Talk to any general manager, coach or player and they’ll tell you this about today’s NHL: There has never been more parity. Any team can win on any given night (and gone are the nights where you can circle a date on the calendar and schedule yourself for an easy win). Halfway through the season, there has already been five comeback wins by four goals or more — the most we’ve seen since the ’80s. We’ve seen nine three-goal comeback wins occur in the third period alone, which is the most in NHL history through 638 league games.
So it’s not a surprise that most teams still harbor hope to make the playoffs. And as we know in the NHL, once you’re in, you always have a chance to make some noise. Blame the St. Louis Blues for giving even the bottom feeders extra hope. On Jan. 2 last season, St. Louis was in last place in the NHL and 11 points outside the playoff picture. We all know how that ended up.
So which team has a chance of repeating that success this season? Here’s how teams currently not super secure in a playoff position stack up, in four different tiers.
Tier 4: Sorry, no shot
Sure, three of these teams (Ottawa, New Jersey, Detroit) are where the Blues were last season: 11 points or more out of a playoff spot. But all of these teams have something in common: they’re embracing a youth movement, but also dreaming of a tank and the prospect of drafting Alexis Lafreniere No. 1 overall in June.
The Senators have outperformed expectations a bit and look much more competitive this season under DJ Smith. Ottawa has a few individual bright spots on a roster generally lacking talent (Jean-Gabriel Pageau and Anthony Duclair are having career years, while Thomas Chabot is the new NHL ironman, leading the league by skating more than 26 minutes per game). The Devils, meanwhile, flopped after a summer of hoopla. The idea that Jack Hughes, P.K. Subban and Taylor Hall could team up for a Stanley Cup has quickly vanished, and in return, fans are hoping the rebuild doesn’t have to start from scratch again. The Red Wings, in Steve Yzerman‘s first season as GM, look like they have no desire to be competitive, bracing for a long play. The Kings cut their losses on Ilya Kovalchuk, owning up to a lack of self-awareness when they signed him in summer 2018. The Ducks have shown some flashes under the guidance of new coach Dallas Eakins, but lack the consistency to go on a wild run.
None of these teams will make the playoffs.
Tier 3: Desperation mode
Hey, it’s still possible for any of these teams to make the playoffs, but they have to get their act together fast.
The Canadiens are a perplexing team. They looked decent for a stretch this fall, but injuries piled up quickly. And once they said Brendan Gallagher (second on the team in goals) was out indefinitely with a concussion, GM Marc Bergevin was baited into signing Ilya Kovalchuk for the rest of the season. It’s a low-risk move considering that it’s a two-way deal for the league minimum, but Kovalchuk will have to show a lot more than he did in Los Angeles for it to be an impact signing.
The Rangers are on the upswing, and are probably another year away from seriously pushing for a playoff spot. They have a lot of young players on the roster transitioning to the NHL (No. 2 pick Kaapo Kakko, especially, needs to find his way) and a hodgepodge defensive group, which at times has been hard to watch. However, the offseason signing of Artemi Panarin has been even better than imagined, and the bread man has sparked this team to several wins. The trade deadline will be telling, and if the Rangers ship Chris Kreider to one of many reported suitors, the door to the 2020 Stanley Cup playoffs is likely shut.
As for the Blackhawks, they’ve proved they can play top-level hockey for stretches, and the goaltending tandem of Corey Crawford and (especially) Robin Lehner has compensated for their bad blue line. Patrick Kane is still a superstar. But the injuries to key players (Brandon Saad and Calvin de Haan among them) have prevented this team from finding a stride, and this is likely a transition season as plenty of young players get NHL reps.
Tier 2: Sneaky chance
Here’s where things get interesting. These teams have some components of playoff teams. For the Oilers and Sabres, they have elite superstars (Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl and Jack Eichel) literally dragging their less-talented teammates to wins. Both teams are similar: they need goaltending to hold up to have any chance and they also might need to acquire scoring help at the deadline.
The Flyers and Blue Jackets have been hampered by injuries. But there are enough veteran players and ascending talent on both rosters to grind out wins when it matters down the stretch. If either team gets in, they might play spoiler to higher-seeded teams and have young goaltenders — Joonas Korpisalo, when he’s healthy again, and Carter Hart — who can get just as hot as Jordan Binnington did last spring.
As for the Wild? They’re staying afloat in the competitive Central Division and have made up significant ground after a horrid start. If they can close out the regular season with a playoff spot, they could make noise considering the veteran talent on this roster.
Tier 1: Feeling dangerous
Here are the teams that profile most similarly to last season’s Blues. Two (the Sharks and Flames) have already undergone a coaching change — and let’s note that two of the past four Stanley Cup champs switched coaches midseason.
