The St. Louis Blues' Stanley Cup victory last season has affected the NHL as if someone poured hallucinogens into its water supply. It has created delusions of grandeur, making any team that's seemingly out of it by the end of January feel as if, theoretically, it could be very much in it by mid-April.
On Jan. 31 last season, the Blues were 22-22-5, for 49 points. That's one more than the Sharks and one fewer than the Rangers currently have. So although neither of those teams scream "playoff bound," the Blues have lit the path for hope.
No hole is too deep from which to claw out! No cause is lost until the math says it is! Then, as they went deeper in the playoffs, the Blues adopted another hockey cliché: If you're in it, you can win it!
"Anything can happen," Canucks forward J.T. Miller told me this week.
He speaks from experience, having watched a team that qualified for the playoffs in the final hours of the regular season sweep his Lightning, one of the best regular-season teams in a century, out of the postseason in the first round.
"Something I've been preaching this year to this team is that we need to play well and just get in the playoffs. Just play our games," he said. "Don't stress too much, you know? Just try to get in and anything happens when you get there."
The Canucks are one of a handful of teams that appear playoff-bound, but their championship credentials are yet to be determined. So as the NHL passes through the All-Star break into the stretch run, we decided it was time for a contender tier heat check.
The cream of the crop
The Bruins, Capitals and Blues have been in cruise control for most of the season. In the case of the Blues, that they've done it without Vladimir Tarasenko might be the most underappreciated story of the season.
The Penguins' defense (third in expected goals against at 5-on-5) elevates them into this tier, although their permanent residency depends on their health. The Lightning have figured themselves out. The Avalanche are the best 5-on-5 team in the league by leaps and bounds, with a goal difference per 60 of 1.06, which is the second-highest number in that category in a decade.
These are the best of the best, your top Cup contenders.
The imperfect suitors
All of these teams (except Toronto) were in a playoff seed heading into Thursday night's games, and all have some flaw that keeps us from elevating them to the elite. The Flames have played .667 hockey under Geoff Ward, but are 28th in goals per 60 at even-strength (2.01), while the Stars are 29th (2.00). The Panthers are the only playoff team with sub-.900 goaltending (.898). The Islanders might not score enough to win in the playoffs. The Leafs might not defend well enough to win in the playoffs.
Despite the flaws, all have the stuff to contend.
The secret juggernauts
The Hurricanes are the best possession team in the NHL, and don't get enough attention for their defensive acumen: fourth in goals-against average (2.64) through 50 games. Their plus-27 is the best goal differential for any team not in a divisional seed. There's a much longer list of reasons why they could win the Cup vs. why they couldn't.
Vancouver, meanwhile, has a plus-18 goal differential built on strong goaltending (tied for ninth in save percentage) and an offense (3.27 goals per game) that scores just enough. The Canucks are young in some key areas, but they're also carried by one of the best high-end cores in the conference. If they stay healthy -- and fingers remained knotted on that -- they could make the playoffs and then make more than a little noise.
The bubbling contenders
These are teams teetering on the bubble. The Coyotes need good health, a few more goals and someone to burn a sprig of sage in the locker room to cleanse it of the Taylor Hall playoff jinx. The Oilers ... well, they need a lot, but mostly need to spend as much time on the power play (where they convert 29.6 percent of opportunities) as possible. Philly just keeps chugging along, average in almost every way but finding ways to win.
Vegas Golden Knights
They earn their own category, because this season has been bizarre. Their underlying numbers are tremendous -- an expected goals-for percentage of 54.7, second in the league behind Tampa -- yet consistency has been as fleeting as a stack of chips at the craps table. The Gerard Gallant firing was odd. The goaltending has been subpar. Something feels off, and yet if they get in, would anyone be shocked to see them roll?
The new Blues?
The Blackhawks have the sixth best goaltending in the NHL and are much closer to the playoff bubble than anyone expected. But they're going to have to be better than 3.00 goals per game, and the same holds for Montreal at 3.02 goals per game. The Habs are basically in the same spot the Blues were at this time last season. They've been missing Brendan Gallagher and continue to miss Jonathan Drouin and Paul Byron. Their underlying numbers are outstanding, including being third in expected goals percentage (53.07). We're not saying they will make up a double-digit deficit in the East. But we're saying there's a slight chance they could.
We're putting the Blue Jackets here because we might be in the midst of their Blues moment. They were 11-14-4 on Dec. 7. They've gone 16-2-4 (!) since, with separate winning streaks of five and six games. Don't pretend that you haven't considered whether "Elvis Merzlikins" is Latvian for "Jordan Binnington" ...
As for the Predators, their path back to contention was always rather clear. New coach John Hynes had to get a bit more out of the top-end talent, pray to the hockey gods that the special teams improve and assume Pekka Rinne and Juuse Saros could give him two solid months. If that happens, and they get in, there's a lot to like there.
