We tried to predict the Western Conference playoff teams in The Hockey News 2017-18 NHL Yearbook. So far, nobody’s cooperating. Plus: the best goalies in the opening month of the season, Sidney Crosby’s strange start, and the 48th-busiest player in the league.
What did the Anaheim Ducks, Calgary Flames, Chicago Blackhawks, Dallas Stars, Edmonton Oilers and Minnesota Wild have in common a little more than a month into the 2017-18 NHL regular season?
They were all outside the playoff picture in the Western Conference.
Yes, it’s early and a lot will change. To that end, the Flames and Stars scrambled up into wild-card spots – at least temporarily – after recording victories heading into the weekend. But still, did anyone figure that all six of those teams would be on or outside the playoff bubble at this point in the season?
Maybe you did, but we didn’t. In fact, in The Hockey News 2017-18 NHL Yearbook, we predicted all six of those teams would qualify for the playoffs in the West. (To paraphrase former Toronto Maple Leafs GM Cliff Fletcher: “Predictions, schmedictions.”) We picked the Ducks to win the Pacific Division, followed by the Oilers and Flames, and the Stars to win the Central Division, with the Blackhawks in third place and the Wild claiming a wild card spot. Some of that might very well happen, but it’s looking highly unlikely that all six of those clubs will make it into the post-season. Maybe three or four of them will. Or maybe just a couple.
Let’s take a glance at how the rest of the West is shaping up. The St. Louis Blues are first in the Central and vying for No. 1 overall in the league. They might not keep up their winning-three-out-of-four pace, but the well-balanced Blues should be a top team all season. The Los Angeles Kings are a bit of a surprise leading the Pacific after missing the playoffs twice in the past three seasons, including last year, but they burst out of the starting gates with an 11-3-2 record under new coach John Stevens and, given their Stanley Cup pedigree, there’s no reason to think they’re not for real. The Nashville Predators made it to the Cup final last spring and they should be even better this year. The Winnipeg Jets stumbled in the first few games of the season but have been flying ever since, so maybe they’re finally turning the page from good on paper to good on the ice.
That’s four teams right there for which you can make a convincing playoff case. Four other teams currently in the post-season mix in the West – the San Jose Sharks, Colorado Avalanche, Vancouver Canucks and Vegas Golden Knights – are more likely to come back to earth at some point. Not to take anything away from their accomplishments in the the first five weeks of the season, but it would be downright shocking if Colorado, Vancouver or Vegas make it into the playoffs.
So, let’s say the Avs, Canucks and Knights eventually undergo a reality check and drop out of the post-season picture. And maybe another team regresses enough to fall off the playoff pace – say, the Jets or Sharks (insert West Side Story joke here). That still means at least two of the Ducks, Flames, Blackhawks, Stars, Oilers and Wild will miss the post-season.
From this vantage point, the Ducks and Wild appear to be the most likely candidates to be done by early April. Anaheim has been absolutely decimated by injuries, with Ryan Getzlaf, Ryan Kesler, Patrick Eaves, Cam Fowler, Hampus Lindholm and Sami Vatanen being their most notable hurtin’ hockey players. In Minnesota, meanwhile, it’s all kind of going sideways at the moment. More than anything, the Wild need goalie Devan Dubnyk to recapture his Vezina-esque form of the past few seasons if they’re going to climb back into post-season contention. Perhaps his 3-0 shutout of the Montreal Canadiens on Thursday is the first step in that direction.
Or, maybe the Blackhawks and Oilers miss the playoffs. Has Chicago finally hollowed itself out too much? The Hawks have been the lowest-scoring team in the NHL since demolishing the Pittsburgh Penguins 10-1 in their season opener, and Chicago’s underlying stats indicate they’ve been heavily relying on goalie Corey Crawford’s heroics to keep them competitive. If Crawford cools off, the Blackhawks’ nine-year post-season streak could very well come to an end. The Oilers, meanwhile, have taken a step backwards after last year’s long-awaited breakthrough. Instead of building on their first playoff appearance since 2006, Edmonton has stalled. Connor McDavid’s production has slowed down and the team’s offense has dipped along with it, and the defense and goaltending simply need to be better.
So, that leaves the Flames and Stars. Calgary and Dallas are on the bubble right now, but they should be playoff teams come springtime. But don’t quote me. Predictions are hard (and schmedictions ain’t easy).
RANDOM RAMBLINGS THROUGH THE FIRST MONTH-PLUS OF THE 2017-18 NHL SEASON:
(Note: Stats as of Saturday, Nov. 11.)
