It all comes down to the Golden Knights, Stars, and Predators, plus a scoring rant and more

NHL scoring is up, as you’ve no doubt heard. We’re on pace to finish with the highest per-game scoring rate since 1995-96, and maybe even since 1993-94. This season will end up even higher than the fabled post-lockout 2005-06 season, the one that saw us all declare the end of the Dead Puck Era (only to almost immediately see scoring rates plummet again). Factor in having 32 teams, and there will be more goals this year than we’ve ever seen before.

This is a good thing.

You know I’m on board because I’ve been banging this drum for over a decade now. Offense is fun, offense is what sells, and the NHL’s 25-year-long failure to address the problem with anything more than minor tweaks and hope was a catastrophic failure of leadership. So yes, a higher scoring rate is a good thing. The Panthers scoring four goals a game is a good thing. More multi-goal comebacks is a good thing. Having several 100-point and 50-goal players and a 90-point defenseman are all good things. I’m not just on the bandwagon, I’ve been driving it for years. Welcome aboard.

The fascinating thing about this year’s increase is that nobody seems to be sure why it’s happening. I’ve seen multiple attempts to figure it out by smart people, including Travis Yost, Greg Wyshynski and our own Michael Russo. Nobody can quite nail it down, and it’s especially confusing because the league didn’t actually do anything to make this happen. Instead, we seem to be seeing several factors come together in just the right mix. We’ve got a generation of talented offensive players, combined with a step back from the league’s goalies, pushed along by COVID and a condensed schedule that’s meant more depth guys being forced into lineups. Maybe the slashing crackdown helped, or dialing down the netfront crosschecking. Maybe everyone has four lines that can contribute now. Maybe it’s all of these things. Nobody knows for sure, but we know that we like it.

Great. Now let’s keep going.

For all the back-patting over this year’s numbers, you’d be forgiven for thinking they’d taken a giant leap forward. Look at those headlines on those pieces up above. It’s an “explosion”, an “offensive renaissance”, a “boom” that’s seen the game “reinvented”. But is it? We’re talking about an average of a bit more than a tenth of a goal per game for each team compared to the last full season. That adds up to about eight goals per team, maybe ten, or a little less than two per month.

When you think of it that way, this doesn’t feel like that much of a seismic shift, especially compared to the 70s, 80s and early 90s, when scoring was still nearly a goal-per-game higher at its peak than it is right now. Compared to that era, we’re barely making baby steps. And yet it’s indisputably led to a more entertaining season. It’s been great. Have you heard anyone complaining about the extra offense this year, even those “I love a good 1-0 defensive battle” weirdos? I haven’t. If an extra goal every few weeks is this much fun, imagine what this league could be if we kept going.

The part that worries me is that “if”. When we don’t know what’s causing the numbers to go up, that means we can’t be sure they’ll stay there. Maybe we really are on the cusp of a new era. Or maybe this is just a weird outlier, when a few hot shooters and cold goalies and the existence of the Red Wings nudged up the numbers just enough to trick us into thinking we’d seen something real. We’ve been fooled before, after all.

So sure, celebrate the increase. Hope that it continues. But hope is not a plan, and hanging a “Mission Accomplished” banner yet again only to watch as 32 defense-first coaches grind away at the gains would be a disaster. Scoring is fun. Offense is fun. Watching guys hit milestones and reach big round numbers and chase records is super fun. But right now this all looks like a happy accident, so let’s treat it as the first step towards a new and long-overdue era, not a finish line.

Rant over, let’s head to this week’s power rankings…

Road to the Cup

The five teams with the best chances of becoming the first franchise in three years to win a Stanley Cup that we have to admit probably counts, or wait actually maybe not.

Yesterday marked the final game of Ryan Getzlaf’s career, and it’s been a ride. Here’s Eric Stephens on his legacy, as told by the people who knew him best.

5. Minnesota Wild (51-21-7, +54 true goals differential*) – Last night’s win keeps them in the driver’s seat for home ice against the Blues, so we’ll swap them into the five-hole that St. Louis held last week. Wait, am I just furiously rotating as many teams as possible into this spot late in the season to provide cover for any surprise Cup runs? No further questions.

4. Carolina Hurricanes (51-20-8, +70) – Last week’s update on Freddie Andersen was that we’d know more in a week, which would be today. It’s an even more urgent question after Antti Raanta left yesterday’s game. If either guy isn’t going to be healthy for the playoffs, I think you drop them down a spot or two, and if they’re both out then we have a crisis. Yes, maybe Pyotr Kochetkov goes all Cam Ward on us, but that’s a real roll of the dice. If you’re a Canes fan, it’s OK to be worried right now. There’s a chance this is all a false alarm. There’s also a chance they’re not in the final top five of the season next week.

