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Coldhearted: Known Unknowns

Deciphering the cloudy playoff picture in the NHL

The NHL’s chief operating officer, John Collins, may have arrived by way of the National Football League, but it’s a different sport altogether that he loves to bring up when he’s asked about his visions for hockey.

In an interview last May with AdAge, Collins said: “The Stanley Cup should be, and could be, as big as March Madness from a ratings and advertising standpoint.” Asked about it in an interview with the Los Angeles Daily News, Collins admitted he had set a high bar but explained that his goal was “to elevate the playoffs as a unifying force and get people together with friends watching games.”

After all the years of embarrassing TV packages and channel name changes and hockey that seemed to be almost purposely hidden, we are now in only the first of a 10-year TV contract with a once disparate group of sports-network properties now growing increasingly cohesive and coherent under the NBC Sports umbrella. This is the first year, for example, that every single playoff game will be aired “nationally” on either NBC proper, NBC Sports Network, the NHL Network, or after-market CNBC.

This is a big change from the status quo: Collins pointed out that as recently as two years ago, when the Flyers went to the Stanley Cup finals, their first two rounds weren’t aired outside of regional networks. “You never know who’ll end up in the finals, so we want to tell the stories as early as possible to expose fans to those teams,” he said.

Of course, it’s not flawless. Some of these allegedly “national” channels aren’t always accessible. And even when they are, NBC’s brand of Ebersolian storytelling can frustrate hockey fans who don’t need to be walked through the basics or hit over the head with the backstories. But still: Having this sort of long-term broadcasting commitment to the playoffs is a pretty major step forward, and if it means there will be some hand-holding or some cringy commercials, or jersey fouls, or cringey commercials encouraging jersey fouls here or there, so be it.

In the meantime, you wonder what John Collins must be thinking these days as his ultimate vision, March Madness, remains under way. Earlier this season he was as on-message as ever, telling The Big Lead in an interview this fall that he was in the middle of putting together with its partners “our promotional plans for the Stanley Cup playoffs … we want to turn that into another March Madness.” One of those partners sure seemed to be on-message: MillerCoors chief marketing officer Andy England told SportsBusiness Journal during the Winter Classic that “building the playoffs into something like a two-month version of March Madness is something we have very much bought into.”

If the NHL playoffs do indeed take on the vibe of NCAA engagement as Collins intends, this next week is like a long, drawn-out Selection Sunday, with all the first-round matchups and seedings and outsiders falling into and out of place. Here’s a look at what’s going on as we head into the season’s penultimate turn.

Eastern Conference

Atlantic Division

What We Know: The other day, a brave caller dialed up Mike Francesa with a bone to pick. “You say the AL East is the best division in sports,” he began, “but the NHL’s Atlantic division ….” The man had a point: Four of the Eastern Conference’s top six teams are from the Atlantic, and it would be four of the top five were Florida not automatically seeded third. But he didn’t get to say that, because Francesa cut him off a few seconds after the word hockey. “When I say ‘in sports,’ he said, sounding almost exhausted to have to explain this, “I’m not including hockey. You want me to say that? I can say that next time, that I’m not including hockey.” Oh, the battles we wage … 1

What We Don’t Know: With the Devils and Senators getting increasingly comfortable in the nos. 6 and 7 seeds, respectively, and the Flyers headed toward the no. 5 slot, the biggest Atlantic Division race remains between the Rangers and Penguins for the lead. New York has been shaky for the past month, with Henrik Lundqvist looking like less of a Vezina sure shot by the day. Still, they’ve continued to win games and hold Pittsburgh at bay, and the Pens didn’t help themselves Tuesday night with a 5-3 loss to the spoiling New York Islanders. The Rangers and Penguins play Thursday, April 5, one of several tough contests remaining for Pittsburgh, who also face potential first-round opponent2 Philadelphia twice in the last week of the season.