The early Vezina vote: The three best goalies through the first month of the NHL season? The Blackhawks’ Crawford, Lightning’s Andrei Vasilevskiy and Jets’ Connor Hellebuyck. Crawford has the best goals-against average (1.87) and save percentage (.942), even if his rather pedestrian win-loss record (7-6-0) doesn’t reflect his stunning stats. Vasilevskiy has the most wins (12-1-1) and a solid .928 save percentage. Hellebuyck, who quickly reclaimed the No. 1 job from UFA fly-in Steve Mason, hadn’t lost in regulation time until Friday night (8-1-2) and was among the league leaders in both GAA (2.44) and save percentage (.926). The toughest choice was leaving the Kings’ Jonathan Quick off the ballot (9-3-1, 2.29 GAA, .932 save percentage).
Crease carnage: First, the good news. Antti Niemi is tied for the scoring lead among NHL netminders, as he’s one of 14 goalies to record an assist so far this season. Otherwise, yeah, even the pro-Antti lobby could barely watch as the one-time Stanley Cup-winning stopper was waived from the Penguins to the Panthers, all the while lugging around an awful stat line (0-4-0, 6.77 GAA, .822 save percentage). The Coyotes’ Louis Domingue (0-6-0, 4.33 GAA, .856 save percentage) earns dishonorable mention.
87 problems, Part 1: Sidney Crosby has the second-worst plus/minus in the NHL at minus-14 – behind only teammate Kris Letang (minus-16) – and the Penguins captain is ninth in the league with 32 penalty minutes. Crosby hasn’t been a minus player since posting a minus-1 in his rookie season of 2005-06, when he also set his personal-high in PIMs at 110. He’s currently on pace to go minus-64 with 146 penalty minutes. That’s not going to happen, of course. Why? Because he’s Sidney Crosby, that’s why.
87 problems, Part 2: Another troubling sign for Crosby is the fact he hasn’t scored in his past 10 games, registering just three assists in that span. He hasn’t had a drought like this since the start of 2015-16, when he was limited to a goal and three points – all of which came in the same games – in the first nine games of the season.
Not-so-special team: It’s a surprise, for sure, to see McDavid’s Oilers languishing near the bottom of the NHL standings. Edmonton’s slow start, at least in part, can be blamed on the team’s poor showing on special teams. The Oilers ranked 27th on the power play at 13.3-percent efficiency, with six goals on 45 chances. When you combine that with Edmonton’s dead-last penalty kill (72.0 percent, 14 goals against on 50 opportunities), the Oilers’ second-last status in the West – ahead of only laughingstock Arizona – becomes easier to understand.
When shooters pass: Lightning sniper Steven Stamkos leads the league with 22 assists, while Penguins gunner Phil Kessel was also in the top 10 with 14 helpers, and he’s tied for first with nine PP assists. The natural-born scorers are still firing away as well – Kessel’s fourth in the NHL with 74 shots, while Stamkos was tied for 17th with 54 shots. The Lightning captain, of course, isn’t under pressure to shoot all the time since he’s skating on a line with Nikita Kucherov, the league’s leading goal-scorer. Kucherov has 16 goals in 17 games and he’s tied for sixth in shots (67).
When shooters shoot: Kucherov’s 56 goals since the start of last season are the most in the NHL, and his 114 points ranks second only to McDavid’s 118 over the same span. The Maple Leafs’ Auston Matthews is the only other NHLer to score 50 goals since the start of 2016-17, he’s sitting right on hockey’s magic number.
Forty-eighth highest ice time: Panthers center Aleksander Barkov leads all NHL forwards – and trails 48 defensemen – at 22:23 per game, two seconds more than the Kings’ Anze Kopitar (22:21) and 11 seconds up on McDavid (22:12).
Shutout or bust: Canucks backup goalie Anders Nilsson is tied for the league lead with two shutouts, which is especially impressive when you consider he’s only had four starts and 190 minutes of playing time.
Killer penalty-killer: Only three NHL teams have scored more shorthanded goals than Buffalo’s Evander Kane – the Devils, Jets and Panthers have four shorties each, one more than Kane. Of course, the Sabres have also surrendered a league-high six shorthanded goals, so it’s not all peaches and sunshine in Buffalo (if, indeed, you were under the impression that it’s ever peaches and sunshine in Buffalo).
Cy Young candidates: It’s veteran fireballer Alex Ovechkin (13-6) vs. rookie phenom Clayton Keller (11-6). Winner gets the Astros.