Monday, January 18, 2021

Weekend rankings: It’s way too early for these. Or is it?

We’re back. After over 300 days, the regular season has returned, and so have the weekend rankings. And if you’ve followed this column over the years, you know what that means: It’s time for what’s become an annual tradition, in which we go overboard throwing out all sorts of caveats about how the very first weekend of the season is obviously way too early to take this sort of thing seriously.

Only, this year … is it?

The 2021 season, it’s fair to say, is going to be unique. The shortened season of just 56 games upends everything – get ready to hear the word “sprint” a lot. And in a sprint, you can’t win if you stumble out of the blocks.

Think of it this way: Every year, we get into November and start hearing scary stats about how a bad start can doom a team. There’s Elliotte Friedman’s old find about how teams that are four points out on Nov. 1 rarely make the playoffs. Others are a little more kind to the stragglers, giving them until American Thanksgiving before declaring them dead in the water. But the point remains: Once there’s about four months left, you’d better not be on the outside looking in, because in the age of hyper-parity and loser points, there just isn’t enough time left to make up much ground.

But this year, there were four months left before we even started. So what happens if your team gets off to a slow start, and ends up three wins back of the playoff bubble before the season is two weeks old? It will have only been a few games, but relative to a regular 82-game season, it will already be mid-December. That’s well past panic time.

For this year’s especially slow starters, the outlook may actually be even worse. Remember, there’s no wild card this time, so if the top of your division is pulling away, there’s potentially one less spot available to chase. And while a normal year would allow struggling teams to consider making big midseason changes to turn things around, we’re still not sure how trading will work in a quarantine world, especially for the Canadian teams. Factor in the flat cap, and there isn’t much room to overhaul what you’ve already got. If that mix isn’t working and time is ticking, well, you might just be screwed.

Or maybe not. We’ve never had a season like this, so maybe the old expectations don’t apply. We might see more instability in the standings than we’re used to, especially if COVID-19 hits hard and we see teams missing key players or rescheduling big chunks of games. It’s possible that we’ll look back in the first month and realize it didn’t tell us much of anything.

If that happens, then yeah, this will all have been way too early. But we’re doing it anyway, because hockey’s back and we’ve waited long enough. Let’s make some rankings.

If you’re new here or could use a refresher, an important reminder: The idea of these weekly rankings is to figure out which teams are headed for a Stanley Cup, or toward the bottom of the standings, by the end of things. These are not meant to be a snapshot of what’s happening right now, or just over the last few games. That means we’ll try not to overreact to short streaks or temporary circumstances. (Narrator voice: We will still overreact to that.) It also means that just because your favorite team beats the Lightning or Avalanche or whoever in a given game, they won’t necessarily push past them in the rankings. Last year, the Lightning held down top spot for the season’s first three weeks even as they started slowly, while red-hot starts didn’t get teams like Buffalo or Anaheim into the top five. In hindsight, those were the right calls. (Others, not so much.)

There are lots of rankings out there that try to capture which teams are playing the best and worst today, and that’s a perfectly valid way to do it. But we’re focused on where we’re going to wind up at the end of the road. Even if this year, it’s a shorter road than we’re used to.

Road to the Cup

The five teams that with the best chances of becoming the first team in history to win a Stanley Cup in July.

One more question to wrestle with: With no exhibition schedule, how much is rust going to be a factor early on? Especially for the teams that hadn’t played since last March, it’s possible that it’s going to take a few weeks for teams to settle into being whatever they really are. I’m not completely convinced that will be a major factor, since in theory it should affect most teams equally. But it’s at least possible that we’ll look back on the start of this season and, with benefit of hindsight, realize it told us even less the first few weeks normally do.

5. Philadelphia Flyers (2-0-0, +6 true goals differential*) – The East is a bit of a mess. I’m sure there are some of you who’d put the Flyers ahead of the Bruins, and I can see that. Others would want the first-place Capitals here instead, and sure, maybe. For now, I’ll go with the Flyers, who I wasn’t completely sold on heading into the season but who looked strong putting 11 goals past the Penguins in two games.

4. Boston Bruins (1-0-1, even) – Winning one of two against the Devils isn’t exactly impressive, but the Bruins put some points in the bank and may have even deserved a better fate on Saturday. The East is the toughest division to predict right now, and it won’t take much of a wobble to knock a preseason favorite like the Bruins out of the top five. But yeah, it will take more than only getting three points in a series instead of four.

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