What We’re Wondering: I get e-mails with reassuring regularity that ask the following question, time and again: What do the Devils have to do to get some respect around here? The team’s 5-4-1 record in their last 10 games certainly hasn’t done much to draw attention to the cause, but the fact remains that the Devils have sneakily carved a good season out of one that could have easily gone bad. With ongoing financial concerns at the franchise level, the pending free agent status of captain Zach Parise, the media-bait contract given to Ilya Kovalchuk before last season, a 39-year-old goaltender in net, and a first-year coach, the ingredients were there for a distracted campaign, but the Devils now find themselves facing a likely first-round matchup with the eminently beatable Florida Panthers.

Northeast Division

What We Know: That Toronto and Montreal are eliminated. That, despite a late push by the Senators, the Boston Bruins will probably have the top spot in the division — and the Eastern Conference’s no. 2 seed — wrapped up. Which means there’s a good chance they’ll host Ottawa in the first round, a potential pairing we’ll get a little sneak preview of next week when the two teams play on April 5.

What We Don’t Know: Whither Patrick Roy? The Hall of Fame goalie, who currently owns, operates, and coaches the Quebec Remparts of the QJMHL, has long seen his name come up in discussions about the Montreal Canadiens’ next head coach or GM.3 A new flurry of speculation kicked up of late, with numerous columns saying things like “it was bound to happen sooner or later” and “true or not, it fits.” CBC’s Elliotte Friedman wrote in his indispensable “30 Thoughts” column4 this week, however, that the Roy business “was a Canadiens’ pre-emptive strike” in reaction to the news that Quebec City — a once and potentially future NHL city that would love to claim Roy as its own — announced plans for a $400 million arena.

What We’re Wondering: Whether Buffalo will indeed pull off one of the unlikelier comebacks in recent memory and snag the last playoff spot. After a promising start, the expensively assembled Sabres spent most of the year nestled in the “Piling on the Pylons” and “Chirping Like a Champ” sections of this column for their ongoing incompetence — it wasn’t too long ago that they were in last place in the East — and subsequent low-level lashings-out.5 Now, according to Sports Club Stats, they’ve got 68 percent odds of making the playoffs and getting goals, like this shorthanded effort from Jason Pominville, that belong in “Lighting the Lamp.” (Pominville’s goal made a big statement: It came as a dagger to the Washington Capitals, with whom the Sabres are directly battling for one of the last playoff spots, and not only was it shorthanded, it began with a pickpocket of Alex Ovechkin.) If the Sabres really do this, they’ll be the first team in NHL history to be last place in the conference in January and still make the postseason.

Southeast Division

What We Know: The Florida Panthers, who are almost certain to wrap up the division’s top seed (the glories of this honor are best illustrated by the musical accompaniment here), are laughing at us all.6

What We Don’t Know: In hindsight, you could have gone through this entire season crinkling your nose and saying, “What is UP with the Washington Capitals?” at random intervals, and you would have been in the running for most relevant and on-point hockey analyst. Because wait, seriously, what IS up with the Washington Capitals? Their season has been perpetually on the brink this year: always in jeopardy, never quite dead. Their Tuesday-night loss to the Sabres was devastating to their playoff chances, and it set up yet another season-defining moment tonight: Should the Caps beat the Bruins, their playoff chances would stand at 55 percent, while a loss tonight would give the Caps just 26 percent odds going forward to make the postseason.7

What We’re Wondering: Can Steven Stamkos hit 60 goals? The Tampa Bay Lightning are all but eliminated from the playoffs, but their sniper8 Steven Stamkos remains on what is close to a 60-goal pace in his fourth season in the NHL, most recently netting a pair against Boston for nos. 54 and 55. He’d be the first NHL player to hit 60 since Ovechkin scored 65 in 2007-08. “His 55 is the new 65,” one NHL scout told ESPN.com’s Cross Checks Blog, and insider Neil Greenberg noted that it will be hard for Stamkos to actually hit the mark. “Looks as if we may have to wait before we see another 60-goal performance, if one ever happens again,” he said, adding that scoring has been down league-wide. The Lightning have six games remaining, beginning tonight against New Jersey.

