On this date in 2019, the St. Louis Blues were a .500 team that had given up 10 more goals than they had scored. They were outside the playoff picture, struggling to turn their season around under interim coach Craig Berube.
They were also about to embark on an 11-game winning streak, followed by a playoff berth, followed by a postseason journey that led to the first Stanley Cup championship in franchise history.
They’re an outlier, of course. In the NHL salary cap era, 77% of the teams that were in a playoff seed on Thanksgiving ended up making the postseason. The 2018-19 Blues were not in one, residing in last place while their fans slurped cranberry sauce.
All of this is a reminder that the NHL regular season is a mixture of predicable norms and those anomalous surprises that keep us watching until the 82nd game. Keep that in mind as you read the latest batch of NHL contender tiers, which seek to separate the contenders from the pretenders at the midpoint of the season. A lot can change in short amount of time. To wit: We had the Edmonton Oilers tasting the Cup(!) in our quarter-mark rankings back in December!
I believe these four teams are the true Stanley Cup favorites at the midway point of the season.
The Hurricanes are the total package. Through 39 games, they were No. 1 in goals-against average — thanks in no small part to Frederik Andersen being second in the league in goals saved above average — and fourth overall in goals per game. Sebastian Aho reminds me of Anze Kopitar: He’s a No. 1 center who is acknowledged as a great player, and one who will be immediately elevated to “elite franchise player” the moment he lifts the Stanley Cup. I also have full faith in this front office to make the necessary trade deadline additions to the roster. Or at least I have faith that Eric Tulsky will lobby for them.
The Avalanche are another team I fully expect will make a significant addition at the trade deadline, in an effort to play in a championship round for the first time since 2002. But even if they don’t, this is one of two teams at the NHL midpoint averaging over four goals per game, which is absurd. Their defense leaves something to be desired, a byproduct of ineffective forward depth and a penalty kill that’s in the bottom 10. The good news is that concerns about Darcy Kuemper have calmed as the season has gone on. He might not steal a playoff round, but maybe he won’t cost them one?
The other team averaging over four goals per game is the Panthers. (If there was a way to take the essence of the Cats and Avs and inject it into the DNA of every team in this league — with average game totals of seven goals — the NHL would triple its popularity in the U.S. by 2030.)
GM Bill Zito has constructed a deep roster that scores in waves, led by Jonathan Huberdeau, whom the hockey world recently noticed should be a Hart Trophy candidate, seemingly in unison. I’ve had more fun watching the Panthers than any other team in the NHL this season, and I assume the chaos will extend into the playoffs.
The Maple Leafs are the new Washington Capitals. They’re stringing together dominant regular-season performances as a team, while a generational goal-scoring talent boggles the mind, and none of it really matters unless they avoid self-destruction in the postseason. Like the pre-Cup Ovechkin Capitals, they need to exorcise their playoff demons and break through. In Toronto’s case, that’s winning a playoff round for the first time since “Yeah!” by Usher (featuring Lil Jon and Ludacris, for the record) was the No. 1 song in the county. If they do? Plan the parade accordingly.
Well, maybe. You could make the argument their postseason humiliations warrant their inclusion in this next tier.
The ‘if, then’ tier
If the Boston Bruins can eventually get “Tuukka Rask” (current save percentage: .844) to become Tuukka Rask (career save percentage: .921) once again, then they could be a handful in the playoffs. (Of course, either of these Tuukkas could probably spook the Leafs in the first round.)
If the Nashville Predators can find just a bit more offense, then they can be a force in the Western Conference. For all their regular-season success so far, the Preds are 20th in expected goals per 60 minutes at five-on-five. One assumes GM David Poile could go shopping for pop at the trade deadline, because with more goals in front of a back end anchored by Roman Josi and Juuse Saros, and they’ve got something in Nash Vegas.
If the Pittsburgh Penguins get this version of Tristan Jarry in the playoffs and the Steel City Trinity of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang are all healthy — which is never exactly guaranteed, unfortunately — then their outstanding underlying numbers make them a legit contender.