Then there's the Wild. They have the best expected goals against at 5-on-5 in the NHL (1.99), and yet they're 27th in goals against average this season (3.28) thanks to ghastly goaltending (.894 save percentage). They have the consistency of watery oatmeal ... and yet still have a shot at snagging a playoff spot.
Finally, the Rangers get a mention for two reasons: Artemi Panarin and goaltending. The Rangers have three netminders capable of dominating. They have, in Panarin, a player who would be in the MVP discussion if they get within sniffing distance of the wild card. To put it in recent playoff-miracle terms: All they need is for Panarin to be Taylor Hall and have Lundqvist or either of the Russian kids become Keith Kinkaid for a few weeks.
The Sabres have been a colossal disappointment while the Rangers are the tantalizing, young team we'd figured the Sabres would be. Any hope of a Sharks rally was lost to injury. The Jets are a tough one to put here, because a good month of Connor Hellebuyck could mean they're a playoff team. But the more you squint, the more you see the Anaheim Ducks of last season, carried by elite goaltending until it couldn't carry them any further.
Not even the 2018-19 Blues could pull this off
There are so many Fouls going on here that we're just going to throw our hands up and declare this the Jersey Fouls version of Tommy Wiseau's "The Room." There's just so much bad that it can't help but add up to good. Hi, doggie.
Three things about the NHL All-Star Weekend
1. It's an annual event to tear down the annual event. Critics opine about the NHL All-Star Weekend being a waste of time, because the players don't show up or because the game itself doesn't resemble competitive hockey. (Something, frankly, that the new international format next season could remedy on both counts. Well, that and the parties in South Beach.) But the weekend isn't for those critics. It's for the host city, which greets the All-Star Weekend with excitement and treats it as a gathering of its hockey tribe. And specifically, it's for the kids in those host cities who show up and get their minds blown by the stars, the skills and the traveling circus. One memorable moment for me at the FanFest: a father pointing to the Selke Trophy and telling his son, "You see that? That's the one Ryan O'Reilly won last season." And his son, wearing an O'Reilly All-Star jersey, was marveling at it. That's the connection with the game that the event brings to audiences that appreciate it. That's my All-Star Game.
2. The best story you might not have heard at the All-Star Game: Canucks goalie Jacob Markstrom was actually pitching a shutout during one of the Pacific Division team's victories Saturday. During a TV timeout, assistant coach Wayne Gretzky -- perhaps you've heard of him? -- told Markstrom that "it's extra money" if he has a shutout in the game. This was ... bad advice. "I let in every shot after that," Markstrom said, with a laugh. "I didn't want to tell him he jinxed me, but I think he did."
3. The NHL is still working out details of its new All-Star Game format. We know there will be a Canadian team and an American team, but it's still to be determined how the European teams will be laid out. Whatever happens, it'll be a fun twist on the "North America vs. The World" gimmick, which led to such luminaries as Mariusz Czerkawski, Petr Buzek and Espen Knutsen becoming All-Stars because their NHL teams needed representatives and because they were all from "The World."
Listen To ESPN On Ice
Listen to Emily Kaplan, guest Stephen Whyno and yours truly break down all the hits, misses and news from NHL All-Star Weekend on the latest ESPN On Ice podcast. Subscribe, rate and review here.
Winners and losers of the week
Winner: Zack Kassian
Quite the week for the Oilers' ruffian. First, Ken Holland gives him a four-year contract extension worth $3.2 million against the cap for being an off-brand Tom Wilson. Then he gets his moment of catharsis against Matthew Tkachuk in the Battle of Alberta grudge match Wednesday, ducking a punch and then rag-dolling him. He argued that Tkachuk needed to answer the bell, and "The Code" won in the end.
Loser: Matthew Tkachuk
Dude, what kind of heel are you? Why give anyone the satisfaction of fighting Kassian? You threw two legal checks. Kassian responded by attempting to beat the stuffing out of you, for which -- as you noted in your postgame interview -- he was penalized, allowing Calgary to score the winning power-play goal. It was a perfect pest moment. You owed him nothing. You owed every single ex-NHL player bemoaning your perceived lack of honor nothing. This bit could have carried on to the last game of the season against Edmonton, or even beyond. Instead, the steam is released, the heat is turned down and we're left with the undeniable fact that Ryan-Nugent Hopkins and Sean Monahan put on a better show on the undercard than you and Kassian did in the main event.
Huge week for the heroes in a half-shell. The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were prominently used by Edmonton fans to mock turtling Matthew Tkachuk. And, for the first time in NHL history, the classic 1980s cartoon theme was used as a goal song, as chosen by Tomas Hertl (who else?) of the Sharks.
