Monday, February 8, 2021

Weekend rankings: Canada finally cracks the top 5 … but is it Leafs or Habs?

We’re four weeks into the season, and each of the last three versions of this column have included some variation of the same disclaimer: It’s too early to really know much.

So let’s start this week with a clarification: It’s not too early any more, especially if your favorite team is doing worse than expected.

Oh, it’s still early. It’s just not too early. One team has already passed the 14-game milestone and several more will join them this week, which in a 56-game season means two things: It’s time to start trolling pedants by slipping in references to the quarter pole wherever we can, and the clock is ticking loudly on teams that are falling behind.

Yes, there’s still time, especially for the teams that have had chunks of their schedule pushed back. But we’re no longer at the point where we can hand-wave away a bad start as being just a few games. Underachieving teams like the Predators, Oilers, Islanders, Penguins and (especially) Canucks may be in real trouble. And surprises like the Jets, Panthers and Devils might just be for real.

Words like “may” and “might” are doing some work in that last paragraph, leaving me with a nice escape hatch for when everything falls back into place. And spoiler alert, none of those surprising teams we just mentioned are in this week’s top or bottom five, so I’m not going overboard here. Like I said, it’s still early. Just not too early.

Think of it this way. Remember two years ago, when the Blues were in dead last in January before flipping the switch, clawing their way back into the race, and ultimately winning the Cup? That was a once-in-a-lifetime comeback story, but if you root for a bad team then it’s the sort of hope you have to cling to. But when that Blues turnaround started on Jan. 3, there were 45 games left in the regular season. Most teams are right around that mark today, and some are already past it. Even a Blues-style miracle will be out of runway soon.

Now that I’ve bummed out the fans of all the struggling teams, let’s get to this week’s rankings …

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