Week 23 & 24 of the Nerdy 30+1: Saddle D’oh and Star Crossed

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Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press via AP

So here we go! For the past couple of weeks, anticipation has been growing for the Stanley Cup playoffs to start and you can certainly feel it with these power rankings. I may not have posted anything last week, but I am glad I have given myself the opportunity to eliminate two teams from playoff contention instead of immediately knock off one without enough of a sample size. We literally have gotten to that point of the season folks! Only decimal points are separating the final wild-card spots and elimination for both divisions so it will only get harder from here.

I will confess that St. Louis would have been knocked out of these power rankings last week if I ended up writing it, but instead, they have responded by winning four straight games, including three past regulation. They’ll be talked about in due time, but for now, let’s take a look at eight teams that are playing a major role during these playoff races in the latest edition of the Nerdy 30+1.

  • 31. Buffalo (82-game standings points pace: 64 points, Last Week: 30)
  • 30. Ottawa (Pace: 71 pts, LW: 31)
  • 29. Arizona (Pace: 68 pts, LW: 29)
  • 28. Vancouver (Pace: 67 pts, LW: 28)
  • 27. Detroit (Pace: 72 pts, LW: 27)
  • 26. New York Islanders (Pace: 80 pts, LW: 26)
  • 25. Montreal (Pace: 72 pts, LW: 25)
  • 24. New York Rangers (Pace: 80 pts, LW: 24)
  • 23. Chicago (Pace: 75 pts, LW: 22)
  • 22. Edmonton (Pace: 79 pts, LW: 23)
  • 21. Calgary (Pace: 88 pts, LW: 13)

The first team to be eliminated from playoff contention has been a team that at first just never got anything going from the expectations that were put upon them. Now, they are a team that has just been in a free fall. This is especially true over the past 11 days where five of their last six games are defeats by three goals or more.

In the short term, Matthew Tkachuk has missed all but one of these games due to landing head first into the boards while colliding with Matthew Barzal against the Islanders. While their puck possession continued to be outstanding, their PDO has been an embarrassment to society. In other words, a 4.3% shooting percentage, followed by an even worse 86.3% save percentage at even strength is all that it takes to make the Calgary Flames get outscored 25-9 in their last six games. Only a 1-0 win over rivals Edmonton salvaged them from an even worse run of form.

Still, this is now all part of major issues that have been going on all season for a team that should have done so much more. First, just when you thought goaltending changes would solve all of Calgary’s woes, their crux from seasons past reared it’s ugly head horribly. Mike Smith has been flat out miserable since returning from a groin injury and that whole sentence is all that needs to be said about the matter. Any goaltending injury that happens below the waste is just way too nasty for anyone to recover quickly and you genuinely have to wonder if Smith has been rushed back too early after he has been playing this poorly since returning.

Second, it is getting way too obvious that Calgary needs more than just Jonny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan to generate offense. Tkachuk can certainly do that while playing in a second line role, but someone has to play on the left wing on the Flames’ top forward line. Over the past two years, the solutions have been Alex Chiasson and Michael Ferland. That’s right fellow Caps fans: a forward that should be nothing more than a fourth line forward was a top line forward for an NHL team not long ago.

With Calgary only having 10 draft picks in stock over the next two years and a projected $6 million for three forward spots after their restricted free agents receive new contracts, where exactly is that elite scoring going to come from? Can a Dillon Dube, Andrew Mangiapane or Morgan Klimchuk be the answer from within? Or does general manager Brad Treliving make a bold move by trading one or two of their veteran defenseman under a big contract to get the forward depth they are looking for? The extreme majority of this roster isn’t signed beyond 2019, so getting immediate help for the long term is going to be critical to getting the most out of a solid core that does exist. It just needs to be more defined and given more experience in meaningful hockey games in the Spring. Too bad that won’t happen this year.

  • 20. Carolina (Pace: 83 pts, LW: 21)
  • 19. Dallas (Pace: 92 pts, LW: 6)

The next team I am going to have to knock out of the playoffs is a team I just can’t believe have fallen out of the map so quickly. I know they are from the Central Division, but I just can’t believe Ken Hitchcock would allow this Dallas Stars team to fall apart this easily.

