What We Learned: Scared to death in the Western Conference

Minnesota Wild's Nino Niederreiter, right, of Switzerland, eyes the puck as he tries to keep Colorado Avalanche' s Daniel Briere at bay in the first period of an NHL hockey game, Thursday, Oct. 9, 2014, in St. Paul, Minn. (AP Photo/Jim Mone)
Minnesota Wild's Nino Niederreiter, right, of Switzerland, eyes the puck as he tries to keep Colorado Avalanche' s Daniel Briere at bay in the first period of an NHL hockey game, Thursday, Oct. 9, 2014, in St. Paul, Minn. (AP Photo/Jim Mone)

(Hello, this is a feature that will run through the entire season and aims to recap the weekend’s events and boils those events down to one admittedly superficial fact or stupid opinion about each team. Feel free to complain about it.)

The Minnesota Wild got out to a pretty good start to the season, winning their first two games pretty comfortably by not allowing a single goal from the Avalanche.

However, they remain mortally concerned about their chances to be competitive in their conference.

“I feel like we are a legitimate contender to win the Stanley Cup,” Wild coach Mike Yeo said earlier this week. “And I also am scared to death of missing the playoffs.”

Of course, this has been A Thing in the Western Conference specifically for years. Lots of good teams. Maybe too many. That's what allows bad teams from the East to sneak into the playoffs with pitiful records with some degree of regularity, while there's just about always a fistfight in the West's Nos. 6-10 positions (or even as far as 11th and 12th on occasion) in the standings.

It's an arms race out west, no doubt about that. Teams have to stock up on talent just to compete, and the Wild played their part in that this summer by acquiring Thomas Vanek at a relatively cut-rate deal, even as Dallas and Nashville and Chicago and St. Louis beefed up too. But it is also exceptionally rare that teams which are good over the course of the regular season end up missing the playoffs, and when teams do miss, it's largely because they were exceptionally unlucky, or another team (a bad one) got a ton of bounces to go their way from October to April.

New Jersey — which you'll note is in the East — is probably the only really good recent example of this. Winning games by doing the fundamental things that go into it, like maintaining possession and shooting or stopping the puck at about league-average numbers or better, is a repeatable skill that almost always results in at least a brief playoff appearance. I've long said that for the most part, being able to beat the majority of teams you play over 82 games is something into which the hockey world doesn't put enough stock; winning the Presidents' Trophy isn't seen as the big deal it really should be. Not that Yeo's club is really in contention for that prize, of course, but his fears of being a “legitimate contender to win the Stanley Cup” but still “missing the playoffs” are strange. Even in the extremely difficult West, when was the last time a preseason favorite to win the Cup (which, by the way, the Wild are not) didn't even end up scraping 95 points or so out of 82 contests? If it's ever happened, it almost certainly hasn't been since the introduction of the loser point.

And here's the other thing: People will say that a team that missed the playoffs is “really good” or whatever, but it's so rare that it happens that if it were to happen to your team in specific, it's sort of like winning the reverse-lottery. Playing 82 games means you put in a lot of minutes of hockey, and usually a few dozen rounds of the shootout, so for things to go against you for that long is kind of amazing. You have to stand in awe of New Jersey's ability to not-make the postseason two years in a row despite their overwhelming possession numbers as a consequence.

As for what teams in the West can do to improve their chances, the answer is, “Not much.” The Wild, just as a result of their having improved this summer to actually become a team that's actually capable of earning 98 points, rather than lucking into it with a high save percentage last season, are in a pretty solid position in the Central — tough though that division may be on paper — to at least grab a wild card spot. They're a good team, solid at every position. And while there are obviously great titans in both Western divisions, there are still opportunities out there for the merely good teams to still make some hay, and improve their chances.

If we accept that San Jose, Los Angeles, Chicago, St. Louis  and Anaheim are basically locks to make the playoffs from the day the season starts, that leaves three spots left to make the postseason. You'd have to say Minnesota and Dallas have the inside track on them, with Vancouver probably bringing up the rear. Someone like Nashville can't be totally counted out, but it seems obvious which teams are going to make the playoffs. Other than those eight, who makes a push? There are only 14 teams in the West (this is actually a benefit to the teams playing there, kind of a bonus for their tough time in making it at all, because their chances of squeezing in as one of the eight is a little better than that of their Eastern counterparts. But do you really expect a push from Arizona? Edmonton? Colorado? Winnipeg? Hell, Calgary? Those seem like six teams more than capable of giving out tap-in points on a near-nightly basis. All a better club has to do is turn on the offering and put it in the net.

What teams in the West are really jockeying for, then, is not a playoff spot, but playoff position. You don't want to play any of the three or four best teams in the conference, and by extension the league, in the first round if you can help it.

And so if a team like Minnesota wants to make hay in the West this year, it needs to hold its own against the good clubs and clean up against the bad. This isn't some magical formula, it's common sense. And it's easier said than done. Against non-playoff clubs in their conference last year, Yeo's club — for various reasons — took 30 of 40 available points (.750 winning percentage). They consequently made the playoffs comfortably, and even won a round (though the reasons for that should be clear: Playing last year's Colorado team for seven straight games was very likely to result in more wins than losses). All they have to do, then, is keep up that practice.

Western teams also need to be able to beat those from the weaker conference (regardless of individual team quality) with regularity, and last year, Minnesota did that to a lesser extent, winning 38 points from an available 64 (.594). But what that means is they only took 30 out of 60 from the other Western playoff teams (.500). Which sounds about right, all things considered.

