Look, it’s still December, so the Bruins would be getting ahead of themselves if they’re already thinking about playoff seeding.
Let’s look ahead a little bit for them, then: with the way things are looking in the Atlantic Division, it seems like the Tampa Bay Lightning might be untouchable on the top, but then the second seed may very well come down to Boston or their buddies, the Toronto Maple Leafs.
(That’s not to discount everyone else, particularly not their best buddies in the Montreal Canadiens.)
With that in mind, a round of home-ice advantage isn’t an outrageous goal for the Bruins to shoot for. At minimum, they’re putting themselves in a good position to gain a playoff spot without sweating things into the end of the regular season, so nights like these could help.
Also helpful: a backup goalie who’s playing more like a 1A/1B, as Anton Khudobin continued his solid play with a 36-save shutout of the Buffalo Sabres, as the Bruins won 3-0.
That margin of victory was far smaller than the scoreboard would indicate, as Boston tacked on two empty-net goals at the end. Instead, Jake DeBrusk‘s Gatorade-launching, fantastic snipe was the only goal of the game where a netminder was actually in place.
Impressive. Also impressive: the Bruins lately, as they’re 5-1-1 in their last seven games. They’ve also been strong in a broader sense, as they’re now 17-10-5; consider how much dimmer things looked for the B’s on Nov. 15, when they fell to 6-7-4.
Again, the Bruins have a shot at surpassing the Maple Leafs, at least eventually. Here’s where the Atlantic’s second and third seeds stand after each squad won on Tuesday:
Maple Leafs: 21-13-1, 43 points in 35 games
Bruins: 17-10-5, 39 points in 32 games
Yes, Toronto has a four-point lead against Boston, but the Bruins hold three games in hand. As this post notes, the Maple Leafs face a harsh end to December, so it’s possible that the gap could really narrow as 2018 rapidly approaches.
From the Sabres’ perspective, this was a solid all-around effort, as the Bruins rarely got anything easily (aside from a near-own-goal, as Zach Bogosian has to feel pleased to avoid the wrath of Robin Lehner, narrowly). Still, they fell short once again, adding frustration to a consistently frustrating 2017-18 campaign.
For what seems to be the fourth or fifth year in a row the Carolina Hurricanes entered the 2017-18 season as a popular pick to jump back into the playoff picture, finally taking that long awaited big step forward in their rebuild.
It is not hard to understand why there has been so much excitement about this team in recent seasons.
In terms of their play they seem to pass the eye test by playing everyone close (they have already lost nine one goal games this season, including six in overtime or a shootout — they have only won three such games) and giving everyone fits.
Their analytics consistently rate them among the best in the NHL.
Defensively, they have been one of the four or five best teams in the league at suppressing shots against despite having one of the youngest blue lines in the league. They are consistently among the best possession teams in the league, finishing near the top of the league in shot attempt metrics.
But the results in the standings have not been there. At all. They have made the playoffs just once in the past 12 years, and in their most recent seasons have seemingly hit a glass ceiling that caps them in the mid-80s for points.
In 2014-15 they finished with 71 points in the standings even though they were third in the league in shots against and ninth in attempts percentage.
In 2015-16 it was 86 points despite finishing fifth and 11th respectively.
Last season? 87 points. Where they did they finish in those two shot based categories? Fifth (shots against) and sixth (shot attempts percentage).
You can probably guess what is happening in Carolina this season. Through their first 29 games the Hurricanes are allowing 29.5 shots on goal against per game, the third lowest total in the league. They are attempting more than 54 percent of the shot attempts in their games, the highest mark in the NHL.
Their current point pace for the season? It is just 84.9.
New year, same story. A promising young team that seems to be doing everything right but is destined to finish somewhere in the middle of the league, just on the outside of the Eastern Conference playoff picture.
The frustrating thing about this from a Hurricanes perspective is that they should be better than this. Teams that play the way they do, limit shots the way they do, and control possession the way they do not only tend to make the playoffs, they tend to do very well once they get there.
Since the start of the 2013-14 season there have been 29 teams that have finished the regular season allowing less than 29 shots on goal per game and finishing with a shot attempts percentage higher than 51 percent.
Those 29 teams finished with an average of 100 points in the standings. Twenty-two made the playoffs. Twelve won at least one series once they got there. Six advanced to the Conference Finals. Three reached the Stanley Cup Final.
Here are the seven teams that fit that criteria over that stretch and missed the playoffs.
You might notice a common name or two.
So, basically, the Hurricanes and Kings are the two biggest statistical outliers in the league over the past five years.
But at least the Kings’ formula has proven to be successful at one point or another with a lot of playoff appearances in between — they seem destined to return this season — and two Stanley Cup titles.