Western Conference

Central Division

What We Know: Like the Atlantic Division, the Central has four teams who will be making postseason appearances, led by the St. Louis Blues, who are currently the top team overall in the NHL. We also know there is an excellent (and by “excellent” I mean 85.1 percent, per Sports Club Stats) chance that the nos. 4-5 first-round matchup will be the Detroit Red Wings vs. the Nashville Predators in what ought to be a classic battle royale between a Red Wings team that has made the playoffs for the 21st straight season and a Predators squad making an earnest push to be a contender before an uncertain summer strikes. Three of the five games the two teams have played this season have been decided by a goal, with the Red Wings leading 3-2 total on the year. The two teams face off Friday in a game that could help determine which team would have home ice advantage — and could give a jump-start to the winner. (The “Dead Wings” have gone 3-5-2 over their last 10, while once-hot Nashville has ambled along lately at 5-4-1.)

What We Don’t Know: Who will start in goal for St. Louis in the playoffs? The Blues have an embarrassment of riches, employing two of the league’s top goalies in Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott. Elliott’s 3-0 shutout of the Predators Tuesday night was his third straight and the team’s 15th this season, tying a post-expansion NHL record. Both goalies have made their cases: Elliott made the All-Star Game this year and has sparkling statistics, while Halak has a sub-2.0 GAA to go along with his much more extensive playoff experience. “I expected a month ago that this thing would kind of air itself out and we’d figure out something,” coach Ken Hitchcock admitted to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “But it has not. I wouldn’t say it’s more complicated, it’s a good complication. But they’re making it hard on me because both guys are playing so good.” It also doesn’t help that the Blues could be facing any one of four different teams in the first round (see “Pacific Division” below). What We’re Wondering: How DO you pronounce Radulov? All the telecasts I’ve seen have gone “raddle-ov,” but noted Russian @SlavaMalamud has been fighting the good fight: “My attempts to teach American colleagues how to pronounce rah-DOO-lahf have met with limited success,” he wrote.

Northwest Division

What We Know: That this chart is just sad.

What We Don’t Know: With the Calgary Flames and the Colorado Avalanche’s spirited pushes for playoff contention now essentially extinguished, the only real Northwest uncertainties revolve around whom the Canucks will play in the first round and how Daniel Sedin’s head is feeling. (The team confirmed that he suffered a concussion after being elbowed last week by Chicago’s Duncan Keith, who is serving a five-game suspension for the play.) Vancouver could see the Sharks, Kings, Stars, or Coyotes, depending on how the Pacific Division shakes out. They’ve been most successful against the Sharks this season, going 3-0-1 against San Jose, while Dallas has caused the most trouble: The Canucks are 1-2 against the Stars, and will see them again Friday night.

What We’re Wondering: Did the Flames make a mistake by trying to “go for it,” as Ryan Lambert argues? Where do the Colorado Avalanche go from here? Will the Minnesota Wild, whose last six games are all against Western Conference playoff-bound teams, do any spoiling of hopes, dreams, and playoff gate revenue? (This Saturday’s game against the Kings has “hope-crushing” written all over it, you know?) And for the Canucks, what role will Chris Higgins’s abs play in the postseason?

Pacific Division

What We Know: Pretty much nothing. The Pacific Division turned out to be what you’d end up with if you parceled the Washington Capitals into five variously flawed teams. (We know which piece Bruce Boudreau ended up holding.) The Sharks were the part that was supposed to challenge for the Stanley Cup but may not even make the postseason. The Kings were the part lambasted for not giving enough effort. Dallas got the hot start and the struggle of getting bounced back to earth. The Coyotes got the injuries and the captain being suspended for three games. The Ducks were the ones with the baffling underperformance from their stars. All season was one big “Wait, they’ll snap out of this, right?” And for the next week or so, it appears that it will continue to remain much the same.

