Down Goes Brown's Weekend Review: Making Sense of the Red Wings and Canucks

Trying to figure out who the Red Wings are, what the hell Vancouver is doing and if the near non-existent playoff race will heat up.

|
Mar 7 2016, 4:55pm

Photo by Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

(Editor's note: Sean McIndoe looks back at recent play in the NHL and the league's biggest storylines in his weekend review. You can follow him on Twitter.)

Faceoff: The disappearing playoff bubble

With five weeks to go in the regular season, this is supposed to be playoff bubble time. The trade deadline has come and gone, and all the contenders have finished shopping for the final pieces to put them over the top. Now it's time to shift our focus to the group of teams fighting it out for the remaining playoff spots, watching them jostle their way up and down the standings with each night of action. That's the bubble, and it's usually the single biggest story for the rest of the season.

There's just one problem: We may not have much of one this year.

In a typical year, we'd see plenty of teams fighting for plenty of spots. And we seemed headed that way again this year; just a few weeks ago, this year's field looked wide open. But today, there's not much drama to be found.

READ MORE: Trade Deadline Wrap: Blackhawks Come out Looking Like Cup Favourites

The West is already all but down to two teams and one spot, as the Wild and Avalanche battle for the final wild card. The top three in both divisions are largely locked in, and it would take a major collapse to knock the surging Predators out of the other wild-card spot. So it's the Wild and Avs and that's pretty much it.

The East is a little bit more interesting, with both wild cards still in play. The Penguins and Red Wings currently hold those, and both teams still have a chance to climb the standings and catch teams like the Islanders or Bruins. But as of today, only one team on the outside is within five points. That would be the Flyers, who sit four back of the Wings and have a game in hand. The Hurricanes, Senators and Devils are each barely sticking around at six points back, although Carolina just traded its best player and New Jersey is missing its starting goaltender.

It's still possible that the races could tighten up, or that some new team could take a late run to at least make things interesting. If anything, last year's furious hamburger-fueled charge by the Senators should remind us to never say never.

But it's also possible that we could head into the season's final month with the 16 playoff teams all but settled, and nothing left to play for besides seeding and lottery odds. In a season that was already lacking any drama around the Presidents' Trophy or the scoring race, we might all be in for a rough few weeks of trying to come up with things to talk about.

Race to the Cup

The five teams with the best shot at winning the Stanley Cup.

5. Dallas Stars (40-20-7, +23 true goals differential)Sunday's 2-1 win in Ottawa was their second straight victory after an ugly stretch of six losses in seven games, and narrowly pushes the Stars past the Blues for a top five spot.

4. Tampa Bay Lightning (39-22-4, +28)—Make it nine straight wins, and sole possession of first place in the Atlantic.

3. Chicago Blackhawks (41-21-5, +30)—Another reason to love the Blackhawks: they lead the league in the crucially important "fewest shootouts" category.

2. Anaheim Ducks (37-19-8, +15)—From 14 points back on Jan. 1 to the Pacific Division lead today. Saturday's 3-2 win over the Kings in Los Angeles absolutely felt like a playoff game. By round two, it will be.

1. Washington Capitals (48-13-4, +60)—With Saturday's win over the Bruins, they became the first team to cross the 100-point mark. Nobody else has even hit 90.

When the dust had settled on deadline day, one team was notably absent from the action. Despite clinging to one of the East's wild-card spots, the Red Wings essentially sat this one out.

That's interesting, because in the nearly two decades of the Ken Holland era, the Red Wings have been front and center at virtually every deadline. They've made blockbusters, like the Chris Chelios deal in 1999. They've made minor deals, like adding Cory Cross in 2004. But from Mathieu Schneider to Robert Lang to Todd Bertuzzi to Kyle Quincey to David Legwand, this is the time of year when the reinforcements arrive in Detroit for yet another Cup run.

Many years, in fact, the deadline is the only time Holland make any trades at all. He can come across like a patient artist, standing back with his head titled and arms folded, regarding his work carefully before finally leaning in and making that one last touch-up that's meant to create a classic.

Petr Mrazek has been one of the NHL's premier goalies this season. —Photo by Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

This year, with the exception of a minor deal sending Jakub Kindl to the Panthers for a late draft pick a few days before the deadline, there was nothing. No last minute touch-up. No reinforcements.

In a way, the Red Wings' absence from the deadline day headlines seems fitting, since they've largely become one of the East's forgotten teams. We've paid plenty of attention to the conference's best teams, like the Caps and Lightning, and we shake our heads at the trainwrecks, like the Habs, Blue Jackets and Maple Leafs. The Red Wings? They're just kind of there.

"There" is of course a playoff spot, just like it always is with this team. The Red Wings are on pace to make the postseason for the 25th straight time, the longest streak in North American pro sports. They're no sure thing, holding down one of the conference's two wild-card spots and sitting four points up on the Flyers. But, then again, they're not out of the running for home ice, either, sitting five points back of the Panthers for second in the Atlantic.

They no longer boast the kind of stacked roster that racked up championships for the better part of a decade, but they're probably better than you think. They're an interesting mix of young and old, with familiar names like Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg and Niklas Kronwall supported by youngsters like Dylan Larkin and Tomas Tatar. They've got a goaltender enjoying a Vezina-quality season in Petr Mrazek, and have a veteran duo of Mike Green and Brad Richards that makes you pause for a second before you remember that, oh yeah, that's where those guys ended up in free agency.

Add it all up, and you've got... what? A contender? It doesn't feel that way, although maybe you squeeze them into that "anything can happen if they get hot" category. You wouldn't want to bet on them to win the Cup. But you also wouldn't want your favorite team to run into them in the first round.

We're still not sure what this year's Red Wings are. All we really know is that they're the same team today as they were a week ago, when the deadline was looming. That seems newsworthy in its own right, even if it's for a team that doesn't make many headlines these days.

