It is now approximately halfway through the current season and the second quarter of this year was much different from the second quarter of last year which was characterized by long double digit winning streaks by a few teams. Nobody has had a double digit winning streak this year though the amazing Las Vegas Golden Knights have come the closest so far. Here is a summary of those who won and lost during the second part of the season.
New York Islanders
Actually it should be the Knights but the Islanders ended over 30 years of frustration when New York State agreed that a proper, new arena which will seat over 18,000 will finally be built for them. The Islanders are currently in a slump and out of the playoffs but thanks to this news, they could lose every remaining game and still be the biggest winner of the year except for Las Vegas and whoever wins the Stanley Cup. Getting a new arena means that the Islanders ownership and management can at last concentrate on building a true, contending team, starting with the resigning of John Tavares. It also means that the would-be returned Hartford Whalers will have to find either a new potential expansion franchise owner or get another NHL team to consider relocating.
Las Vegas Golden Knights
That the expansion Knights can actually win a playoff spot is a true miracle. That they can actually win the whole Western Conference and be a true Stanley Cup contender might be described as a miracle of miracles. This team had one of the longest winning streaks in the whole NHL during the second part of the season and have yet to have a slump. Do the new Las Vegas fans think this is normal? Their current season and fast development will be the model for every new future NHL expansion team.
Nobody expected the Jets to be this good. Unless they go into a horrendous slump, it’s likely they will make the playoffs and be regarded as a legitimate contender for the Stanley Cup. They have been winning, lost one of their best players, Mark Scheifele and are still winning. But if they make the playoffs, all the improvements that most of the other top contenders have made will make it tough to take the next step.
The Bruins had not done anything noteworthy during the first part of the season largely because the hadn’t played many games. But during the second part of the season they have blossomed and now have a comfortable playoff position. Like the Jets, unless a horrendous slump occurs, expect to see Boston, now regarded as a legitimate Stanley Cup contender back in the playoffs.
New Jersey Devils
Unlike last year, the Devils have not gone into decline after a good first quarter. They are still holding on to a playoff position and top pick Nico Hischier has been everything they had wanted. Their playoff position is precarious but at least they are showing some staying power which they did not have last season.
St. Louis Blues
The Blues are still responding to Mike Yeo’s coaching and have a real shot at winning not only their division but the entire Western Conference. If they make the playoffs, have they improved enough to not only win a playoff round but get over two humps and make it all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals, something they have not done since being coached by Scotty Bowman in the 1960s?
Tampa Bay Lightning
They have been the best team in the NHL for the entire year. One big question mark, their goaltending looks solid. But the other big question is can this team stay healthy for once? As was shown last year, this true playoff contender can be undone if certain players get injured.
The Stanley Cup runners up of last year actually got better when they got Kyle Turris from Ottawa through Colorado and he has been making a significant contribution since he arrived. Is Turris enough to finally take them all the way? They will have tougher competition in the playoffs this year so their new asset is certainly needed.
Los Angeles Kings
Are they finally back? Have they finally found the chemistry again that won two Stanley Cups during the past decade? They are in position to win not only their division but their conference. If they are indeed back to what they once were, they could be the team to beat in the Western Conference this year.
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman
Boy did he ever get a good second quarter. In fact it is possible to say that he got a better second quarter than the Islanders and the Knights. He was in trouble when he set a $500 million expansion fee and only fanatical Las Vegas and Quebec agreed to pay it. To make matters worse, Quebec’s bidder was unacceptable and only Las Vegas was considered good enough to join the NHL, leaving the league with 31 teams, one short of being able to realign into a more comfortable NFL structure (still unannounced). It seemed that if the NHL were to expand again in the immediate future, Bettman would have to refund some of the expansion money back to Las Vegas owner, Bill Foley and set a lower, more realist expansion fee that the investment world would accept.
Then Jerry Bruckheimer and David Bonderman of Seattle appeared and actually set a new $650 million expansion fee record. The Seattle “approval process” is now a mere formality. And then there was Tilman Fertitta of Houston who said he would like see an NHL team in his arena which will mean another NHL expansion fee of at least $650 million if not higher. That’s probably an unannounced “done deal”. And finally the New York Islander 30 year arena problem got solved. That’s not like getting icing on the cake, that’s like getting three large iced cakes for your birthday. The two main problems left are Quebec and Phoenix.
Question: When did the Ottawa Senators go into the tank?
Answer: When they got Matt Duchene from Colorado.
How would you like to be the answer to that question? Not even P. K. Subban of Nashville, who at this time of year, last year was playing with a bag over his head because his old team, the Montreal Canadiens, were leading the Eastern Conference while the Predators were struggling to get the last playoff position, was in this kind of trouble. Ottawa traded for him because he was supposed to have the talent of number ones like Crosby, McDavid, Toews, Laine, Matthews, etc. He was supposed to be a step up from Kyle Turris who was let go to Nashville. Now after being in the shadow of Nathan McKinnon of Colorado, he was being given his own NHL team to lead. Instead of moving upward, the Senators are now out of playoff contention with almost no chance of turning things around and Duchene has contributed almost nothing. The vital team chemistry is gone and somehow Duchene is a big part of it. No one can explain why. This subject probably merits a full article.
