path to the final was.
And maybe more importantly, the Western Conference just had the better style of play. Whatever type of hockey you liked – bigger, faster, more offensive, more creative – you could point to the West and say that you saw it there.
Eastern Conference action was fine most nights, but if you wanted to see the really good stuff, you had to stick around for the late show.
In recent years, it started to feel like we’d all embraced the idea of Western superiority a little too tightly, as much out of force of habit as anything else. But the reality is that there was a lot of truth to the idea. When I crunched the numbers a few seasons ago, it was clear that the West really was dominating, and had been for years.
But recently, the trend seems to be showing cracks.
The East has won three straight Presidents’ Trophies, and last year the Penguins finally snapped the Stanley Cup streak of the dominant Blackhawks/Kings tag team.
And this year, early as it may be, there’s really no comparison. The East has been the far better conference.
You can see that trend at the top of any power rankings — including the ones in this column. The East is taking up most of the top spots, as teams like Montreal, New York Rangers and Pittsburgh churn along. That continues as you scan down the standings; Eastern teams hold down nine of the top eleven spots in terms of points, and each of the top four in terms of goals differential.
Out west, which team would you really consider dominant?
There are the Blackhawks, as always, although even their success has been accompanied by a sky-high PDO that has to come back to earth soon. Other than Chicago, there isn’t a team in the conference that stands out. Setting loser points aside, eight teams in the East have at least two more wins than losses. In the West, only Chicago can make that claim.
Meanwhile, the East is giving up its grip on the bottom of the standings, where its teams used to litter the lottery odds charts. So far this season, it’s teams like the Flames, Coyotes and Canucks that are struggling at least as badly as the Sabres, Islanders or Hurricanes, if not worse.
Again, it’s still early, and a winning streak here or there can alter perception fairly quickly. But it sure looks like the East is headed towards finally staking a claim as the league’s powerhouse conference, at least as far as the regular season goes. It sure took them long enough.
Road to the Cup
The five teams that look like they’re headed towards Stanley Cup favorite status.
5. Tampa Bay Lightning (12-6-1, plus-15 true goals differential*) – Doctors say that Steven Stamkos is out for anywhere between four and six months, so remember to look surprised when he just happens to be cleared to return to the lineup on the day of their first playoff game.
4. Pittsburgh Penguins (11-4-3, plus-2) – Their home-and-home showdown with the Rangers this week should go a long way towards sorting out the top of the Metro pecking order.
3. New York Rangers (13-5-1, plus-32) – Speaking of which, remember when home-and-homes between division rivals used to happen on back-to-back nights so you knew there’d be some bad blood? Sure glad the NHL got rid of that.
2. Chicago Blackhawks (13-4-2, plus-13) – Spotting the Canucks a 3-0 lead on Saturday just so they could come back in the third and then score twice in overtime was just mean.
1. Montreal Canadiens (14-3-2, plus-19) – A three-game losing streak, snapped on Saturday night, had them looking mortal for the first time all season. Their grip on the top spot is a lot looser, but they’ll hold on for another week.
(*Goals scored minus goals allowed, without counting shootouts like the NHL does for some reason.)
It looks like it’s time for another round of “Why isn’t the overachieving team in the top five?”
We went through it earlier in the season with Edmonton, who didn’t crack our list even though they were pushing for first place overall. In hindsight, that seems like the right call – the Oilers aren’t as bad as they’ve looked lately, but it’s been a while since anyone was talking about them as one of the best teams in the league.
So with that in mind, let’s turn to this week’s question mark: The Columbus Blue Jackets.
They came into the weekend riding the best 15-game start in franchise history. That’s despite a so-so start; in their last 10, they’ve been rolling along at 8-1-1. And maybe even more impressively, they’re racking up that record against some of the league’s best teams, including yesterday’s 3-2 win over the Capitals.
So is it finally time to start calling them one of the league’s top teams?
No. At least not yet.
As impressive as the Blue Jackets run has been, the underlying numbers still point to a team that’s overachieving. We’ve already covered their PDO situation, but that on its own isn’t enough to declare them some sort of fraud; after all, the Rangers and Blackhawks have high PDOs too, and nobody’s dismissing them.
But there are other warning lights for Columbus. Their even strength possession has been awful, ranking towards the bottom of the league.
Some of that is score effects – good teams like the Rangers and Canadiens also show up well down the list because they’re ahead so often. But for a team we’re on the fence about, it’s not a good sign.
Then you look at how the Blue Jackets are winning. They’ve been having success thanks to a power play that’s been hitting at almost 32 per cent, an overall team shooting north of 11 per cent, and excellent goaltending from Sergei Bobrovsky.
We know that first number is coming way down – no team has been over 26 per cent for a full season in the cap era, and only seven have even finished over 24 per cent. The team shooting will drop, too. It’s being driven by guys like Nick Foligno, Sam Gagner and Scott Hartnell shooting miles above their career averages.
The Bobrovsky question is an interesting one, though. Right now, he’s posting a save percentage of .931, which is a major improvement over what he’s done over the last two years and well above his career average. So the Blue Jackets are more likely to see a dip in goaltending than, say, the Rangers, who have Henrik Lundqvist slightly underperforming his career average.
But unlike other goalies who get hot early and then fade, we do have at least some evidence that Bobrovsky can maintain an elite performance over a season. He did it in 2012-13, and while that was a lockout-shortened year, he was good enough to post a .932 and win the Vezina.
