Monday, May 17, 2021

Weekend rankings: Closing out another season of power rankings with a top 16 for the Stanley Cup

It was exactly 16 weeks ago today that the 2021 edition of this column launched, back when the season was a few games old and we were pretty sure it was way too early. Was it? Put it this way: The Flyers were in the top five that week. Yeah, it might have been a little early.

It’s not early anymore, as the regular season is over, except where it isn’t. With apologies to the Flames and Canucks, whose remaining two games are super important and will certainly not be completely ignored by everyone outside their immediate families, we can put a bow on the regular season right now, with one last set of rankings.

The weekend certainly gave us plenty to chew on, with four games, three overtimes, at least a few upsets depending on who you picked, and no early evidence that anyone is unbeatable. Should we be shifting teams around the rankings based on one game? Well, yeah — one loss in the playoffs puts you a quarter of the way to elimination. But every Stanley Cup champion loses a few along the way, and you always have to strike a balance without overreacting to the first games of Round 1.

So where did those first few games leave us? We’ll get there in a minute. But first, let’s wrap up with some regular season record-keeping. The season saw a total of 12 teams appear in the top five, with 11 more in the bottom five. For the first time in a few years, nobody crossed over to appear on both lists (although the Flyers certainly made a case). I’m going to attribute that to me getting better at this, and not to a shorter season giving me about 10 fewer columns to mess up with.

The Lightning and Golden Knights both appeared in the top five in all 17 weeks, and the Avalanche almost did, dropping out briefly in early March. Those were also the only three teams to appear in the No. 1 slot. Carolina didn’t crack the top five for a month, but then ended the season on a 13-week appearance streak. Other multiple appearances included the Bruins (eight times), Capitals (five), Leafs (five, all of which were followed by a losing streak) and Islanders (twice). Aside from that first-week Flyers pick, every team that made the top five went on to secure a playoff spot.

In the bottom five, Ottawa’s late-season hot streak and final weekend escape means that not a single team appeared on every list, which I think is a first. The Senators showed up 16 times while the Red Wings and Ducks both had 15, the Sabres ran the table over the final 12 and the Devils had eight. Only Detroit, Ottawa and Buffalo held down the top spot, and a single appearance by the Predators was the only one to feature an eventual playoff team. (Fun fact: That Nashville debut came in the same week that the Sabres first showed up for the first time, proving that not all bottom five appearances are created equal.)

As for that mushy middle, eight teams didn’t make either list all season long. That includes four that missed the playoffs (the Flames, Coyotes, Stars and Rangers) and four more that are still playing (Blues, Wild, Jets and Oilers). We declared the Coyotes the league’s most mediocre team a few weeks ago, and that probably holds up, although the Blues finishing with 27 wins and 29 losses and a dead-even goals differential makes a strong case.

Let’s get on to the rankings. There’s only one set this week, since at this point you can just look at the standings if you want to know which teams ended up at the bottom of the league. But rather than give you a half-column, let’s go out with a bang by going long on the Cup list. That’s right, it’s a season-ending top 16 ranking of the most likely Cup winners, featuring every playoff team …

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