It’s been said that the good old hockey game is the best game you can name. I happen to share that opinion. This NHL season has contributed plenty to that argument. While there is a clear-cut favorite to win the Stanley Cup this year, there are still plenty of teams with a puncher’s chance of hoisting the trophy come June. There are also a slew of teams who already have their minds focused on the draft this summer where they hope to improve their chances of not sucking quite so bad next year. With the start of the playoffs roughly three weeks away, today I’ll be highlighting some of the good, the bad and the ugly of the 2018-2019 NHL season so far.
GOOD: The Tampa Bay Lightning
The Lightning are taking on the Arizona Coyotes tonight in a game that, if Tampa wins, would clinch the Presidents’ Trophy. If it does indeed happen tonight, they would lock up the league’s best record in their 73rd game. I’ve been digging to try and find a team that has clinched that distinction in fewer games (shortened seasons not included) and I have not been able to find one that’s done it sooner. I’m certainly no professional statistician, but all of this is to say that this Tampa team is really, REALLY good.
It feels like a championship is theirs to lose this season. It’s almost unfair that a team loaded with offensive talent the likes of Nikita Kucherov, Steven Stamkos and Brayden Point also has a defense corps that stacks up against most teams in the league. And if that weren’t enough, they may have the best goalie in the league as well in Andrei Vasilevskiy. There’s no team in the NHL this year that I would pick to beat the Bolts. But anything can happen in a seven-game series. That’s why they play the games, as they say. But if they don’t win it all this year, we can start making comparisons to all of those San Jose Sharks teams that were immensely talented, but never winners.
BAD: Connor McDavid deserves better than the Oilers
It’s no secret that the Edmonton Oilers have a generational talent on their hands. Connor McDavid recently eclipsed the 100-point mark for the third straight season. The only other active player to have accomplished that feat in three consecutive years was that Ovechkin guy. And McDavid is the first player to put up 100 points three times before age 23 since another dude you may have heard of named Crosby. In those seasons the Oilers have won exactly one playoff series, and that came in the only year out of the three that they even reached the postseason at all.
If you’re looking for a silver lining in Edmonton, good luck finding one. This year, they signed Mikko Koskinen, a 30-year-old goalie who is average at best to a three-year, $13.5 million deal after seeing him play all of 25 games for the team. The corpse of Milan Lucic is signed until 2023 and comes with a cap hit of $6 million per season. They finally cut loose GM Peter Chiarelli, but have yet to replace him. There’s talk that former Red Wings GM Ken Holland could be that guy. And hoo boy, if that’s what they end up doing, McDavid might just end up being the kind of player that you see frequently on the highlight reel, but never in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. And if that is how it plays out, that would be a real bummer for everyone who calls themselves a hockey fan, let alone an Oilers fan.
UGLY: The Bottom Dwellers
There are a number of teams at the bottom of the standings that have had what you could generously call ugly seasons this year. The Anaheim Ducks, believe it or not, were as high up as second place in the Pacific Division in mid-December before crashing like a meteor. Despite getting their act together to some degree, only the disastrous LA Kings have a worse record in the Western Conference as I write this.
My New Jersey Devils were a surprise playoff team last season anchored by MVP Taylor Hall. This year, it seems no player has been safe from the injury bug, least of all Hall himself. He has only been healthy enough to play 33 games for the Devs, and hasn’t played at all since a few days before Christmas. He had arthroscopic surgery on his left knee in February. The Devils lineup in recent weeks has more closely resembled an AHL squad, and the results have been predictable. They still play hard under the guidance of head coach John Hynes, who I still believe in whole-heartedly. But there’s only so much they can do with the hand that they’re currently playing.
The biggest slice of the ugly cake has to go to the Ottawa Senators. They currently sit rock bottom in the NHL standings, which is reason enough for Sens fans to recoil. But we’re talking about a season-long crapfest that really began in earnest with Ubergate. It may be true that the video from inside that car never should have been made public, but the image of Ottawa players openly mocking their own team set the tone for what would end up being nothing short of a dismantling of the Sens’ roster by the time the trade deadline came and went. After losing Erik Karlsson to San Jose in the offseason, the departures of Matt Duchene and Mark Stone were the coup de grace for a team that, let’s not forget, was an overtime goal away from the Stanley Cup Final just two years ago. If that’s not ugly, I don’t know what is.
Some Final Random Thoughts
- The Toronto Maple Leafs have been all-in this season after several acquisitions to bolster their roster, highlighted by the offseason addition of John Tavares. There’s no question the Leafs will be a formidable playoff opponent this season, despite their questionable play as of late. But let’s face it, they are going to get the Boston Bruins in the first round. And unless they can exorcise the demons of their recent history against the B’s, it is distinctly possible that this Toronto squad could find themselves on the golf course a lot sooner than anyone would have predicted last October.
- Elias Pettersson is a space alien. The 20-year-old Canucks rookie will likely score 30 goals this season, and many of them have been works of art. Seven of his goals this year have been game-winners. He scored in a shootout last week against the Devils with a move that Doc Emrick likely would have described as Forsberg-ian. It only seems fitting that a franchise that has spent the better part of the last two decades with the Sedin twins as their feature attraction has found another Swedish wunderkind to lead them into the future.
- There is a decent chance that we might finally see another Canadian team win the Stanley Cup for the first time since the 1993 Montreal Canadiens. I know I’ve already mentioned that the Lightning are the predominant favorites to take the grand prize this season. But if it’s not them, I’d be willing to roll the dice on either the Winnipeg Jets or the Calgary Flames. Those two teams are the two division leaders in the West, and both have all the pieces in place to make a deep run. In fact, if Jets-Flames ends up being the Western Conference Final, you can bet your ass every game in that series will be appointment television up here in moose country.
There are still three weeks left and some very tight races left to be decided. Division champions will be crowned. Wild card spots will be clinched. The final playoff spots may not be decided until Game 82. The Arizona Coyotes might even take one of those spots! It’s all building to the greatest postseason competition in sports: The Stanley Cup Playoffs. You can disagree with that assertion. But respectfully, you’d be wrong.