Monday, October 28, 2019

Weekend power rankings: Checking in with the teams stuck in NHL’s mushy middle

We’re four weeks into the season, which means it’s officially Still Early. As you’d expect, the rankings are still in flux; you’re going to find two new teams in the top five this week, including a brand new No. 1.

All told, there have already been nine different teams that have shown up in the top five at least once so far, and six that have been in the bottom five. In addition to those teams, there have six more teams that have at least been close enough to earn a spotlight in the “not ranked” section. Add it all up, and that gives us 21 teams that have been worth a mention so far, either at the top or the bottom.

But what about the ten remaining teams, the ones that are just kind of floating around in the middle? The dogs that haven’t barked, so to speak. The nature of these rankings means that we don’t talk about them much, but it’s worthwhile to occasionally check-in, if only because being in the mushy middle can mean different things for different teams.

For some teams, being in the middle of the pack is just fine — that gets you into the wildcard race, and some teams would consider that a success. I think you could count three of our ten middle teams in that group, with young teams in Anaheim, Arizona and Vancouver all feeling reasonably good about hovering around the playoff conversation. I’m not as sure about the Flyers, but I think they can probably count the first ten games as at least a moderate success.

Then you’ve got the teams that are having good seasons and are close to breaking into that top-five conversation. I’d count the Malkin-less Penguins and (especially) the Islanders in that group.

That leaves us with four teams who are interesting because they may not feel as good about their middle-of-the-pack status. Let’s start with the Panthers, who came into the season with heightened expectations after an offseason spending spree. They’ve lost more than they’ve won, but have been good at getting the game into overtime and have a league-leading four loser points to show for it. Joel Quenneville has been keeping things positive, and wins like yesterday’s over the Oilers will help in that regard, but he needs Sergei Bobrovsky to start looking like the star his contract says he is.

The Jets are sitting at an even 6-6-0, which is disappointing based on their last few seasons, but maybe not so much given how the blue line looked coming into opening night. So much here rests on whether Dustin Byfuglien comes back, and the signals continue to be mixed on that one. Up front, the scoring has been almost too balanced, with five players with either three or four goals but nobody with any more than that, so having somebody heat up might go a long way.

The Montreal Canadiens have picked up right where they left off last year, which is to say just on the outside of the Eastern wildcard race. They’ve been consistently average all year, never winning or losing more than two straight. We know they can stack up with good teams – they’ve already beaten the Blues twice, and Saturday night was their second big third-period explosion of the month against the Leafs. The question is whether they can put it together long enough to be more than mediocre. For what it’s worth, the Habs were one of only four teams that went all last year without making the top or bottom five, so this is becoming a trend.

And then there’s maybe the most interesting team on the list of ranking no-shows: The Calgary Flames. It’s easy enough to forget now, but this was one of only two 50-win teams in the entire NHL last year. A little regression wasn’t hard to anticipate, but so far Calgary has been decidedly average. They’ve won just six of thirteen, requiring a shootout for two of those victories, and have been alternating wins and losses over their last half-dozen games. There isn’t an obvious goat here; pretty much everyone on the team is putting up numbers that range from about what you’d expect to maybe just slightly below. It’s a team-wide “meh.” Bill Peters has tried shaking things up, throwing all four lines in a blender before Saturday’s game, with mixed results.

There’s plenty of time to figure it out in the Pacific, especially with the Sharks struggling and the Knights cooling off. But of all the teams you thought we’d have heard more from by now, the Flames are the most conspicuous by their absence.

Road to the Cup

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

We had our first outdoor game of the year, one that we certainly all knew was coming and we’re very excited for. All in all, the event was a success, with a fun crowd, good ice and an entertaining game that saw the Jets beat the Flames in overtime.

I realize that there are plenty of fans out there that are just all outdoored out, with the novelty pretty much having worn off. I’m not quite there yet, and it was cool to see fans in Regina get a chance to host. But please, NHL: three of these a year is more than enough.

5. Nashville Predators (7-3-1, +12 true goals differential*) – The Predators are the first of two debuts in this week’s top five, and I’ll be honest when I say I’m still having trouble figuring them out. Their first 11 games have been downright weird – they’ve lost to the Kings and Red Wings, but have beaten the Lightning, Knights and Capitals. Overall, their schedule hasn’t been especially tough and it’s also been home-heavy, two trends that continue this week with the Hawks, Flames and Rangers coming to town. It’s at least possible that the Predators’ record is flattering them a bit, but with few of the other preseason contenders really standing out, we’ll slip them onto the list for one week at least.

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