With the Olympic hiatus now in the rear view mirror, it’s time for NHL teams to hit the ice again and get back to the grind. The final stretch of the regular season is now upon us, and while many players have returned from Sochi no doubt proud to have gold, silver, or bronze medal in hand, there is precious little time to continue basking in the glory of the world stage or resting on laurels earned in international play. Less than two months remain in the NHL regular season, and certain teams from both conferences, particularly the Western Conference, are in the midst of neck and neck playoff races expected to come down to the wire .
So how will the Western Conference playoff race conclude? No one knows for sure. Due to recent offensive woes, the Los Angeles Kings are barely clinging to third place in the Pacific Division with 68 points, and the Phoenix Coyotes are hot on their tail with 64 points. In fact, the Minnesota Wild, solidly holding on to the first wildcard spot in the west, are actually ahead of the Kings in the overall league standings with 69 points. However, Minnesota sits a full 10 points behind the Colorado Avalanche for third place in the Central Division, hence the reason why the Wild are in line for a wildcard spot despite earning more points than the Kings thus far.
As far as the second and final wildcard spot in the Western Conference is concerned, the following five teams are still very much in the running: Dallas Stars, Phoenix Coyotes, Vancouver Canucks, Winnipeg Jets, and Nashville Predators. This is no doubt remarkable, since the Coyotes and Canucks have battled back and forth for months for the final spot. However, now that there are three additional teams in the mix, there’s no telling what will happen.
Nonetheless, here are some plausible predictions on how the season will turn out and which Western Conference teams will earn a postseason invite:
1.) The Los Angeles Kings will make a big trade to bolster offensive production and maintain third place in the Pacific Division
Quite frankly, with the high level of talent the Kings possess, missing out on the playoffs would be unacceptable at best to GM Dean Lombardi, head coach Darryl Sutter, and a fan base still expecting a lot from a team that won the Stanley Cup in 2012, the last time the NHL played a full season without an off-ice labor dispute. Despite a solid defensive core led by Drew Doughty, and stellar goaltending from Jonathan Quick, the Kings have struggled with dormant offensive production. Although they allow only 2.10 goals per game, fewest in the NHL, they are now ranked only 29th in the league averaging only 2.25 goals per game themselves (only the Buffalo Sabres average fewer). They lost 12 out of their 18 games played since January 1, demonstrating that regardless of how stellar a performance they turn in defensively, failure to light the lamp on the offensive end is a recipe for futility. The Kings were shut out four times during that span, and two of their wins came by a narrow 1-0 margin. One of the shutout losses came at the hands of the Anaheim Ducks during the outdoor game at Dodger Stadium. After the 3-0 loss, Los Angeles Times sports columnist Helene Elliott couldn’t help but cogently summarize the current state of affairs:
As much as the Kings can boast perhaps the best defense in the league, led by Doughty, as well as perhaps the league’s top netminder in Quick, neither of those factors can mask the team’s offensive woes. Others who closely follow the Kings and the NHL have no doubt taken notice, especially since these woes have now placed the team’s playoff chances in jeopardy:
It’s highly doubtful that either Lombardi or Sutter are content to simply sit around and wait for the team to get its offensive act together. Even if the team continues to successfully ride the defense’s coattails and sneak into the playoffs, it’s doubtful that the Kings could make it past the first round if the offense continues floundering, expecting defense and goaltending to shoulder all of the work. Thus, there is only one plausible solution:
The Kings desperately need an antidote to their offensive maladies. One might argue that because blueliner Drew Doughty had great scoring success for Team Canada in Sochi, affording him more scoring chances is a possible solution. However, this argument is far to simplistic and constitutes wishful thinking at best. In Sochi, Doughty was basically playing on an all-star team of the world’s best players who continuously fed him the puck for easy goals that even the arena beer vendor could easily smack into the net. Doughty even admitted that much, bestowing credit on his elite-caliber teammates who occasionally found him at the right place att he right time. Although the Kings are talented, they are no all-star team stacked with stellar playmakers of the caliber found on the Team Canada squad. If so, Doughty would possess similar season scoring stats with the Kings as he did in Sochi. With the NHL trade deadline only one week away, expect the Kings to pull out all the stops and deal for an explosive scoring forward, especially since it seems there are several on the market, including Matt Moulson (BUF), Tomas Vanek (NYI), Evander Kane (WPG) and even Sam Gagner (EDM).
