As of this weekend, the NHL regular season will be four months old. We’re a few weeks away from the trade deadline, and then it’s straight into the home stretch as we head towards the playoffs. Those early-season weeks can sometimes feel like they’re dragging on, but from this point forward things start moving quickly.
That makes it a good time to check in with some of the trends that are rising and falling around the league. Let’s see how everyone’s portfolio is doing.
Stock rising: Competitive balance
It’s Gary Bettman’s favourite buzzword, and the league’s go-to example of everything that’s right with the cap era. In today’s NHL, we’re constantly told, almost everyone is a contender, and the playoff races come right down to the final weekend.
Most years, it's just marketing. But this season, it just might turn out to be true. As of today, only the Coyotes and Avalanche are truly done, with the other 28 teams all within seven points of a playoff spot. That means the entire Eastern Conference, and almost all of the West, are either in the mix or at least close enough to seem like they are.
Is that actually a good thing? That depends on your perspective. As we covered on Monday, it could definitely mess up the trade deadline. And for a lot of fans, this league is starting to feel like we're just flipping coins. But there's no question that seeing your favourite team in a playoff race is more fun than having them eliminated by February, and right now 28 out of the league's 30 fan bases have at least some vague reason to keep watching.
So what's behind the standings mashup? The salary cap is a big part of it, but doesn't explain why this year would be different than most. Some of that is probably just random luck, and we may see that even out as the year goes on.
But there's another key factor at play, and it's one the league won't want to acknowledge: Nobody is tanking this year. In years where there was a Connor McDavid or Auston Matthews waiting at the top of the draft, some teams were willing to take a knee on the season, and plenty more joined them as soon as things started to go bad. But with apologies to Nolan Patrick, a top pick in this year's draft doesn't carry anywhere near the same value. And so far, nobody's in any hurry to join the Avs and Coyotes in a race to the bottom.
And while we're at it, we may as well give some grudging credit to one other factor: The loser point. It's no secret that we hate it, and think that its parity-inducing properties are wildly exaggerated. But in the East, at least for this year, it really does seem to be keeping the races tighter – the average Eastern playoff team has 6.1 loser points, while the average non-playoff team has 8.6.
That's probably a fluke. We don't see the same effect in the West, where the distribution is the largely random sprinkling we normally see; Western playoff teams have 6.0 loser points compared to 5.3 for non-playoff teams, and the team with the fewest, Colorado, is buried in dead last. Still, for once the NHL's loser point spin might hold true in at least one conference.
The log jam won't last, of course — by the end of the month, anyone who's still six or seven points out will have to acknowledge that it's over, and the trade deadline will force teams to throw in the towel. But for now, over 90 per cent of the league still has something to play for, or at least can plausibly pretend that they do.
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