This month, they have gone 2-6-4 that includes going winless in their last six games and being outscored 28-38. At even strength, no team has had a worse shooting percentage during that span than Dallas’ 4.5%. It has already been discussed here that the Stars just don’t generate anything if their best players don’t get anything going. Once you pass through Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn, Alex Radulov and John Klingberg, not a single Stars skater is over 33 points, let alone the 61 points the top four have already produced.

But these are problems that have been lingering for some time. If anything, it’s been the defense that has been getting gradually worse. All season, Hitchcock has turned this Stars defense into one of the best in the NHL to the tune of 55.4 shot attempts per hour at even strength. Though it hasn’t capitulated during this month’s pile of misery, an 11th best rate of 56.6 attempts per hour is certainly not the high standards that were implemented previously. Along with that, Dallas has given up at least one goal while on the penalty kill during their six-game winless run (which has resulted in just a 61.9% efficiency during that span). Add in Ben Bishop’s poor run of form followed by a knee injury that will keep him out for two weeks, plus Kari Lehtonen’s Kari Lehtonenness and you see how Dallas has become where they are.

Unless Dallas is able to find some hot hands within the rest of the season is anybody’s guess. It was just two years ago that their best players were supported by Jason Spezza, a genuinely healthy Ales Hemsky (yes, that type of season actually happened!), Alex Goligoski and Cody Eakin. Now, three of those members of the supporting cast is gone and Spezza is 34 and is dealing with a possible season-ending back injury. Add in Martin Hanzal’s own set of back issues that have led to season-ending surgery and a grand total of 38 games this season and you see why Dallas hasn’t been able to replenish that great offensive juggernaut from seasons past.

Along with that, the Stars are just not that good at drafting elite talent forwards. It’s not good to say that Valeri Nichushkin and Radek Faksa have been Dallas’ best forwards to be drafted over this decade. Also, please don’t remind any Stars fans what happened in 2009 either. Riley Tufte and Miro Hakkinen may be good prospects, but it’s no different than what has been said about Jason Dickinson and Brett Ritchie. Dallas does have a decent chunk of cap space since Dan Hamhuis and Lehtonen will be unrestricted free agents and their restricted free agents shouldn’t be that expensive to resign. But we have seen this out of Jim Nill where he’ll bring veteran answers that will only work for one season.

He has to start getting long-term answers to compliment Benn, Seguin, Klingberg, and Honka. There are loads of answers in defense, but not anywhere near enough answers up front. Does Nill use that as trade bait to get a guaranteed answer? Or does he continue to do the same song and dance he has done since the start of his tenure in 2013? In a division like the Central Division, the latter simply isn’t good enough anymore.

  • 18. Washington (Pace: 103 pts, LW: 20)
  • 17. Florida (Pace: 92 pts, LW: 19)
  • 16. Anaheim (Pace: 97 pts, LW: 18)
  • 15. Colorado (Pace: 98 pts, LW: 17)
  • 14. New Jersey (Pace: 93 pts, LW: 15)
  • 13. Columbus (Pace: 97 pts, LW: 16)

Just when you thought the Columbus Blue Jackets may be falling apart, they have come alive over the past month-and-a-half to reclaim a place in the playoff conversation. Since February 9th, they have gone 16-5-1 that include a current ten-game winning streak full of key wins over teams that are also fighting for a playoff spot. During the said ten-game winning streak, the Blue Jackets have dominated opponents with a 42-22 scoreline.

Columbus’ issue all season has been the fact that they have not been able to make up for lost scoring when the likes of Cam Atkinson and Alexander Wennberg have been out due to injury. Now that both are back and that Thomas Vanek has been added to the roster, the offense is that much more potent.

During the ten-game winning streak, only the Anaheim Ducks have had a better even strength shooting percentage than Columbus’ 10.5% and their shot generation of 61.7 attempts per hour is ninth best in the NHL during that time. However, that is not necessarily that much different from their season-long rate of 60.9 shot attempts per hour. So this indicates that Tortorella’s team is just waking up because of hot shooting more so than a change in personnel or systems.

The same certainly applies to the power play as well where they have only improved their shot generation rate to 94.5 shot attempts per hour while shooting almost 1.5 times better than their season-long rate at 16.7%. So their man-advantage is still one of the worst in the league, but their hot shooting is enough for them to hit league average rather than anywhere worse.

