Monday, January 6, 2020

Weekend rankings: Penguins and Sharks remind us of the two ways a veteran contender can go

I had something very rare happen to me last week. Somebody pointed out a prediction that I actually got right. Sort of.

To be clear, I didn’t predict that the Sharks would actually be bad. I was pretty sure they’d be one of the better teams in the league. But I added the caveat that if they were bad, they might be really bad. It’s part of a larger point I’ve made before: When it comes to teams that have been good for years but feature an aging core and a tough cap situation, the window often doesn’t close as slowly as we expect. You would think that a really good team should gradually slide from, say, a 105-point Cup contender one year to maybe a 95-point wildcard the next to missing the playoffs and then eventually being outright bad. But as fans of the Kings or Blackhawks could tell you, it often falls apart much quicker than that. For a lot of teams, windows don’t close, they slam shut.

That’s what seems to be happening the Sharks. So yay me, I (kind of) got one right.

Except that in making that point over the summer, I also made it about another team: The Pittsburgh Penguins, whose sudden downfall I’ve been predicting for years now. And they’ve been one of the very best stories of the season.

It’s weird. At a high level, the Sharks and Penguins came into the season in similar situations. Both teams had just put up 100-point seasons. Both clubs boasted star-studded rosters, but those marquee players are mostly on the wrong side of 30 and locked into big contracts. Both teams had questions in goal. Both had a coach on the hot seat, or at least a warm one. Both seemed to be all-in on one or two last runs before all the bills came due.

If anything, the Sharks were in better shape. They’d just been to the conference final, after all, while the Penguins hadn’t even won a playoff game. If you had to pick one team to keep the success going, it was San Jose. And if your crystal ball told you that pretty much of all of Pittsburgh’s top players would get hurt, then it was an easy call.

Except it hasn’t been. The Sharks have been the season’s biggest disaster, while the Penguins somehow keep churning along, even without Sidney Crosby. It’s yet another reminder that this is a league where logic sometimes takes a vacation.

In San Jose, they’ve already fired the coach, they don’t have their own first-round pick and we’re officially into the “overhearing stuff in the dressing room” section of a season-long nightmare. That last one’s not the end of the world, but it’s certainly not a great look for a veteran team of well-paid stars that was supposed to be all-in on a winning season.

The Sharks actually had a respectable week, with points in three of four, so there’s still a pulse on their playoff hopes. But it’s very faint. Yesterday’s collapse in Washington was devastating, and in the bigger picture, this may be the scariest tweet I saw all week.

Meanwhile, the Penguins keep producing points, with nine in their last six games. They’ve passed the Islanders for second spot in the Metro — albeit with extra games played — and look like they could still take a run at the Caps for top spot. And now it seems like Crosby’s return is getting close. Lately, the Pens can do it all, with the exception of managing their passports.

The Penguins’ window will close at some point, and that when it happens, the results might be ugly. But it sure doesn’t look like it’s going to be this year. They’re starting to look unbeatable.

Well, almost. Before last night’s loss to the Panthers, they’d only dropped one game since the Christmas break. That one came against the Sharks, because of course it did. We get it, NHL. You make no sense.

Last week, we had one of these two teams in our power rankings, as the Sharks cracked the bottom five while the Penguins sat just outside the top five. Let’s see where they landed this week …

Road to the Cup

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

It’s a new month, meaning we have a new set of power rankings from The Athletic’s hockey collective. And this time, they’ve landed on the same top five that I have here, at least as far as the teams involved (in a slightly different order). I’m not completely sure what to make of that.

5. Pittsburgh Penguins (25-12-5, +27 true goals differential*) – So yeah, I probably should have found room for them last week. But now, they’re in, because when a ranking system factors in the future as much as what’s already happened, we can go ahead and start factoring in Crosby’s return. It’s a little too early to start getting excited about another epic Pens/Caps playoff round, especially with an Islanders team that swept Pittsburgh last year still very much in the mix. But the possibility is out there.

4. Boston Bruins (24-8-11, +35) – Their loss on Saturday to the Oilers was their third straight, and 11th out of their last 15. And for a change, they didn’t even get a point. We can’t just call this a slump or a cold streak anymore. The Bruins have some problems.

Now the question becomes whether their sure-thing grip on the Atlantic is in question. They’re still six points up on the Maple Leafs, and seven on the Lightning (who have two games in hand). That’s a good spot to be in, of course, but it’s not the lock that it once looked like. One site has them at less than a coin flip to finish first. That would have seemed unthinkable just a month ago.

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

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