Down Goes Brown's Weekend Review: Scary Pacific, East Playoff Race, and the Gold Plan
Don't sleep on the Sharks, the East playoff race is setting up for a wild finish, and the best way to address tanking.
Photo by Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
Faceoff: Pumping the Shark
Last week, I wrote about the top to (almost) bottom dominance of the Central Division, with a focus on the division's Big Three of Chicago, St. Louis and Dallas. Among the responses to that post came a pushback that would have seemed unthinkable just a few months ago: Hey, what about the Pacific?
Now to be clear, nobody is arguing that the Pacific has any sort of claim on the "best division" status—it may even be the worst, given how awful its bottom four teams are. But some readers wanted to know if its top three of the Kings, Ducks and Sharks are right up there with the Central's—and maybe even better?
The short answer: Huh. Yeah, they just might be.
The long answer starts over the Christmas holidays, when the division looked like a trainwreck. The Kings were good—so good, in fact, that they'd all but been handed the division crown. The second-place Sharks were fine, but were just one point up on Colorado, the Central's sixth-best team. The Canucks, Flames, Coyotes and Oilers were all scraping along, each losing more than they'd won. And all the way at the bottom of the conference sat the Ducks, the unmitigated disaster of the season's first half.
We already know what happened with Anaheim, whose refusal to panic and serve up the head of coach Bruce Boudreau paid off with a second-half surge back into the league's top tier. That changed the tone of the division, even as the four bad teams continued to plummet. By early March, the Ducks had pulled even with Los Angeles atop the division, and that seemed to light a fire under the Kings, who spent most of March heating up enough to regain the lead.
So sure, the Kings look great, as they almost always have during the Darryl Sutter era. And for the past few months, the Ducks have been just as good or better. We know all that. But the interesting team here is San Jose.
By now, the Sharks' narrative is well-established. They were a great team for a long time, but just couldn't get it done in the playoffs. Everyone has their theories as to why that was. Character? Heart? Joe Thornton, somehow, even though he's their best player? Or maybe just a good team whose only real flaw was that it didn't get the bounces at the right time. Whatever it was, everyone could agree that the Sharks' window had slammed shut with their 2014 collapse against the Kings followed by last year's playoff miss.
Well, almost everyone—GM Doug Wilson never seemed quite sure whether or not he was rebuilding. The team wanted to trade Thornton and Patrick Marleau, but didn't. Wilson said the rebuild was on, then kept bringing in veterans. You never really knew what to expect from these new-but-old Sharks, except that their days among the league's elite were done.
But so far this year, they're... well, we're still not quite sure what they are. They've lost three straight, leaving them sitting third in the Pacific at 41-28-6, four points back of the Ducks and seven behind the Kings. That's still good enough to have them hovering right around the league's top ten overall, in a log jam with other good-but-not-great teams like the Islanders and Bruins. But if you prefer your numbers to come in the fancy stats variety, the Sharks start to look very good. And the rest of the league seems to be warming up to their chances; there's been a decided increase in "don't sleep on the Sharks" chatter lately.
But the biggest question still looms: Can they beat one of their California rivals in round one? And can they do it with enough left in the tank to beat the other one in round two? They'll probably have to in order to reach the conference final. And this is where all those past playoff ghosts start to haunt the conversation again, because the Sharks have never been the team you want to pick to exceed postseason expectations.
But maybe that's the whole point. We've always expected too much of the Sharks. What better way for the Thornton/Marleau era to end than to go into the playoffs as a clear underdog for the first time in over a decade, and shock the world?
Or maybe not. Either way, the top three in the Pacific can look scary good. And yes, maybe even Central-scary good.
Race to the Cup
The five teams with the best shot at winning the Stanley Cup.
5. Chicago Blackhawks (44-25-7, +25 true goals differential)—Every time I say nice things about the Blackhawks, smart hockey people want to whisper in my ear that this year's team isn't as good as we all think it is. Just thought I'd get that on the record. And while we're at it, Corey Crawford is no sure thing to be back in time for the playoffs.
4. Los Angeles Kings (45-25-5, +31)—Vinny Lecavalier, still sniping. Hey, what a second...
3. Dallas Stars (45-22-9, +29)—They're dead even with the Blues for the division title, and they'll own the ROW tie-breaker.
2. St. Louis Blues (45-22-9, +17)—With four straight shutouts, including Saturday's 4-0 win in Washington, the Blues look downright unbeatable right now.
1. Washington Capitals (53-16-5, +55)—They've got the top seed clinched and the Presidents' Trophy all but locked down. Next up: Can Braden Holtby set the single-season wins record?
It's time for our weekly check-in on the playoff races, and here's the bad news: We may not be able to use the plural there for much longer. While the West race has long looked like it was down to just two teams fighting for one spot, even that battle may be flatlining.
In the biggest game of the weekend, the Wild went into Colorado on Saturday and earned a 4-0 win, one that left them five points up on the Avs for the Western wild-card spot. Colorado holds a game in hand, but at this point it's fair to say its clinging on by a thread. The Avs face an absolutely brutal schedule the rest of the way, and are missing two of their best players. They're not done, but by the middle of this week, they might be.
But while the West's one remaining race looks like it may turn out to be a dud, things are getting unexpectedly fun in the East. What had been a case of the Flyers chasing a wild-card spot has now started to look like the Flyers chasing darn near everyone, and as of this week they've caught one—Philadelphia now sits tied with the Red Wings, and own a game in hand.