But the Hurricanes. Geez. The Hurricanes. Three times playing at a level that is on par with a contender and missing the playoffs every time. It seems at least possible, if not likely, that it will happen again this season.
So what in the world is happening here?
The most common target for blame has been their inability to find any sort of stability in net. To be fair, it has been a huge problem.
Since the start of the 2013-14 season the Hurricanes have finished 18th, 28th, 29th and 26th in the league in team save percentage. So far this season they are 25th. Probably the biggest reason they do not finish lower in terms of goals against is the fact they do such a great job limiting shots against. It has not been any one goalie that has been the culprit because they have tried several different options, whether it be long-time starter Cam Ward, or any of the many recent successful backups they have tried to acquire to take over the starting job, ranging from Anton Khudobin, to Eddie Lack, to their recent attempt with Darling.
It is obviously far too early to write Darling off, but with a .902 save percentage in his first 20 appearances it is not exactly an encouraging start.
But for all of the issues they have had in goal, there is another one that seems to quietly slide under the radar: For all of their dominant possession numbers, and for all of the shots they are able to register for themselves … they don’t really score a lot, either.
So far this season the Hurricanes are 25th in the league in goals per game, and have consistently been in the bottom-10 over the aforementioned five-year stretch.
There is something to be said for the argument (recently put forward by Andrew Berkshire at the Sporting News) that as teams become more involved in analytics that stats like Corsi may not be as predictive as they once were. By now pretty much everyone in the league knows the value of keeping the puck, generating shots and preventing shots. It’s a lot harder to find an advantage there if everyone is in tune with that.
It could also be a matter of just overall talent and scoring ability.
I argued during the Stanley Cup Final that it was possible for the Pittsburgh Penguins to outperform their possession stats because their roster is made up of elite, high end talent. When you have Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel at the top of your lineup, not to mention Patric Hornqvist and Jake Guentzel as complementary players, you have the ability to strike fast. You don’t always need sustained pressure or a lot of shots to score. Those guys can strike at any moment and from anywhere on the ice. To a lesser extent that might also be true for a team like this year’s Winnipeg Jets, a team that doesn’t dominant territorially but has some of the top offensive players in the league.
The Hurricanes, for as good as their young talent is, especially on the blue line, do not really have that sort of talent.
Skinner is certainly on that level, and Aho could end up there, but that is pretty much it.
What they have is a lot of players that are great are driving possession but aren’t really game-breaking offensive players. Jordan Staal, their top forward in terms of ice-time, is a perfect example of this. Staal is a really good two-way player. He does a lot of things really well. He is a great defensive player, he can drive possession, he can play against other team’s top players. But he has never been a great playmaker. He has never been a player that will be a threat to score 35 or 40 goals.
Justin Williams has been a similar player for much of his career. Elias Lindholm and Victor Rask seem like they are trending in that same direction with their careers. Very good players. Players necessary for a winning team. But not players that can really break a game open offensively. That, too, is still a necessity.
All of this together makes the Hurricanes an incredibly frustrating team.
They have a lot of necessary ingredients. They seem to play the right way, and they can be pretty entertaining, too. But they seem to just always be a little bit short of being able to take that next step we keep anticipating.
A lot of things baffle me about the NHL, but like many, you just eventually let it wash away for the sheer sake of enjoying the game.
While I consider myself both bemused and annoyed by Matthew Tkachuk, essentially the Bart Simpson of the NHL, it feels like the NHL doesn’t even ask him to write things on chalkboards with these slap-on-the-wrist suspensions. Boosts in scoring almost always come down to a) young talent forcing improvements by sheer skill and will and b) actually calling a handful of infractions that should have always been penalties in the first place. And, of course, the debilitating normalcy of work stoppages.
Yeah, there’s a lot of things you just need to do the shrug emoji toward and just keep moving along.
The things that still baffle me, though, are the decisions that cost teams wins and, arguably, money. NHL GMs sometimes skimping on backups has regularly confounded me, to the point that I can’t just look away.
Consider this. Aside from the Oilers turning Cam Talbot into the hockey equivalent of a running back who received too many carries or a pitcher who logged too many innings last season, most teams pencil their starting goalies in for about 60-65 regular-season games per year. Things get fuzzy when you add postseason starts, especially when you remember that the repeat champion Penguins started at least two goalies for significant chunks of their runs both times.
That generally leaves your backup starting 17-22 games per season, and that’s if you’re lucky with your number one guy’s health.
So, it boggles my mind a bit that the pursuit of a backup is frequently treated with the indifference you’d show in acquiring a bottom-pairing defenseman or depth forward.
Sure, “goalies are voodoo” and maybe there’s even more noise with number two guys, but it still bewilders me that the Pittsburgh Penguins would really think Antti Niemi was a likely fit last summer, and that all these teams with shaky backups didn’t even bother claiming Calvin Pickard. And so on.