Bottom line, the numbers don’t lie. The Kings are missing a piece (or several) on offense, and sitting second to the last in the league in goals scored per game will barely make a team a playoff contender, nonetheless a Stanley Cup contender. Therefore, expect a major trade announcement from the Kings before the deadline intended to bolster their offense and not simply keep them in the playoff picture, but also bolster their chances of success in the playoffs. It’s implausible that the will risk “riding it out” with their current roster hoping things will change. They won’t, at least not until someone arrives in the City of Angels who can jumpstart the Kings’ sputtering offense.
2.) The Minnesota Wild will maintain the first Western Conference wildcard spot
The Minnesota Wild are only a wildcard team because they play in the Central Division. Were they not contending with the St. Louis Blues, Chicago Blackhawks, and Colorado Avalanche for one of the top three spots in their division, they would be easily settled into one of those top three spots. They posted a 12-3-2 record from January 1 until the Olympic break, playing the majority of that period without captain Mikko Koivu, who has been sidelined with a broken ankle. Koivu has been cleared to practice and Minnesota should reactivate him from injured reserve soon, which will only make the team a more formidable opponent both down the stretch and during the playoffs. Five players on the team have ten or more goals, including Jason Pominville, who leads the team with 22, and is on pace to break his season high 30 goals scored with the Buffalo Sabres in 2011-12. Koivu and blueliner Ryan Suter lead the team in assists with 27 apiece (despite the fact that Koivu has missed 15 games due to injury), and Suter is making a strong case for this year’s Norris Trophy. Two other blueliners, Jared Spurgeon and Marco Scandella are also amongst twelve players on Minnesota’s roster with more than ten assists on the season. In addition, Suter, Spurgeon, and Scandella all currently possess positive +/- ratios, demonstrating that all three are solid two-way blueliners. This team’s scoring depth is enviable as evidenced, among other things, by their continued ability to win big games with their captain sidelined. The Minnesota Wild will likely finish the season strong, and at the very least, they have a lock on the West’s first wildcard spot.
3.) The Dallas Stars will edge the Phoenix Coyotes for the second and final Western Conference wildcard spot
The Dallas Stars seemed to come out of nowhere just prior to the the Olympic break to establish themselves as legitimate playoff contenders. In fact, heading into the Olympic break, they actually captured the eighth and final Western Conference wildcard spot by defeating the Phoenix Coyotes in two of their final three games before the break. Tyler Seguin (24G, 32A) and Jamie Benn (22P, 29A) have each notched over 50 points on the season. The Stars were dealt only two regulation losses in the final three weeks before the Olympic break, and during that period they shut out the Minnesota Wild and Pittsburgh Penguins at home, as well as the Anaheim Ducks on the road (the only time the Ducks have been shut out this year at Honda Center). In a home game versus Anaheim earlier this season, the Stars scored three goals in only 53 seconds en route to a 6-3 win. Despite their potential for offensive explosiveness, the Stars have indeed struggled with inconsistency this season, particularly on the defensive end. However, they are an extremely determined team with no shortage of talent. In the two recent games against Phoenix, their most serious competition for the final Western Conference playoff spot, the Stars were clearly the more determined team, playing like they truly wanted a playoff spot, and it paid off. Now, both Benn (Gold) and goaltender Kari Lehtonen (bronze) hope to ride the momentum from Sochi to help their team clinch the final Western Conference playoff spot. Lehtonen’s stalwart efforts in net earned him the league’s second star award during the final week before the Olympic break.