Loser: The Evil Shredder
Alas, that will be the last time the theme is used to celebrate a Hertl goal this season, as the Sharks' All-Star tore his ACL and MCL and is out for the season. Horrible news for Sharks fans, horrible news for lovers of the unbridled joy of Hertl ... but not the worst news in the world of the Ottawa Senators, if we're honest. (They own the Sharks' first-rounder for those who have somehow forgotten.)
Here's what I know about the Kraken as the nickname of the NHL's Seattle franchise. I heard the name is without question one of the finalists. I heard they had a marketing plan cooked up around the nickname last year, and liked what they saw. (Although the same process was no doubt applied to other potential names.) And trademark watchdog Clark Rasmussen noted that KrakenYouthHockey.com had been registered anonymously, as have other potential Seattle team name-adjacent sites. Personally, I love the name, though not as much as Sockeyes or Sasquatch. If only because of how many variations on "Krak" we'd see from the fans (i.e. they play in the Krak House, the fan club is the Krak Addicts, etc.)
So a Devils parody account spoofed a bunch of media people on Twitter with this news, but this Las Vegas CBS affiliate reeeeeallllly took the bait. Wow. pic.twitter.com/3kMs5eRoY7— Greg Wyshynski (@wyshynski) January 30, 2020
A New Jersey Devils parody Twitter account fooled a bunch of people on Thursday with a report that Gerard Gallant had been hired by the Devils as their new coach. None were fooled harder than 8 News Now in Las Vegas, which reported the news as true. Hours later, they published a correction: "8 News Now regrets the release of the information and/or any inconvenience it may have caused."
Winner: Kobe Tributes
The two things about Kobe Bryant I learned this week: First was how much he meant to Los Angeles, which is something I never understood as an East Coaster during his playing days. To that end, this tribute from the Kings -- that included all the victims of that horrific helicopter crash, including Gigi Bryant -- was well done.
Remembering our friend and @Lakers legend Kobe Bryant, his daughter, Gianna & all of those we lost.— LA Kings (@LAKings) January 30, 2020
💜💛 Alyssa Altobelli
💜💛 John Altobelli
💜💛 Keri Altobelli
💜💛 Christina Mauser
💜💛 Payton Chester
💜💛 Sarah Chester
💜💛 Ara Zobayan
💜💛 Gianna Bryant
💜💛 Kobe Bryant pic.twitter.com/TKN24IpsEe
I also didn't realize what he meant to other professional athletes, such as Alex Ovechkin, for example. His jersey tribute, wearing Kobe's No. 24 in warmups, was one of those transcendent moments where a generational talent acknowledges the respect of another generational talent in a different genre. To hear athletes from nearly every sport talk about the "black mamba" mentality, the work ethic and the perfectionism is that rare glimpse at the connective tissue between elite athletes. It was fascinating. (Bryant was, of course, not without his faults.)
Loser: Angels-Ducks crossover jerseys
These are legit horrendous. They look like a printing error at the pro shop. Here: Duck with a halo. That's literally all you needed to do. Duck with a halo. pic.twitter.com/YHtC1Cevpo— Greg Wyshynski (@wyshynski) January 30, 2020
Also in SoCal this week: One of the single worst hybrid jerseys ever committed to thread. And I like cross-sports NHL gear. For the record: I think the NHL is leaving money on the table by not creating a line of team-branded soccer jerseys that hockey fans can wear in the summer.
Everything you need to know about the current state of the Buffalo Sabres is summed up in this epic rant from caller Duane to WGR 550. "When you screw up for the fans as much as this team has for the last five years, and just don't hold yourself accountable and go hide in your house in Florida ... get in front of the camera and let us know we matter to you!" he said of owner Terry Pegula.
The Kunlun Red Star is playing home games in Russia due to the coronavirus outbreak.
NHL goalies on the rise of the lacrosse goal: "Not very happy about that being a goalie. I've got in my mind how I'd like to play that next time and I hope it doesn't happen again to me."
A guide to becoming a Seattle hockey fan.
The life of an NWHL player. "Playing professional hockey requires Emma Ruggiero to practice twice weekly and play a pair of games most weekends. Coaching commitments bring Ruggiero back to the rink up to six days a week. She balances the ice time with a manager's job at IHOP and graduate school at Buffalo State."
An 88-year-old woman gets star treatment at her first hockey game.
Lengthy interview with Mike Gillis by Craig Custance ($), including this passage: "There were media people who openly referred to the Sedins as sisters. You know? They were the best players in the league that year and that's how they got referred to by certain media people. I didn't handle that correctly. None of us handled that correctly."
Hockey tl;dr (too long; didn't read)
Attendance issues are hitting college hockey. What can be done to reverse the trend?
In case you missed this from your friends at ESPN
Emily's reporting from Moscow has been tremendous, and this story on what the NHL can learn from the KHL on women's hockey was incredibly insightful.