What We Don’t Know: Pretty much anything. While many people assumed the Kings and Sharks would find themselves jostling near the end of the season, few thought the elbowing would be into and out of seventh and eighth place. In general, two points are all that separate division leader du jour Dallas (with 89 points, the Stars are currently seeded third in the West) from the Coyotes, who right now have 87 points and the unfortunate distinction of being first in line on the outside looking in.9 Of the four teams, Dallas holds the tiebreaker advantage (regulation and overtime wins) while L.A. would come out ahead of the Sharks or Coyotes in a tie.

What We’re Wondering: Who will win tonight’s game between Phoenix and San Jose? The game is the first of a brutal ending stretch for the Sharks, who have the Gogo Yubari of life-or-death-swinging schedules. After Phoenix, they play Dallas and L.A. in back-to-back home-and-home series. But first, tonight: For the Sharks, the spread between a win and a loss is 84 percent and 46 percent postseason probabilities. (If the Coyotes win, they’re looking at an 83 percent shot at the playoffs; lose and that falls to under 37 percent.) Like a tech executive contemplating retirement, my head says San Jose, but my heart says Phoenix.

Lighting the Lamp: The Week’s Sickest Snipes

“Pressure creates diamonds, and it creates havoc,” said Ottawa Senators head coach Paul MacLean after his team’s win over the Winnipeg Jets Monday night. (I’m going to open a wedding-planning business someday and that will be the motto.) “This is when the game is on the line, and you can really find out who can play under the gun.” A number of Senators proved that they could, with 10 different players recording points, the coolest of which was this Jason Spezza assist. As Justin Bourne put it, “A reminder: Jason Spezza occasionally scores nice goals.”

Just as Kyle Turris benefited from being in the right place at the right time, the Detroit Red Wings’ Gustav Nyquist scored his first NHL goal by using a move known as the “be on the ice at the same time as Pavel Datsyuk”-o-rama.10

Can you imagine if the kid had flubbed that? His life would likely downward spiral out of control. He’d have night terrors and flashbacks. “I fanned a Datsyuk. I FANNED A DATSYUK!” he’d bawl to whomever, “I lost the perp”-style, wild-eyed and bushy-bearded, wearing a faded Detroit Red Wings backpack every day. Anyway, nice goal, Gustav! Other candidates this week included a give-and-go between Loui Eriksson and Mike Ribeiro, this other Chris Higgins goal, kneeling James Neal, and this Shea Weber rocket.

Piling on the Pylons: The Week’s Worst Performers

As mathematical eliminations are grimly calculated and team deathwatches commence, it’s the part of the season where one’s usual understandings and urges begin to get all out of whack. Wins are defeats and moral victories the enemy. Rivals seek to undercut one another like two businessmen with ulterior motives trading “No, I insist”s. It’s tanking season, where the league’s already-beaten-and-battered franchises engage in halfhearted lurches toward oblivion and the earliest possible lottery picks.

Should this be so? What kind of perverse incentives does our worst-is-first draft system instill? What safeties does it ensure? The biggest thing the current system has going for it, really, is its simple foundation: the “We won the last round, so you go first” assumption already baked into most of our backyard games. In practice, though, it’s pretty much a drag. Fans try to rewire their brains (I’ve had to trick myself into thinking the Rangers or Knicks are the other team, and then rooting for those guys instead) and everything’s just a gloomy downer: win and “there goes the no. 1 pick,” lose and you’ve lost. This annual occurrence is unfair to fans, argues the University of Missouri’s Adam M. Gold, who has written several papers proposing an alternative draft-ordering scheme. After all, “each fan’s right to cheer for their favorite team, from the first game to the last, is more important than the attempt to list teams from the worst to the best,” as Gold writes in one academic paper titled “Never Too Late to Win.”

