Jeremy Lin, Again

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Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images T.J. Oshie #74, Derek Roy #12 Alexander Steen #20 and Alex Pietrangelo #27 of the St. Louis Blues

The First-Quarter NHL Report Card

A fourth of the way through the season, which teams are emerging as true contenders, and which teams are fading away?

The NHL season reached an important milestone this week, as every team in the league has now crossed the 20-game mark. This means not only that the season is one-quarter over, but traditionally, that it’s also now OK to start drawing conclusions about teams.

Of course, none of us actually waits that long to start passing judgment. In fact, we all tend to get started before opening night even arrives. The prediction-filled season preview is practically mandatory at this point, and we here at Grantland are no different.

My preview ran on October 1. Inspired by the NHL’s recent realignment, I decided to re-realign the league into four new divisions: contenders, bottom-feeders, teams that were stuck in the middle, and a fourth group that I had no idea what to do with.

So now that we’ve reached the quarter pole,1 let’s evaluate the evaluations. Twenty games in, here’s how I’m doing so far.

The Legitimate Contender Division

Anze Kopitar #11 of the Los Angeles Kings

This seven-team division was meant to include the cream of the crop — the teams that would separate from the pack and establish themselves as the clear Stanley Cup favorites.

Teams I was mostly right about: Chicago Blackhawks, Los Angeles Kings, St. Louis Blues

All three teams have been excellent so far. None is running away and hiding, because they all play in the West and the Western Conference is basically your copy of NHL 95 after your college roommate got drunk and edited all the players to have 99 ratings. But they’re still very good.

The Blues and Blackhawks were expected to be the two best teams in the Central, and they’ve mostly held up their end of the bargain, despite the emergence of the Avalanche and Wild. Chicago has done it about the way you’d expect — with a balanced offense, strong defense, and goaltending that’s been good enough.2

The Blues have been a bit more interesting. They’re supposed to be that team that’s efficient bordering on dull, relying on team defense and excellent goaltending without the flashy offensive numbers. Instead, Alex Steen has spent much of the season leading the league in scoring while starter Jaroslav Halak has struggled.

Meanwhile, the Kings are the Kings — lurking around the bottom of the playoff seedings, terrifying the teams above them that might get stuck playing L.A. in the postseason. The loss of Jonathan Quick3 should have been crushing, but instead it has ushered in the Ben Scrivens Era.

Teams I was maybe wrong about: Detroit Red Wings, Boston Bruins, Pittsburgh Penguins

All three of these teams have been decent, and two are even leading their divisions. But the cream of the crop? That may be pushing it.

In hindsight, I shouldn’t have chosen anyone from the East. The entire conference is a train wreck, so much so that the first-place team wouldn’t even be in the playoff picture if it moved West.4 The West has been the better conference for years. This season’s imbalance is so extreme that it can’t possibly continue, but so far, nobody in the East has earned Cup-favorite status.

Team I was super-wrong about: New York Rangers

The Rangers had been the East’s top seed in 2011-12, the last full 82-game season. They’d taken a step back in last year’s lockout-shortened campaign, and that had cost John Tortorella his job, but there was every reason to think they’d regain their spot at the top of the standings under new coach Alain Vigneault.

Instead, they started slow and have struggled to get above the .500 mark. Part of that is understandable, since the renovations for Madison Square Garden kept them on the road for the season’s first nine games.5 But they haven’t been all that much better since.

There’s hope, though. Henrik Lundqvist is healthy and playing well, and Rick Nash made his return from a head injury Tuesday. And, of course, they play in the embarrassingly awful Metro division, where their 10-11-0 record is still good enough for a playoff spot.

The Rangers should be fine. But a clear Cup contender? Swing and a miss.

Quote that makes me look smart: “Adding [Daniel] Alfredsson doesn’t make [the Red Wings] any younger, obviously, so the potential for major drop-offs and/or injuries is significant.”

Quote I would like to have back: “On paper, you could make a case for the Rangers being the most talented team in the league.”

Three predictions for the rest of the way: The Bruins pull away in the East. The Rangers get it figured out and easily capture the third Metro playoff spot. The Blues pull the trigger on a late-season trade for Ryan Miller.

The Bottom-Feeder Division

Mike Ribeiro #63, Radim Vrbata #17 and teammates of the Phoenix Coyotes

These were the seven teams I figured had nothing to look forward to except a shot at the first-overall pick.