The Phoenix Coyotes, meanwhile, have struggled with inconsistency. Even with a 100% healthy roster, they’ve been unable to carry the momentum from big wins against elite opponents into contests with less formidable opponents. A home stand preceding the Olympic break laid this unfortunately reality bare for all to see. An impressive shutout win over the Los Angeles Kings was followed by an embarrassing loss to the Buffalo Sabres. After appearing to regroup with another big home with over the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Coyotes again faltered in their next game to the Stars. A shutout win over the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks came next, but it was déjà vu the very next night in Dallas as the Coyotes dropped another contest to the Stars in their final game before the Olympic break. Unless the Coyotes can somehow cure themselves of this bad infection of inconsistency during the final stretch of the regular season, a playoff birth is out of the picture.
4.) The Vancouver Canucks will continue slumping and become a non-factor in the wildcard race by mid-March
The Vancouver Canucks, who actually held the Western Conference’s second wildcard spot for a short time, commenced their descent into futility. They resume play in the midst of a seven game losing streak. They have posted an atrocious 4-13-2 record since January, and their only win over an above .500 team during that span was a 2-1 squeaker at home versus the St. Louis Blues on January 10. In fact, the Canucks have only posted a dismal three wins over above .500 teams since December 8. The team’s downward spiral commenced well before Henrik Sedin was sidelined with a rib injury after the January 26 game versus Phoenix, and well before head coach John Tortorella’s suspension for his juvenile antics during the January 18 game versus Calgary. Therefore, the team’s recent debacles cannot simply be chalked up to bad luck or misfortune, contrary to what Coach Torts might have people believe.
Admirable as it may be that John Tortorella feels his team is still a playoff contender, he misses the point, a point that is blatantly obvious given his team’s performance since 2014 commenced. Truth be told, the Vancouver Canucks aren’t a playoff caliber team (as team management has basically conceded), and they have simply been playing true to form. Expect much of the same, and it should only take a few weeks after play resumes for the Canucks to put themselves out of playoff contention.
During the Olympic break, one NHL analyst was a tad more of a realist about where the Canucks truly stand at this juncture.
5.) The Winnipeg Jets will continue to improve under head coach Paul Maurice but will still fall short of a postseason birth
Paul Maurice’s magic in Winnipeg has been nothing short of spectacular to watch. When he took over as head coach of the Jets, the team was 19-23-5 and morale amongst the team and its fans was far from salubrious. However, the Jets wasted no time morphing into a high-caliber squad in Maurice’s debut as bench boss in the Peg, thrashing the Phoenix Coyotes 5-1. More than a jump start, Maurice’s arrival seemed to reset the entire trajectory of the team, as Winnipeg won its next three games as well, and Blake Wheeler’s offensive explosiveness was revived. In perhaps their most impressive feat under Maurice so far, the Jets handed the Anaheim Ducks their first regulation home loss of the season.
However, as impressive a job Maurice has performed turning around a lackluster Winnipeg team, it might be too little too late in the cutthroat Western Conference playoff race, even if the Jets continue trending positively. Moreover, a recent Sportsnet column advises the hockey world not to jump too quickly to the conclusion that Paul Maurice has permanently turned the Jets around and transformed them into an elite level team. The column notes that “most teams post a better record in their first 10 games after a coaching change than they did in the 10 games leading up to it” and continues to assert that “teams tend to fire coaches at a time when things are going unusually bad and improvement is inevitable.”
Furthermore, a team might falsely assume that a new coach is the panacea for all its problems, which may generate a degree of positive momentum at first, but then in due time, the team relapses into its old ways, and only then does it realize that the underlying problems really have nothing to do with who is coaching the team. This isn’t necessarily the case in Winnipeg, but it’s still too early to conjure up an overall assessment. Bottom Line: Only time will tell whether or not the Winnipeg Jets continue their winning ways after the honeymoon with Paul Maurice is over. Even if so, nothing can erase the sluggish start to the season before Maurice’s arrival in Winnipeg. Too many points were left on the table, and although the Jets might come close to making the playoffs, it’s not going to happen this year, although that’s not to say Paul Maurice hasn’t laid down the ground work for next season.