What does the NHL think about its current standings?
We're not talking about the points system and its forced parity, with which they seem quite pleased. We're talking about the teams currently in the mix for the Stanley Cup playoffs and, in turn, potentially the Stanley Cup Final. No Chicago. No Los Angeles. No Philadelphia. No Detroit, unfortunately as per the recent status quo. They've got the Islanders instead of the Rangers. They can find Winnipeg and Calgary in the top spots of their respective divisions, two cities that casual sports fans in the U.S. would be challenged to find in an atlas. They'd also be challenged to find an atlas, now that I think about it.
While hockey fans are understandably thrilled with the churn rate of contenders, offering fresh matchups and new possibilities for champions, there aren't a ton of safe and familiar bets for the NHL when it comes to a slam-dunk ratings and interest-driving Stanley Cup Final. Which is to say that Gary Bettman must be burning incense in front of Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin and Zdeno Chara bobblehead dolls to will them into the Final, preferably against Vegas or Nash-Vegas.
But here's the thing: Taking the current standings (through Thursday night), there are a bunch of really interesting matchups on the table.
Here is our ranking of the top 10 current potential Stanley Cup matchups, with the only rule being that the team had to have been in a playoff position by Friday morning. (Sorry, Edmonton ... darn regulation win tiebreakers.) It was compiled by the ESPN NHL editorial staff, based on several factors, including: Appeal to casual fans, quality of play and potential for drama. And apparently Columbus, Colorado, Minnesota and Dallas do not generate enough of those things because no potential series involving those teams made the list.
While it might not bring in the casual fans, a head-to-head referendum on the P.K. Subban trade with the Stanley Cup on the line is the stuff of hockey nerd dreams. Add in two incredible arena environments, the "Caddyshack"-esque "snobs vs. slobs" appeal of a Canadiens vs. team from Tennessee battle, and the potential for some real acrimony ... and this could be a great series that no one who isn't a die-hard fan is watching.
9. Boston Bruins vs. San Jose Sharks
This is one that I felt should be higher on the list because I have a feeling it could get contentious in a real hurry, mostly because there's a chance that Brad Marchand will attempt to lick Logan Couture and Couture bites his tongue off like a rabid wolverine. Also, if Joe Thornton is going to win the Stanley Cup, let it be in Boston in front of Jeremy Jacobs.
8. Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Winnipeg Jets
From a pure hockey perspective, this would be a terrifically played series between arguably the two best teams in their respective conferences. Both arenas would be popping, there would be offensive fireworks. But this is one of those series that one hopes would create some drama as it plays out, because on paper it's a little ... just there.
Given the offensive abilities of these teams, this could be a bonkers series. Given the presence of Matthew Tkachuk and his task of shutting down the likes of Mitch Marner, it could be a nasty one, too. Oh, and one of these teams hasn't won a Stanley Cup since the year The Who first performed in America. But hey, they're touring again in 2019!
6. Tampa Bay Lightning vs. San Jose Sharks
My preseason Stanley Cup Final pick would be a fun one given the talent on both sides, and an intriguing "what if" series given that the Bolts were reportedly after Erik Karlsson for a bit. There are a lot of veteran players who are thirsty for a Cup on both sides. And it would rope in the casual fans, as both teams have made appearances in the Final in the past few seasons.
5. Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Nashville Predators
Speaking of repeat performers in the Final, this is still an attractive matchup from a casual fan perspective. Plus, doesn't Nashville deserve another shot at the Penguins with a healthy Ryan Johansen? Or, more to the point, doesn't Pekka Rinne deserve another shot at winning in Pittsburgh?
4. Toronto Maple Leafs vs. Winnipeg Jets
It's hard to figure out how the sports world is going to react when the Leafs make the Stanley Cup Final. Will they be treated like hockey's Chicago Cubs, as we all put aside allegiances and root for an epic drought to end? Or will they still be treated like the Leafs? I would offer that if their opponents are the sweet, loveable small-market Canadian darlings from Winnipeg, then the Leafs would be treated like the Leafs, as Manitoba's own chase their first Cup in Jets history and the first for the city since 1902. Now that's a drought.
3. Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Vegas Golden Knights
Take the biggest star in the NHL, put him in the biggest spectacle in the NHL and stick his best friend in goal across the ice seeking revenge against the team who shuffled him off in an expansion draft. Then. Print. Money. The only reason this isn't No. 1 is because the novelty of the Knights being in the Final isn't what it was in 2018. And because they lost.
