NHL Weekend Takeaways: Examining the future of non-playoff teams

Buffalo Sabres right wing Tage Thompson (72) skates on the ice after being named one of the "stars of the game" following the Sabres' 5-3 win against the New York Islanders after an NHL hockey game Saturday, April 23, 2022, in Buffalo, N.Y. (Joshua Bessex/AP)

It’s a rare occasion when, with five nights still to go in the NHL regular season, 15 of 16 post-season spots are already sewn up.

The closest squad to an Eastern Conference playoff spot that doesn’t actually have an Eastern Conference playoff spot is the New York Islanders, who are 20 points behind the second wild card slot. The only team presently outside the playoffs with any kind of chance to actually get in are the Vegas Golden Knights, assuming they’re not all just curled up in a ball after their utterly devastating shootout loss to the San Jose Sharks on Sunday night.

That means half the league can already start turning the page on this season, giving us a chance to examine exactly what “wait ’till next year” might mean for a few different non-playoff clubs.

The top tier for that group has to be legitimate optimism for what’s ahead, which — despite every bone in their body probably telling them not to get sucked in — must be where Buffalo Sabres fans find themselves. Buffalo, which won its fourth straight game on Saturday, has a .635 points percentage since the beginning of March.

Tage Thompson’s breakout year could see him hit 40 goals. Alex Tuch has been a dream fit in his home state. Owen Power has joined Rasmus Dahlin on the blueline while Dylan Cozens and Peyton Krebs could be very meaningful contributors up front next year.

If nothing else, there’s no Jack Eichel-shaped black cloud that will hang over training camp as was the case last September.

A winless weekend notwithstanding, the New Jersey Devils also have to be thinking things could be appreciably better next year. How many teams can say they played huge stretches of the year without their No. 1 centre (Jack Hughes), No. 1 D-man (Dougie Hamilton) and No. 1 goalie (MacKenzie Blackwood)?

Buffalo’s win on Saturday came at the expense of the Islanders, who were also dumped 5-2 by Carolina on Sunday. It’s got to be hard for a team that made the NHL’s final four the past two years — coming one win away from a Cup final berth last spring — to get up for these games knowing there’s nothing on the line.

Despite the fact they’ve dropped five straight, I’ve got New York at the top of the mulligan tier, ahead of the Winnipeg Jets and — should they not squeeze into the post-season — the Golden Knights. It’s important to remember that the Islanders started the season with a 13-game roadie. Then they got whacked by COVID at a time when the league was still hesitant to cancel games. All that led to a 5-10-5 start that was too much to overcome in a conference where the top eight teams all have a shot at making the final.

Giving the Islanders a pass is certainly easier than letting the Jets and Knights off the hook, but the former still has enough talent up front to be a contender if they can figure out some blue line solutions and get an up year from Connor Hellebucyk. The latter, meanwhile, probably feel like Sunday night’s meltdown about sums up how things have gone this year. Vegas was up 4-2 on the Sharks with just over two minutes to play when San Jose closed the gap with an extra attacker, then scored its second empty-netter of the game as time expired to send it to overtime before winning it in a shootout.

The Sharks win likely triggered no small amount of Schadenfreude from those who’ve come to resent the Knights’ trade-for-everybody tactics. While other factors came into play, Vegas was also whacked by injuries this season and a full year of Eichel, Mark Stone, Max Pacioretty and William Karlsson should be enough to get them back in the hunt next season.

The Vancouver Canucks — downed 6-3 by the Calgary Flames on Saturday — might be in a category all their own because their year was cut into such distinct pieces with an 8-15-2 record under deposed coach Travis Green and a 30-15-9 mark under Bruce Boudreau since early December. You don’t have to be a wide-eyed west coast optimist to hope the real potential of this team is closer to what fans saw under Boudreau.

At the very bottom, we all know the Arizona Coyotes and Seattle Kraken are in it for the long haul. The Montreal Canadiens, meanwhile, have to be experiencing sobering thoughts about how long it will take to get back on their feet. Sunday’s 4-3 loss to the Boston Bruins marked Montreal’s ninth straight defeat. Clearly the fix in Quebec will require a lot more than a regime change behind the bench.

Ultimately, all 16 teams who miss the big dance will have to ask themselves hard questions about where they’re at. The solutions, though, will be more immediate and obvious to some than others.

