As the NHL hits the two-thirds mark of the 2017-18 season, one thing is apparent. The Western Conference is a wonderful mess. We’ll quickly touch on the teams at the bottom and the teams at the top, before getting to the heart of what promises to be one of the most entertaining playoff chases in league history.
The Bottom Three
The Western Conference has the league’s worst team, the Arizona Coyotes of the Pacific Division. The Coyotes awfulness is fueling a lot of good records above them. The Vancouver Canucks are out of playoff contention, though they’re having a respectable season. Edmonton has 50 points in 51 games and their path to a playoff spot is hanging by a thread. To get to 95 points, which still might not be good enough, they’ll need to add 45 points in 31 games, a scorching pace. It’s too early for me to rule Edmonton out completely, though others have. Even in a best case scenario, they are a playoff longshot with no margin for error.
The Top Trio
Just three teams from the Western Conference appear locked into the playoffs. The Pacific Division leader, the Vegas Golden Knights, hold the best record in the league. In the Central Division, the Nashville Predators have a slight edge over the Winnipeg Jets. All three teams can average a mediocre ‘point per game’ the rest of the way and still get to the 100 point mark, safely in the playoffs.
If we rule out the three teams at the bottom and rule in the three teams at the top, what is left are the nine teams in the middle competing for five playoff spots. It’s the great middle which makes the Western Conference so entertaining.
Only 11 points separate these nine teams. The team at the bottom of this nine-pack are the Chicago Blackhawks, and they have two games in hand on the team at the top of the nine-pack, the St. Louis Blues. Yes, it’s even closer than the points suggest.
In between St. Louis and Chicago are the San Jose Sharks, Colorado Avalanche, Los Angeles Kings, Anaheim Ducks, Minnesota Wild, Dallas Stars and the Calgary Flames.
Of the nine teams, five will make it to the postseason. Though they’re currently fourth in the Western Conference, the Blues are not a lock to make the playoffs. In twelfth place, the Blackhawks are certainly in contention. None of the teams in the nine-pack are assured of anything.
With the race so close, absurd things can happen. On Tuesday, the Los Angeles Kings had the night off – and four teams passed them in the standings! The Kings dropped from seventh to eleventh.
So what does the rest of the season look like in the amazingly close field? For starters, there are lots of games against each other. St. Louis has 14 of their remaining 27 games against other teams in the nine-pack. Dallas has 13 of their remaining games against the nine-pack while Chicago has 15. In other words, every team controls its own destiny.
What Wins the Western
Each team will be tested in different ways, but there are things out of a team’s control, especially injuries. Out of action stars include the Kings’ Jeff Carter, the Sharks’ Joe Thornton and the Avs’ Nathan MacKinnon.
Home ice can play a role, but most teams have similar numbers of home and away games remaining. One team which doesn’t are the Calgary Flames, who only have a dozen home games remaining, but 17 road games. Alas, the Flames have been better on the road than at home, further confusing the picture. The San Jose Sharks have five more home games than road games remaining and they’ve been slightly better at home than on the road.
A hot goalie doesn’t hurt, but some teams are missing their top guy. John Gibson is out for Anaheim and Corey Crawford is out for Chicago. These are big losses if they linger. Many backup goalies are capable of carrying a team for a while, but it also requires the use of the third string goalie from time to time, which is often a problem.
With so many teams in the playoff picture (the Eastern Conference is only slightly less messy), trade deadline moves will play a role. Marian Gaborik was an outstanding addition for the Los Angeles Kings a few seasons back. But often times, new players do not integrate well and teams don’t get the anticipated value. Last season, Kevin Shattenkirk’s less than stellar stay with the Washington Capitals is an example.
One thing is certain, this is a good year to be a trade deadline seller. Three quarters of the league is in playoff contention, meaning a lot of buyers and few sellers. The competition for difference makers is going to be intense.
Even with trades, injuries and hot goalies, I expect some playoff spots will be determined by vagaries like seventh defensemen, third string goaltenders and 3-on-3 play.
Winning Equals Opportunity
Perhaps most intriguing about this playoff picture is not simply the stampede for a playoff spot, but the parity which exists once the playoffs begin. We’ve shown the playoff seed is almost irrelevant to a team’s playoff chances and this season, it seems more wide open than ever. While Vegas, Winnipeg and Nashville top the leaderboard, none will be a prohibitive favorite in a playoff series. Heck, two of these three franchises have never even won a playoff series.
Whoever gets the eight seed is going to have almost as good chance to win the West as the top seed. Almost every series is going to be a coin flip.
It is a postseason where anything is possible. Just get to the dance and you could wind up in the Stanley Cup Final. Yes, it’s that crazy. The Ducks sit in 10th place at the moment. If they’d won half their overtime games, they’d be sixth. Chicago sits in twelfth place at the moment, but a team with Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith, Corey Crawford and coached by Joel Quenneville can win playoff series.
Anaheim and Chicago have weaknesses, but all the top dozen teams in the Western Conference have exploitable flaws. Nashville is probably the favorite for a return trip to the Stanley Cup Final, but few teams seem to make it to that far in back-to-back seasons.
It was Han Solo who famously said “never tell me the odds.” But in the wild and crazy Western Conference, the odds are nearly the same for almost everyone. The road to the finish promises to be one entertaining ride.