The NHL season crossed the midway mark this week, with all 30 teams now officially into the second half of their schedules. And as always, the first half of the season has left us with more questions than answers.
We can fix that. The part about not having enough answers, I mean.
That’s the beauty of modern sports, after all. There are plenty of different ways to look at any question, and if you don’t like the answer you get, you can just click around until you find a better one. Why not save time by putting them all in one place?
So here are 10 key questions1 for the rest of the NHL season, each answered five different ways: through an old-school narrative; with modern fancy stats; by scrapping the analysis altogether and just focusing on the funniest thing that could happen; and through the eyes of a fan. Specifically, the worst hockey fan that you know. Man, do I ever hate that guy.
Oh, and then there’s my answer. You know, the correct one. Make sure you skip those if you want to be surprised.
1. Which team sitting outside of a playoff spot today will find a way in?
The old-school narrative: The New Jersey Devils are a veteran group with a lot of pride and plenty of Cup rings. They’ll find a way, because they always do. (Except when they don’t.) Besides, do you really think a tried-and-tested winner like Martin Brodeur is going out like this?
The fancy stats: The Dallas Stars are stuck in 10th in the West, four points out of a playoff spot. But the advanced metrics say they’ve actually been one of the league’s better teams — and they’re trending upward.2
The worst hockey fan you know: The Carolina Hurricanes do it for their die-hard fans — all three of them! You know, because the rest of them like NASCAR. [Looks around for a high five.]
If the hockey gods had a sense of humor: The Senators edge out the Red Wings on the schedule’s final day, after spending the season’s second half ripping clothing off a cardboard cutout of Daniel Alfredsson.
My answer: I actually like Ottawa, Dallas, and maybe the Caps. You might even be able to talk me into the Devils, too, though they need to jump a lot of teams.
2. Who’ll be the biggest trade-deadline acquisition?
The old-school narrative: Everyone knows that goaltending wins championships, and there’s one goaltender available who could do that single-handedly. Whichever contender upgrades to Ryan Miller can go ahead and start designing its rings.
The fancy stats: Mike Cammalleri is a classic rental — a veteran on a bad team making lots of money on an expiring contract. He’s having a pretty unremarkable year offensively, and his minus-20 rating is ugly. But he leads the Flames in CF% relative, which means they’re much better with him on the ice than off, and his PDO of 93.8 suggests that his plus/minus is more a product of bad luck than anything he’s doing. With the right situation and some better puck luck, he could be a difference-maker.
The worst hockey fan you know: Oh man, I have this great idea for a fake Twitter insider account on deadline day — dude, it’s going to be hilarious.
If the hockey gods had a sense of humor: With Pascal Dupuis likely done for the season, the Penguins still need a right winger to play with Sidney Crosby and Chris Kunitz. Hey, I hear the Devils’ leading scorer could make a nice rental …
My answer: As a Leaf fan, I’ve already resigned myself to James Reimer getting traded for a handful of magic beans. This guy’s a great goalie who, for whatever reason, isn’t getting a fair chance in Toronto; whoever winds up with him is going to get a steal.
3. Who’ll finish with the worst record in the league?
The old-school narrative: The Edmonton Oilers still don’t get it. They have all the talent in the world, but these kids with their flashy stats and massive contracts don’t seem to be willing to do the little things that it takes to win. This team will never go anywhere until it gets some guys who can play with actual grit and character.
The fancy stats: The Buffalo Sabres are on pace to be one of the worst possession teams in the modern stats era. While they’ve been playing somewhat better recently, they’re still awful, and there’s no reason to think they’ll get any better as the season wears on.
The worst hockey fan you know: The Islanders deserve to finish last every year until they bring back those fisherman uniforms. Those things were so great.
If the hockey gods had a sense of humor: The Flames finish close to the bottom and earn a high pick, just so a few years from now we can all hear Brian Burke rip the guy they end up taking.
My answer: The Sabres already have a comfortable lead here, so to speak. More importantly, they’ve already accepted that this is the year to bottom out while they rebuild under new management. Edmonton can’t do that to its fans, and teams like the Islanders and Flames don’t seem willing to commit to a full fire sale quite yet. The Sabres are the easy pick.