Both teams were in action Saturday, and both took losses. A career-high five points from Phil Kessel helped power the Penguins to a 7-2 blowout win in Detroit on Saturday—that win coupled with Sunday's OT win over the Rangers leaves the Pens all but locked into a playoff spot. As for Detroit and their 24-year playoff streak, they caught a break on Saturday night when the Flyers dropped a 2-1 decision in Arizona, squandering a big chance to take a two-point lead. Both teams are in action Monday night in very winnable home games, as the Wings host the Sabres and the Flyers welcome the Jets.
But where this had looked like a two-team race, some slumping playoff contenders are threatening to make things much more interesting. The Bruins' recent five-game losing streak, one they snapped Saturday with a 3-1 win in Toronto, has put them back into play. They're three points up on the Flyers and Wings, and have played more games than either.
The Penguins' surge, meanwhile, has pushed the Islanders down into a wild-card spot. They're in better shape than Boston, sitting four points clear and having played two fewer games. But they've been cold lately, with just three wins in their last ten. They don't look vulnerable yet, but they've lost their "sure thing" status. The schedule serves up the Jackets and Hurricanes this week, which should translate to two wins and enough breathing room to feel secure. But if they drop one or both of those games, things will get very dicey the rest of the way.
And that would lead to an entertaining stretch run for the rest of us; the season's final week serves up Wings/Flyers, Wings/Bruins and, on the schedule's final day, Islanders/Flyers.
(And if you really want to get crazy... those Hurricanes aren't quite dead yet.)
Race to No. 1
The five teams with the best chance of landing the No. 1 overall pick.
5. Columbus Blue Jackets (30-37-8, -41)—John Tortorella gave a 21-second postgame press conference on Saturday. At least somebody's in playoff form.
4. Calgary Flames (31-38-6, -32)—They return to the bottom five on the strength of three straight losses by a combined score of 15-5.
3. Toronto Maple Leafs (27-36-11, -36)—After a brutal season, the Leafs' young guns are coming together under Mike Babcock on an impressive late-season run. Of course, this being the NHL, those wins are just making fans miserable, since they're hurting the team's draft position. It doesn't have to be this way, as we'll see below.
2. Vancouver Canucks (27-35-13, -46)—They scored during last night's loss. At this point, that qualifies as a good game.
1. Edmonton Oilers (30-41-7, -41)—They're tied with the Canucks and still two points up on the Leafs, but that's deceptive because they've somehow played like nine more games than every other team even though there's only two weeks left in the season. Nice work, schedule guy.
I wrote a post last week about the NHL's rampant tanking, a subject that always generates plenty of feedback and discussion. Inevitably, that includes people who want to know if there isn't some sort of better system out there. There is—quite a few, actually—and the best is something called the Gold Plan.
When the Gold Plan gets mentioned, fans immediately have three questions. The first is: "Huh? What's the Gold Plan?" The idea, named after Adam Gold (who presented it a few years ago at Sloan), would see the draft order determined by the most points earned by each team after their elimination from the playoffs. As soon as a team is mathematically out, they start the clock on banking points toward their draft position. The brilliance here is that the system is still heavily weighted toward helping out bad teams, which are eliminated earlier than everyone else. But it forces those teams to win their way to the top slot, discourages outright "ship out everyone with a pulse" tanking while giving fans of bad teams something other than losses to cheer for down the stretch.
The second question is usually something along the lines of "Holy crap, that is so simple and amazing, my life has been forever changed. So why doesn't the NHL do this?" To which the best answer we can come up with is: the NHL hates change and progress and also you.
The third question is: Where can I find this year's Gold Plan standings? And that's where it gets tricky, because there isn't really one reliable source. You might run across occasional updates on Twitter, but otherwise you've been on your own.
So let's fix that. For the rest of the season, we'll devote some space in this section to the Gold Standings. And we'll start this week, with the eight teams that have earned a head start on the rest of the field.
*The date that the team began accruing points, i.e. the day after they were mathematically eliminated (as calculated by Sports Club Stats).
Around the league
- It's decision time for prospect Jimmy Vesey. The highly regarded Harvard winger was drafted by the Predators in 2012, and could sign with the team now and step into the NHL right away, burning a year of his entry deal in the process. If he chooses not to sign, he'd hit unrestricted free agency in the summer, and the rumor mill has linked him to various teams (the Maple Leafs drafted his brother and employ his father). The betting here is that he heads to Nashville, but it's not a sure thing.
- Those Predators have also quietly been among the league's hottest teams over the last six weeks, by the way.
- The Flyers lost Claude Giroux late in that Arizona loss, as he appeared to be knocked cold by a hit from behind. Initial reports are that he won't miss any time.
- The Lightning lost Saturday's showdown with the Panthers for first place in the Atlantic. They may have lost much more—defenseman Anton Stralman fractured his leg in Friday's win over the Islanders, and will miss the rest of the regular season and maybe more.
- We joke about guys telling their grandkids that their first NHL goal was a brilliant solo effort. Sabres rookie Hudson Fasching will be telling the truth.
- This year's Frozen Four is set: Denver, North Dakota, Quinnipiac and Boston College are headed for Tampa.
- Will the Coyotes consider trading Oliver Ekman-Larsson for the Auston Matthews pick, the way everyone's been secretly thinking they might? Not a chance, according to GM Don Maloney.
- Finally, a tough read on Senators forward Clarke MacArthur's concussion battle, and the danger of athletes trying to play through symptoms.