Has the blank space that exists between the NHL’s trade deadline and the start of the Stanley Cup Playoffs felt particularly cavernous for anyone else during this stretch drive?
Don’t get me wrong — what’s went on over the course of the last six months has provided plenty of excitement. Vegas has been a thrill. Tampa Bay has looked, at times, like the closest thing to an NHL “Super Team.” What Boston’s done is remarkable. The party hasn’t stopped in Nashville. And the defending champion Penguins look fully capable of pulling of the unthinkable: a three-peat.
But we’ve known this, for months. It’s time to get going.
As we impatiently play out the string, let’s look ahead and arrange a premature ranking of the Stanley Cup contenders.
Clear-cut, absolute title favourite
How teams are even within striking distance of the Nashville Predators in the race for the Presidents’ Trophy, and to a lesser extent the Central Division title, really is a wonder.
Nashville has been the most consistent, tenacious, dominant team from the jump, and just came off the sort of winning binge that’s necessary to create distance in the NHL’s crushed-can standings system, rattling off a 14-0-1 record over a four-week stretch beginning in mid-February.
Though well above average, they haven’t been a wildly dominant shot-share team, but how are these for indicators of future success: The Predators have just 16 regulation losses through 76 games, putting them comfortably on pace to be only the 10th team in the post-lockout era to finish with fewer than 20. And they remain the league’s stingiest team with 186 goals allowed, defensive mastery they pair with an attack that has produced the fourth-most goals in the Western Conference.
Nashville might not wind up with a single 30-goal scorer, but it does have 13 players in double digits. And while the quality throughout the Predators’ top four has likely prohibited one from breaking through and challenging for the Norris, it’s helped Pekka Rinne emerge as the favourite for the Vezina Trophy.
Atlantic Division power punchers
I’m here for a long postseason run for the very fun, but very impeded Maple Leafs. But I also have all the time for two similarly dominant yet vastly dissimilar forces colliding to decide Atlantic Division supremacy. Tampa Bay and Boston presents unruly firepower versus mega efficiency.
Tampa Bay has filled the net at a historically-high level this season (its 3.51 goals per game ranks sixth in the post-lockout era), production that has seen them secure a league-high 51 wins, a league-best plus-56 goal differential (including the best at evens), and maybe more importantly, obscure the fact that they allow too many shots and own a woeful penalty kill.
Boston remains merely a step behind Tampa in the more important measurements, but has achieved its dominance in the absence of outliers. Instead, the Bruins have returned to the league’s elite with impeccable balance, ranking sixth in goals for, third in goals against (and far and away the best in the East) and No. 1 in combined special teams. But what flatters Boston most is that it has the strongest hold on the total game-to-game shot share, holding a 283-shot advantage at even strength over the opposition.
Right now, Tampa is at plus-four.
Enervated but not out
After disproving the notion that the postseason toll is simply too taxing for teams aiming to repeat as Stanley Cup champions, the Penguins provided every indication early on this season that stringing together a third was a definite impossibility.
Or, was that team hovering near the bottom of the division just in extended recovery?
Since Jan. 1, the Penguins are 24-10-3, outscoring opponents 142 to 109. And despite this surge, they still maintain the league’s third-lowest PDO — a mark that you’d expect to continue to correct itself.
This is still the NHL’s strongest team down the middle — an area that was in many ways the difference last year.
New to the elite tier
It truly is remarkable a team that wasn’t in shouting distance of the postseason last year might be considered the most talent-rich from top to bottom, at least up front, just one year later.
Winnipeg achieved a measure of completeness to its stable of talent up front with the acquisition of Paul Stastny. But this team proved it was ready for a bold stroke we have been waiting for from its executive staff by fixing the fundamental flaws that have dogged this team in recent seasons.
The importance of landing on the positive end of the penalty differential after committing the most infractions in the league in the three previous seasons has been underscored by what’s been an elite penalty kill. And more importantly, Connor Hellebuyck has provided the top-end netminding the franchise has lacked since its inception.
Two we thought missed their window and one we didn’t think had one
OK — here’s where things get a little weird.
The Capitals, Sharks and Golden Knights stride in next on this list because a) they appear to be the next best teams in behind that elite tier and ones capable of catching fire, and b) have the friendliest paths through the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Washington has a reasonably comfortable lead on top of the Metropolitan Division, and therefore would avoid the dreaded matchup with the Penguins for the time being — and if its lucky, altogether. The Caps are not nearly as talented as they were in the previous two seasons (their goal differential is 64 points worse), but wouldn’t it be something if they broke through now, when the expectations have been slashed down?
Meanwhile the Golden Knights and Sharks are the best two teams in the Pacific Division. Vegas has likely banked enough points to hold onto top spot, but the Sharks have been outperforming the expansion team (or any other team for that matter) demonstrably since the trade deadline. San Jose has a league-best plus-22 goal differential since the acquisition of Evander Kane, and closed the gap with an 11-2-1 record compared to the Golden Knights’ pedestrian 7-5-3 record.
Forever cursing the playoff format
Hey, the Maple Leafs have real beef.
If not at an elite rate over the course of the season, Toronto has performed merely a smidgen below that top tier, scoring the fifth-most goals and pulling fewer out of their net over the course of the season than 19 other teams. Yet, the Maple Leafs are essentially locked into a position that requires them to face the two best teams in their conference, Boston and Tampa Bay, because the NHL demands that you go through your own division first.
This team is better than three listed directly above. What problems lie ahead is why it winds up here.
Mercurial in the Metro
The Blue Jackets and Flyers are two teams that always seem to be either working on a double-digit win streak or frantically working to stop the bleeding. (As of late, it’s the Blue Jackets with the most points gained since the trade deadline, while the Flyers have the fewest among teams likely bound for the postseason.)
Living on those sort of extremes goes one of two ways in the playoffs.
The other team also real down on the playoff format right now
Jets, then Preds. That’s tough. Falling out of the third seed in the Central might be the best thing for the Minnesota Wild, but then again a few losses in a row could cost them to miss out altogether.
What remains of California
Both the Ducks and Kings are clinging to their postseason lives and it’s now more likely than not that just one team will gain entry into the tournament. Whoever nails down that final seed in the Pacific Division, though, has the potential to go on a run in a softer section of the bracket.
‘You’d be wise to keep us out’
St. Louis suddenly has better than 80 percent odds to earn a postseason spot, while Florida is now just slightly better than a coin flip. Both teams have the ability to make things quite uncomfortable for division leaders — the Blues in particularly if they manage to slip into the Pacific side.
Hey, we’ve already won
The two last-place teams from each conference last season — the Avalanche and Devils — have combined to add 60 points to their totals this season, with another 24 up for grabs. The postseason, you would think, will be a different animal, though.