I saw Gold speak at this spring’s MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, where he outlined his plan (video of the presentation ought to be up at some point). Basically, instead of being ranked in reverse order, teams would “win” the highest draft picks the same way they would have qualified for the playoffs: by racking up points in the standings. The moment a team got mathematically eliminated from the postseason, it would start earning draft-position points for wins or ties. Imagine that: The fans would be rooting for victories and high draft picks! You don’t have to eat meat, I made enough gazpacho for everyone!

I like the idea. Unlike some proposals that call for more equally weighted lotteries, for example, for non-playoff teams, Gold’s “wins after elimination” proposal still affords extra advantages to the extra-bad, in that the earlier you get disqualified, the more chances you have to pick up eligible wins. Some people argue that this could cause teams to “tank” early on in the season, which I suppose is always a possibility, but I think a team is much more likely to mail in the end of a season than an unknown quantity of games in December — elimination takes quite some time, after all. (The TrueHoop blog, which dissected the idea for basketball, felt that early-season tanking might be more of an issue in basketball, where there’s less parity between teams.)

I don’t expect the NHL to make a sweeping change like this one anytime soon, although I wish they would consider it. One thing’s for sure, it would certainly make April 7’s Montreal-Toronto game a good one to watch.

Taking It Coast-to-Coast: A Lap Around the League

  • There are few things worse than rooting for a perennially underachieving team, but one of them is finding out that one of said team’s first-overall draft picks will be getting labral shoulder surgery — one from which it will take five to six months to recover — on a 20-year-old shoulder that has “been wearing away” and has been “pretty bad … for most of this year.” Oilers fans learned the bad news about forward Taylor Hall when the team announced that they were shutting him down for the rest of the season so he could get the shoulder operation. “Tough day today. Even my own bobble head doll can’t escape injury right now,” Hall tweeted. (He hasn’t played since getting a concussion on March 16; earlier this year he got his face all sliced up.) The shoulder injury is not a new thing — according to Hall, it’s bothered him since juniors, which may explain why he sat out some events at his draft-year combine. (Warning, that link contains the phrase “sobbing preteen girl who’d just glimpsed Justin Bieber at the beach” to describe Peter Chiarelli watching Tyler Seguin, who went no. 2 overall after Hall, work out. If things don’t go smoothly, the role of “Canadian team pining after Seguin” will be just one more that the Leafs can’t win.)
  • On the topic of young players, here’s a rant by Mike Salerno about the Islanders’ development — or seeming lack thereof — of Nino Niederreiter.
  • Beauty.
  • The NCAA’s regional tournaments were held last weekend to determine which teams would be facing off in the NCAA Frozen Four, held this year in Tampa, Florida. (Embattled university program Alabama-Huntsville is the awkward host school or, as one hockey blog puts it, the equivalent to The Hunger Games’ District 13; tournament organizers would probably much rather talk about Union College rookie Shayne Gostisbehere, who grew up in Florida.) With Union, Ferris State, Minnesota, and Boston College the four programs to advance to the Frozen Four, the final weekend promises to have at least one finalist that has never played for a title before (whoever wins Union-Ferris State). The other semifinal is a college-hockey heavyweight battle in Minnesota-Boston College, two programs that between them have 26 NHL draft picks, nine titles, and 43 trips to the Frozen Four. (Union and Ferris State have 0, 0, and, until this season, 0.) Most important, though, according to College Hockey News’s Scott McLaughlin, this is the first time the “big four” states of Massachusetts, New York, Michigan, and Minnesota have comprised the Frozen Four since 1954.
  • I was skeptical about the NHL’s new ad campaign until I saw the Datsyuk one, which is awesome. (Speaking of the NHL’s ad campaign, it sure didn’t take long for a Leafs parody to appear.) Is there a Spotify channel or something I can listen to that consists solely of the music the league uses in its promos, by the way?
  • Over at Broad Street Hockey, there’s an interesting look at which teams are playing well down the stretch based on adjusted shot differential. The L.A. Kings are surging, the Calgary Flames maybe deserve better (or don’t), and the Rangers aren’t as good as you may have been tricked into thinking they were before Lundqvist started playing not-so-hot and you realized that it wouldn’t take much for everything to really spiral out of control.
  • And from TSN’s Scott Cullen, here’s an interesting list of the 25 players who have scored at least 10 points higher this year than their previous career-highs. Guys ranging from James Neal to Ryan O’Reilly, from Blake Wheeler to Tyler Bozak, appear on the list. (The Florida Panthers’ Jason Garrison, a once-undrafted defenseman who has scored 30 points this season after last year’s 18-point campaign, is a fun inclusion.) One interesting nugget: the list of seven players who have 40 points and 100 penalty minutes this season.11

