Monday, October 21, 2019

Weekend rankings: Every slow starter wants to be this year’s Blues. What if you’re already worse?

When can we look at the standings and say, with some reasonable degree of confidence, that a given team is going to be good or bad? Or more specifically, that their 2019-20 season is going to be good or bad, regardless of what their true talent might look like?

When it comes to the good side of the spectrum, we run into some obvious problems. Injuries, for one. Take any team in the modern salary cap era, then have an injury take their starting goaltender away. They’ll get worse very quickly, and probably a lot worse. The same is often true for their best skater. With maybe a handful of exceptions, even the very best teams are a torn ACL away from seeing it all crumble.

And of course, we know that even the most uninspiring teams can get hot for a few weeks – remember last year’s Sabres, or the 2016-17 Flyers, both of whom won ten straight during the season. Were they good? For a few weeks, sure, but not beyond that. When it comes to definitively slapping an “elite” label on a team, we can all agree that we need to see more than a few weeks. Sorry, Oilers, Sabres and Ducks.

But what about the bad teams? If a team looks terrible right out of the gate, how long before we can write them off? October? November?

It’s tempting to say that the answer is “never,” or at least, “not until the second half,” and we all know why. Last year’s Blues won the Stanley Cup despite an awful start. In fact, as you’ve no doubt read roughly a hundred times by now, they were dead last in the entire league last January. If they can come all the way back from that, anyone can, right?

Well, maybe. But here’s the dirty little secret of last year’s Blues that rarely gets talked about. (Lowers voice and looks around nervously for the narrative police.) They weren’t that bad.

I mean, they were bad. I had them pegged as one of the league’s five worst teams in this very column, more than once. But after they turned things around, emerged as contenders and eventually won the Cup, just the tiniest bit of revisionist history has kicked in over just how bad the Blues’ first half really was. For example, that stat about them being dead last? It’s true – they were indeed dead last on the morning of January 3. But only in total points, with 34, and largely because they’d played just 37 games. That same day, the Kings had 35 points in 41 games. So did the Senators. The Hawks had 36 points in 42, the Flyers had 35 in 39, the Coyotes had 36 in 40 and the Wings had 37 in 42. In terms of points percentage, the Blues were ahead of all of them. Even at their lowest point, the Blues were arguably better than six other teams, based purely on their record.

Let’s look at it another way. Because this stupid league has a stupid rule that gives out a stupid loser point for overtime and shootout losses, we can’t just rely on wins and losses anymore. So let’s look at points percentage. Guess how many games below .500 last year’s Blues got at their very worst. The answer: four. They were 8-12-3 in late November and 9-13-4 in early December. That was it. As much as you’ve heard about the terrible first-half, the Blues were never more than a four-game win streak from getting back to .500. That’s still a decent gap, and .500 doesn’t even get you into the playoffs, but at least you can tell yourself that you’re just one good week away from being back on even ground.

Meanwhile, the Dallas Stars and Minnesota Wild have both been five games or more under .500 already, not even three weeks into the season. So if you’re pointing at the Blues and saying “you never know” because you’re a fan and/or the coach of one of those teams, well, know that you’ve already dug yourself into a hole that’s deeper than the Blues’ lowest point last year. Just three weeks in. (And the Senators could join them tonight.)

Does that mean we can write those teams off? No. We’ve seen teams get off to truly terrible starts and still have time to recover. But it’s rare – in terms of a truly awful first few weeks that were followed by a strong recovery, it’s basically the 2015-16 Ducks and then you have to go back to the pre-Cup era. The Stars and Wild and Senators aren’t done yet, or even any time soon. But they’re closer than you might think.

Well, that was depressing. Let’s brighten the mood by talking about the good teams.

Road to the Cup

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

Worth reading if you missed it over the weekend: The story of Erik and Melinda Karlsson welcoming their newborn daughter into the world.

5. Carolina Hurricanes (6-3-0, +4 true goals differential*) – They’ve come back to earth a bit, losing three of four and putting up some uninspiring performances during their west coast trip. They’ve got nearly a week off to get right; we won’t seem them again until Thursday.

In the meantime, check out this interesting interview with Hurricanes’ VP of Strategy Eric Tulsky.

4. Vegas Golden Knights (6-3-0, +10) – They’ve won four of five, including an impressive road shutout over the red-hot Penguins on Saturday. Now about all that cheating

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