The Calgary Flames and Winnipeg Jets qualified for the playoffs Thursday night, and last year’s most dominant teams are either eliminated (in the case of the defending Stanley Cup champions in L.A.) or on the verge of elimination (in the case of the Bruins). Welcome to the new NHL, where little is guaranteed.
Watching the NHL’s action play out Thursday night was kind of like covering a political election and seeing the polls come in and herald a new leader for a new era. In one polling station, you had the Boston Bruins – the league’s top regular-season team last year – falling to the Florida Panthers and putting their playoff fate in the hands of the surging Ottawa Senators and wobbly Pittsburgh Penguins (who, like the Bruins, won a Stanley Cup not too long ago); In another station, you saw the Calgary Flames hold off the desperate Los Angeles Kings and register a 3-1 win, eliminating the defending Cup champions from the post-season and securing a playoff berth for the Winnipeg Jets.
Change was everywhere, and more change could be coming. Depending on what happens Friday and Saturday, the Eastern Conference playoff picture could have three teams (the Sens, Capitals and Islanders) who weren’t in the 2014 post-season, and the Western Conference will have four teams (Vancouver, Nashville, Calgary and Winnipeg) in this year’s playoffs who weren’t there last year. A 43.75 percent playoff turnover rate is one thing, but it’s not just the fact there are potentially seven new post-season teams this year that’s so intriguing; it’s the great distance teams are falling that has NHL executives clenching their teeth and always worrying about what’s ahead.
To wit: the Colorado Avalanche were the West’s second-best team last year, with 112 points and a 52-22-8 record. They posted that improvement after a lockout-shortened 2012-13 campaign in which they won just 16 of 48 games and were the league’s second-worst franchise. And of course, this year, they were one of the teams that tumbled from the top right out of the playoff picture. This year, they’re the West’s third-worst team (with a chance to overtake San Jose in their final regular-season game) with a 38-31-12 mark and 88 points. And if you had to predict where the Avs would finish next year, would you be completely comfortable either putting them in or out of the playoffs? I wouldn’t, and there are more than a few teams I feel the same way about.
This is the NHL’s Age Of The Lottery – and not just the draft lottery, whose results go a long way in nurturing or rejecting a team’s championship aspirations. Every year, all of the league’s teams have to hope their number isn’t picked in the injury bug lottery (belated “congrats” to the Columbus Blue Jackets, this year’s “winner”; your comically-oversized medical bill ceremony will take place at a date and time to be determined.) Teams gamble every season with their trades and free agent signings, and sometimes, those gambles pay off (as they have in Washington, Nashville, and Long Island, as well as in Calgary, Vancouver and Winnipeg). But sometimes they aren’t enough to push you into the playoffs (as they weren’t in San Jose, Edmonton, Dallas, Philly and Florida). The salary cap has ensured the playing field is relatively level and the difference in talent from franchise to franchise is so razor-thin, the intangibles – the things out of the control of a coach or GM, like injuries or shootouts – can be some of the chief determinants of your run to the playoffs.
Oh, and if you think talent levels are diluted these days, just wait until the league expands to Las Vegas, and then Quebec City. With watered-down rosters, all it will take to ruin a season for a franchise with high expectations will be one or two injuries to or slumps from key players, and all it will take to propel a franchise that struggled the previous year into the playoffs are one or two unexpectedly great seasons from young players or a couple of trades or signings that deliver results immediately.
Seeing how easily teams can fall out of Cup contention, we ought to hold teams like the Kings (who won it all in two of three seasons) and Chicago Blackhawks (who have hoisted the Cup twice in four years) in even higher esteem. That’s going to be as good as dynasties get in the era of NHL randomness.
The SnapChamp Era. Take a picture of the glory you’re enjoying today and cherish it in your mind as long as you can, because the NHL is designed to have that picture fade in short order.