Thursday, January 15, 2015

A look at the Pacific, which may or may not be any good

The Pacific Division had a weird 2013-14 season. The three California teams were excellent. The two Alberta teams were awful. The Coyotes and Canucks were stuck in the middle. By the end of things, the division featured the eventual Stanley Cup winner, plus a team that missed winning the Presidents’ Trophy by a single point. But it also had two of the league’s four worst teams and was the only division to send just three teams to the postseason.

That made it hard to get a consensus heading into this year. The general thinking seemed to be that the California teams would still be good, of course, unless the Sharks imploded. The Alberta teams would still be bad, obviously, unless the Oilers finally improved. The Canucks and/or Coyotes were on the way up, or maybe heading for a crash-and-burn, and it was all somehow Radim Vrbata’s fault.

Halfway through the season, the picture isn’t all that much clearer. So let’s take a deeper look into a division that may (or may not) be among the NHL’s best.

Let’s start at the top: Are the Anaheim Ducks the NHL’s best team?

The standings say they might be. They’ve spent most of the season holding down first place overall and currently sit tied for first. So if you’re one of the “you are what your record says you are” crowd, you know all you need to know and can pretty much skip down to the next section.

Of course, sometimes a win-loss record can deceive, and there’s plenty of reason to think that’s the case with the Ducks. You’re probably familiar with the case by now: They’re not an especially good possession team, their plus-7 goals differential suggests they’re closer to .500 than to the league’s elite, and their ridiculous 21-0-6 record in one-goal games — that’s right, zero regulation losses in 27 one-goal contests — is the sort of thing that can’t possibly be sustainable.1

Or can it? There’s an argument out there that the Ducks keep coming out on top of tight games because they just know how to win. It’s an old-school narrative, and stats guys will roll their eyes, but it’s hard to watch this team and not start to wonder if there must be something going on beyond mere coincidence. Coaching? Veteran savvy? Big-game experience? Blessings of good fortune from Saint Teemu?

You may not believe it, but the Ducks themselves sure seem to. And at some point, that alone might start to make a difference.

The Canucks looked good early; can they still catch Anaheim?

No, they can’t. That probably sounds too definitive, but it reflects the reality that the Canucks are already 11 points back, which is a lot to make up unless the Ducks suddenly collapse. And while that scenario isn’t impossible, it seems unlikely that the Canucks would be the team to take advantage.

A better angle might be whether the Canucks can even make the playoffs. That question would have seemed silly even a month ago, after Vancouver’s hot start had them in the running for first place in the conference. But they’ve been fading lately, and their fall has revealed some significant flaws. They’re not a great possession team. Their goaltending, led by high-priced free agent Ryan Miller, has been mildly disappointing. Their two franchise players, the Sedin twins, are well on the wrong side of 30 and don’t put up the sort of numbers they used to.

Add it all up and lately the team has been inspiring articles in the local media with headlines like “Are the Canucks bad?” That’s not exactly what you want to see from a division title contender.

The good news is that the answer is probably no, the Canucks aren’t bad; they’re just not as good as they looked early on. And while that hot start may have been a mirage, it still banked enough points that they’re in decent shape to at least hold on to a wild card. After all, the teams they need to beat out aren’t exactly scary; we’re basically talking about shaky Central teams like the Stars, Avalanche, and Wild, plus one Pacific team we’ll get to right now.

Speaking of fading Canadian teams, is there hope for the Flames?

The Flames were the league’s best story over the first few months, going from being a consensus preseason pick to being among the league’s worst teams to fighting for first place in the division. They made that happen, the narrative went, with a big dose of hard work, grit, and heart.

They also made it happen with plenty of luck, and that good fortune has mostly deserted them lately. Stats fans were waiting patiently for the Flames to sputter, and they have, dropping out of a playoff spot and down to fifth in the division.

All that said, the Flames haven’t dropped all that far — they’re just two points back of a wild card. They’d probably only need to catch the Canucks to claw back into the playoffs, and with almost 40 games to go that’s far from impossible.

Can they do it? Probably not. Their underlying numbers are still poor, and on paper there’s just not enough talent here to make a real push. They could always go out and try to add pieces at the deadline, but the organization wants to build patiently, and sacrificing the future to make a run today seems unwise. That leaves them needing another dose of good luck, or the second-half collapse of a rival, or maybe both.

The Flames were a great story. It would be nice to see it continue, but don’t get your hopes up.

And what about the San Jose Sharks?


I’m pretty sure that’s not an option.

Fine, but don’t expect much insight. To this day, I have no idea what the Sharks are. On paper, they should be a very good team. And on many nights, that’s exactly what they look like. They’ve already beaten the Ducks three times, and they won nine of 10 in late November and early December. But as soon as you start to get onboard with the Sharks, something embarrassing inevitably happens. They lost to the Blues by a final of 7-2 twice in the last few weeks. They’ve lost to the Sabres twice, and to the Coyotes, and even to the Oilers.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

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