Monday, February 3, 2020

Weekend rankings: Escaping the mushy middle, the Battle of Alberta erupts and Buffalo loses hope

We’re a week clear of the All-Star break, which means we’re officially done with bye weeks for another year. We’re into the homestretch, where seasons are made or lost, and that should mean some movement in the rankings. This week, though, not so much, hopefully for the last time.

We’ve touched on this before, and it’s become a season-wide trend. This time last year, there were only six teams that had yet to appear in either ranking. This season, there are an even dozen. The top five have been stable, with just 11 teams showing up. But the bottom five has been a virtual log jam, with just eight entrants all season long.

What’s the deal? I think there are three options. The first is that I’m bad at this; I’m being overly conservative, too reliant on preconceived expectations and too slow to react to what teams are doing. The second is that I’m actually good at this, and unlike last year I’m not overreacting to short-term streaks and narratives that don’t last. And the third is that this has just been a weird season in the parity era, with even more teams than usual crammed into the middle of the pack. My vote is with option three, but your mileage may vary.

But here’s a more interesting question: Which of those dozen no-shows has the best chance of showing up in the top or bottom five at some point during the rest of the way?

I think we can divide our candidates into four tiers. The first are the teams that could conceivably make a push into the top five by stringing together a few strong weeks down the stretch. The strongest of those nominees are the Stars, who were right around the top five in the standings in terms of total points a few weeks back before cooling slightly. They had a lousy start, nearly cracking the bottom five a few weeks in, which means they’ve been great ever since. If they can make a late run at the Blues on top of the Central, they’ve got a real shot.

If we’re feeling especially optimistic, other candidates to make a case for the top five could include the Canucks and Flames, either of whom could still pull away in the Pacific and maybe the Panthers, who’ve been quietly solidifying their playoff credentials over the last few months (but are stuck in a brutal division and will find it tough to even get home ice, so they’re a serious long shot).

Tier two are the teams who could make a run at the bottom five, and they’re a little easier to find. The Sabres are the obvious candidate, and we’ll have more on them in a bit. The Rangers are right in the same points range, although without as much sky-is-falling momentum. And then there’s the Canadiens, who continue to wallow and have now apparently reached the stage of hopelessness where they’re sending a key piece of the future out of town for a reset.

Tier three are the teams that just seem locked into the middle of the standings. They’re good enough that they’re unlikely to collapse down to the depths, but also don’t seem like threats to shoot up the standings, partly because they’ve already given up too much ground. I’d put the Flyers and Coyotes there, and after some early-season stumbles the Hawks probably deserve a spot too. I’m also going to somewhat hesitantly put the Jets in this tier; despite lots of signs that they’re a bad team being held up by excellent goaltending, they’ve banked enough points that they should be safe barring a total collapse.

That leaves just one team for tier four: The Oilers. I have no idea. Could they win the Pacific going away? Absolutely – they’re playing well lately and they have Connor McDavid. Could they blow a tire and plummet down the standings? Absolutely – they’re the Oilers. I’ve pretty much given up on trying to figure out what this franchise will do. You’re on your own, Edmonton fans.

(And for those about to ask “What about my team …”: The Knights, Hurricanes, Leafs and Predators all cracked the top five in October but not since, while the Avs and Islanders have been in recently. And the Blue Jackets made a single bottom-five appearance in Week 1, the Wild made several in the first half and the Ducks were in just a few weeks back.)

There’s your look at our dirty dozen of season-long ranking no-shows. At least you can’t say we never mentioned you. Now on to the real thing …

Road to the Cup

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

This moment from Saturday night looked like it could have big implications not just for the Rangers, but several potential trade partners on our top five list and beyond:

Early reports are that the injury may not be serious, meaning everyone can breathe a little easier.

5. Pittsburgh Penguins (33-14-5, +31 true goals differential*) – I haven’t been able to get them any higher than fifth yet, but at some point, they may leave me no choice. Yesterday’s win in Washington was impressive and is the kind of statement game you can only have when everyone is giving 100 percent on every play.

OK, fine, almost everyone …

4. Tampa Bay Lightning (32-15-5, +41) – They’ve rolled off three more wins, although those came during their California road trip. Go pick on someone your own size. This week it’s back home for a bit of a test against the Knights, Penguins and Islanders.

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