Los Angeles, Anaheim, Minnesota.
Three teams out of the Western Conference, three teams out of the playoffs for very different reasons.
The Kings lost their first-round series against Vegas because they went from being the net-driving team they’d been for most of the regular season to playing Darryl Sutter-brand hockey once again, and didn’t score any goals as a result. They ran into a hot goalie, sure, but also they didn’t do much to make that goalie earn his .970-something save percentage in the four-game sweep.
The Ducks had a similar problem: They couldn’t score, but unlike the Kings they also couldn’t keep the puck out of the net. The Sharks aren’t even that great, but they certainly made the Ducks look like a team that had no business being in the playoffs, outscoring them 16-4 in four games.
The Wild weren’t really in that boat, so much, because they just got run out of the building in four out of their five games by a deeply superior team, and only a surprise blowout in Game 3 kept them from being as utterly humiliated as the two above teams. Nonetheless, they lost their last two games by a combined 7-0 scoreline, including a first period in Game 5 that was so laughable it made the last 50 minutes or so not even worth watching.
All of which highlights both an overarching problem with these three teams separately and with the current playoff format. None of these three teams are equipped to be competitive within the Western Conference, but mostly because they are not equipped to be competitive within their respective divisions.
The Kings and Ducks play in a fairly soft division, probably the softest in the league given its overall lack of elite clubs, and they didn’t come close to being able to keep up even in the first round. Meanwhile, the Wild are a nominally good team — reliably worth 100 points in the standings — but not much more than that because they lack any truly high-end talent.
LA and Anaheim each have a difference-making defenseman and center, but beyond that, what are we really talking about with this club’s talent level on an ongoing basis? After your Doughtys and Lindholms, Getzlafs and Kopitars, who’s carrying the water for these teams? Rickard Rakell? Jeff Carter (if he’s healthy)? Perfectly good players, but not guys who really move the needle, and certainly not guys who do it against actual good competition.
And Minnesota, frankly, doesn’t even have guys on the level of those elite defensemen or centers. If you can get Eric Staal to shoot 17 percent again, that’s fine. Jason Zucker and Mikael Granlund can play, too, but they’re on the level of Rakell and Carter in that they’re very nice players to have but if they’re your big weapons you’re not really going to make a lot happen in the playoffs.
This is especially true because a lot of guys whose talent levels are a “solid B/B-” in this league are who teams end up with when they overpay for guys as they age out of their mid-20s. It’s no secret that the long-term cap problems these teams piled up in recent years as they tried to wring more success out of pretty-good rosters is what’s holding them back both now and down the road.
LA is the perfect example of this. They signed Doughty and Kopitar long-term because they had to, and Kopitar had an awesome season in a bounce-back from an ugly start to his eight-year, $80 million deal. But he’s going to be 31 in August and signed for six seasons after this one. Which Kopitar is more likely to show up in 2018-19, the one who was a borderline MVP candidate this year or the one who was a crushing disappointment last year? Okay, now how about 2022-23?
Dustin Brown? He’s six months from being 34 and still signed through 2021-22. Jeff Carter is 34 in January, but also signed for four seasons after this one? Dion Phaneuf just turned 33 and he’s got three years left. Jonathan Quick is 32 and signed for another five years.
Put another way, the Kings have seven guys signed for 2020-21 right this second, for a total cost of more than $40.6 million AAV (an average of $5.8 million), and all but Tanner Pearson, whose career high in points is just 44, will be 31 or older by the time October rolls around.
Anaheim? Same gimmick, but it’s worse in some ways. The 2020-21 season is the last of the Getzlaf/Perry deals ($8.625 million AAV each) but they also have Ryan Kesler signed for another year after that and Andrew Cogliano’s deal expires that season as well. To be fair, they have half of a good D group signed for at least that long — Lindholm, Fowler, and Manson — but no assurances on John Gibson, who’ll be an RFA after next season. That’s $46.6 million AAV, give or take, committed to eight guys, and half of them are already at least 31. That includes all but one of the forwards, as Rakell is still only 24.
The only players Minnesota has signed through that season are Zach Parise, Nino Niederreiter, Marcus Foligno, Ryan Suter, Jonas Brodin, and Devan Dubnyk, but if that’s your big core going forward, it’s like, “Uhhh, yikes!” Especially if you’re in a division with Nashville and Winnipeg, both of which have really good cores that blow yours out of the damn water, and pretty much all their best players are still in their 20s.