Teams I was mostly right about: Calgary Flames, Buffalo Sabres, Florida Panthers

The Flames got off to a decent start before quickly falling back. The Sabres and Panthers have been disasters from Day 1, and both teams have already fired their coaches.6

So I nailed my prediction on all three teams. Do you know who else was right about them? Everyone. Literally everyone knew these three teams would be terrible. I award myself zero points.

Teams I was maybe wrong about: Nashville Predators, Carolina Hurricanes

The Predators and Hurricanes sport similar records — Nashville is 10-9-2 for 22 points, while Carolina is 8-9-4 for 20. For the Hurricanes, that has been enough to keep them firmly in the Metro playoff race. For the Predators, it has left them dead last in the Central and well out of postseason contention. The lesson here is that if you’re an NHL team that’s planning to hover around .500 this season, you’re going to want to make sure you’re in the right division.

While neither team is scaring anyone, each has been a slight notch above bottom-feeders, so we’ll be charitable and keep them out of that Flames/Sabres/Panthers cesspool for now.

Teams I was super-wrong about: Colorado Avalanche, Phoenix Coyotes

If I’d written this column last week, the Avalanche would have made me look really bad.7 As it stands, their recently snapped three-game losing streak dropped them out of the league’s upper echelon and has Colorado on the verge of falling out of the playoff picture entirely. Still, it’s on pace for a 123-point season, which is well beyond any best-case scenario I could have come up with.

As big a surprise as the Avalanche have been, the Coyotes may be an even bigger one. They’ve very quietly slipped into the league’s top five, thanks largely to a 9-0-1 record at home. There’s some evidence their success may be a bit of an illusion, like a scary 47.8 percent Fenwick Close and a plus-7 goals differential that’s merely OK. But for now, long-suffering Coyotes fans can agree this is clearly a team on the move! (Oh … sorry, guys. Poor choice of words.)

Quote that makes me look smart: On the Avalanche: “Well, at least they’ll be interesting.”

Quote I would like to have back: On the Coyotes: ” … they’ll struggle to score goals.”8

Three predictions for the rest of the way: The Flames finish behind the Oilers. The Coyotes and Avalanche both miss the playoffs. The Hurricanes ask the league to let them play in a real division someday, just to see what it’s like.

The Stuck-in-the-Middle Division

John Carlson #74 of the Washington Capitals

I didn’t expect much from these teams. They wouldn’t contend for a top seed, but wouldn’t provide the entertainment value of the truly hopeless teams. They’d just be kind of … there.

Teams I was mostly right about: Winnipeg Jets, New York Islanders, Columbus Blue Jackets, Dallas Stars, Washington Capitals

The Jets are a near-perfect “stuck-in-the-middle” team. They have 23 points through 23 games, score about as much as they give up, and have dropped out of playoff contention without ever really embarrassing themselves. They’re 10 points out of first place overall, 11 points out of last, and you had completely forgotten they existed until a Chicago fan stole one of their helmets.

The Blue Jackets and Islanders are hanging on to a spot in this category by a thread, since you could make a case for both teams dropping down to “bottom-feeder” status. They play in the Metro, which means they were presented with a golden opportunity to step up and grab an easy playoff spot. Instead, both teams are fading badly.

The Stars may be the best team out of this group. They’re playing at a near 100-point pace, but since they’re in the West, that still leaves them six points out of a playoff spot. With Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin both locked into long-term, cap-friendly deals, there’s a lot to be excited about in Dallas. It doesn’t look like that excitement will pay off this year, but don’t count them out quite yet.

As for the Capitals, they were recently leading their division, so can they really be considered “in the middle”? Their division is the Metro, so yes, yes they can.

Team I was maybe wrong about: Tampa Bay Lightning

The Lightning have spent most of the first six weeks as the East’s best team. Sure, that’s kind of like being the best Cleveland Browns quarterback, but it’s still far more than anyone expected. The loss of Steven Stamkos is devastating, though, and it’s almost impossible to picture Tampa Bay sticking around the top of the standings without him, despite the emergence of Ben Bishop as a legitimate starter.

Teams I was super-wrong about: San Jose Sharks, Minnesota Wild

After spending the first month looking like they’d run away with first place overall, the Sharks’ recent cold streak9 has given the rest of the league’s top teams a chance to catch up. But they’re still on pace for a 121-point season, have lost only three times in regulation, and are the league’s second-best team in terms of goal differential. I said their best-case scenario was to be a sneaky-good team that everyone forgot about. They’re not sneaky-good. They’re just good.