If the St. Louis Blues get playoff-worthy performances from either Jordan Binnington, who is riding a nine-game postseason losing streak, and/or Ville Husso, who has never appeared in the postseason, then their sudden transformation into an offensive steamroller means they could win the Western Conference.
If the Tampa Bay Lightning find their defensive game for the playoffs, then they can three-peat. Let me preface this by saying that a team with Victor Hedman and Andrei Vasilevskiy isn’t exactly a sieve defensively. But they’re giving up more five-on-five scoring chances this season than in the previous two, with just a slight uptick in expected goals against. They also have a lower winning percentage after leading the first period than in the previous two seasons. Again, no need to panic, but the secret to this team’s back-to-back Cup success was the kind of defense they aren’t playing on a nightly basis.
If the Vegas Golden Knights level up when Jack Eichel arrives, then they are going to the Western Conference finals. They’ll have some lineup questions to answer — Chandler Stephenson and William Karlsson are no doubt curious to hear them — but no team in the NHL is going to have a late-season addition to their lineup on the level of Eichel. And the Golden Knights are already a pretty darn good team.
On the cusp tier
These are the teams that seem like they’re just bubbling under the surface, for one reason or another.
The Capitals’ recent struggles are a little disconcerting, unless T.J. Oshie is the string you can’t pull out of the lineup, lest they unravel. The Minnesota Wild are once again giving up more goals than they’re expected to, because of suspect goaltending. The Rangers are one of the most difficult teams in the league to figure out, because they have the best goaltender in the NHL in Igor Shesterkin and have been near the bottom of the league in percentage of shot attempts for the entire season, getting absolutely rolled in puck possession.
Which, undoubtedly, is a recipe for Gerard Gallant to win the Jack Adams.
The Jekyll and Hyde tier
These are the teams that can look like contenders and pretenders, sometimes in the same period.
The Flames have incredible underlying numbers and the inexplicable ability to lose 9 of 13 games since Dec. 5, despite two of those wins coming against the Panthers and Blues by a combined score of 12-2. The Dallas Stars were going to sell off every free agent after losing to the Montreal Canadiens at home, and then beat four bad teams on the road, and now have a 44% chance of making the playoffs. The Winnipeg Jets had coach Paul Maurice step down, were impacted by injuries, have Blake Wheeler shooting 3.1% and still have about a 1-in-4 chance of making the playoffs.
The California dreaming tier
Heading into Wednesday night, the Ducks and Kings were both in playoff seeds, sitting behind Vegas in the Pacific Division. The Sharks were circling the playoff bubble. All three have exceeded expectations through the midpoint of the season, but if we had to choose one of them to make the playoffs, it would be the Kings. They’re in the top 10 in expected goal differential at five-on-five, they’re getting a resurgent season from Jonathan Quick and they have a collection of veterans who are absolutely desperate to get back to the playoffs. Oh, and they also have the greatest potential of the three to upgrade before the deadline.
The Edmonton Oilers tier
The Oilers belong in their own tier. A team blessed with the two best forwards on the planet that nevertheless lost 13 of 15 games recently. A team with the highest aspirations and the sixth-lowest save percentage. The Oilers have put together a couple of wins recently to calm the waters … or at least have fans think twice before hurling their jerseys on the ice in protest. Maybe they’re a playoff team. Maybe they aren’t. Whatever the case: Prayers for Connor and Leon.
The ‘So you’re telling me there’s a chance’ tier
Three teams that are on the outside looking in. And by that we mean they’re standing across a busy six-lane highway with a pair of binoculars, looking in.
The Islanders (13.6%) have the best odds of making the playoffs among this group, bolstered by the fact that they have four games in hand on the Boston Bruins, who inhabit the last playoff seed. The Canucks (9.1%) keep collecting points in the Pacific Division, as Bruce Boudreau attempts to walk away with the Jack Adams if he’s able to turn their putrid season into a playoff berth.