Other Takeaways

• Does anyone else just hear the Jaws theme when they think of the Tampa Bay Lighting right now? The Bolts hung six on the Nashville Predators on Saturday night, then pumped a touchdown plus a two-point conversion past the Panthers on Sunday during an 8-4 win that ended Florida’s 13-game run of victories. Tampa has now scored at least six goals in each of its past three outings. Meanwhile, Nikita Kucherov is tied for the league scoring lead in April with 24 points, while Steven Stakmos has put up at least three points in four straight games and Victor Hedman has joined Roman Josi and Cale Makar as defencemen in the 80-point club.

• Speaking of scorching Aprils, the one playoff matchup we know is locked in: St. Louis vs. Minnesota. The series features a ton of guys on big-time heaters. Vladimir Tarasenko, Pavel Buchnevich and Robert Thomas all equaled Kucherov’s 24 points in the month, while Kevin Fiala — who had a seven-point weekend — is one behind at 23 and Wild teammate Kirill Kaprizov clocks in at 20. Did you ever think you’d be dreaming of the fireworks potential in a series between the Blues and Wild?

• Seth Jarvis, rookie scoring race rank on March 17: 18th. Number of rookies with more points than the Canes winger, who scored Saturday and Sunday, since that time: Zero. Jarvis has gone 9-9-18 in his past 20 outings, giving fuel to the idea the Carolina absolutely stole him at 13th overall in 2020.

• I always loved a Dick Irvin Jr. anecdote about how, whenever Scotty Bowman would run power-play drills with the 1970s Habs, the first person to foul it up would be Guy Lafleur. X’s and O’s? Nah. Send this guy over the boards, let him sniff the open ice and just glaze one of those perfect clappers six inches off the ice into the corner of the net. We’re saying this too often, lately, but rest easy, “Flower.”

Weekend Warrior

Claude Giroux had five points in two games and won 58 percent of his face-offs for Florida on the weekend. In 17 games with the Cats since coming over from Philadelphia Giroux has 22 points.

Red and White Power Rankings

1. Toronto Maple Leafs (52-21-7) With Round 1 home ice basically a lock, the Leafs have a week — and two domestic contests — to get everyone as healthy as possible and tuned up for Game 1 of the playoffs.

2. Calgary Flames (49-20-10) Does a 40-40-80 season stat line not perfectly capture Elias Lindholm’s do-everything-equally-well game? The two-way stud buried No. 40 on Saturday in the 6-3 sin over Calgary after never scoring more than 29 previously. Johnny Gaudreau’s empty-netter that night leaves him one shy of his first 40-goal campaign, too.

3. Edmonton Oilers (46-27-6) The Oilers split their weekend games and even with a loss to Columbus on Sunday, the team has low-key gone 16-4-2 down the stretch and has a great chance to open the playoffs in Edmonton. It feels like a relatively short time ago we weren’t even sure this squad would get into the second season.

4. Vancouver Canucks (38-30-11) While the wins have stopped piling up, Quinn Hughes sure did all he could to help the Canuck’s ultimately doomed playoff push; the D-man had two points on Saturday for a total of 10 in his past half-dozen outings.

5. Winnipeg Jets (36-32-11) Kyle Connor hitting 45 goals — the most by anybody in a decade of Jets 2.0 hockey — is a bright spot in an otherwise bleak year.

6. Ottawa Senators (31-41-7) Anton Forsberg now has 44 games under his belt this season, so that .917 save percentage has some real credibility to it.

7. Montreal Canadiens (20-49-11) Josh Anderson — who missed a dozen games this season — scored his 19th of the year in Sunday’s loss to Boston and could finish the year scoring around a 25-goal rate. He’s on a long list of guys with uncertain futures in Montreal, but a big, fast winger who can put up over 20 goals sure seems like somebody who can be part of the solution.

The Week Ahead

• The Knights trail the Dallas Stars by three points for the final Western Conference wild card spot and the two squads square off in Big D on Tuesday. That same evening, Connor McDavid and Sidney Crosby will go head to head in Pittsburgh. McDavid is trying to lock down the scoring title while Leon Draisaitl — at 55 goals — has an outside chance at catching Auston Matthews for the Rocket Richard lead and possibly even hitting 60 goals.

• After an emotional night saying good-bye to the home crowd in Anaheim on Sunday, Ryan Getzlaf will play his final NHL game in Dallas on Friday, as the 2021-22 regular season comes to a close with 30 of the 32 teams in action.

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