4. Unlike the Roy/Hasek/Brodeur generation, the current era has lacked a consensus pick as the league’s best goalie. Is this the year that Tuukka Rask changes that?
The old-school narrative: There’s no doubt that he’s been great this season, and maybe even the odds-on favorite to win the Vezina. But you can’t earn the title of “best goalie in the league” until you win the Stanley Cup as a starter, and Rask hasn’t done that … yet.
The fancy stats: Rask is among the league leaders in save percentage. More tellingly, he’s also near the top in 5-on-5 save percentage — a better indicator because it eliminates the quality of special teams (which goalies can’t control). Guys like Ben Bishop and Josh Harding are also posting great numbers, but they don’t have the career body of work that Rask does. So yes, it’s probably time to anoint him … though history tells us he may not stay on top for long.
The worst hockey fan you know: Speaking of Rask, would you like to see my new Bruins tattoo? It’s Shawn Thornton punching Ulf Samuelsson in the groin.
If the hockey gods had a sense of humor: Rask gets drafted by a team that desperately needs goaltending, but then gets traded straight-up for a guy who’s playing in Italy within a few years. Oh wait, that already happened.
My answer: We don’t need to wait for the rest of the season; Rask is the best right now, period.
5. Of the teams that already have no chance at the playoffs, which one has the best chance to at least salvage some respect?
The old-school narrative: The Predators are basically playing for pride at this point, but the crusty combination of captain Shea Weber and coach Barry Trotz will make sure they keep competing. Seth Jones will continue to provide youthful energy, and the eventual return of Pekka Rinne will stabilize the goaltending.
The fancy stats: After a horrible start to the season, the Florida Panthers have quietly been a much better team over the past month. They’re too far out of the playoff race to earn a spot, but don’t be surprised if they make a second-half run and get close.
The worst hockey fan you know: I’ll just wait to see who it ends up being, then claim the answer was “obvious” all along.
If the hockey gods had a sense of humor: The answer is “none of them,” because hopelessly bad teams are funny.
My answer: I still think the Oilers are better than they’ve seemed. I’m not confident that they’ll start to show it, because their season is already firmly in “nothing should surprise us” territory. But if there’s any justice, they should.
6. The Avalanche continue to be the league’s biggest surprise story. What’s their secret, and can it continue?
The old-school narrative: Never underestimate the importance of a winning culture. What Joe Sakic and Patrick Roy may have lacked in terms of NHL management and coaching experience, they more than make up for in swagger and Stanley Cup rings. Roy’s passion and Sakic’s steady presence have given the team’s young players a model to learn from. Are they really this good? You are what your record says you are. They’re good.
The fancy stats: The Avs are a bad possession team that has survived mainly on the strength of unsustainably good goaltending. So when will the free fall come? Don’t look now: It already has.
The worst hockey fan you know: [Stands up during play and waves furiously at the camera while talking on a cell phone.]
If the hockey gods had a sense of humor: In an ironic reversal of the norm, Roy gets blindsided by a goaltending meltdown.
My answer: I don’t think the Avalanche can sustain their first-half success, and I already predicted they’d miss the playoffs back in November. But man, they’re fun to watch. I hope I end up being wrong.
7. Barring a major injury, who’s going to win the Hart Trophy as league MVP?
The old-school narrative: Sidney Crosby has the most points, so it has to be him.
The fancy stats: Actually, if you look at Zone Start ratios and then factor in Quality of Competition, you find that … just kidding. Yeah, it’s going to be Sidney Crosby.
The worst hockey fan you know: Uh, I think you mean Cindy Crosby.
If the hockey gods had a sense of humor: Patrick Kane pulls off the upset, just so we can hear him be forced to give an unrehearsed speech on live TV from Las Vegas.
My answer: With all due respect to other solid candidates, like Kane and Ryan Getzlaf, this is going to be Crosby’s trophy as long as he stays healthy. Please let him stay healthy.