The Blackhawks (5%) mathematically have a better shot at the postseason than nine teams they’re destined to join in making a draft lottery pick. Well, maybe: Please recall part of the Seth Jones deal was the Blue Jackets getting the Hawks’ 2022 first-rounder, unless Chicago wins one of the draft lotteries and their pick is in the top two. Which was obviously worth giving up, rather than just waiting to sign him this summer. Sigh.
Least of the East tier
All of these team have a less than 2% chance of making the Stanley Cup playoffs. Right now the Eastern Conference playoff field is as inevitable as death, taxes, Thanos and people complaining about the NFL overtime format.
Rest of the West tier
I truly hope that we look back on these abject disastrous seasons for the Coyotes and Kraken — one by design, the other unexpected, no matter how Seattle ends up spinning it — and see them as significant setbacks en route to a promising future for both franchises.
Because while most teams end up in tiers, someone has to end up in tears.
Jersey Foul of the week
From a recent Carolina Hurricanes game against the New York Rangers:
This dude went into the game with a plan.
He wins at all costs. pic.twitter.com/sch6SZFzcF
— Ryan Mead (@OhRyanMead) January 22, 2022
So here’s a theory about this FrankenJersey: Phillip Di Giuseppe wore No. 34 for the Hurricanes and also played for the Rangers. Maybe a relative? Failing that, we’ve got nothing … except to say that the combination of the New York word mark and the Hurricanes logo makes it seem like the front of this jersey reads “New Toilet Flush.”
Three things about that ironman record
1. Why wasn’t Philadelphia Flyers defenseman Keith Yandle breaking Doug Jarvis’ consecutive games played record a bigger deal? Our friends on “Around The Horn” correctly noted that playing 965 straight games in the NHL is an astounding achievement. To do so as a defenseman is even more flabbergasting. To have somehow kept the streak alive without injuries, and during two pandemic seasons in which hundreds of players missed games because of the protocols, makes me believe that Yandle might actually be Bruce Willis from “Unbreakable.”
2. I was at the game on Tuesday night when he broke the record. They didn’t stop the game for a ceremony or anything, even though a record more than three decades old fell. They announced it on the PA system at UBS Arena during the first period, and the achievement was received with a half-standing ovation at a spottily attended game. But that reaction from Islanders fans feels like it’s in step with the reaction from the hockey world, which was left largely unimpressed. Is it because Phil Kessel is at 941 games, and we’re saving our adulation for him when he passes Yandle?
3. I was happy that Yandle, a Boston native, had so many family members at the Islanders game to celebrate with him. But I was bummed that this record fell at this point in Yandle’s career. He doesn’t have the same deep connection with the Flyers that, say, Patrick Marleau had with the Sharks when he set the all-time games played record. He’s been a Flyer for 43 games, and it’s been a horror show: 13 assists, a minus-23 and his lowest average ice time since his second year in the league. As Charlie O’Connor of The Athletic noted, Flyers fans met the Yandle record with “bitterness, snark and outright anger all over the place” due to his play and the fortunes of the team. If Yandle knew this would be the local reaction to setting the record, maybe he would have taken a day off in the past 13 years instead.
Winners and losers of the week
Winner: Video evidence
There were two recent incidents involving racism in minor league hockey. The AHL suspended San Jose Barracuda forward Krystof Hrabik for 30 games, saying that he made a racist gesture toward Boko Imama of the Tucson Roadrunners in a Jan. 12 game. The ECHL suspended Jacob Panetta indefinitely for what South Carolina Stingrays defenseman Jordan Subban said was a racist taunt Saturday night. Panetta’s team, the Jacksonville Icemen, released him.
In both cases, the leagues were responding to accusations from players but also, quite crucially, available video evidence. In the Subban incident, it was actually video shot by a fan of Panetta’s team, which went viral when New Jersey Devils defenseman P.K. Subban tweeted it in support of his brother. “It’s a disappointment that, you know, in 2022 we’re still dealing with racism like we are,” said the fan to First Coast News.
I mention this because of something Jalen Smereck said on Instagram in support of Jordan Subban. Please recall that Smereck was targeted with a racist taunt from Ukrainian Hockey League forward Andrei Deniskin last year.
