Monday, January 1, 2018

Weekend wrap: Division by zeroes

This is a weird question to ask before the season has even hit the halfway mark, but we’ll ask it anyway: Is the Atlantic Division playoff race already over?

There’s a case to be made. The Tampa Bay Lightning are the league’s best team, and are holding a 10-point lead for first place in the division. That’s not insurmountable, but it’s pretty darn comfortable, especially when every other division is within three points. We can already pencil the Lightning in for the division’s top seed.

While we’ve got that pencil out, we might as well go ahead and add the Bruins and Leafs in second and third. We don’t know the order there yet, with the two teams tied (although Boston has three games in hand), but the two teams seem locked into those two spots. If so, that gives us our first playoff matchup, although we may not know for a while who’d have home-ice advantage.

That leaves five Atlantic teams to work with, and man, what a mess the rest of the division is.

The Senators just spent the week dropping a pair of crucial games to the Bruins by a combined score of 10-1, leaving them 16 points back of the third spot. We said that the Senators’ performance against Boston would tell us a lot about the team, and it’s fair to say we didn’t learn anything good. And if you’re keeping track, we’re now into the “disgusted fans throw their jerseys on the ice” portion of the meltdown in Ottawa. (See video at the top of this page).

The Canadiens are in slightly better shape in terms of the standings, sitting 12 back of Boston and Toronto, but they might be even more of a mess off the ice. Word emerged over the weekend that the Habs are actively shopping captain Max Pacioretty, whose goal-scoring streak continued in a 2-0 loss on Saturday. Sportsnet’s Nick Kypreos reported that Marc Bergevin’s “top priority is moving (Pacioretty) for a top goal-scorer back — preferably a younger one.” Makes sense. Teams are probably lining up to move a young guy who scores goals for an older one who, for now at least, doesn’t.

The Red Wings aren’t good, although they’ve been marginally better than expected. The Sabres remain a mess. And that leaves perhaps the only team with a shot at making things interesting: The Panthers, who’ve won five straight to climb back to within nine points of third in the division. That’s still a long way to go, but compared to the other teams in this turtle derby, at least it’s a shot.

Of course, the top three isn’t necessarily the only route to the playoffs for the Atlantic’s bottom five, who could also get in through a wild-card spot. In theory, that’s a more realistic target, with the last spot currently held by the Islanders with 44 points. But that means passing more teams, including the surging Hurricanes and oh yeah, the two-time defending champion Penguins. If you believe that Pittsburgh will sort things out and get back into the race one way or another, that eats up another spot.

Add it all up, and the odds don’t look good. Three sites that try to project playoff chances – Money Puck, and Sports Club Stats – all think the Panthers are still in the hunt, with odds ranging from 17 to 24 per cent. Montreal and Detroit are in worse shape, the Senators range from 0.7 to 3.5 per cent, and the Sabres are basically off the board. Meanwhile, all three sites see the Lightning and Bruins as virtual locks, and only Money Puck has the Leafs at less than 90%.

And if anything, those projections may be underselling the disparity, since they’re based on the assumption that teams stay the course with the current rosters. With two months until the deadline, at some point the Atlantic’s also-rans will have to throw in the towel and start shipping out veterans for future assets, which will lower their odds even more. And if the Metro’s wild-card teams start loading up – remember, we’re told the Penguins are about to make big changes – then the wild-card door may slam shut too.

All in all, the outlook is bleak for the majority of an entire division. That’s not supposed to happen in a league that pushes hyper-parity above all else, but here we are. Nothing is locked in, and we won’t see any mathematical clinching scenarios for a long time, so for now we can put that pencil away. But the way things are going, it won’t be long before we need some ink.

Road to the Cup

The five teams that look like they’re headed towards Stanley Cup favorite status.

5. St. Louis Blues (24-15-2, +15 true goals differential*) – After eight straight weeks in the top three, they’re wobbling. They’ve lost seven of 10, although they did manage a solid win over the Hurricanes on Saturday.

4. Vegas Golden Knights (26-9-2, +26) – I held out as long as I could. More below.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

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