Before this devolves from rant to hyper-rant, allow me to shift to the point of this column: a lot of starters are on the shelf right now, so how have their backups been doing, and how much should you trust them to continue to succeed?
In this latest fantasy column, I’ll look at goalies who are currently thrust into situations, and maybe sprinkle in a few scenarios that just ended or experienced quite a bit of disruption.
Note: This isn’t a comprehensive list. Also, this column ended up running long. Sorry.
Coyotes – So, it looks like Antti Raanta is healthy, but it’s been a bumpy ride.
Raanta’s played 13 games, Scott Wedgewood appeared in 12, Louis Domingue was banished after seven, and others have picked up some scraps. While I believe the Coyotes are more competitive than their record indicates, I also think that it’s better to travel the road of least resistance in fantasy.
There are a lot of bumps on this desert road.
Bruins – Yeah, I know Tuukka Rask is getting older, but it’s still perplexing that Anton Khudobin has objectively been the better goalie with each guy getting 10+ games played. This is weird and not good, but credit Khudobin for rekindling some of his early-Boston magic.
(Honestly, as happy as I was to see David Backes score two goals last night, I’m generally of the mind that the Bruins offer little beyond a terrifying top line and some promising young blueliners. At least in fantasy.)
Flames – Good grief, it’s really Mike Smith or bust, isn’t it? Enjoy footage of not-Mike-Smith getting a goal scored off of his mask:
For so long, Chicago was the place where backup goalies would do so well, they’d often get chances to be full-time starters. Sometimes those guys ended up being legit, while others were propped up a bit. Now the Blackhawks’ leaky defense instead trips their goalies and pushes their faces in puddles. Or whatever the opposite of “propping up” is. Knocking your crutches/walking cane out of your hand? I don’t know, someone help me out.
You really need to be desperate to roll with Forsberg, is what I’m saying.
Stars – Ben Bishop is dealing with a back issue, opening the door for Kari Lehtonen to already eclipse 10 games played before the calendar hits 2018. This should go about as well as things went on this hideous shorthanded goal (which wasn’t really on Lehtonen, mind you).
On a similar note, I like some of the Stars players and generally Ken Hitchcock as a coach, but not together. It’s basically a peanut-butter steak in Dallas.
Oilers – In my head, I thought Laurent Brossoit was doing kind of OK with Cam Talbot on the shelf.
In reality, Brossoit’s been even worse, with an ugly .877 save percentage so far this season. If I didn’t know any better, I’d wonder if the Oilers were pretty bad at everything beyond employing Connor McDavid.
Panthers – Roberto Luongo‘s injury could be substantial, which is bad news since he’s been playing so well and James Reimer‘s been off his game. Still, Reimer’s been a 1B and analytics darling for ages now, so if anyone can run with a chance like this, it’s Reimer.
Considering the comedy of errors that is Panthers management, this isn’t a perfect situation, but Reimer’s a decent enough choice if you’re needing a goalie and have limited options.
Canadiens – Kudos to Charlie Lindgren, who might be a goalie to monitor, yet we don’t really need to belabor the “Carey Price is important” point, do we?
Islanders – A tricky situation with Jaroslav Halak and Thomas Greiss splitting things like a true platoon, at least so far. Halak’s been getting the reps lately, it seems. While the Islanders seem like they’re a true playoff team, their goalies are probably not worth the trouble, unless one of them is maybe your alternate option.
Penguins – Coming into this season, Tristan Jarry generated strong work in the AHL in 2016-17, managing a .925 save percentage. The Penguins wanted to leave in there to marinate for some time, but with Matt Murray hurt, Jarry’s pressed into action, and he’s shining pretty nicely. He’s 5-1-2 with a nice .921 save percentage in eight games.
As a second-rounder (44th in 2013 vs. Murray, a third-rounder who went 83rd in 2012), you could argue that Jarry might actually have the superior pedigree.
Jarry is currently 59 percent owned in Yahoo, so there’s still a chance you can get him. While the Penguins’ defense might leave him vulnerable at times, Pittsburgh is playing well, Murray might be week-to-week and Jarry is solid. You could do worse than to give him an audition.
Golden Knights – ¯_(ツ)_/¯
With Marc-Andre Fleury showing some progress, there’s risk beyond the already-comical risk of taking on Vegas goalies, but let’s give Malcolm Subban credit for revamping his career prospects.
As with most Golden Knights things, I really don’t know what to tell you, other than “Yes, they seem better than we all expected, and no, I still don’t know what happens next.”
Jets – There are warning signs that the Connor Hellebuyck train will slow or even come to a screeching halt, but sometimes fantasy success is about being willing to laugh and enjoy hot streaks while they last.