Dishonorable Runners Up
At the start of the second quarter, they still had a chance of making the playoffs, but instead of going upwards in the second quarter, they plunged down toward the depths of the Arizona Coyotes. Last year, owner Terry Pegula got impatient with the Sabres when he saw the progress that teams like Toronto, Winnipeg, and Edmonton were making and fired his coach and general manager. But “cleaning house” only made things worse and the Sabres are left vying with the Coyotes for the number one draft pick.
They played better than they did in the first quarter but remain the most horrible team in the NHL. Actually the only interesting thing about the Arizona Coyotes is if there is going to be an Arizona Coyotes at the end of next season. The horrendous play of this season will ensure that there will be no public money coming to build a new downtown Phoenix arena for a franchise that has iced only one contending team in its entire history. Even the NBA Phoenix Suns publicly insulted the Coyotes by refusing to be partners to build a new arena. I’ve advanced the idea that the best solution will be to add two more Western Conference expansion teams besides Seattle and then shift the Coyotes with its current ownership to Quebec to get rid of the unsuitable Pierre Karl Peladeau. A new Houston expansion team would be part of the process. Whether the Coyotes get the number one pick is irrelevant. The existence of the team is now the main factor.
This is just a continuation of the Duchene problem that seems to be at the heart of the issue as to why the Senators are so bad. Is it coach Guy Boucher’s fault? But he had the Senators in playoff contention before Duchene came and Ottawa was Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburgh’s toughest playoff opponent last year. Is it General Manager Pierre Dorion’s fault? But he was not the only general manager to believe that Duchene was a number one talent. It also hurts him to know that the Nashville Predators are getting significant contributions from the traded Kyle Turris while he gets almost nothing from Duchene. He is probably in shock just like everybody else. Everything points to Duchene. It is not a happy place to be in.
They actually played respectable hockey during the second quarter but nothing, short of making the playoffs can cover up the bonehead decision of getting rid of coach Gerard Gallant even though he had a winning record with the Panthers last season when he became the first NHL coach to be fired. Every time the Las Vegas Knights win, it is a blow to the Deathwish Panthers who like the Coyotes have a horrible history, seldom making the playoffs. And if Las Vegas is the model of how a desert team should be run for the Arizona Coyotes, the Tampa Bay Lightning are the model of how a Florida team should be run for the Florida Panthers. The success of both Tampa Bay and Las Vegas only emphasizes how badly these two losing franchises have operated.
Both the Canadiens and the New York Rangers started out with horrible records, but while the Rangers recovered and have a chance to make the playoffs, the Canadiens are virtually out of the picture. They needed to start moving upward during the second quarter but have at best been just wheel spinning. They lost two veteran defencemen during the off season, goaltender Carey Price is a good international goaltender when he plays for team Canada, but is a suspect NHL playoff goaltender, and General Manager Marc Bergevin guessed wrong about P. K. Subban.
The Bubble Burst
Detroit Red Wings And Vancouver Canucks
At the start of the second quarter, both these teams which had been playing well had a chance to make the playoffs. But during the second quarter, reality caught up with them. Neither of these teams which had been Stanley Champions or contenders for so long have the talent any more to contend and now need top draft choices to rebuild. Most of Detroit’s old stars have retired and the Sedins of Vancouver are in their declining years. At least they have a legitimate excuse for why they out of contention, not like the teams listed above.
When Are You Going To Wake Up?
Mysteriously, the two time defending champion Penguins have been playing stumblebum hockey. The playoffs are certainly attainable but Pittsburgh needs to start putting together some of the long winning streaks that have characterized the past two seasons. It is too early to panic but some of the teams above them are starting to pull away and some teams from below are starting to challenge them. Maybe it is time to get a little uneasy.
If it is not time to panic for Pittsburgh, it almost is for Edmonton. They played well during the second quarter but not well enough to make up for their bad first quarter. And what I warned about in my first quarter report is starting to happen. At least seven Western Conference teams pulled away and cannot be caught up to and two others are poised to become that way. Only the last playoff spot is now available to them and that is now fast flickering away. They need long winning streaks during the next quarter to have any chance to make playoffs.
We’ve Seen It Before
Yes, the Capitals had their usual long regular season winning streak and now have a chance to win their usual President’s Trophy. And yes, Alexander Ovechkin has his usual pretty individual statistics. But nobody should pay attention to what the Capitals do during the regular season. In the Marcel Dionne (whoops!) Ovechkin era, the Capitals have never even made the Eastern Conference Final. So now (yawn) that they have had another great second quarter, it means almost nothing. In fact the best thing that they may have going for them is that Pittsburgh is currently out of a playoff spot leaving the door open for the Capitals to finally get to at least the Eastern Conference Final.
The western playoff wheel spinner Minnesota Wild played well too during this quarter and now precariously have the last playoff spot. But as long as ex-coach Mike Yeo is coaching the Blues who humiliated the Wild and General Manager Chuck Fletcher with an easy playoff victory last year, it is not enough to just make the playoffs, but to go deep into the playoff picture, especially surpassing Yeo’s Blues. Every year the Washington Wild and the Minnesota Capitals play for the wheel spinning Stanley Cup. Will that ever change?