2. Washington Capitals vs. Nashville Predators
The team that beat the Golden Knights? The Capitals. Not only are the Caps a fun team, with a megastar in Alex Ovechkin, but to see this perennial disappointment potentially post back-to-back Cup wins would be something. The Predators would be a worthy foil, and obviously a team with designs on their own championship breakthrough. Plus, we haven't had enough Filip Forsberg trade stories in our lives, have we?
1. Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Nashville Predators
The top choice from our panel. Two meticulously constructed teams that have been Stanley Cup bridesmaids in recent years. Two "non-traditional" markets that offer their own rabid fan bases and singular charms. Star players all over the ice. How fun would this be?
But also No. 1: Buffalo Sabres vs. [insert team here]
As editor Tim Kavanagh put it, "Buffalo vs. anyone."
The Sabres aren't in a postseason spot as we roll this feature, but let's be honest: The Sabres going from last place in the NHL in 2017-18 with 62 points, to the Stanley Cup Final the next season would be an incredible story, perhaps even bigger than "Buffalo team attempts to win championship."
The Week in Gritty
Goalie Mike McKenna is the seventh netminder to play for the Philadelphia Flyers this season. The Flyers are also the fourth team McKenna has played for this season, after time in Ottawa, AHL Belleville and Vancouver.
So it's entirely possible that McKenna might not be a Flyer for all that long. But hey, if you're playing in Philadelphia, might as well make the most of it. And by that we mean putting Gritty on your mask:
Top shelf work on the new #LetsGoFlyers lid from @BishopDesigns and @warwickmask as always! Can't wait to open the box tomorrow. Hope @GrittyNHL approves of my own mascot wearing a Gritty mask! pic.twitter.com/XqP5kYloAC
- Mike McKenna (@MikeMcKenna56) January 15, 2019
Here's the thing: When you honor The Orange Divinity on your gear, occasionally your prayers will be answered and He will bestoweth upon you an autograph and a squeaky fist bump:
- Philadelphia Flyers (@NHLFlyers) January 16, 2019
Look at this penmanship! How does one with giant fuzzy cartoon hands have exponentially better handwriting than we do?!
DREAMS DO COME TRUE!!!
- Mike McKenna (@MikeMcKenna56) January 17, 2019
Congrats to Mike McKenna on this career achievement.
Some brief words about the Western Conference wild-card race
I'd like the Dallas Stars to make the playoffs because the NHL is nothing if not a copycat league, which means there's a good chance it would usher in an era where team presidents cut profanity-laden promos on star players with the scorching efficiency of Bill Burr taking down a heckler at the Chuckle Hut.
I'd rather the Colorado Avalanche not make the playoffs because that would mean there's at least a theoretical chance they could end up with the top two picks in the NHL draft, which has never happened in league history, going back to 1979. How amazing would that be? They could end up with Jack Hughes and Kaapo Kakko. Or they could turn around and say, "Hey, Maple Leafs, before you go and pay Auston Matthews how about we discuss if he's worth the top two picks in the draft and Tyson Barrie ..."
I don't want the Minnesota Wild to make the playoffs because no one needs to see another five-game first-round defeat before Bruce Boudreau gets fired so Paul Fenton can hire his own guy.
I want the Edmonton Oilers to make the playoffs because Connor McDavid belongs on the greatest stage of the season, even if it's just for one round, and so I can vote for him in the Hart Trophy race; and because GM Peter Chiarelli getting yet another stay of execution would drive the fan base to the brink of psychopathy.
I don't want the Anaheim Ducks in the playoffs because I believe in science, and the science tells me that this team is terrible in about a dozen ways, has a coach who should have been fired and has been dragged to relevance by John Gibson.
I don't want the St. Louis Blues in the playoffs, even though I predicted they'd get there, because we've already written our obituaries on this team and now it's risen from the dead; frankly, going from "hey, they might trade Vladimir Tarasenko" to counting points behind the wild card has given us a serious case of whiplash.
I want the Arizona Coyotes to make the playoffs because I want only the best for this sweet beleaguered franchise -- even though once again, that's not going to happen.
But most of all, I want the Vancouver Canucks to make the wild card. Out of all the teams we've listed here, they might be the only one that feels like they're on the upswing. When they're rolling, the Canucks have that B.P.E. You know, big playoff energy. The Elias Pettersson Effect is real, the pieces are starting to fit, the future is coming into focus. Having them in a de facto 1-vs.-8 series against the Winnipeg Jets would be stellar.
