Trending Topics: Much separates real contenders from wild-card teams

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The <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/nhl/teams/tam/" data-ylk="slk:Tampa Bay Lightning">Tampa Bay Lightning</a> are miles ahead of the middle-of-the-road teams in the East. (Getty)
The Tampa Bay Lightning are miles ahead of the middle-of-the-road teams in the East. (Getty)

The old mantra in the NHL is that if you get into the playoffs, you’re going to be in as good a position as anyone else to make a nice, deep run.

Because hey, remember when the Kings won the Cup from the 8 seed that one time? Remember when the Senators were within a goal of the Cup Final last year? It can happen, baby!

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But this year it really seems like a big gap in quality has developed between most of the higher-end seeds and those that are hanging around the bottom of the playoff picture. Since the switch to the divisional playoff format in 2013-14, just three out of the 64 playoff teams entered the postseason with a negative goal difference: The 2015-16 Red Wings and Flyers and last year’s Senators.

Have a look at this season’s standings: Ahead of Thursday night’s games, New Jersey, Columbus, and Anaheim all have negative goal differences right now and occupy playoff spots. The Devils and Ducks were closest to break-even with a minus-2 difference, while Columbus was minus-7. To be fair to the Ducks, they at least had a plus-5 goal difference at 5-on-5, but the Devils were also minus-2 there (meaning they’re dead even in all other situations). Columbus, meanwhile, continues to suffer harshly for its inept special teams; it’s plus-7 with both at full strength and minus-14 all other times.

Meanwhile, with the exception of the Metro Division, every other top team in their respective divisions are just crushing the competition. Nashville, Winnipeg, and Vegas are all at least plus-42. Tampa’s plus-56, Boston’s plus-46, and even straggling (in this regard) Toronto is plus-33.

By comparison, last year’s four division winners finished plus-81 (Washington, ahead of two hugely positive teams in Pittsburgh and Columbus), plus-31 (Chicago), plus-26 (Montreal), and plus-23 (Anaheim). It’s worth noting that as good teams play more games, they generally grow their goal differences as the season goes on since they, you know, win more games than their opponents.

So while it no longer appears as though Tampa is going to clear a difference of more than a goal a game, the fact is they’re gonna push 70 no problem. Other teams — Nashville, Vegas, Winnipeg, Boston — could clear plus-60 with little difficulty as well.

That’s getting into the “wow this is a great team” territory. Since 2013-14, only nine teams have finished with goal differences of plus-50. Six are on pace to do it this season alone, and Toronto isn’t so far behind that it’s outside the realm of possibility they get there if there’s a scoring surge or something.

This is, I think, reflective of the attitude I talked about in this space last week, and which was borne out at the trade deadline: Well-run, good teams now fully understand that the best way to win is to load up on elite talent. It’s an idea that sounds simple, but in a cap league is hard to pull off. But now the good teams are doing it more often, which of course leaves even many middling teams a bit out in the cold. This issue probably also gets worse as time goes on and the concept of the “super team” in the NHL becomes a bit more prevalent. Imagine what happens if one of these big-scoring clubs gets an Erik Karlsson this summer.

What that means for a lot of these other teams in the playoffs is that while, yes, anything can still happen, they’re also far more likely to be roadkill than they were in the past; the Senators were fortunate to get a banged-up Bruins team in the opening round and then a deeply flawed Rangers club in the second. While one can certainly see either of New Jersey or Columbus or hell, Carolina, giving Washington a series (the Caps are only plus-7 so far this year, but lead their division anyway) one imagines things wouldn’t go so well having to play both Pittsburgh and Philly. Meanwhile, the Atlantic would almost certainly be a cauldron of death for any wild-card team unlucky enough to draw into it.

The same is true out West. The Pacific offers something resembling a friendly path forward if you’re a wild card team: Get by a fluky Vegas club (even if you believe the Vegas Flu is real, visiting teams’ hotels will be on lockdown during a playoff series in a way they haven’t been in the regular season) and you probably have to play either San Jose, Anaheim, or Los Angeles, none of which are setting the world on fire.

But in the Central? Ah, if you finish third or in a wild-card spot, you have to play one of Nashville or Winnipeg, and then in all likelihood, the other of those teams. So that makes two divisions in which a relatively early exit is all but certain for any but the elite teams in the league, which is fine and as it probably should be.

It does, however, highlight the shortcomings of the current playoff system, in that we should really be headed for third rounds in which the Preds and Jets or Bolts and Bruins play for their Conference Titles, rather than doing so in the second round. When people joked last year about the second-round Metro clash between Washington and Pittsburgh being the de facto conference final, they weren’t actually joking. Nor would they be if they said the same about the Atlantic and Central divisions this year (mostly).

I’m all for super teams. I think they make the games that matter most — those in the playoffs — the most entertaining and important. If you wanna put Karlsson on the Penguins, I say let’s go. But the current playoff format, much like all the other smoke and mirrors in the regular season, is designed to obfuscate what it means to be “good” and bring as many intervening circumstances into those calculations as possible.

With that said, if the league can distill things down to the point where even six teams are truly elite and the rest are doing what NBA teams do now — hope to get into the playoffs, but with the right seeding to avoid a first-round matchup with a juggernaut — then things will mostly be good.

The NHL incentivizes mediocrity with a hard cap, revenue sharing, loser points, and the current playoff format, all as a means of creating the illusion that teams are better than they are in reality. Anything elite teams can do to smash that fantasy is, by definition, a good thing.

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

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