In conclusion, nothing has really changed with the Columbus Blue Jackets other than simply progressing to the mean. It may be enough for them to catch fire in the postseason since there hasn’t been anybody elite that looks like they can stake a claim a Stanley Cup contender, but I also wouldn’t be surprised if this ends up being just a mirage. Either way, this just smells like a run that an Ottawa of years past would make before being knocked out in the first round. But Columbus has a roster and front office that are much better than this, so the possibilities exist for them to be good. I don’t know, let’s see how the rest of this plays out and go from there.

  • 12. Philadelphia (Pace: 96 pts, LW: 14)

Just when you think Philadelphia has figured things out, they start to fall apart. Also, just when you think Philadelphia is in shambles, they begin to turn the corner. That really is the story of these Flyers this season as it has been a complete mystery as to whether or not they’re good. So let’s just go ahead and put up some numbers to show if there is anything consistent about them.

Flyers

All data from naturalstattrick.com

Yeah, didn’t think so.

For starts, the Flyers have been consistently a bad penalty killing unit all season long. They have given up a 20th best rate of 99.7 shot attempts per hour, but their goaltending is really where it has let them down this season at 81.4%. For the exception of Alex Lyon and his 20 shots faced while shorthanded, every Flyers goaltender that has been used has either saved 81% or worse; making this is a collective problem across the board for this unit.

But when you break the shot attempts down in a micro scale, the Flyers are actually the number one team in the entire NHL in giving up shots on goal and unblocked attempts on the penalty kill all season. It’s the high definition chances where this unit starts to falter, but only to a league average 16th. But you take that into account, and Micah Blake McCurdy’s visualization of most of Flyers opponents’ shots coming from the point on their left-hand side and you start to see the picture come together a bit. Basically, it is looking like opponents are hoping to catch the Flyers off guard with screened shots and rebounds in hopes that their young defense will not be able to gobble up any loose pucks in time. So far, the opposition has been able to capitalize greatly and stunt any positive vibes the Flyers really should have about their young core and goaltending that is not named Petr Mrazek.

Speaking of the new acquisition from the Detroit Red Wings, it should come as no surprise that the 26-year old has been an unmitigated disaster, but this was to be expected. He was always meant to come in as injury cover while Brian Elliott and Michal Neuvirth were nursing their respective ailments. With Neuvirth expected to come back on the team’s next road trip and Elliot with hopes of returning in the final week of the season, that issue should be much ado about nothing very soon.

What has been fascinating though, has been the Flyers recent change in style of play. All season, they have been among the slowest teams in the league by playing at roughly a snail-like pace of 110 combined shot attempts per hour. Throughout their latest hot streak that has seen them win three of their last four games, Hakstol has allowed his players to play a much looser style to the tone of 125 shot attempts per hour. Replacing an injured but always cautious Michael Raffl with rookie Oskar Lindblom into the second line definitely helps matters as does swapping Valtteri Filppula with Nolan Patrick. Now Filppula and Wayne Simmonds are always going to get their minutes under head coach Dave Hakstol. But the sooner the younger forwards can get more playing time at even strength, the better it is for the Flyers not just in the short term, but in the long term as well.

  • 11. Los Angeles (Pace: 97 pts, LW: 12)
  • 10. St. Louis (Pace: 96 pts, LW: 11)
  • 9. Pittsburgh (Pace: 99 pts, LW: 10)
  • 8. San Jose (Pace: 103 pts, LW: 9)
  • 7. Minnesota (Pace: 101 pts, LW: 7)
  • 6. Toronto (Pace: 105 pts, LW: 8)

Of the three elite teams in the Atlantic Division, Toronto has been the one team that has been written the least, and that shouldn’t be the case. As long as Auston Matthews, William Nylander and Mitch Marner are on this roster, the Maple Leafs should not be considered boring. But that is where they are as the third best team in this division and still not improving enough to where they get to see home-ice advantage in a playoff series.

However, this team is on the right track since their mini-tailspin in the middle of the season and now they have gone 19-6-2 ever since. During that time, they have been in the top-six in the NHL in total goals for and against and have confirmed that they have the among the best power plays in the NHL from an analytical standpoint. What has also been confirmed about them all season has been their ludicrous propensity to take shots from so far close to the net in all situations. In fact, the Maple Leafs are a full eight shot attempts per hour better than any team in the NHL in high definition shots on the power play.

