Random Thoughts on the NHL – Mid-March 2018
Close Race for Richard, Art Ross Trophies. With over two weeks remaining in this season, there’s no runaway contender for the goal scoring and points crowns.
As of March 17, Tampa Bay Lightning winger Nikita Kucherov (91 points) remained the points leader, sitting atop the board since late-November. However, he’s now being challenged by Pittsburgh Penguins center Evgeni Malkin and Edmonton Oilers captain Connor McDavid (89 points apiece), with Colorado Avalanche center Nathan MacKinnon (86 points) close behind.
The race for the goal-scoring crown is even closer. Washington Capitals left wing Alex Ovechkin leads the field with 42 goals, but Winnipeg Jets sophomore winger Patrik Laine (41 goals) and Malkin (40) are in position to potentially overtake the Capitals’ captain.
Rinne for the Vezina. During the first half of this season, Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy seemed the clear-cut favorite to take home the Vezina Trophy as the NHL’s top goaltender. However, it appears increasingly likely that honor will go to long-time Nashville Predators starter Pekka Rinne.
Rinne is a three-time finalist (2011, 2012 and 2015) for the Vezina Trophy. He battled complications from hip surgery in 2013 and 2014 and overcame an inconsistent 2016-17 campaign to backstop the Predators’ run to the 2017 Stanley Cup Final.
With Rinne at the top of his game, the Predators overtook the Lightning for first overall in the league standings. They’re also the first club this season to clinch a postseason berth.
Vasilevskiy leads all NHL goaltenders in wins (40) and is tied with Rinne for most shutouts with seven. However, the 35-year-old Predators netminder is just one victory shy of Vasilevskiy and leads all starters in goals-against average (2.25) and save percentage (.929). Those numbers are superior to Vasilevskiy’s 2.53 GAA and .922 SP. If Rinne can maintain his lead in those categories, the Vezina will be his.
Lightning in trouble? Speaking of Vasilevskiy, his recent struggles adjusting to his first full season as an NHL starter is just one troubling aspect of late for the Lightning.
At first glance, the Bolts seem to be doing fine, winning seven of their last 10 games. But after dominating the standings for most of this season, the Nashville Predators passed them last week in the overall standings while the Boston Bruins are challenging them for first in the Eastern Conference.
Four of the Lightning’s five victories entering this week required overtime or shootouts to resolve. They were recently humbled 7-4 by the lowly Ottawa Senators and blanked 3-0 by a Bruins lineup missing Zdeno Chara and Jake DeBrusk.
Vasilevskiy’s recent difficulties also explain why the Lightning slid out of the top-ten in goals-against per game average, sitting 11th at 2.80. Meanwhile, their faceoff-win percentage (47.8) is the league’s third worst and their penalty kill (76.3) is sixth-worst.
Granted, it’s late in the season and the Lightning are assured of a playoff spot and home-ice advantage. With little to play for other than the Presidents’ Trophy for the best regular-season record, perhaps the Bolts are having a little difficulty getting up for these meaningless final games of the schedule.
The Lightning remain a very deep, powerful club and are among the favorites to win the Stanley Cup this spring. However, they’ll need a better effort between the pipes, in the face off circle and on the penalty kill in the postseason to win their first championship since 2004.
Time running out for Garth Snow? The long-time general manager of the New York Islanders has retained his job through 12 seasons. During his tenure, they missed the playoffs seven times and advanced past the opening round only once. He’s survived an ownership change and several questionable roster and coaching moves.
But with the Isles all but certain to miss the postseason for the eighth time under Snow’s management, one has to wonder if he might be on thin ice.
The key to Snow’s future with the Islanders could be convincing team captain and franchise player John Tavares to re-sign a lucrative long-term deal. Tavares is slated to become an unrestricted free agent on July 1.
Money probably won’t be an issue as Isles ownership will likely open the vault to keep Tavares in the fold. Selling him on the club’s future, however, could be a significant sticking point. Snow must convince Tavares the team is building toward championship contender status. So far, there’s little indication they’re trending that way.
If Tavares re-signs, Snow’s job is probably safe for at least another year. But if the long-time Islanders star decides his future lies elsewhere, Snow could be out of a job this summer.
New Playoff Format Coming? Last week, The Athletic’s Pierre LeBrun canvassed 29 general managers regarding a possible change in the current playoff format to accommodate more teams. Twenty of them believe it’s worthy of consideration.
LeBrun reported the topic isn’t likely to come up during the upcoming meeting of NHL general managers. He also said league commissioner Gary Bettman was cool to the idea. But with the NHL poised to welcome its 32nd franchise by 2020-21, it’s only a matter of time until the league adopts a new format for the first time since the early-1980s.
It’s difficult to say what changes to the current 16-team playoff system the league might eventually embrace. Perhaps it’ll be a 20-team format that opens with a best-of-three or single-elimination games involving the lower seeds, followed by best-of-seven rounds involving the remaining clubs.
The opportunity for teams to make extra playoff revenue will likely prove too tempting to pass up. Don’t be surprised if we see an expanded format within five years.
Dubie-Dubie-Do. Minnesota Wild goaltender Devan Dubnyk picked up his 200th career win on Saturday. Since being acquired by the Wild in January 2015, he’s backstopped them to four straight playoff appearances and has them on the verge of another this season.
Meanwhile, two of his former teams, the Edmonton Oilers and Arizona Coyotes, have just one playoff appearance between them over the same period.
Food for thought.