So the question becomes a “when” not “if” these teams should blow up their rosters. The Kings got someone to trade for Marian Gaborik, so all things are possible in terms of making problem contracts disappear, but there are only so many suckers around the league to pawn off these deals, right?
You kinda can’t blow up these rosters in the traditional sense because there’s so much detritus there, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t happen, because as all these guys age, they’re only going to get worse and more prone to injury.
This, one supposes, is the difference between being a “100-point team” and an “elite team,” because while 100 points is a pretty good indicator of who’s good in this league, this just goes to show if you’re not great you’re not really worth caring about. Nice for the owner to get the home playoff revenues for a round or maybe two, but that’s about it, right? Why should fans get invested in that?
And with these teams in particular, there’s no come-up through a strong youth movement here. If/when Toronto loses to Boston, you go, “Okay well everyone who’s any good on that team is like 24.” Even Philly has a number of promising young players in the lineup or pipeline. But routinely picking in the teens and 20s while never getting a “steal” is how you end up here.
Sure the Wild or Kings or Ducks could have gotten out of the first round, but to what end? Would they not have just faced the same kind of “oooo that other team smoked them” elimination in the second?
And for these three clubs, more likely than not, tomorrow will be worse.
What We Learned: Playoff edition
Boston Bruins: Tuukka Rask got the hook in Game 5 and for a good enough reason that there’s not really a point in slicing and dicing the decision. But after the game, well buddy, he dropped this quote: “It’s on me, but moving on to the next one and we’ll finish it out in Toronto.” That looks an awful lot, to the layman, like a guarantee. I love when players make guarantees, especially after they have a bad game. Make sure you remember about this guarantee: The Bruins are gonna win Game 6, so says Tuukka Rask.
Colorado Avalanche: You had to figure this was coming, right? The Avs were badly overmatched and I know we all like to laugh about the guy eating the hamburger a few years ago but Andrew Hammond is not a good NHL goaltender and you could tell last night because of how many of those Nashville goals went in off his arm or his shoulder or something. He’s like 80 percent of an NHL goalie and got 80 percent of the puck on those shots, so that all checks out. Too bad for the Avs about Varlamov missing the series but this was the only logical result, probably regardless of goalie health.
Columbus Blue Jackets: Hey speaking of which, here’s John Tortorella, whose team has now dropped three straight games (two of them in overtime): “We’ll be back here for Game 7.” “Here,” of course, is Washington, where Columbus won the first two games of the series. Which, yup, that’s another Game 6 guarantee, and unlike Rask’s comment, it’s something that a) Doesn’t really seem “up to” Tortorella, and b) Doesn’t really seem super-likely. Not so much because the Blue Jackets are significantly worse than the Capitals, but more because this has been a series of one-goal games apart from the Caps getting a three-goal lead in Game 4 and never coughing it up. So like, it’s certainly possible that this comes through for Torts, but HOW likely? Maybe 50 percent? I don’t like those odds!
Nashville Predators: I saw some stat where the Preds gave up a ton of rush chances this season and the Avs generated about as many, and you saw that in this series. Colorado was able to stretch the ice pretty effectively but even still they just weren’t good enough to be competitive with the best team in the league, so that’s how it goes. With that said, jeez, doesn’t it seem like Winnipeg could stretch the ice pretty effectively as well? And maybe given that Winnipeg is way better at doing what Colorado did, that’s an issue for the Preds. Lots to focus on in the next few days before the second round starts, but hey, the Preds did what they were supposed to do in the first round, right?
New Jersey Devils: I have fewer questions about the Devils, for obvious reasons, than I do about the Ducks, Kings, and Wild. But here’s a big one: “What’s the goaltending situation going forward?” Like, the Devils made the playoffs (and got stomped pretty good) with their big-money nominal starting goalie playing his second straight year of .900-something hockey. Cory Schneider is 32, signed through 2021-22, sitting on a $6-million cap hit, and very obviously not the .924 goalie he was in his first three seasons with the Devils. Now, he could turn it around with a fully healthy season, sure, but do the odds of that seem especially strong? I don’t know, man.
Philadelphia Flyers: Here is a theory for you: If the Flyers had any goaltending at all, they could have won the series. Instead, they gave up seven, one, five, five, two, and then eight goals in these six games. Only one was into an empty net. It’s one of those things where it’s like, okay yeah, the team in front of Philly’s goalies scored zero, five, one, zero, four, and five, so that’s a pretty ugly mix of “winnable” and “losable” goal totals, but if you can’t keep the puck out of your own net even somewhat reliably, what is to be done? Philly’s combined save percentage in this series was .852, and that was pretty evenly distributed: Petr Mrazek (who only got 31 minutes) at .857, Brian Elliott at .856, and Michal Neuvirth (who might as well have not shown up yesterday) at .847. Yeesh.