Now while they may still be an elite offense because of such a style of play, you tend to wonder if Toronto can expand their shot chart a bit at even strength. After all, they’re not taking that many shots from the point and it has resulted in not having a defenseman being able to hit elite levels in goal scoring. Also, the Maple Leafs haven’t caught up with this era of faster-paced hockey as their shot generation at even strength has slipped from second best last season to a pedestrian 12th this season. Plenty of that has had to do with the injuries sustained by Morgan Reilly, but the other is just the fact that unless they play Conor Carrick or Andreas Borgman more often, they don’t have the talent or personnel to get the job done from there.

That all being said, Reilly and Jake Gardiner have been able to generate loads of assists this season and Toronto’s forwards have been really good at crashing the net hard to gather in deflections or grab rebounds from in tight. In fact, Matthews, Zach Hyman, James Van Riemsdyk and Patrick Marleau all average over 4.5 high definition chances per hour at even strength. A rate that high gets you among the top-44 among NHL forwards and only the Calgary Flames can rival Toronto’s collection of high-caliber occupiers in the crease. So when you see the Maple Leafs own the puck for long periods of time in the offensive zone, you know it spells danger for defenses everywhere because it will make them lose sight of those within and below the faceoff dots over time.

  • 5. Winnipeg (Pace: 110 pts, LW: 5)
  • 4. Vegas (Pace: 111 pts, LW: 3)

There’s no denying that Las Vegas has been the feel-good story of the NHL season. In their first year in existence, this team could do something that not even the modern day Los Angeles Kings could have done during their heyday: win a division title. However, the Golden Knights might be in the midst of a small haze after they have broken a few NHL records or so.

Since February 19th, they have only gone 8-5-2 in their last 15 games and have only outscored their opponents 46-40 during that span. Throughout the course of the season, Vegas has been winning games time and again thanks to timely goaltending and a defensive structure that has kept them in hockey games they shouldn’t be winning. As long as you are playing under Gerard Gallant, you will not play any other way. This season, Vegas is the eighth best defense in the NHL thanks to its 55.9 shot attempts per hour they give up. As a result, their goal tally of 202 has consistently been within the top ten in the NHL all year. However, that same goaltending that was making timely saves is either falling apart or reverting to type depending on the eye of the beholder.

For starts, Gallant can no longer call upon Roberto Luongo, who is such a space alien, he may get to 1,000 wins, let alone play 1,000 games before his career is all said and done. He has been that good and that consistent throughout his entire career. However, Gallant now has to rely on Marc Andre-Fleury and a pile of uncertainty that has been Oscar Dansk, Malcolm Subban, Dylan Ferguson’s cup of coffee and everyone’s bae Maxime Legace. While Fleury has been solid during these last 15 games, he was only able to have seven reach quality status while also getting pulled after giving up four goals in 21 shots in his last outing against New Jersey. Along with that, he was pulled last Tuesday against Vancouver due to another concussion he might have sustained.

Meanwhile, Subban and Legace are not doing that much better as the two have combined 43.3% quality start percentage this season. It should be noted that Subban has seemed to turn a corner in his last two starts, but it may come down to him playing one too many playoff games because Fleury simply can’t stay healthy. After all, he has only played in 40 games due to concussions and various other injuries. If Vegas no longer has anybody scoring at the career high rates they have been, can the back end be able to cope with any pressure they could be dealing with? Can they afford to go into a goaltender battle between Fleury and John Gibson, or Martin Jones, or any other goaltender within the Western Conference?

I do think Vegas is fine and should have a nice postseason considering the Pacific Division is that bad, but I also don’t think things will get smoother for them either and long-term questions will need to be answered eventually.

  • 3. Nashville (Pace: 119 pts, LW: 4)

Don’t laugh now, but the Nashville Predators are coming to take the Presidents Trophy. Ok, Penguins fans, maybe you have the right to laugh to death because everything goes your way somehow, but hear me out. Since January 5th, the Preds have gone 25-4-4 and has given up the fewest total goals during that span with 71. Add in the fact that Nashville has been a top ten defense all year and you see why they have maintained their run of form over the course of the season.

Offensively, Nashville has continued to pile it on teams with the fourth best even strength shot attempt rate in the league at 62.6 per hour. Along with that, you can’t ask for anything more out of your goaltending as the combination of Pekka Rinne and Juuse Saros have led the league in even-strength save percentage at 93.5%. But surely, there has to be a catch with this Predators team.