San Jose is lowest in the standings of this group, but perhaps the most dangerous considering how we rated them entering the season. It feels like the loss of Joe Pavelski (and even Joonas Donskoi) was underestimated, and of course, goaltending has been the sore spot. The Sharks also haven’t looked much better since Bob Boughner took over for Peter DeBoer a month ago. But all it takes is one long winning streak and they’re right back in the mix. It helps that the Pacific Division isn’t as talented as the Central.
The Flames, who had the best record in the Western Conference last season, picked things up since their coaching change, going 11-5-1 with Geoff Ward behind the bench. (Sounds similar to last season’s Blues). Calgary has been buoyed by a surprisingly good David Rittich in net, though the team might need to manage his workload down the stretch. The Flames really need more out of their best offensive players, Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan. If either (or both) of those guys get hot, the Flames could be a true threat.
The Panthers did everything they could this offseason to improve their chances at a playoff berth. Besides hiring multiple Cup winner Joel Quenneville as coach, they splurged on Sergei Bobrovsky and added veterans with playoff experience for depth: Noel Acciari, Brett Connolly and Anton Stralman. Everyone is waiting for Bobrovksy to turn a corner, and it’s really not too late (either for this season, or the entirety of his contract). It all could come together for Florida.
In the Central Division, the Jets have outperformed expectations (especially with the turnover on the blue line) and the Predators have underperformed (Nashville’s goaltending has been surprisingly undependable). But there’s enough foundational talent on either team to really go on a run, a la the Blues.
Emptying the notebook
Calder Trophy favorite Cale Makar returned from his first injury as a pro, an eight-game absence due to an upper-body injury, believed to be his left shoulder. And something unusual happened in his second game back: he committed a penalty. It was Makar’s first penalty as an NHL player; he made it to Game 31 without one. “It was a dumb one, too,” Samuel Girard said. “Delay of game, just puck over the glass. That sucks when it happens like that.”
I have a feature coming soon on Makar, and it’s clear just how beloved he is by his teammates. “He’s a clean player, but what I love about Cale is he’s not afraid to get his nose dirty, too,” Nazem Kadri said. “He can lay a big hit or have some physical confrontation. He’s not cheap; he’ll play by the rules. But he’s tougher out there than you think.”
Canada won the gold medal in the IIHF World Junior Championships, coming back to stun Russia, 4-3. All eyes were on the likely No. 1 pick in the upcoming draft, Alexis Lafreniere. I asked Chris Peters, who was onsite in Ostrava, to recap Lafreniere’s tournament and what it means for the youngster’s NHL future:
“Alexis Lafreniere has been dominant all season in QMJHL play, but that was expected. All eyes were on him for this World Juniors event, and he delivered in the biggest way possible. Despite only playing in five games, missing two entirely and most of the preliminary-round matchup against Russia due to an apparent knee injury, Lafreniere finished second on Canada with 10 points. He was named the tournament’s best forward, All-Star and the MVP as selected by the media, capping his performance with two assists in the gold-medal game. There were about a half dozen other top draft-eligible players in the tournament, including three on Lafreniere’s own team, but he stood head-and-shoulders above the rest.
“From the moment the tournament started, with Lafreniere recording four points in Canada’s comeback win over the United States, including the late, game-winning goal, the 18-year-old wing took charge and never looked back. His skill, physicality and hockey IQ were all NHL-caliber as he led Canada to its first gold on European soil since 2008. It was one heck of a signature moment in the biggest season of his young life.”
Make sure you check out Chris’ piece later in the week, where he compares Lafreniere and Quinton Byfield, who are competing for that top spot.
This April, history will be made as a hockey game will be played on the North Pole for the first time. It’s being billed as “The Last Game,” and organizers are hoping it will bring attention to glacial melting. Former NHL defenseman Slava Fetisov has been a big part of it. On Jan. 11 at Madison Square Garden, during the second intermission of Harvard-Yale, there will be a 20-minute scrimmage raising awareness for the event.
Besides former NHL players, organizers asked four women’s hockey players from the PWHPA to participate, including goalies Kimberly Sass and Sarah Bryant. “It’s a really unique opportunity for us,” Sass said. “I commend them for trying to use their audience and voice and power that they have to include the PWHPA and women in this event.”
For Bryant, the issue is personal. She’s a high school science educator and also worked for state parks as a naturalist. “We need to get serious about making a change,” she said. “A lot of people don’t realize, as I didn’t before, how serious it is and what impact it will have on them in the future, just because they can’t see it now.”
What we liked this week
I love this video from the Blue Jackets for a couple reasons. One, it’s nice to see the softer side of John Tortorella (especially after a week in which he again became a meme for a press conference tirade). This is who Torts is behind closed doors. Two, it was really special to see Austin look for each of the players he announced in the lineup (including his beloved Vladislav Gavrikov) as if he can’t believe they’re actually right there in front of him.