Yeo's assertion that the Wild might not make the playoffs, for this reason, seems a little fanciful. As long as you can hold your own against the best teams in the league and devour the minnows, you're fine. Minnesota is more than capable. That doesn't make them great, or a “legitimate contender” for the Cup. But if you're worried about the Wild even making the playoffs, you can probably stop now. Unless they win that reverse-lottery.

And if they do, hey, the West is tough. We knew that going in.

What We Learned

Anaheim Ducks: Well I guess this is what Ryan Getzlaf can do to you. He took the puck about 120 feet through two guys and scored that goal. Good lord what a player.

Arizona Coyotes: Congrats to the Coyotes' one-millionth new owner. I'm sure this is what's going to make Hockey In The Desert a viable thing.

Boston Bruins: The Bruins have scored three goals in their three games so far this season. But hey, that's one more than Johnny Boychuk.

Buffalo Sabres: Let's not act like the Sabres gave Chicago a game or anything here. They were down 2-0 just 2:52 into the game. They gave up a goal to Dan Carcillo. It was ugly.

Calgary Flames: “Flames admit habit of leaving their goalies out to dry has to stop,” adding, “but we're just, like, so bad, you know what I mean?”

Carolina Hurricanes: What do we know about the Hurricanes? That they might be worse than we thought.

Chicago Blackhawks: And speaking of that Carcillo goal, he actually did a pretty good job on it. Which, you know, it was against Buffalo, so.

Colorado Avalanche: Somehow, there's no supplementary discipline for this flying elbow/forearm shot from Erik Johnson on Eric Haula. Steel-plate-in-his-arm Lex Luger would be proud of it.

Columbus Blue Jackets: Brandon Dubinsky had both sides of his groin surgically repaired this weekend, and he's still on the fence for six weeks. That might feel a lot longer than a month and a half though, eh?

Dallas Stars: The top line isn't producing through two games! Time to shake things up, Lindy!

Detroit Red Wings: Likewise, it also took just two games for the Wings to start whining about something.

Edmonton Oilers: Ryan Nugent-Hopkins got in a fight on Saturday. Probably not a great idea.

Florida Panthers: Saturday saw the smallest home opener crowd ever for the Panthers. Which is saying something.

Los Angeles Kings: Shout out to Bob Miller for turning 76. Nice story here.

Minnesota Wild: Gotta love that Jonas Brodin extension. Ludicrously good number at $4.17 million for the next six years. I can't believe he took that.

Montreal Canadiens: Nice to come back from down 3-0 and everything but really, doing it against the Flyers' defense should really only get you, like, 1.5 points in the standings.

Nashville Predators, America's Favorite Hockey Team: Eric Nystrom of all people keying a W over the Stars might be the most Chambers Pot-y thing that ever happened.

New Jersey Devils: Mike Cammalleri already has three goals for New Jersey. Lou Lamoriello looks like a genius right now.

New York Islanders: The puck movement on John Tavares's first goal of the year Saturday night was a thing to behold. And what a shot, of course.

New York Rangers: It's starting to look like keeping Anthony Duclair around was a wise move in the short-term. They should still send him down when everyone's back healthy.

Ottawa Senators: Pretty revealing chit-chat with Bobby Ryan about getting his new deal done. His answer on whether there was hesitation to sign a new deal is interesting.

Philadelphia Flyers: Well if you've given up 12 goals in three games, the guy you wanna call out in the media is definitely the good young forward you've moved out of position for no reason.

Pittsburgh Penguins: I really, really, really hope Sid Crosby is just in total “Oh you really think Toews is better than me, huh?” F-You mode all season. Six points in two games. What a monster.

San Jose Sharks: Are we really attributing “no captain” to the Sharks shutting out their first two opponents? This sport, man.

St. Louis Blues: Paul Stastny had two points in each of his first two games and says he feels “comfortable.” Yeah, huh? Playing Calgary helps.

Tampa Bay Lightning: Jon Cooper is lamenting the loss of a single point in the standings after just two games. This is a team with high hopes.

Toronto Maple Leafs: Read this headline. Then remember that they were two games into the season. What a market.

Vancouver Canucks: “Miller there when it counts as Canucks edge Oilers 5-4 in a shootout.” If it were still Roberto Luongo in the crease, the headline would be “Canucks edge Oilers 5-4 in a shootout despite Luongo being a bad loser.”

Washington Capitals: This was Alex Ovechkin's second goal of the night — and fourth in his last four games — against the Bruins. He really seems to have Tuukka Rask's number.

Winnipeg Jets: Evander Kane looks like he's going to be out awhile. They're not even re-evaluating his knee injury for another two weeks. November? Maybe? This team can't catch a break.

Play of the Weekend

Man oh man.

Gold Star Award

In his first ever college game, playing against grown men, Jack Eichel recorded four points in an 8-1 win. Not to be outdone, Connor McDavid scored four in an 8-3 win. You know what that means: McDavid only plays a one-way game.

Minus of the Weekend

This is the kind of tough guy BS nonsense people like Brian Burke lament leaving the game (and by the way, that misogynist BS nonsense headline can go screw as well). Or at least, this is what is wrought by what they lament. If you employ unstable thugs like Trevor Gillies — which Burke's organization does, by design — you get these embarrassing antics. Always. Even the best-controlled “enforcers” put people in this hospital with gutless attacks. Get this garbage out of the game.

Perfect HFBoards Trade Proposal of the Week
User “mymerlincat” has a bright idea.

To Toronto:
Shane Doan
Keith Yandle
Joe Thornton

To San Jose:
Jake Gardiner
Joffrey Lupul

To Phoenix:
Toronto 2015 1st
William Nylander
David Booth

Signoff
We do need a druid, and you have definitely cast a Level 5 charm spell on me.

Ryan Lambert is a Puck Daddy columnist. His email is hereand his Twitter is here