(Oh yeah, they’ve got the Rangers tomorrow in the game that might decide the Metro. That could matter a lot, especially if Alex Ovechkin is out for any length of time after leaving last night’s game, but we don’t know where Washington will finish yet.)

3. Calgary Flames (49-20-10, +87) – If you missed it, Darryl Sutter on the death of Guy Lafleur was pretty great:

“I held Lafleur to three goals”… yep, some nights that was about the best you could do.

On the ice, the Flames have little to play for but probably put the final knife in the ribs of the Canucks’ playoff chances on Saturday, which had to be fun.

2. Florida Panthers (57-16-6, +101) – I’ll be honest, I went into Sunday thinking I’d nudge the Panthers up to top spot on the strength of 13 straight wins. Maybe I still should. But two things are stopping me. First, this tweet about the Panthers’ regulation record, which I’ll admit I hadn’t noticed and which could alter your perception based on the whole loser/bonus thing. But more importantly, they gave up eight to the Lightning last night, and I remain secretly terrified of those guys.

Yes, it was night two of a back-to-back, and the Panthers are already locked into the top seed. Still, this is the rival that knocked you out last year walking into your building right before the playoffs. After what Tampa did to Toronto a few nights earlier, they’re officially scary again. And if that’s the case, the Panthers’ path out of the Atlantic is scarier too.

1. Colorado Avalanche (55-18-6, +77) – Four straight losses, including one to the lowly Kraken, could be a sign of a team that’s going cold at the worst possible time. But let’s be honest, it’s far more likely a case of a team easing off the gas pedal because they know that being as healthy and rested as possible for the postseason matters more than the Presidents’ Trophy. No panic here, as long as they can show a pulse in the final week.

*Goals differential without counting shootout decisions like the NHL does for some reason.

Not ranked: Dallas Stars, Nashville Predators and Vegas Golden Knights All eyes on Tuesday.

We’re a week away from the start of the playoffs, but we get a preview tomorrow when the Knights are in Dallas to face the Stars in what will be the key game in the battle for the final Western playoff spots. Three teams, two spots, and one big head-to-head left. Let’s do this.

We went into the weekend with Vegas trailing, four back of the Predators and two behind the Stars, which still left the Golden Knights in “win and you’re in” territory if they beat Dallas in regulation. The question was whether the teams could hold serve. The Stars took care of their end of the bargain on Saturday, although it was dicey for a bit, coming back from down 2-0 to beat the Kraken. The Predators failed to put anyone away, with a regulation loss to Tampa and a last-second OT loss to Minnesota keeping them in check-the-rearview territory. But the big news was in Vegas, where the Knights collapsed and blew a late 4-2 lead to lose 5-4 in a shootout. They got a point, but they needed two, and there’s really no way to look at the result but as a disaster.

It’s been a fascinating stretch run for the Knights, a playoff sure thing all year long right up until they weren’t. They’ve been crushed by injuries and constrained by the cap, and a disastrous March road trip finally tipped them from favorites to fringe. This is a team built to win the Stanley Cup, but the standings say they don’t even deserve to get to try. The standings might be right.

This week brought an incredibly bizarre set of circumstances around goaltending, which we tried and mostly failed to figure out on the Thursday podcast. Pete DeBoer threw Robin Lehner under the bus, then threw him into the starter’s net against the Capitals, only to yank him after a single goal. Afterward, DeBoer assured us that it was a coach’s decision and that Lehner was healthy. The next day, reports said he wasn’t, leading to 48 hours of cloak and dagger over whether Lehner would still be on the team by Sunday. He didn’t show up for practice yesterday, but did dress as the backup. We’ll see where it goes from here. (Here’s Elliotte Friedman on what he thinks has been going on.)

It’s all the sort of thing that makes you wonder if DeBoer can keep his job even if the team squeezes into the final spot. If they don’t, well, the question might not be whether DeBoer gets fired but rather who gets to do it, because the changes might not just be behind the bench.

As for Dallas, they’re two years removed from a trip to the Cup final and one year removed from missing the playoffs, and nobody seems to be quite sure what to make of them. There’s a good chance that they end up as the only playoff team with a negative goals differential, and they’re going to finish with fewer regulation wins than the Islanders. You might not think they should be anywhere near the postseason, and the last week made them look like they’d agree with you. But if they win tomorrow, they’re pretty much in, especially with Arizona and Anaheim as their last two opponents. Nashville will be watching it all play out and dreading a three-point game, but they control their destiny and just need one more win to clinch (they hold the tie-breakers).

Maybe none of this matters, because the prize here for one team is a first-round matchup with the Avalanche, and Darryl Sutter already spoiled the ending on that one for us. Then again, weird stuff can happen once you get to the postseason. You just have to make it, and two of these teams will. We might not find out for sure tomorrow, but the picture’s going to be an awful lot clearer.