But the Sharks aren’t even the best team on the list, at least in terms of points. That would be the Wild, who’ve quietly sneaked up on the Blackhawks for a share of first place in the Central. They have a balanced offense, the early Norris favorite in Ryan Suter, and the best feel-good story of the season in Josh Harding.10

Quote that makes me look smart: “As for [Tampa Bay’s] awful goaltending, the team did acquire Ben Bishop at least year’s deadline. Between him and Anders Lindback, the Lightning have two young, gigantic goaltenders, and can hold out hope that one of them could still develop into a legitimate starter.”

Quote I would like to have back: “… realignment has put the Capitals in a much tougher division.”

Three predictions for the rest of the way: The Lightning miss the playoffs. The Stars somehow make them. The Wild say “screw it” and let Suter become the first defenseman to just play all 60 minutes every game.

The “Your Guess Is As Good As Mine” Division

Phil Kessel #81 of the Toronto Maple Leafs

This division included eight teams I admitted had me stumped, and I suppose I could argue that means I can’t technically be “wrong” about any of them. But I did try to narrow down the possibilities for seven of the eight, and that worked out better in some cases than in others.

Teams I was mostly right about: Vancouver Canucks, Toronto Maple Leafs, Ottawa Senators, Montreal Canadiens, New Jersey Devils

The Leafs have largely continued to be what they were last year: a possession black hole that still somehow manages to win more than they lose. They’re coming up on a brutal stretch of their schedule, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see them start to drop in the standings. But for now, the Maple Leafs–inspired advanced stats-pocalypse is proceeding according to plan.

The other three Canadian teams have been moderate disappointments so far. Vancouver has been the best of the group, but Montreal is the only one currently holding down a playoff spot.11 Meanwhile, Ottawa has gone from trendy Cup pick to team in existential crisis.

As for New Jersey, it is the one team I punted on completely. I wrote that “I don’t think there’s a team in the league that’s harder to forecast than the Devils,” and gave them a best-case scenario of the Stanley Cup and a worst-case scenario of last overall. They’ve been much closer to that latter group so far, but I don’t think I’m any closer to figuring them out.

Teams I was maybe wrong about: Edmonton Oilers, Philadelphia Flyers

I probably should have just grouped these two into the “Last-Place Teams Who’ll Have New Coaches and Always Have Bad Goaltending and Will Both Be Writing Checks to Ilya Bryzgalov” Division. Is that too wordy?

Of the two, at least the Flyers still have some reason for optimism. Philadelphia has been better lately, and with an easy-looking schedule over the next few weeks, the Flyers could climb all the way back into the Metro playoff hunt. And Claude Giroux and the rest of the Philadelphia offense have to wake up eventually, right?12

Edmonton, on the other hand, is already done. Bryzgalov, who had his first Oilers practice Monday, will provide entertaining sound bites, but unless he’s also ready to break out a late ’90s Dominik Hasek impression, it won’t be enough. The Oilers will be picking toward the top of next year’s draft yet again. Unless they don’t, because they’re now talking about trading away their first-round pick. But hey, Edmonton did just win a game 7-0, so maybe this is the start of the big turnaround, right?13

Team I was super-wrong about: Anaheim Ducks

I pointed out that Anaheim had finished third overall in 2012-13 and was returning most of the same roster. Then I called it a “borderline playoff team” and made regression-to-the-mean jokes. Oops.

So far this season, the Ducks have actually been slightly better than they were last year. They’re leading the Pacific Division and are in first place overall, ranking ahead of every team from my surefire-contender group.

And yet … I’m still not completely sold. The Ducks sit near the top of the league in both PDO and Fenwick percentage, which is the advanced stats’ way of telling us that they’ve been both lucky and good. That sounds about right. I still think they’ll regress, and in the ultra-tough West, it’s possible that even a small step back puts them into “borderline playoff team” territory. But for now, at least, they’re making me look bad.

Quote that makes me look smart: On the Senators: “This doesn’t feel like such a sure thing anymore, does it?”

Quote I would like to have back: On the Oilers: “Is there any reason to think it will be any different this year? At the risk of getting suckered in yet again, yes.”

Bonus quote I would like to have back: On Toronto’s worst-case scenario: “Martial law is declared. The city burns to the ground,” only because we seem to be days away from that actually happening.

Three predictions for the rest of the way: The Canucks make the playoffs. The Flyers almost do, too, but just miss. Anaheim sails past the 100-point mark, then loses in the first round again.

Filed Under: NHL, Sports, Hockey, sean mcindoe

Sean McIndoe ’s work can be found at Down Goes Brown. When he's not writing, he makes hockey jokes on Twitter at @downgoesbrown.

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