A shift in the Western Conference
The last handful of years or so, there was one thing you could be sure of in the NHL's Western Conference: While one or two teams might pull ahead of the pack, there would be a whole lot more dogpiled in the middle, fighting it out for anything from home-ice advantage to mid-April tee times.
This season, at least as we approach the 20-game mark, the standings look a little different.
What we've got instead is six teams all playing at a 70-per-cent points percentage clip, clubs that, barring something monumental, are going to easily slide into the playoffs. This group is made up of Anaheim, Dallas, San Jose (all three of whom have 16 games apiece to beat up on Los Angeles and Phoenix), Detroit, Nashville and Minnesota.
Further down the line, the Northwest Division has a dogpile of mediocrity of its own, where four teams are all in the 50-per-cent range and on pace for point totals in the low 80s — a mark that shouldn't get you in the playoffs, but under these circumstances just might.
And, finally, in the basement, we've got five teams who are, for all intents and purposes, awful. Even at this early date, I've got no problem in writing off Chicago, St. Louis, Los Angeles, Columbus and Phoenix — all of whom missed the playoffs last season and are almost certainly going to again. (The Coyotes, for example, will need a 42-24-0 record the rest of the way to have a hope, and not even Mrs. Gretzky's taking that bet.)
What are we left with? A 10-team playoff race?
And it's mighty early days yet.
Far be it from the grand resurrections many predicted under the league's new CBA, the garbage teams of a year ago are in File 13 again — at least in the West, where it's been strong defence and goaltending leading the way. The NHL's top seven teams in goals against so far are in the West, with Calgary joining the aforementioned Big 6 as one of the stingy group.
On the flipside, only two Western teams — Anaheim and San Jose — crack the top 12 in terms of goal scoring.
What does that mean? For one thing, if you want the high-flying, high-scoring NHL where anything can happen and anyone will win, tune into the East where even the top teams have seen 60+ goals end up in their net. That's where the playoff-race drama will come — and we're seeing evidence of it already with unlikely teams like Washington and Pittsburgh in postseason positions.
It's been a low-scoring, predictable, and almost humdrum season so far. Teams that were high-flying in the past — namely Vancouver, Colorado and Edmonton — have packed up the offence and are struggling to adjust.
Minnesota, meanwhile, look like the poster boys for the not-so-wild West, where the bad teams are horrid, the mediocre teams are boring and everyone else is trying to out goalie one another.
And so far, Manny Fernandez is a Hart Trophy candidate.