The bottom five

The five teams that are headed towards the best lottery odds and a shot at Shane Wright.

Important news for the teams below and any others that have featured prominently in this section over the course of the year: The NHL has announced that the draft lottery will be held on May 10. That’s two weeks from tomorrow, so prepare your superstitions and good luck charms accordingly.

5. Philadelphia Flyers (25-43-11, -76) – No big surprise here, but Pierre says that Mike Yeo is unlikely to be back as head coach. At this point it would be a shock if it went any other way, which makes the Flyers a very interesting job to watch. Remember, this is supposed to be “an aggressive retool”, not a rebuild, even if that feels like a delusion.

4. New Jersey Devils (27-44-8, -51) – Hey, we can all agree that this is weird, right?

Granted, one of those bad teams made a detour to the Stanley Cup final last year, so it’s not like nothing’s changed. But except for the Kings, not much has changed for the better, and with everyone eying Connor Bedard next year, there’s not a ton of incentive to get better quickly.

3. Seattle Kraken (26-46-6, -64) – A reminder that the Kraken and Jets will play a makeup game on Sunday, two days after everyone else in the league is done. It could determine Seattle’s lottery odds, but otherwise, it will be a meaningless game that both teams will probably sleep-walk through and nobody will watch. I don’t know, maybe they just wanted to play on a Sunday afternoon to make the new owner happy.

2. Arizona Coyotes (22-50-7, -107) – The Habs have caught them for dead last, and if they end up tied then it’s Montreal who’ll get the top lottery odds. I don’t think the Coyotes came this far down the tanking road just to fail at the end, but it’s no longer in their hands.

On the good side, we all love a rookie’s first goal, especially when the family is there to react:

1. Montreal Canadiens (20-49-11, -108) – The big news this week was the loss of the legendary Guy Lafleur, one of the few players who had both the skills and the swagger of a true iconic superstar. Words can’t do him justice, although last night’s ceremony came close…

On the ice, Carey Price hasn’t looked great, but the key thing is that he’s back. With nine straight losses, all in regulation, the Habs look like they’ve tapped out on the season. Will that hurt the odds of Martin St. Louis keeping the coaching job? Pierre doesn’t think so.

Not ranked: Columbus Blue Jackets Heading into the season, a lot of us figured the Blue Jackets would be one of the league’s worst teams, and maybe in the running to be the very worst. They had a new coach, had just traded Seth Jones, and seemed to be staring down a rebuild. I ranked them as a bottom-dweller in my season preview, and even had them in the bottom five back in week one despite a 2-0-0 start. There was a plan in Columbus, and that plan seemed to involve being bad.

The plan didn’t work out, and that’s a good thing. Or is it? I’m not quite sure what to make of the Blue Jackets as they head down the stretch.

They didn’t finish last or come especially close. The big disaster in the Metro was the Flyers, and the Devils are right there with them, and teams like the Coyotes, Habs and Kraken finished miles behind Columbus. The Blue Jackets have a shot at finishing fake .500, and will end up clear of the bottom ten.

That’s good, mostly. It’s a reflection of solid work by Brad Larsen, who looks like he was the right choice to clean up after John Tortorella. Patrik Laine looked like a star again, at least at times, and while Zach Werenski will probably never live up to his “please stay we’re begging you” contract, he looks like he could come close enough that it won’t be a disaster. Every now and then, they can beat a team like the Oilers, like they did yesterday. There were definitely some positives here.

If you’re in the camp that says that you are what your record says you are, then that’s all you need. But dig a little deeper, and you start to wonder. The underlying numbers are pretty awful in Columbus, putting them in the mix with teams like Montreal and Buffalo for the crown of worst team that isn’t the Coyotes. The goaltending wasn’t great when it was Elvis Merzlikins and downright awful when it was Joonas Korpisalo. They compensated for that by shooting 10.4% as a team, and maybe that’s sustainable, but this sure doesn’t seem like an elite shooting team.

What does it all add up to? Aaron goes into some detail here, but I think there’s two ways you could go with this team. The first is that this is a rebuild, or at least a reload, and their record shows that they’re on the right track because they’re already overachieving expectations. That’s the positive view, and it’s a tempting one because wins are wins and that’s what we’re told teams are supposed to be aiming for. The counter to that is that maybe this team really is bad, even very bad, and they lucked their way into a better record than they deserved, which doesn’t earn you anything aside from lousy lottery odds and some dangerous false confidence heading into the offseason.

The cynic in me leans towards door number two, but I’m not sure. Blue Jackets fans, where are you at with how the season has turned out?

(Photo of Jonathan Marchessault: Derek Leung / Getty Images)


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