Weekend NHL rankings: Wild miss their chance, thoughts on the Maple Leafs and more



0401NHLWeekendRankingsWildLeafs

We’re in the final stretch, and the good news is the first round is shaping up to be excellent. The not-so-good news is there isn’t all that much left to play for on the way there. The race for the Western playoff spots has been declared over, while the Eastern spots are still in play only because nobody seems to want them. Any dreams of a fascinating dual sprint to the finish line have been dashed.

Ah well, we’ll take what we can get. And over the next few weeks, that still includes some legitimately big games — at least, assuming everything plays out according to script on the way there. Let’s mention a few in this week’s bonus five.

Bonus five: Biggest games left on the schedule

5. Canucks at Oilers, April 13 — This one’s on the list tentatively, since it may not matter by the time we get there. But the Oilers are still hanging around the top of the Pacific, and it’s possible this game could be the one that ends up deciding first place in the division.

4. Panthers at Bruins, April 6 — We can be a little more confident here, since the game comes a week sooner and the Atlantic race is much tighter. It comes in a tough stretch for Boston, sandwiched between a pair of games against Carolina, so it could be a must-win if they want the division’s top seed.

3. Islanders at Flyers, tonight — The Islanders are still hanging around, but this could be their best and maybe last shot. On the other side, this is the Flyers’ chance to all but eliminate one of the teams that’s bunched up in their rearview mirror.

2. Stars at Avalanche, April 7 — The red-hot Stars have a fun week ahead, with a game against the Oilers on Wednesday, too. But this is the one that could determine the Central, and maybe even the Presidents’ Trophy. This one will matter for the standings but might matter even more as a battle between two teams that want to be the alpha in the West and will want to send that message loud and clear ahead of the postseason.

1. Capitals at Red Wings, April 9 — There may be a little bit of wishful thinking here, since this game may not end up mattering at all. But if it does, it will probably be for the last playoff spot in the East. And if so, having the Cinderella story Capitals go into Detroit to face what should be a desperate team (and fan base) in a one-game showdown will be must-see TV.

 On to this week’s rankings …


Road to the Cup

The five teams with the best chances of winning the Stanley Cup.

No room for the Oilers in the top five this week, but let’s check in on Connor McDavid real quick and yep, he’s still good.

5. Florida Panthers (47-22-5, +56 true goals differential*) — They continued their fade this week, although Saturday’s shootout win over the Red Wings might get them back on track. Tonight’s game in Toronto might end up being a playoff preview.

Hey, speaking of which, I can’t believe Paul Maurice came right out and said “I transparently manipulated the referees in last year’s playoffs by holding up my fingers in Game 1 against Toronto and it actually worked, and those feeble-minded losers should be so embarrassed that they call a bunch of penalties against my team in retaliation this spring,” according to this quote.

4. Carolina Hurricanes (47-21-7, +59) — Yeah yeah, 10 wins in 13 since the trade deadline, that’s great and all, but … who loses to the Penguins?

3. Dallas Stars (47-19-9, +52) — Make it seven straight wins, all by multiple goals. It hasn’t exactly come against the toughest schedule, apart from this week’s win over Vancouver. That will change this week, as they host the Oilers on Wednesday and then get the Avs on Sunday. (They also get Chicago on Saturday if you want to go ahead and pencil in the letdown loss.)

2. New York Rangers (50-20-4, +51) — They’re pulling away in the Metro, thanks to five straight wins. You may also have noticed that they weren’t listed in the bonus-five section on big games left; that’s because they’re all done with the teams chasing them for top spot in the East, like Carolina, Boston and Florida. The schedule should be smooth sailing, meaning the Rangers are getting dangerously close to “lock” territory, which guarantees them home ice through the conference and a theoretically easy matchup in Round 1. They can ask last year’s Bruins how that sometimes goes, but it’s still a good situation to be in.

Anyway, congratulations to Jonathan Quick on passing Ryan Miller as the all-time wins leader among American goalies. Jesse looked at why the U.S. is coming to dominate the position.

1. Colorado Avalanche (47-21-6, +58) — I’m sticking with the Avs in top spot despite a pair of losses this week. Yes, one of them was against the Rangers, but that was a shootout so it doesn’t count. Meanwhile, I’ll be happy to sign up for seven games of Colorado/Nashville if they promise to ditch the defense like they did on Saturday.

*Goals differential without counting shootout decisions like the NHL does for some reason.

Not ranked: Toronto Maple Leafs — OK, fine, let’s do this.

If you’ve been keeping track then a) you’re paying way too much attention to these rankings, and also b) you’ll know that the Leafs are the last of the 32 teams to show up in a top or bottom five or “not ranked” cameo. Some of that is me trying to avoid the homer accusations. (Completely unsuccessfully, I might add.) But mostly, they’re just not a very interesting team to write about during the regular season.

We know the drill by now. They’ll win a lot of games, but not quite as many as you might expect. They’ll finish second or third in the Atlantic. They’ll blow third-period leads and have genuinely scary offensive outbursts, and be better defensively than you think but not good enough, and they’ll fail to show up on time against bad teams but beat a few good ones. They’ll have a few great stories and a few glaring weaknesses. And none of it, not a single moment, will actually matter until the playoffs arrive.

Well, we’re almost there, so let’s check in on yet another Leafs team that could win, but probably won’t.