— Columbus Blue Jackets (@BlueJacketsNHL) January 4, 2020
— Wayne Simmonds (@Simmonds17) January 3, 2020
— Jakob Chychrun (@j_chychrun7) January 4, 2020
“We’re a small community when it comes down to stuff like this,” Arizona defenseman Jakob Chychrun said, per the Coyotes website. “Everyone’s here for each other and we’re going to support him however we can.”
We’ve been paying a lot of attention to Lafreniere, but don’t sleep on Swedish prospect Lucas Raymond. Some team is going to be lucky to get the winger in the 2020 draft.
— Anton Johansson (@antonj85) January 5, 2020
Speaking of World Juniors, the final of the under-18 women’s tournament between USA and Canada was spectacular. Kiara Zanon (a Penn State recruit) scored the golden goal for USA in 3-on-3 overtime, while America’s goalie, 16-year-old Skylar Vetter, was sensational all game. Kudos to the IIHF for fixing their embarrassing doorbell cam stream from earlier in the tournament, after getting called out on social media. The camera work was much better — and clearer — for those streaming the final.
What we didn’t like this week
After taking one of the more memorable walks of shame in NHL history — a seemingly endless march from the ice at the Cotton Bowl to the locker room — Stars forward Corey Perry was suspended five games for elbowing Ryan Ellis. No doubt Perry deserved to be suspended; even if he didn’t have intent to injure Ellis, it was a dangerous play. But five games feels harsh, and almost specifically high because it was a high-profile game. The suspension robs us of Perry’s revenge game as the Stars visit the Ducks — for whom he skated the first 14 seasons of his career — on Thursday. Perry will have to wait until April 1 to make another appearance at the Honda Center.
Did anyone have a worse weekend than Casey DeSmith? The goaltender missed his chance at a call-up to the Penguins because he lost his passport. So he stayed in Wilkes-Barre — and got blasted by Springfield in a 6-3 loss. After allowing the final goal, Smith was so frustrated he slammed his stick on the post … and snapped it in half.
Wishing all the best to Hurricanes forward Erik Haula and his wife, Kristen, who announced this week the loss of their unborn daughter. On Instagram, Kristen said she “felt amazing” during her pregnancy, but found out on Monday when she went to get an ultrasound that her “sweet baby girl lost her heartbeat.” Kristen wrote: “While it may be hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel on some days going forward. And some may be harder than others to understand why this happened, the complete joy & excitement she has brought to us and those who love her will be with us forever.” Haula suited up in Carolina’s game on Tuesday, with “RIP 12/30/19” handwritten across his grip tape.
On the same day he was named an All-Star for the first time in his career, Penguins forward Jake Guentzel had a scary collision into the boards during a game against the Ottawa Senators. The next day, he underwent shoulder surgery, sidelining him four-to-six months. The Penguins have had bad injury luck, but this loss feels especially cruel. Guentzel had been an ironman in his two-and-a-half season career, never missing a game, and was on pace to surpass his career bests of 40 goals and 76 points he set last season. The good news for the Pens is that Sidney Crosby is back skating with the team and should return soon. If they finish out the season with a playoff berth, it’s going to be hard to name anyone other than Mike Sullivan as Coach of the Year.
Three Stars of the Week
The Blue Jackets saw their 12-game point streak come to an end Saturday, but Werenski remains red hot with five goals in his past three games. He catapulted all the way up to No. 2 on the list of goals by defensemen this season, trailing only Roman Josi‘s 14.
With 20 goals and 28 assists in 41 games, Scheifele is on a career pace. He’s been held off the scoresheet just twice in 15 games and is on an eight-game point streak, which includes eight points (three goals, five assists) in three games this week.
Hold your breath and hope that Raanta’s injury that saw him leave Saturday’s Flyers game isn’t serious; Raanta softened the loss of Darcy Kumper with exceptional play lately. The Finn picked up three wins in three starts this week, with a .964 save percentage and a 1.13 goals-against average.
Games of the Week
The Canucks might just be the hottest team in hockey with a seven-game winning streak. Goalie Jacob Markstrom has been the MVP for this resurgence. The Canucks take on a Tampa Bay team that’s starting to put it all together.
Two of the best teams in the Eastern Conference square off and you know it’s going to be a good one. The Bruins have had a few clunkers lately but are still dangerous. It will be interesting to see how New York copes without one of its best defensemen, Adam Pelech, who is out for the season with an Achilles tendon injury.
Another Phil Kessel revenge game! Or maybe this is the Alex Galchenyuk revenge game. Things haven’t exactly been seamless for Galchenyuk since he came to Pittsburgh. The Penguins are shopping the 25-year-old, but might have to keep him if he’s the only healthy forward.
Quote of the Week
“Please don’t vote. I like the days off more.” — Detroit Red Wings forward Dylan Larkin to Helene St. James of the Detroit Free Press, on possibly being voted in by fans to the 2020 NHL All-Star Game.