Pittsburgh Penguins: It’s pretty amazing that the third — or fourth-best center in the world — can miss Game 6 and his team can still go out and score eight goals. Again, the Flyers’ goaltending really helped the Penguins to get there, but c’mon! This team looks pretty scary, to the extent that it honestly might not matter if Matt Murray isn’t elite (he went .911 for the series but was .933 heading into Game 6). I’m not ready to say they’re favorites for the three-peat or anything, but the Penguins gotta be the heavy favorite to come out of the Metro now.
San Jose Sharks: I’m always wary of a long layoff for teams that I’m not really sure exactly how good they are. Like with the Jets, I’m not super worried about them because they’re good and even a little banged up, so the time off could be beneficial. FBut the Sharks? I dunno. Of course, they’re also playing a team that swept its first-round opponent and quite frankly, this is a thing: If both teams can agree on it, the NHL should just let teams pick when their next series starts. That way they can go, “Yeah we’ll get this series out of the way and take the extra time off versus Nashville or Winnipeg.” That would be cool, in my opinion.
Tampa Bay Lightning: Hey Nikita Kucherov had some kind of a series, eh? He had 5-5-10 in five games, scored the game-winner in three of them, and put a whopping 24 shots on net. But what’s good about short-series things and how dumb the playoffs are in general is that he’s not even close to the Conn Smythe front-runner (for now) because Marc-Andre Fleury exists. And Andrei Vasilevskiy went .941 in the series and he’s not even the MVP on his won team so far.
Toronto Maple Leafs: If you ask me, it’s probably not a good idea to just give the Bruins 52 power plays, including long 5-on-3s. Like, I know Leafs fans spent most of Saturday and Sunday complaining about the officiating but even if we say the Leafs committed half as many penalties as they actually did, well, that’s still three power plays, while they only drew one! The Leafs got outshot 45-21 and it’s not some sort of accident or conspiracy that this happened, y’know? Get a grip, I guess is what I’m saying. It’s a W regardless of how it happened.
Vegas Golden Knights: The Golden Knighs took two days off and they’ve been practicing since the 20th. That’s probably the right play, but that’s gotta suck for them, right? You get plenty of time to game-plan for San Jose (and that goes both ways) but it’s not like all this time off can be a good thing after a while. What if one of the Eastern series goes seven games? The Sharksy haven’t played in almost a week already. Not ideal.
Washington Capitals: Yeah the thing with that horrible third period for the Caps is that this has happened to them more than a few times in this series, where Columbus just takes over a game. But when you have a good goalie like Braden Holtby, who is the reason the Caps are up 3-2 now, that’s gonna help you weather some storms. The rest of the team is still (barely) scoring enough to keep the club afloat. How long can it last?
Winnipeg Jets: These guys suddenly look like a very, very scary draw in the second round. Hellebuyck is really on a roll, everyone’s scoring, etc. They’re a little banged up, sure, and that matters more when you play a team that’s better than the also-banged-up Wild, but it’s hard to pick against the Jets right now. Everything is going right for them, but it’s going right because they dominated Minnesota. Why wouldn’t they be able to keep that up?
Play of the weekend
Big game from Sean Couturier despite playing on a bum MCL and a bad team. That’s how it goes sometimes, though.
Gold Star Award
The Flyers scored five goals in Game 6 and Jake Guentzel scored four. That’ll work.
Minus of the Weekend
The NHL continues to be a marvel. On Saturday, there were three games on the schedule, so of course two of them started at 3 in the afternoon. Why wouldn’t they? Meanwhile the NBA played one game at a time all day, basically, with no overlap.
It’s an interesting strategy. I wonder why the NHL is more popular than the NBA. What’s that? It’s not? Huh.
Perfect HFBoards Trade Proposal of the Year
User “MoneyHandsMonahan” seems to be trying to make the Flames worse???
“Calgary gets Corey Perry with salary retained to get him to 6.75 mill. Calgary also gets Jakob Silvferberg. Anaheim Gets Sam Bennett and TJ Brodie.”
Yes, and you call them “steamed hams” despite the fact that they are obviously grilled!
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(All stats via Corsica unless otherwise noted.)