Monday, March 11, 2019

Weekend power rankings: Counting down my worst rankings of the season (so far)

We’re​ getting into that​ time​ of​ year​ when​ power​ rankings start​ to lock in​ from week-to-week. A team​ might​ still occasionally have​​ an especially good or bad week and move a spot or two, and every now and then a dark horse will make a surprise charge down the homestretch. But generally, once we get past the trade deadline and close in on the 70-game mark, there really isn’t much reason to make big changes to what we have. Spoiler alert: The Lightning are in first place again this week.

Before we can start looking at our Stanley Cup and draft lottery hopefuls, let’s take a look back with a different kind of top five: My five worst rankings from this season.

I’ll pause here so you can all make your “How did you narrow it down?” jokes.

It’s true that in one sense, we’ve got plenty of candidates to choose from. In all, there have been 15 teams that have made at least one appearance in the top five, and 13 that have made an appearance in the bottom (including one team that showed up in both). That’s a lot, more than in any previous season I’ve been doing this. It’s been a volatile season. Or maybe some of the picks have just been bad.

To be honest, I don’t think anything stands out as an embarrassingly awful call; it’s not like there was some week that had Tampa in the bottom five or the Kings as a Cup contender. But that’s a low bar and let’s just say that some of those picks hold up better than others. Today we’re going to take our medicine and own up to five of the worst:

5. Arizona Coyotes ranked No. 1 in the bottom five (Oct. 5) – The Coyotes might end up making the playoffs and at one point I thought they were the odds-on favorite to finish dead last. That’s not a great look, although in this case, it comes with a pretty decent excuse: The season was just a few days old. We even called that week’s rankings the “way-too-early edition.” The Coyotes had started 0-2-0 so they were probably as good a pick as anyone; within a few weeks they’d made their exit from the bottom five to great fanfare, never to return. But for one week at least, I thought they’d be worse than the Senators, Red Wings or Kings. They were not.

4. Colorado Avalanche ranked No. 4 in the top five (Dec. 3) – “I’ve never fully bought into the Avalanche. I still don’t, if I’m being honest.” Good for you, past me, but you still let a hot streak mislead you into ranking them as the fourth-best team in the league. This one only lasted a week, but it doesn’t hold up well and unlike with the Coyotes, I can’t claim the “it was early” excuse.

3. Buffalo Sabres ranked No. 5 in the top five (Nov. 26) – Of all the teams to crack the top five this year, none will finish lower than the Sabres in the final standings. In that sense, no call was more wrong than this one.

If that’s the case, why not rank it higher? For one thing, the Sabres only showed up in the top five once, at the tail end of that ten-game winning streak. That stretch had briefly elevated Buffalo to first place overall, and yet I only had them fifth that week. More importantly, my writeup was packed with caveats, like that their top-five case “is far from iron-clad” and that this is “probably the only chance to slide them into the top five” and “Will it last? Maybe not.” Reading it all these months later, I half-expected to go back and see that the first letter of every line spelled out “I don’t actually believe this ranking.” But I still made it, so I’ll own it. (But do check out the comments that week from furious Sabres fans who insist I’m short-changing them by ranking them below the Lightning.)

2. St. Louis Blues ranked in the bottom five (five weeks total, as late as Dec. 10) – I have to include this one, especially since it lasted over a month. But the funny thing was that at the time, nobody thought I was wrong. If anything, it became a running joke that Blues fans were mad that I was going easy on them (they dipped as low as No. 3 for a few weeks). As I wrote on Dec. 10, “something big has to be coming in St. Louis.” I was right, just not in the way I thought I was.

1. Minnesota Wild in the top five (for three straight weeks beginning on Nov. 12) – The Wild aren’t as bad as the Sabres and might finish ahead of the Avalanche too. But what stands out here is how long I had them listed – three weeks in all, with them drifting as high as third after a big win over the Jets. And I can’t even fall back on hedging my bets when I wrote about them, because I was saying things like “Yeah, it’s probably time to start taking them seriously” and “Honestly, (fifth spot) is probably too low for the Wild.”

They were playing well at the time, going 10-2-0 at one point, but it was a stretch powered largely by red-hot goaltending from Devan Dubnyk. He eventually cooled down and then got hurt to start an extended cold streak. I couldn’t have seen an injury coming, but I was too eager to buy into the Wild as a legitimate Central favorite instead of what they were: a decent team that can sometimes look like more than that when the goalie is hot and they’re getting some breaks.

OK, I feel better. Now onto this week’s ratings, which I assure you are all 100 percent accurate. (Unless they’re not, in which case, uh, it was still too early.)

Road to the Cup

The five teams that look like they’re headed towards a summer of keg stands and fountain pool parties.

One big story to watch in the final month: The Colorado Avalanche are going to have to make their playoff push without Gabriel Landeskog, who’s out four-to-six weeks with an upper-body injury. That timeline means he could be back early in the playoffs and there’s a slight chance he could return before the end of the season. But as Ryan Clark wonders, by that point will it still matter?

5. Washington Capitals (41-21-7, +22 true goals differential*) – Screw it, I’m back on board.

The Capitals showed up in our very first top five, then vanished for two months before reappearing in December. They hung around for five weeks, reaching as high as the two-spot on New Year’s Eve even as I wrote that the ranking “seems a little high.” Now, after two weeks of winning pushed them back into top spot in the Metro, they seem like as good a pick as any out of a crowded top-five field.

Or maybe not. You might prefer the Jets, who have a decent case even though they lost in Washington last night. But the Jets look to have a tougher road out of the Central than what the Caps will have in the Metro and that matters too. For the same reason, I can’t talk myself into Nashville. The post-Stone trade Golden Knights? They’ve looked great at times, but the top of the Pacific is very tough and they’re locked into third. The Islanders are still at least in the mix, but I’d rather know more about the Robin Lehner injury before I get them back near the top five. And the Leafs somehow haven’t shown up here in eight weeks even as they’re tied for second in the league in wins.

It’s a tough call. But this is about who’s going to win the Cup, and when in doubt, deferring to the defending champs doesn’t seem like a bad way to break the tie. For this week, at least.

4. Boston Bruins (42-18-9, +35) – Figuring out where to rank the Bruins is really getting interesting. On the one hand, you could make a very strong case that they’re the second-best team in the NHL. Last night’s loss aside, I’m not even sure you’d get much pushback from anyone. That means they should be ranked second, right?

But this isn’t a “best teams” list. It’s “most likely to win the Cup,” and that means that having the best team in the league in your division is bad news. Without going into the whole playoff format debate again, the Bruins’ path out of the Atlantic is brutal, and unlike the next two teams on the list, there’s no hope of improving it down the stretch.

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