Monday, January 20, 2020

Weekend rankings: The top five, the bottom five and why they’re all wrong

We’re going to try something different this week.

That will be a nice change because we haven’t had a lot of “different” in this year’s rankings. It’s been pretty much the same teams cycling in and out of the top and bottom five for most of the season; since mid-November, only six teams have appeared at the top of the list, with just seven holding down the bottom spots. That’s unusual for this feature, where in past years we’ve seen a lot more churn.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing, especially if you’re a fan of one of the good teams (or one of the bad ones, and you’re already looking ahead to the lottery). But it can make writing this column every week a challenge. How many different ways can you say “The Capitals are good” or “The Red Wings are bad?” Teams like the Bruins, Kings and Senators have shown up on the list every single week. At some point, you get it. And with the all-star break and bye weeks coming up, we’re unlikely to see much in the way of big changes over the next few weeks either.

So today, we’re going to flip the script. I’ll still list the five teams I think have the best shot at the Cup, and the five that are on track to finish dead last. But I’ll use their space to make the argument that I’m wrong and that they don’t actually deserve to be there.

It will be easier for some teams than others, of course, but that’s fine. Let’s mix things up a bit. Heck, maybe I’ll even be to be right about something for a change.

Road to the Cup

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

Oh look, it’s the same five teams as last week, and the week before that. I’m getting sick of saying nice things about these guys. Let’s knock them down a few pegs.

5. Pittsburgh Penguins (31-13-5, +32 true goals differential*) – They were good when Sidney Crosby got hurt, then somehow even better when he went out. Now he’s back, so you do the math.

OK, here’s some math: The Penguins still probably won’t catch the Capitals for first place in the Metro. And even if they do, they’ll have a tough path out of a brutal division, one that could see them have to face an Islander team that swept them last year. Or maybe Columbus or Carolina or Philadelphia, none of whom will be a great matchup because whoever makes it out of that group in April will be coming in hot.

There’s also the goaltending question. Matt Murray doesn’t look great anymore, and while Tristan Jarry does, this is a career backup/AHLer that the team was trying to unload in the offseason because he was supposed to be their third wheel. Do you trust him? They probably have to, but it’s not ideal.

Other than that, the Penguins remain a top-heavy team up front, the blue line is just OK, and Jim Rutherford doesn’t have a ton of cap room to work with to plug the holes. And with Crosby and Malkin both well into their 30s we can’t just assume they’ll stay healthy the rest of the way. They’ve been a great story so far, but it’s not hard to imagine that story ending in the first round or two.

(How much I believe it: A little, but the Penguins still scare me. Maybe the next team will be easier.)

4. Tampa Bay Lightning (28-15-4, +30) – Yes, they’re rolling again. But have we all forgotten what happened last year? When they finished with 128 points and then choked in the playoffs, everybody seemed to agree that there was some sort of fundamental flaw in the way this team was constructed. Heck, they even seemed to be saying it themselves. They tried to change their style early in the season, and it didn’t work. They couldn’t do it.

Now they’re winning, sure, but they’re doing it with scores like 7-1 and 9-2. That’s great for racking up personal stats in the season, but it’s not how you’re going to win a Stanley Cup. The Lightning are basically a team that decided it needed a change in identity, found out that was too hard to pull off, and then went right back to what they were last year. And we all know how that ends.

(How much I believe it: Not at all. These guys are good, and while the playoffs are chaotic, they don’t transform into some sort of entirely different sport. The Lightning could lose again in the first round because in today’s NHL, absolutely anyone can. But they’re stacked with talent and hitting their stride, and they’re better defensively than you probably think. If anything I should have them higher.)

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