Monday, December 27, 2021

Weekend rankings: Wait, do we already know all the Eastern playoff teams? Plus the Predators surprise, the Sharks fade, and more

There were almost no games played in the last week, so spoiler alert, the rankings haven’t really changed much. Instead, let’s look ahead to the future. Hey, do you like a great second-half playoff race?

If so, bad news, because we may not get that from one of the conferences. I’m not completely sure, so let’s work through this.

As often happens around this time of year, we’re starting to get some separation between the good teams and the bad. A few impostors in each category are drifting back to what we thought they were, and it’s been long enough that any other outliers start to feel real. That’s normal and part of what makes a season fun, as we figure out which teams to focus on and set up an intriguing stretch run. But there’s one flaw in the system: If a conference has exactly eight good teams, then we kind of know all we need to know. That seems to be happening in the East.

Let’s start at the top. I’ve had Carolina, Florida and Tampa in the top five pretty much all season long, so you know where I stand with them. The Maple Leafs are a little dicier, but only a little, especially if we’re only talking regular season. That Capitals have been right with them as far as their record goes. And while I’m on record as not being completely sold on the Rangers as elite contenders, they’re certainly banking enough points to look like a playoff lock.

That’s six teams. Mix in the Penguins, who I still can’t remotely figure out but whose record certainly says they’ll be a playoff team. That leaves one spot, and it would feel like a big surprise if it didn’t go to the Bruins, right? They’re well ahead of everyone else in points percentage, and only look like they’re in a tight race because we forgot to put any games on their schedule for a while early on.

So who’s going to catch one of those eight teams? Barring a miracle, it won’t be the Habs, Senators or Sabres. New Jersey would need a major turnaround. The Flyers too, and maybe they get it from a new coach, Boudreau-style, but that feels like a longshot. The Red Wings and Blue Jackets are closest right now, but both feel like rebuilding teams where the ceiling this year is “stay vaguely in the race” and not much higher. And as stunned as I am to say it, I think we’re pretty close to the point where it’s time to give up on the Islanders, who’d need to play near a 110-point pace the rest of the way just to get back to wildcard territory.

I’m sure there will be a few homers in Detroit or somewhere who might disagree, but I don’t think there was anything outrageously controversial in those paragraphs. The numbers back that up – Dom’s model has eight teams with a better than 90% chance of making the playoffs, and only the Islanders north of 10. There’s a whole lot of separation on those graphs.

Compare that to the West, where we’ve got eight good teams (if you’re finally willing to trust the Ducks) plus the Jets and Stars in the mix and the Kings and Sharks occasionally looking at least a little bit feisty, plus the Canucks gearing up for a miracle run. We’re stretching it on a few of those teams, but the point is that only Colorado, Minnesota and maybe Vegas really look like locks right now, so there’s room for some twists and turns.

The good news out East, as far as getting some second-half drama, is that 90% isn’t 100 and 10% isn’t zero, so maybe somebody goes on a heater or an 18-wheeler goes off a cliff somewhere and we get a race after all. But right now, it looks like we’re just playing for seeding and home ice, and recent history suggests that doesn’t really matter all that much.

On to this week’s rankings, which are also (almost) last week’s rankings.

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