One of my pet theories this year was that it would be a season of extremes. The loaded top of the 2023 draft, and the predictable tank war it would inspire, would clog the bottom of the standings with some of the worst records in recent history. And that would open the door to the league’s good teams to rack up even more points than usual, thanks to a steady stream of matchups with teams that weren’t even trying. We’d end up with a bunch of 110-plus point teams and a bunch of awful ones, and not much left in the mushy middle.
There’s still time for things to evolve that way. But so far, we’re not seeing that separation. While we’re seeing a clear group of six very bad teams at the bottom and almost as many very good ones, the middle is as mushy as ever. At one point on Saturday afternoon, there were six teams sitting at exactly .500. There’s a lot of mediocrity out there.
OK, let’s embrace that. Which of the NHL’s mediocre teams has been the most mediocre so far?
Top Middle five middling teams in the middle
5. Washington Capitals — The number says they should be even higher, with 16 wins against 17 losses and a single-digit goals differential. But they’re heating up, and Nicklas Backstrom is on the way back, so I’ll hedge. Besides, who cares about wins and losses as long as Alex Ovechkin’s goals machine goes brrr.
4. Detroit Red Wings — They’re over .500 but have lost more than they’ve won and please don’t think about that too hard, it just makes your brain hurt. The momentum here is not good with five straight losses. It was a nice underdog story while it lasted.
3. Los Angeles Kings — They’re well over .500 at 17-12-5, but that includes three shootout wins, they have a negative goals differential and they’ve won as many as they’ve lost. I think if you add all of that up, it ends up being pretty mediocre.
2. Ottawa Senators — It took a four-game win streak to get them back to .500, so this is a better spot to be in than where they were two weeks ago. Yesterday’s loss to the Wild left them with an impressively mediocre goals differential of minus-one.
1. Florida Panthers — Yeah, I’m as surprised as you are. But they’re over .500, lose more than they win, have just a plus-four goals differential, and as an added bonus they’re even 5-5-0 in their last 10. They won’t defend their Presidents’ Trophy, but at least they’re in first place for something.
Not making the list — You could make a good case for the Habs. The Flames, amazingly enough, might not be good enough to be in the middle right now. The Sabres are way too exciting to be mediocre, whatever their record says, they’re basically hockey’s version of this tweet. And the Blues, well, we’ll get to them in a bit.
On to the extremes, with this week’s top and bottom five…
Road to the Cup
The five teams with the best chances of winning the Stanley Cup.
Is it too early to be talking about the trade deadline? Trick question, it’s never too early. Eric has a look at how things may be shaping up.
5. Vegas Golden Knights (22-10-1, +17 true goals differential*) — They haven’t been great lately, but with the Kraken fading a bit, the Pacific crown still looks like it’s theirs for the taking. More importantly, Alex Pietrangelo is back after a very scary family crisis.
“When they can’t really give you a timetable of when your precious little girl is going to get better, it’s pretty scary.”
Alex Pietrangelo opened up about his daughter’s illness, miraculous recovery, and his time away from the team.
— Jesse Granger (@JesseGranger_) December 17, 2022
4. New Jersey Devils (21-8-2, +30) — They lost five straight, which feels like a lot for a team that only lost five times in the season’s first two months. Are we worried?
I’m pretty sure we’re not. None of those losses, taken individually, was especially concerning. OK, you never want to lose to the Flyers, but they had nearly 50 shots and got goalied, and that’s just hockey. Maybe you’re starting to see tiny cracks in Vitek Vanecek’s game, and if he turns into a pumpkin then we have to reevaluate, but we need more evidence there. The fundamentals are still good, so I’m with Harman, I’m not concerned. (Checks how the Hurricanes and Penguins are doing lately.) OK, I’m not super concerned.
In the meantime, Devils fans should do something pleasant and unstressful, like reading an NHL99 piece about one of the franchise’s all-time greats.