So while it’s unlikely that what we’re seeing from Bobrovsky now will continue, we can’t write if off completely.
If their goaltending holds, then maybe the Blue Jackets can at least continue to defy expectations, even as the other numbers inevitably come down. It would certainly be nice to see a new team in the mix in the Metro, and long-suffering Columbus fans deserve to have a few things go their way.
Without question, the Blue Jackets have been a fun story so far. But as far as pushing them into the league’s top tier, we’re going to need to see it for more than a few weeks, no matter how many top teams they knock off along the way.
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 (6-8-4, minus-12) – They’ve only won a third of their games and are dead last in the league in scoring. The road back to respectability for rebuilding teams can be tricky, but this kind of start wasn’t part of the plan.
4. Calgary Flames (8-11-1, minus-18) – With injuries mounting and trade rumors swirling, it’s easy to forget that they’ve won three of four.
3. New York Islanders (5-8-4, minus-10) – The schedule’s been tough in terms of the teams they’ve had to face. It’s also been heavily tilted towards home ice — they’ve played a league-low five road games.
2. Vancouver Canucks (7-10-2, minus-20) – Jim Benning has moved into the “trying to reassure the fans” stage of the process. It doesn’t seem to be working.
1. Arizona Coyotes (6-9-2, minus-13) – As bad as the Coyotes’ results have been, there’s some evidence that they may be even worse than their record looks.
Two weeks ago, we took stock of the NHL’s first month and made note of something unusual: Nobody had been fired yet.
That certainly wasn’t unheard of, but it was somewhat out of line with recent seasons, in which we’d seen coaches fired within a few games of the season starting.
Two weeks later, we’re still waiting for that first shoe to drop. It’s starting to feel like we won’t have to wait very long.
There are plenty of disappointing teams around the league, although that alone doesn’t always mean change is imminent. The Flames are a mess, but they already have a new coach, so any move involving Glen Gulutzan would be surprising. (Which isn’t to say that some fans aren’t calling for it.)
Dave Tippett’s name has come up in Arizona, but after the way things played out over the summer, that seems unlikely.
Dan Bylsma’s seat will get warm at some point, but not yet.
And coaches like Paul Maurice, Claude Julien and John Tortorella, who may have looked shaky a few weeks ago, have put together enough recent wins to feel safe for now.
That still leaves two coaches who seem like they could be in big trouble: New York’s Jack Capuano and Vancouver’s Willie Desjardins.
The good news is that both coaches appear to have the backing of management. Garth Snow still insists that he’s not making a coaching change, even as the Islanders have lost four straight.
Desjardins still has his team competing hard, as has been pointed out by Jim Benning. Of course, we know how similar votes of confidence have turned out in the past.
So could we be seeing a change behind either bench? And if so, when is it most likely to happen? Sometimes, the schedule can give us hints as to when a coach might be most vulnerable. It’s tough to make a change during a busy stretch of games, for example, and some GMs prefer not to drop a new coach into a tough chunk of schedule.
But if a team has a few days off and some easier opponents up ahead, a fresh start might begin to look more attractive.
If so, things look bleak for both Capuano and Desjardins.
The Islanders have the dreaded three-game California road trip coming up; if that goes poorly, they’ll have two full days off before facing the Flames to kick off a string where they play seven of nine at home. That feels like a prime spot for a coaching change, if Snow changes his mind (or has it changed for him).
As for the Canucks, they face a three-game road trip of their own, and while none of their opponents are playoff teams right now, a loss to someone like the Coyotes could be tough to recover from. That trip is followed by two days off before a three-game homestand.
Nobody likes to see anyone fired, but it’s a reality of the NHL which, most seasons, begins earlier than it is this year.
The clock is ticking. We may not be far from finding out who it’s going to strike midnight for.
Quick shifts: Ten more notable moments from around the league
• If you missed Saturday’s HNIC intro by Winnipeg’s own Chris Jericho, you can find it at the top of this page.
• Tough news for the Rangers, who’ll be without Mika Zibanejad for six to eight weeks with a broken fibula after he crashed into the boards last night.
• Edmonton’s 5-2 win over Dallas on Saturday featured the first career hat trick for Connor McDavid. (Although in fairness, John Klingberg scored the first one.)
• We had an ugly finish to Saturday’s game between the Leafs and Habs, as the two teams traded dirty hits from behind.
• Hey, remember when scoring was up for a week at the start of the season? This weekend featured 21 games; not one featured eight goals or more. We had two seven-goal games. Two other had six, although both of those needed an empty netter to get there. Everything else was five or less.
• This was fun: Tyler Johnson’s stick flies into the stands in Philadelphia, right into the hands of a Tyler Johnson fan.
• We may have ourselves an embellishment controversy, as Caps’ coach Barry Trotz accused Nick Foligno of using the ol’ head-snap to draw a high-sticking penalty that led to yesterday’s late winner. Trotz called the move “disrespectful to the game.”
• The good news for the Red Wings: their offence could get a boost now that Thomas Vanek is back. The bad news for the Red Wings: their offence has been so bad that “Thomas Vanek is back” passes for good news.
• It’s been a rough week for the women’s game, as the NWHL appears to be facing a crisis that could threaten its future. Players have been told that salaries will be cut by 50 per cent as the league tries to complete the season.
• Finally, send some good thoughts to Tucson Roadrunners’ captain Craig Cunningham, who remains in hospital after collapsing shortly before the start of Saturday’s AHL contest.