After all, only eight Presidents Trophy winners have gone on to win the Stanley Cup since its introduction 30 years ago. In fact, only two of those winners have won it since the implementation of the salary cap before the start of the 2005-06 season. To put the coup de gras to this, Minnesota and Winnipeg are no slouches and will give Nashville everything they have before they even think about making it to the Conference Finals. Plenty of things are outside of Nashville’s control when it comes to these matters, but what about the issues within their own team?

After talking about Toronto’s propencity to get to the front of the net, this is where Nashville has a complete weakness on the matter, especially on the power play. In fact, they are the third worst team in the NHL in high definition chances on the man-advantage while only generating a league average 103.5 shot attempts per hour and those numbers haven’t gotten any better during their rich vein of form. That is why you are only seeing this unit score on just 15.6% of their opportunities during this span.

Otherwise, there’s not much not to like about this team. While Nashville’s top line is not as potent as it was last season, it has freed up the second line of Kevin Fiala, Kyle Turris and Craig Smith that is truly going places. On that note, Smith’s 44 points are the highest he has put up in four years and it is all due to having better opportunities and linemates around him. You would like to see head coach Peter Laviolette limit the ice times for Nick Bonino and Alexei Emelin, who were never as good as their individual reputations are. And it will be interesting to see what comes of the third line once Calle Jarnkrok returns from injury. Otherwise, this is as deep a roster as you will see in the Westen Conference and a possible second-round matchup with Winnipeg has the chance to be the most fun to watch in the entire postseason.

  • 2. Boston (Pace: 114 pts, LW: 2)
  • 1. Tampa Bay (Pace: 118 pts, LW: 1)

Lastly, let’s talk about the best team in the league for almost the entire season. Bluntly, there is no team I would rather root for that is not the Capitals than the Tampa Bay Lightning to win the Stanley Cup. For the past Olympiad, there has been no better general manager than Steve Yzerman as the vast majority of his moves have come out positively well. If it weren’t for one too many contracts that went stale too fast and for one too many poorly timed injuries, the Lightning should have had more than a Stanley Cup Finals appearance and two Conference Finals appearances over this span.

However, it is important to acknowledge the weaknesses of this team in case they do end up failing to make it to the Stanley Cup final.

For starts, Andrei Vasilevskiy has slowed down terribly since looking like a lock for the Vezina trophy in the first half of the season. But since January 6th, his save percentage has cratered to 89.9% and has only had nine quality starts out of his 26 appearances. It’s not so much a reminder that he is a bad goaltender but the fact that his sample size still hasn’t been big enough to give a true determination of how good he is. Hockey analytics pioneer Gabriel Desjardins has explained that it takes about 6,000 even strength shots for a league-average goaltender to prove that his save percentage is less than 5% luck. Vasilevskiy currently sits at 3,629 such shots, which means that about one-eighth of his goal prevention is due to luck. His penalty kill save percentage has been what has kept him through hockey games, but Vasilevskiy will still have to show more for him to be a guaranteed mainstay as an elite NHL netminder.

As for the rest of the team, is there any way for Ryan McDonagh to avoid being with Dan Girardi!?!? Please?!?!

Yes, it has only been six games, but McDonagh puts 78.8% puck possession when he’s not with Girardi versus the 46.4% that he is with him. Add in the fact that Jon Cooper feels obligated to make them the team’s second pair when players like Mikhail Sergachev deserve significantly more playing time and all of Jon Cooper’s positive reputation could go away the exact same way Barry Trotz’s has in Washington.

Personally, I’d like to see Victor Hedman and Anton Stralman back together, followed by McDonagh and Sergachev as the second pair, and then Braydon Coburn and Andrej Sustr as the third pair with Girardi as the seventh defenseman that rotates with McDonagh. Like the Kevin Shattenkirk trade for the Caps, this is not an ideal trade from a balance standpoint, but like Brooks Orpik, this is where Tampa shouldn’t have signed Girardi in the first place because it has brought in so many unnecessary problems. At the same time, who knows where Tampa would have been having they not replaced Jason Garrison with a veteran defenseman instead of Slater Koekkoek. Also, it’s not like they’re deep in guaranteed NHL talent in their defenseman prospects themselves.

So there you have it, more reasons to think this dream of a Stanley Cup should not go to the true best team in the NHL. Hey, I’m only here just to make sure you’re fighting guard is up come the postseason. Trust me when I say that you’ll thank me later.

 

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