3. Colorado Avalanche (16-11-2, +8) — I’m not giving up on them, especially given their injury situation, and all the oddsmakers still have them among the favorites. But at some point, we have to acknowledge how much ground they’re losing to the rest of the Central. Playoff seeding and home-ice advantage don’t matter much in the NHL (at least until we get that play-in round that everyone’s too afraid of Gary Bettman to talk about). But it’s not completely meaningless, and the Avs’ struggles have left them well behind the Stars and Jets. The gap isn’t insurmountable, but it’s getting there, and this won’t be the last time the Avs drop down these rankings if they don’t start banking wins.
2. Tampa Bay Lightning (20-9-1, +23) — Is this an overreaction? Maybe. But after two weeks with the Lightning on the sidelines, I’m not just bringing them back but pushing them all the way up to number two. The Avs are weakened, the Devils are wobbling and the Leafs look mortal again… hey, when in doubt, go to the team that wins the conference every year, right? Especially if they’ve won five straight and 13 of their last 16.
1. Boston Bruins (24-4-2, +50) — I’ve got a question for Bruins fans: If David Pastrnak told the team that he’d only sign an extension that made him the highest-paid player in the league (by AAV), would you do it?
That would mean he’d have to get something north of Nathan MacKinnon’s $12.6 million extension that kicks in next year, not to mention Connor McDavid’s $12.5 million. Pastrnak isn’t McDavid, obviously, but that contract was also signed five years ago. Is he better than MacKinnon? Probably not, especially considering he’s a winger, but it’s not an impossible case to make right now.
On the one hand, that price tag would feel steep, especially for a team that’s used to having its stars playing under significant discounts. On the other, I mean… he gets that as a UFA, right? If Artemi Panarin got $11.6 million in 2019, Pastrnak would be able to get more than that with the cap about to start going up again. If you’re the Bruins, you’d been underpaying the guy for years and you know you’re not going to trade him, so if it’s either pay up big or watch him walk, you’d need a ton of discipline to choose the latter. But I want to hear from Boston fans, so let me know what you think: Eight years at let’s say $12.7 million, do you sign that deal today?
While you ponder that, let’s enjoy this clip of Jeremy Swayman almost scoring a goal because the Bruins are bored:
We came thiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiis close to a goalie goal for Jeremy Swayman. pic.twitter.com/xFxcpVVgTE
— Conor Ryan (@ConorRyan_93) December 17, 2022
*Goals differential without counting shootout decisions like the NHL does for some reason.
Not ranked: Los Angeles Kings — Last year, the rebuilding Kings were the league’s surprise playoff team, making the leap from also-ran to 99 points, good for third in the Pacific behind Calgary and Edmonton. You could probably have found fans who thought that was a fluke, the sort of year where a mediocre team caught enough breaks to wobble into a playoff spot. Others would have bet that it was a sign that the Kings had arrived, and were ready to take another step forward into true contention.
Two months into the season, both of those stances would have been wrong. Instead, the Kings are in roughly the same zone. They’re behind last year’s pace, but just barely. They’ve spent more of the season ahead of those Flames and Oilers, but have seen the Golden Knights and the surprising Kraken pass them. If the season ended today they’d be a playoff team, but not an especially scary one.
Is that good?
On the one hand, it feels like we can ditch the skepticism that the Kings aren’t for real. On the other, you’d like to see progress, and this season hasn’t felt like it. The big story is the goaltending, with Cal Petersen struggling so much that he was waived. Jonathan Quick hasn’t been much better, especially over the last few weeks. Pheonix Copley has been good in limited action lately, meaning the Kings still might have their traditional backup goalie who posts great numbers out of nowhere, but we’ll see if it lasts.
Outside the crease, the Cup core veterans are still getting it done for the most part, and Kevin Fiala is meeting expectations. The kids have been hit-and-miss, with Quinton Byfield back down in the AHL, which means he’s the next Tage Thompson, while Arthur Kaliyev has been solid on the top line and Gabe Vilardi has been productive despite a bottom-six role.
It certainly hasn’t been a disaster, and it probably looks like success to fellow rebuilders like the Sabres or Senators who’ve spent years trying to get back into the playoff picture. But if you wanted to pick one aspect of the season to get really excited about as a Kings fan, I’m not sure what you’d pick. Some Kings fans have been grumbling about a coaching change, others are hoping for a trade to shake things up. Rob Blake has been mostly patient over the years, and again, this is probably a playoff team as it is. The question is whether there’s a path to more than that, and what it might look like.