8. The Toronto Maple Leafs are sitting in the East’s final playoff spot. Can they hold on?
The old-school narrative: Don’t count them out. The Leafs were a young team that crumbled during last year’s playoff run, but they spent the offseason addressing that by adding pressure-tested veterans like David Clarkson and Dave Bolland. The former is slumping and the latter is injured, but their mere presence should help the team keep focus. More importantly, the Leafs won’t collapse because Cup-winning coach Randy Carlyle won’t let them.
The fancy stats: The Leafs are an almost comically poor possession team that relies on excellent goaltending and unsustainable PDO just to stay near .500. Not only will they fall out of a playoff spot, they’ll be well out of the race by the trade deadline. I hate them with the intensity of a thousand dying suns.
The worst hockey fan you know: 4-1! It was 4-1! Would you like to hear my eight-month-old jokes about how it was 4-1? Too bad, because you’re going to!
If the hockey gods had a sense of humor: The Maple Leafs continue to exist.
My answer: The Leafs are a frustrating team to figure out. The numbers tell a clear story — they’re a bad team — but they’ve spent much of the last 12 months defying the odds. I want to believe, I really do. But they’re just not good enough. This is about to get ugly.
9. Who should be the next coach or GM fired?
The old-school narrative: The Islanders were expected to build on last year’s playoff appearance, and they made a big deal early on to acquire Thomas Vanek. But they’ve taken several steps back since then, and are now almost as close to last overall as they are to a playoff spot. That’s led to some heat on GM Garth Snow, but it’s more likely that coach Jack Capuano takes the fall.
The fancy stats: [Stands motionless between Dave Nonis and Randy Carlyle like Buridan's ass; eventually starves to death.]
The worst hockey fan you know: Dallas Eakins has been given more than enough time. Time for the Oilers to hire Mike Keenan!
If the hockey gods had a sense of humor: Bob Hartley is fired in Calgary; Burke “temporarily” takes over that job, too.
My answer: Claude Noel is in Year 3 as the Jets coach and is on track to miss the playoffs for the third time. That’s not all his fault — it’s not like he’s working with a roster full of All-Stars — but the Jets can’t keep treading water.
10. Who will win the Stanley Cup?
The old-school narrative: The Blackhawks are the defending champs and own the best record in the league. Until someone can knock them off the top of the pile, they’ve earned the right to be considered the favorites.
The fancy stats: While their record may not reflect it, the Kings could be the best team in hockey right now.3 Their goaltending has been so good that it’s almost certainly unsustainable, but that’s balanced by a team shooting percentage that’s bound to go up. Remember their surprising run all the way to a Cup in 2012? It wasn’t a surprise to the stats guys.
The worst hockey fan you know: Did you know that the Stanley Cup is the hardest trophy to win in all of sports?
If the hockey gods had a sense of humor: The Ducks win it all, followed by Teemu Selanne turning heel at the Cup presentation by convincing everyone to play keep-away from a sobbing Saku Koivu.
My answer: I had almost talked myself into the Blues until it was pointed out that they’ve actually come back to the pack during the season’s second quarter. So I’m going to split the difference between narrative and fancy stats by picking a team that has strong numbers and a compelling backstory: the aging San Jose Sharks, who beat the Boston Bruins in a tense seven-act drama we’ll call The Revenge of Joe Thornton. God help us all when he goes to celebrate.
BONUS OLYMPICS QUESTION: Who’s going to win men’s hockey gold at the Sochi Games?
The old-school narrative: Whichever team did the best job picking its roster, obviously. (Check back after the gold-medal game, when I’ll let you know who that was.)
The fancy stats: It’s a seven-game tournament with single-elimination playoffs. In the grand scheme of things, the results will basically be random.
The worst hockey fan you know: My country will win, because your country is [insert something horrifically xenophobic and/or racist here]. What? What did I say?
If the hockey gods had a sense of humor: Team USA loses a heartbreaker to Finland on a late goal by mysterious newcomer Böbbii Ryaan.
My answer: Canada still has more talent to draw from than any other nation and has the best roster on paper, but home-ice advantage should give the Russians a slight edge. Wait, did I just intentionally mention each of the co-favorites without actually making one firm pick? I cannot confirm or deny.