  • “I’ve been very fortunate to have a little longevity,” the St. Louis Blues’ Jamie Langenbrunner told the NHL Network with trademark hockey-player understatement Tuesday night after playing in his 1,100th career game. His second-period goal turned out to be the game winner in the Blues’ 3-0 win over Nashville, in the same building in which Langenbrunner once played his very first game as a Dallas Star. (He told the Belleville News-Democrat’s Norm Sanders about trying to find a barber in the building to shave off his punk junior hockey bleached-out hair upon getting called up.) In other “little longevity” news, the Bruins’ Zdeno Chara was honored on Tuesday for playing in his 1,000th NHL game; he responded with three assists in the Bruins’ 5-2 win over Tampa.
  • Let’s play two truths and a lie: Two of these statements are true about the cover story in the April 2 issue of The Hockey News about St. Louis Blues captain David Backes, and one I made up: (a) It quotes “The New Colossus” (“your tired, your poor, your huddled masses”) over a Town and Country-looking spread of him with his wife, Kelly, whom he has known since kindergarten — with photo of the two from back then to prove it, (b) it quotes Backes as saying “I cry at movies and weddings and all that stuff,” or (c) it includes the phrase “pulling puppies out of amniotic sacs.” Oh, who am I kidding, they’re all true. This guy! I’m not sure if I’m reading a hockey publication right now or Bop.

    Chirping Like a Champ: The Best Mouthing Off

    The annual moment that most makes me wish hockey coaches had a little more baseball manager in them came this past Sunday, when I would have paid large sums of money to see Bruce Boudreau engage in a headbutting match with an equally irate official. It wasn’t too far off: “I almost ran on the ice without thinking,” the Ducks coach told the Orange County Register’s Jeff Miller in regard to this outburst:

    The provenance of the protest was Sunday’s game agains the Bruins, when midway through the third period the Ducks’ Matt Beleskey scored what was, briefly, a game-tying goal. (It was iffily called back on the grounds that Anaheim’s Andrew Cogliano had obstructed Marty Turco.) Along with the video, Miller’s descriptions of what happened next paint a madcap picture: Boudreau “lit like a firecracker, only with a shorter fuse and a longer bang,” he wrote. After reporting that Boudreau was too hoarse to address the team in the locker room after the game, he remarked that “the coach’s throat … recovered enough by the time he met with reporters for Boudreau to announce he felt like punching [the referee] Martell.” But the description of Miller’s that really came alive was this one, which hit me with the unlikely daydream of a spittle-flecked Boudreau, wedged into hockey pants rather than pinstriped stirrups: “If you can imagine an enraged Tommy Lasorda charging across a frozen pond, you can guess why this would have been a YouTube sensation.” Ah, if only.

Hockey Haiku

“Just crushed hunger games
books 1/2 and the movie.
Crazy story.”
Burns

Filed Under: Art, General topics, Movies, NHL, NHL Playoffs, NHL Viewing Guide, Sports, Ted

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Katie Baker is a staff writer at Grantland.

Archive @ katiebakes

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