The bottom five
The five teams that are headed towards dead last, and the best lottery odds for Connor Bedard.
If you missed it, be sure to check out the future power rankings that dropped last week, and the beat writers’ response for each time. And don’t miss the comment section, if you’ve ever needed a reminder of the unquenchable optimism of the human spirit and/or that literally every fan base thinks their team is a sure thing to be significantly better in three years.
5. Philadelphia Flyers (10-15-7, -28) — John Tortorella is benching his leading scorer and a different player has quit the team. Also, they somehow beat the Devils this week, in a result that I think we can all agree we’ll look back on as the two points that cost them a lottery win.
4. Arizona Coyotes (10-15-4, -25) — They’ve won three of five, including a win over the Bruins and losses to the Sharks and Sabres. Sure, why not.
3. Columbus Blue Jackets (10-18-2, -39) — They went oh-for-three on the week, but with the schedule serving up Florida, Tampa and Boston on the road, it wasn’t hard to see that coming.
Here’s a question for Blue Jackets fans: Is Elvis Merzlikins salvageable? It’s been a running joke all year that you can’t point out any goalie’s awful numbers without their team’s fans showing up to insist that he’s secretly good, but I’ve got to be honest, I don’t really get that vibe out of Columbus. Does anyone want to defend his honor? He might appreciate it if only to remember what it’s like to see anyone defend anything.
Worst goalies as of Saturday https://t.co/irjmwVI8E3 pic.twitter.com/0Ue4iyypp4
— MoneyPuck.com (@MoneyPuckdotcom) December 17, 2022
2. Anaheim Ducks (9-20-3, -56) — They had a three-game losing streak in which they were outscored 16-1 despite only playing one playoff team, which seems bad. Then they beat the Canadiens and the Oilers, so what the hell, we’re officially streaking.
I actually kind of love the idea of the Ducks going around Canada beating the country’s teams exactly once and causing an existential crisis in the market each time. Get ready to have your Christmas ruined on Friday, Calgary.
1. Chicago Blackhawks (7-19-4, -46) — This feels permanent, right? The Hawks are dead last, and yet the standings might be flattering to them. This Hawks roster was designed to finish last, the front office wants to finish last, and here we are.
By the way, I wrote that paragraph before they lost 7-1 last night. So… yeah. Feeling pretty permanent.
Not ranked: St. Louis Blues — Let’s check in on the Blues and see if the first month’s most confusing team has decided to start making any more sense.
The Blues kicked off their season by winning three straight, then losing eight, then winning seven, ending that stretch with a mediocre 10-8-0 record without ever being remotely mediocre. They’ve dialed down the streakiness just a bit since then, but still went 2-7-1 over their next 10, which is very bad. You knew things were falling apart when we started to get the classic sign of a team that’s collapsing, the hand-wringing about a loss of culture. Craig Berube’s job was in danger. Ryan O’Reilly and Vladimir Tarasenko were about to be traded. Jordan Binnington was getting shelled in Pittsburgh and New York, then wandering the parking lots outside local beer leagues looking for goalies to pretend to want to fight. (Note to editors: That last part might not be true, remember to double-check before publishing.)
So yeah, the Blues stink and their season is over. Right up until they won three straight this week.
That’s good. Wins are good. But it’s the Blues, so they can’t just play well and win a few games and leave it at that. No, we have to watch them win even though they can’t make a line change and screw up their own opening lineup. They also won a game in which they got scored on in overtime.
Sure. Why not. Really commit to the bit, you know?
All of this chaos has landed the Blues right at .500, with a 15-15-1 record. That’s not good enough for a playoff spot, but not bad enough for them to be out of the mix. They’re clearly bad, so they should sell, but also they were a lot worse a few years ago, and they won the Cup. Doug Armstrong is a good GM and will figure it out, unless he isn’t good anymore.
This is the part where I’m supposed to tie this all together and lift the veil on some sort of brilliant insight into what’s really going on with this team. So… uh, happy holidays, everyone, we’ll see you in two weeks.
(Top photo: Michael Martin / NHLI via Getty Images)
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