Race to No. 1

The five teams with the best chance of landing the No. 1 overall pick.

5. Columbus Blue Jackets (27-31-8, -33)—The Jackets sat out deadline day, leaving the Jones-for-Johansen blockbuster as their only trade of the season. You don't often see a team that's been in dead last or close to it all year long go a full season without adding a single draft pick or prospect.

4. Calgary Flames (27-34-4, -28)—By contrast, the Flames had a good deadline, with everyone seeming to think they hit a home run on the Kris Russell deal. Also, Brian Burke finally explained what the deal is with his tie.

3. Winnipeg Jets (27-33-5, -24)—The NHL has made it official: the Jets will host the Oilers in an outdoor Heritage Classic game in October. No word yet on how the league will get the Blackhawks involved.

2. Edmonton Oilers (26-35-7, -36)—An updated draft lottery simulator is now available, if you'd like to momentarily inhabit a fantasy world where the Oilers aren't going to win.

1. Toronto Maple Leafs (21-33-10, -38)—Neat stat of the week: newly acquired Leaf Brooks Laich assisted on William Nylander's first NHL goal, seven years after assisting on father Michael Nylander's last career goal.

Just missing the cut for this week's bottom five: The Vancouver Canucks, who snapped a three-game losing streak with Saturday's win over the Sharks. That's a small dose of good news for a franchise that needs it, because, man, the Canucks have not had a good last few weeks.

It was only a month or so ago that the Canucks were still on the fringe of the playoff race, sitting four points back of a wild card at the all-star break. There was still plenty of time to make up that ground; they were tied with the Ducks, and those guys turned out OK.

The Canucks, not so much. Since the break, they've gone 5-8-1, a stretch that included losses to bad teams like the Leafs, Blue Jackets and Flames. Those are the kind of games that you just can't lose when you're chasing a playoff spot, and by the time February was over, the Canucks postseason hopes were toast.

That takes us to the trade deadline, and a day that turned into an unmitigated disaster for the franchise. In my deadline preview, I listed the Canucks as the top seller to watch, wondering how far they'd go beyond the obvious moves of dealing Radim Vrbata and Dan Hamhuis. Then the deadline came and went, and the Canucks had done nothing. No Vrbata deal, no Hamhuis move, no other veterans flipped for future assets. They whiffed completely.

Why is Vrbata still on the Canucks? —Photo by Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports

And their fans, as you'd expect, are hammering them for it. To their credit, this certainly doesn't seem to be a fan base in denial. They've seen what happened when franchises like the Flames and Maple Leafs refused to accept reality and bite the bullet on tough decisions, and they have no interest in watching their team go down that path. The deadline was supposed to be the signal that the Canucks understood what needed to be done and were willing to do it. Instead, it was a dud.

So what happened? That depends on who you want to believe. According to GM Jim Benning, the team just didn't get the sort of offers that would interest them. Hamhuis had a no-trade clause, which limited the team's options, and the market for Vrbata just didn't materialize. You can't make a deal just for the sake of making a deal, and all that.

Other versions of the story aren't so simple. There have been whispers for a while that ownership is handcuffing Benning, refusing to greenlight the sort of full-scale tear down that the team seems to need. Reports out of Vancouver suggested that there was a Hamhuis deal to be had with Dallas, one that would have looked like the Kris Russell trade the Stars eventually made with Calgary (a move that almost everyone seems to think the Flames won handily). But Canucks ownership, according to some reports, told Benning to go back and insist on more, at which point the deal fell apart.

Benning has denied those reports, as you'd expect him to, and the organization seems to have shifted into calming the waters. The team held a town hall last week to reassure season-ticket holders, and over the weekend, team president Trevor Linden confirmed that the coaching staff will be back next year.

On the ice, things will probably get worse before they get better, with a tough schedule coming up and Henrik Sedin now expected to miss time with an injury. And this being the NHL, that's probably good news—once you're out of the playoff hunt, it's time to start rooting for losses that will boost your lottery odds. If a lucky bounce of the ping pong balls puts Auston Matthews in a Canucks jersey next year, any lingering anger over the trade deadline will be forgotten in a hurry.

In the meantime, there are 18 games left in what now looks like a lost season, and fans could be forgiven if they don't want to bother watching. But look on the bright side—if Canucks fans need something else to fill their viewing schedules, I hear there are some good documentaries out there.

Around the league

  • Zac Rinaldo, who recently received a five-game suspension for a head-hunting hit on Tampa Bay's Cedric Paquette, managed to get himself kicked out of an AHL game on Friday for, what else, a head-hunting hit. His NHL ban won't kick in until he's recalled; at this rate, don't be shocked if that never ends up happening.
  • Rangers' goalie Henrik Lundqvist remains sidelined with an apparent neck injury, but did skate on Sunday morning and may be nearing a return.
  • The Predators have all but wrapped up one of the West's two wild-card spots, in large part thanks to a red hot Filip Forsberg, who has nine points in his last four games and leads the league in goal-scoring since the all-star break.
  • The Caps' Saturday win over the Bruins came with some controversy, as Alexander Ovechkin earned a five-minute major for boarding Kevan Miller. As of Sunday night, there was no word on any further discipline coming from the league.
  • If the season ended today, the Rangers and Islanders would face each other in the opening round, the first matchup between the two rivals since 1994. If the series was anything like Sunday's meeting, a 6-4 Isles win, then bring it on.
  • Finally, we saw a weird situation in Friday's Capitals/Rangers game, in which a goal was allowed after the league used a replay angle that viewers at home hadn't seen. The play was then challenged and reviewed again for goalie interference, before finally being ruled a goal. All's well that ends well, but not everyone is happy.