“It’s the first month of 2022, and there has already been two racial gestures in the second and third highest leagues in North America,” he said. “Just think about how many are happening at the youth level to young kids that we don’t see or ever know about because the game isn’t being recorded.”
It’s a relief there was video evidence of these incidents. It’s enraging to think how many more weren’t caught on video.
Loser: ‘Hockey is for Everyone’
It’s hard to claim that hockey is for everyone when things like this keep happening to repel people from participating in our sport. The suggested intent behind the suspended players’ actions is infinitesimal compared to the actual pain they caused. The time some have wasted crafting alibis for the offending players would be better spent listening to players of color explaining how that behavior alienates them. Players like Marselis Subban, Jordan’s cousin, who wrote:
— Marselis Subban (@MarselisSubban) January 24, 2022
I think Akim Aliu of the Hockey Diversity Alliance had it right: “How about we say, ‘Let’s Make Hockey for Everyone.’ Let’s admit our shortcomings and strive for something tangible.”
Winner: Jim Rutherford
The 72-year-old was tasked with building a winner in Vancouver. Instead, he smashed the template for an NHL front office. He hired Patrik Allvin, making him the first Swedish-born general manager in NHL history. He hired former player agent Émilie Castonguay to be only the second female assistant general manager in league history. He hired Rachel Doerrie, formerly with the Devils, as an analyst for their analytics department. Talk about a vibe change.
Loser: Chuck Fletcher
No executive wants to give the “OK, that didn’t work, so here’s the new plan” news conference in January, but that’s what happens after a franchise-record winless streak like the Flyers have had.
Created by a listener to the Puck Soup podcast, “Gordle” is “Wordle” but with hockey player names. And it’s just as addictive. My opening guess, for what it’s worth: “Oates.”
Loser: Aaron Dell
The NHL Department of Player Safety should have gone much higher on its suspension of Buffalo Sabres goalie Aaron Dell for an intentionally dangerous hit on Ottawa’s Drake Batherson. He pulled something similar in San Jose, delivering a hit on Mark Stone. Look at a goalie the wrong way and you get a penalty in the NHL; yet Dell uses that endangered species status to take out Batherson, costing him an All-Star Game appearance. Unless “playing for the Sabres” is considered punishment enough, Dell deserved more than three games.
Winner: The Teddy Bear Toss
Life is tough. But once a year, in several hockey towns, fans get to experience the ultimate warm-and-fuzzy feeling. Or maybe that’s “cold and fuzzy.” The home team scores a goal. The stuffed animals start flying. It’s the Teddy Bear Toss for charity. The Hershey Bears — I mean, who else? — claim they set a new world record by collecting 52,341 teddy bears in a toss last weekend. Personally, I counted 52,342, but we’ll go with their official number.
How Ray Bourque helped Brad Marchand understand how to treat the fans. “There’s been numerous amounts of times where I’ve come back to this. He told me when … every kid wants an autograph, or approached you and wants to talk to you, just remember to enjoy it, don’t take it for granted, enjoy those moments because when you retire, nobody cares anymore.”
Interesting news from the Chicago Blackhawks: They’re looking for a general manager “both inside and outside of hockey,” and Rocky and Danny Wirtz are expected to face fans and media in a “town hall meeting next week, their first since the Jenner & Block report was released.
A massive COVID outbreak in Germany’s pro league has players demanding that it suspend operations before the Olympics. “It is important to reduce any risk to a minimum in the coming days and to optimize the possibility of players isolating as best as possible.”
The Buffalo Sabres are reportedly bringing the “goat-head” jerseys back next season as a retro jersey. Could the slug be far behind?!
Meanwhile, the NHL and Adidas are bringing back reverse retro jerseys next season — including one for the Seattle Kraken. So, like, this year’s jersey?
Josh Ho-Sang is an Olympian, in the next step of an unpredictable career. The Toronto Maple Leafs couldn’t be prouder of him.
Where did it go wrong for the Washington Capitals?
From your friends at ESPN
Bold predictions for the second half of the season! Granted, some are bolder than others.