We can start with the good. Auston Matthews is going to shatter his own scoring record, William Nylander has ascended to the legitimate superstar tier, there might be finally enough scoring depth this time around, and in theory, they’ve added plenty of snot. But Mitch Marner is hurt, John Tavares is slowing down, the blue line hasn’t clicked yet, and they don’t have a single goalie who inspires real confidence.

What does that all add up to? No idea. They looked great against Buffalo on Saturday, but you know, Buffalo.

Can they win the Cup, or at least put together a long run? Sure, it’s the NHL, anyone who makes the playoffs can. Is there any reason to think their chances are better this year than last, or the year before that, or the year before that? Not really, unless you really squint through your optimist glasses. This year’s edition doesn’t just feel like they’re destined for another first-round exit, but for a change, it even seems like they’d probably deserve one. They’re pretty good in a conference where most of the playoff teams will be better.

And sure, maybe this is the year it all finally clicks, just when it’s not supposed to. They’ve spent most of the last decade doing a decent impression of the prime-Ovechkin era Washington Capitals, so maybe this year turns into their 2018, where everything breaks just right and then we all convince ourselves they must have just learned how to win. It can absolutely happen, just like it could for pretty much every playoff team. But as a fan, I’m less excited about this postseason than ever, because it sure seems like we’re just headed to the same old ending we always get with this bunch.

Am I wrong? Leafs fans, help me out here. Pump my tires. Get me excited for the drama to come in a few more weeks. I want to believe, because it’s more fun that way. Convince me, or at least trick me into something that’s close enough.


The bottom five

The five teams that are headed toward dead last, and the best lottery odds for Macklin Celebrini.

The Ivan Fedotov story could be a big one. Kevin gets you caught up on all the intrigue that got us here. 

5. Arizona Coyotes (31-38-5, -21) — The season is lost, but kudos to whoever decided to pause the game, go into the options menu, and set the scoring rates to “1983” for the last week. Hey, if you can’t be good, be fun. And so far, the Josh Doan era has been very fun.

4. Columbus Blue Jackets (24-38-12, -60) — If you missed it, be sure to check out Aaron’s deep dive into the team’s history of futility. It’s a tough read, even if you’re not a Blue Jackets fan, but it’s worth your time.

3. Anaheim Ducks (24-47-4, -90) — Eric is really taking the good news/bad news approach to Ducks coverage to new heights.

He also took a look at Leo Carlsson’s up-and-down rookie season.

2. Chicago Blackhawks (22-47-5, -95) — I thought this was interesting: Scott with a look at how a new local TV deal could play out when big changes in traditional broadcasting meet with the Connor Bedard era.

1. San Jose Sharks (17-48-8, -127) — One stat to keep an eye on: The Sharks’ goals differential, which is on track to beat last year’s Ducks for the honor of worst ever in the cap era. They’ve still got a ways to go to catch the 1974-75 Capitals, who were a -265. They also won’t catch the 1992-93 Sharks for the franchise record, unless they can get to -196. Come to think of it, they do play the Oilers one more time, so maybe that one’s still in play.

Not ranked: Minnesota Wild — Well, it was fun while it lasted. Except for all the parts that weren’t remotely fun.

While they’re not technically eliminated, they’re done. They probably were already, but any doubt was erased with Saturday’s loss to the Golden Knights, one of the teams they were desperately trying to chase down. They promised to approach that meeting like a playoff game, and it looked like they might steal a 1-0 nail-biter, but it wasn’t meant to be. They ended up losing 2-1, while also pulling off the rare feat of losing in overtime but not getting a loser point (because they pulled the goalie, a rule loophole you’ve all known for years).

An aside: I think there’s an interesting debate to be had about the goalie-pulling decision, and specifically the lack of a pull in regulation. By waiting for overtime, you’re essentially conceding one point to the team you’re chasing, which seems like a mistake if you’re truly in an every-point-counts mode. I tweeted about that on Saturday, and had a few responses suggesting the better odds of scoring at four-on-three vs. at six-on-five would make the move worth it. I’m not convinced, but maybe somebody better at math can run the numbers. I don’t want to criticize a team for doing something that’s unusually aggressive in a timid league, not to mention one that manages to give the finger to both the shootout and the loser point in one move, so let’s put a pin in that one for some time down the road.

So, now what? A playoff miss will be their first since 2019 and just their second since 2012. But they only won two rounds in all that time, one each in 2014 and 2015, and now they have the look of a franchise adrift. The core is too good to tank with, but not good enough to contend. The cap situation is tight, although not unworkable. The prospect pipeline is decent, and Brock Faber’s instant breakthrough as an elite blueliner is by far the season’s biggest story. But it could also be a very expensive one, meaning even the good news comes with a question mark.

For now, they’re left to play out the string, with roughly 2 percent playoff odds dangling in front of them like a rotting carrot on a stick. They’ll draft somewhere around 15th in a draft that’s not especially top-heavy. They’ll have a bit of cap room to spend in a depleted UFA pool. And then … well, then they’ll probably look like a low-90s-point team, which is to say good but probably not good enough.

Of course, that’s one way this could go. Bill Guerin might have a different plan in mind this offseason. But it’s an offseason that will come quicker than they’re used to in Minnesota and will involve watching everyone else from the sidelines.

(Top photos of Brock Faber and Auston Matthews: David Berding / Getty Images and Timothy T. Ludwig / USA Today) 





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