These have been some brief words about the giant cluster is that is the Western Conference wild card race.
From the State of Hockey comes a heaping dose of Minnesota Nice, doncha know?
- The Caffeinated Therapist (@bellabee13) January 15, 2019
I wonder if people would get along with that Devils fan who has "Fuggedaboutit" on his jersey ...
An aside: If you asked 100 fans if Ubetcha was a Slovakian defenseman on the Wild, what percentage would say yes?
World Cup of Hokey
It's rare that Gary Bettman ever takes an 'L' during the collective bargaining process, but he's now 0-for-2 on getting the National Hockey League Players' Association to blink when he's dangled an international tournament in front of them.
He offered the players Olympic participation in exchange for an extension of the current CBA, which they summarily rejected in December 2018, with executive director Don Fehr saying the players showed "no interest" in the trade-off.
This time, Bettman and the NHL established a false deadline of January to determine whether or not the World Cup of Hockey would be held in 2020. Again, the players weren't playing his reindeer games, and the World Cup was scuttled for that year.
In speaking to some players in the last week, this is all about trust, as in the players have little of it for the owners and Bettman. Steven Stamkos told me that there wasn't ample time for the players to discuss how the World Cup would be used as a "bargaining chip" by the NHL, after Bettman already weaponized Olympic participation.
John Tavares echoed the concerns of the NHLPA as a whole, asking for a full schedule of upcoming international "best on best" events in an effort to take them away as pressure points for the NHL: the World Cup, the Olympics and potentially a Ryder Cup series for the NHL. "Obviously, with what's coming up [with the CBA], it's one step at a time. Setting up an international schedule with multiple [events] is what would be ideal," he said.
Good luck with that.
Bettman is going to continue to dangle as many carrots as he can in front of the players, and none of it is going to work. First, because they don't trust him. But also because a lot of them are really, really angry over the league "taking the Olympics away from them," as Stamkos put it.
Well, some of them, at least.
Yes, he's 21. No, he's neither the first nor the last young star to take a nonchalant and nihilistic approach to labor issues. He's going to sign a massive, massive contract with lockout-protected bonuses. It's his third season in the league. It probably doesn't feel like his fight yet.
But it should be, because it's players like Matthews that really need to be strong voices in this process. Connor McDavid, in contrast, seems ready for a fight. As he told Emily Kaplan last year: "This CBA is the one that is going to affect me the most," the 21-year-old McDavid said. "We are at a time where the league is as young as it has ever been. There are a lot of star players that are young. If we can stand together, we're the ones that owners are going to have to face for a long time."
While Che McDavid gets revolutionary in Edmonton, Matthews reacted to questions about the CBA this week like someone asked him a question about quantum physics, recoiling and declaring he's not the guy to ask.
Imagine if a coalition of young star players took up the fight with the veterans on some of these issues? The NHLPA might be something more than a fragile coalition staring down the unflappable Bettman at the negotiating table.
Listen to ESPN On Ice
Emily and I had a great conversation with Marty Biron about the plight of the Buffalo Sabres, as well as some chatter about the state of goaltending in the NHL. Plus, Marc Staal on the New York Rangers and Henrik Lundqvist, and we discuss the news of the week. Stream it here and get it on iTunes here.
Fantastic photo gallery of the Dallas Stars making young Anderson McDuffie's wish come true and playing a game against his youth team. McDuffie has relied on hockey for motivation as he recovered from his open-heart surgery in May.
A fun look at "empty calorie scoring" in the NHL.
As usual, strange things are afoot in the NWHL.
Five candidates for the Seattle GM job ($). Good luck to Mark Hunter here, as then the Canadian media can have all kinds of scoops about the Seattle team from their favorite source.
A look at the NHL standings under different playoff formats.
Buffalo area man gets called for penalty in beer league game, gets ejected because he was furious over the officials' alleged inconsistency, and was later charged with a felony for criminal mischief for trashing the rink. Hockey!
Finally, this Nicklas Jensen shootout goal was absurd:
Sick shootout goal by Nicklas Jensen in the KHL today.... �� pic.twitter.com/jWdFLfi0KK
- Robert Söderlind (@HockeyWebCast) January 17, 2019
Hockey tl;dr (too long; didn't read)
An oral history of the 2014 Hockey Day In Minnesota, once again proving that the Internet is a big place and there's something in it for everyone.
In case you missed this from your friends at ESPN