(Hello, this is a feature that will run through the entire season and aims to recap the weekend’s events and boils those events down to one admittedly superficial fact or stupid opinion about each team. Feel free to complain about it.)
The quality of the hockey in these playoffs has been good. Mostly.
The quality of the teams in these playoffs, at least those still standing, kind of isn’t.
In terms of teams that were dominant on a level commensurate with some of the best Stanley Cup winners in recent memory, only two seemed to really be in the conversation. It seemed that Pittsburgh and Washington had the best top-to-bottom lineups and talent at every position to really have been competitive with, say, the 2012 Kings or 2011 Bruins. They didn’t finish especially high in the rankings in unadjusted expected goals percentage (Washington 13th, Pittsburgh sixth) but many of the teams ahead of them — Boston, Minnesota, Los Angeles — had obvious fatal flaws that precluded their legitimacy as true top teams.
So problem No. 1 for the NHL in this postseason, as has been discussed at length, is that the two teams in the League you could see as obviously being elite played each other in the second round and somehow the one with all the injuries advanced.
At this point, teams Nos. 5, 7, and 8 in xGF% are still alive, and through its surfeit of inexplicably favorable draws, 20th-ranked Ottawa lingers as well. This generally tells you that expected goals remains a strong predictor of postseason success.
But the fact that one of the top eight teams in this stat either didn’t make the playoffs at all and four more got bounced in the first round tells you a lot about how narrow the gap between elite and not-elite has grown, just over the past few years.
To be elite you have to be both good procedurally and have top-end players. A lot of teams have one or the other, few have both. How today’s Penguins — even at full health — would stack up against, say, that first Chicago dynasty team, with its galaxy of future All-Stars (seriously, look at this roster!) is “unfavorably.”
It’s tough to say this, but whoever wins the Cup this year will probably be the weakest team to do so since Carolina in 2006. And that’s because of how little the salary cap has grown in recent years, and how much the league pushes Capital-P Parity above all other considerations.
How many top teams have been forced to sell off talent in recent years simply because cap flexibility runs away from you when you win Presidents’ Trophies, Stanley Cups, and more than a few individual awards? How much will that continue this year with Washington and (probably) Pittsburgh? It keeps happening for Chicago, even without their previous status as a top team.
What truly separates today’s best teams from the ones that came before them is the fact that they’re just not as good. The best xGF% team left in these playoffs is Anaheim, not a team anyone would really be too impressed with; fair to say they benefited from a pretty weak division. The Ducks’ regular season xGF% ranked 51st since 2007-08, which is not ideal.
One of things you knew about hockey on any given night was that games were effectively a coin flip. Play a game between the best and worst teams in the league, and there’s probably only about a 60 percent chance the best teams wins. Maybe a little smaller than that, even, depending on where the game was played.
That’s the League’s beloved parity at work: There just aren’t the kind of incredibly fun super-teams that run riot over the entire NHL from October to April and everyone comes to hate them and want them to lose. And then a decent amount of the time, they would. Everyone loved that. These were true upsets. Now the No. 8 seed sweeps the No. 1 seed, and a good amount of people league-wide are like, “Well, yeah, that’s not surprising, really.” Nashville was significantly better than Chicago, process-wise, and the only thing to cast doubt on their superiority was the quality and reliability of Pekka Rinne’s goaltending. He was beyond great, Corey Crawford was bad, and here we are.
Meanwhile, Ottawa “upset” Boston, with its mostly AHL D corps, and New York, with its mostly AHL D corps, but they weren’t really upsets in the grand scheme of things. Pittsburgh beating Washington? Barely an upset, and even then really just because of the injury circumstances. Anaheim knocking off Calgary and Edmonton?
Honestly, no one on Earth had any right to feign surprise.
No one wants this to become the NBA, where the Eastern Conference Final is a bloodbath and the Warriors are averaging 123 points a game in the Western Conference Final. The entire season has been prelude to a clash of the titans, but it springs from an opposite problem to what the NHL faces with its forced parity. There, the salary cap has risen so quickly that clubs can put together a handful of All-Stars for their starting five and let them go. The Cavs’ worst starter was the No. 4 pick in 2011.
Of course, the NBA is better and more fun than it ever has been on a night-in, night-out basis. Yeah, the Cavs and Warriors were teams of destiny, and the NBA Finals are going to be appointment television in the way that even two fun teams like Pittsburgh and Nashville wouldn’t be. Or, god forbid, Ottawa/Anaheim.
The NHL, it is constantly acknowledged, is arguably as bad as it has ever been, and very unentertaining most nights. I’ll put the absolute worst of the late-90s/early-2000s slogfests against a standard Colorado vs. Arizona game and tell me how today’s version of the sport is appreciably better.
The only reasonable answer is, “They don’t have the red line any more.” And even then, the NHL has considered bringing back some version of the two-line pass. It’s amazing, really.
What the NHL wants, at the end of the day, is a league in which literally every game is as close to a 50/50 coinflip as possible. Fans don’t want this; they don’t want the best team in the league maxing out at like 108 points, but if the cap remains relatively flat from one year to the next, that’s what’s going to happen. Not next year or the year after, but soon enough.
It’s no coincidence that we’re only a handful of years removed from the first No. 8 seed to win the Stanley Cup, and are now looking at the possibility (continually waning though it may be) of the Nos. 12 and 16 playing for the title. Of course, the league would likely argue that by doing what they have, teams like the Predators and Ducks and even Senators — small-market teams, mostly on a budget — have a better chance to get ahead.
But we’ve spent most of the playoffs bemoaning various issues with the process, the teams, and so on, and that’s all because the NHL values every team having a half-decent shot at getting deep into the playoffs.
And if it feels like the NHL is lacking something these days, that’s because it is. No great teams means far less intrigue.
These are good teams (well, not Ottawa really) but it feels like the definition of what constitutes a “good team” is greatly diminished. In the long run, I’m not sure who that helps.
What We Learned
Anaheim Ducks: This whole “I didn’t know it was a homophobic slur” thing is a load of crap. So is his dumbass “I’m sorry you were offended” non-apology. Just another reason to not-like the Ducks.
Arizona Coyotes: Another coincidence that the most qualified guy for a front office job was an NHL player who once played for that franchise. Crazy!
Florida Panthers: How many recent Panthers season could this headline refer to?
New Jersey Devils: I mean technically there’s a real chance Ilya Kovalchuk finishes the season on the Devils too, or also that he explodes at center ice in Game 36. All things are possible in the omniverse.
St. Louis Blues: Was there any question about this? I feel like there really shouldn’t be, right? So why bring it up? Hmm…
Tampa Bay Lightning: This is basically the gritted teeth “ehhhhh” emoji in headline form.
Toronto Maple Leafs: Finally, the Leafs are getting a talented young player on an ELC. Finally!!!
Vegas Golden Knights: This is the stuff I like to see! Get everyone playing hockey.
Play of the Weekend
That’s a good First Career Playoff Goal.
Gold Star Award
Pekka Rinne keeps doing it. He’s up to .942 for the playoffs. I’m amazed.
Minus of the Weekend
Ryan Getzlaf is either dumb or super-disingenuous and neither one of those things are good. But the NHL not-suspending him for a game? That’s even worse.
Perfect HFBoards Trade Proposal of the Year
User “PuckSeparator” is trying to make up for the Erat trade.
Alex Ovechkin for Filip Forsberg
Hey, he looks just like you, poindexter!
(All stats via Corsica unless otherwise noted.)