The Western Conference wild card race is setting itself up to be an insane scramble to the finish in the second half of the season. Not only because there are a bunch of teams all jumbled together in the standings, but because several of them are completely volatile organizations that have the potential to do something completely outrageous — and exciting! — in the comings weeks to try and secure one of the playoff spots that are still up for grabs.
Heading into Tuesday night the race features four teams all tied in the standings with 47 points for the last playoff spot. That alone is pretty incredible, even at the halfway point of the season. But when you add in the suddenly fading Colorado Avalanche who sit just three points ahead of that pack, as well as the Dallas Stars who hold the third spot in the Central Division based on a tiebreaker with the Avalanche, and then consider the St. Louis Blues are still somehow lurking around after their terrible start, and you have got seven teams all packed together in what can probably best be described as a log-jam of mediocrity.
Also included in it are the Edmonton Oilers, Anaheim Ducks, Vancouver Canucks, and the Minnesota Wild who will be hosting the Los Angeles Kings (8 p.m. ET on NBCSN) on Tuesday night.
[Related: Should Wild’s future include Bruce Boudreau?]
It is absolute mayhem.
So which teams have the inside track to emerge out of that pile?
First, let’s just take a look at where the standings sit as of Tuesday. The important thing to keep in mind here is that even though the Wild, Oilers, Ducks, and Canucks are all currently tied in terms of their points, the number of games played by each team kind of skews things a little bit and puts some teams a little behind the pack.
Here are all seven teams mentioned, their current point total, their current points percentage, and their current points projection based on that points percentage.
The remarkable thing about the Stars is that they are in as good of a position as they are despite all of the drama surrounding them. Like the rest of the teams on this list they are quite flawed, but the national perception of them (at least recently) is that they are a complete mess because their CEO briefly lost his mind and sounded like an irrational fan that decided he had to rant on the post-game call-in show for no real reason.
Now they are looked at as a dysfunctional organization and are a league-wide punchline instead of what they actually are: A team that probably has a better record than it deserves given the flaws on the roster outside of its top line. They’ve probably overachieved this season. Not underacheved.
[Related: Stars’ CEO’s ire should be directed at GM, not Seguin and Benn]
The Stars, along with the Avalanche, are probably in the best position out of this group even though the latter has hit a wall recently and won just four of its past 17 games. They still have a cushion and a little bit of breathing room between them and the teams on the outside of the playoff picture, and assuming neither one really collapses (or in the Avalanche’s case, continues to collapse) in the second half they should be in.
Both teams are also similar in the sense that they are pretty much being carried by a single line. Fortunately for them, they are great lines.
The real fight comes with the five teams after them, and that’s where thing get interesting because this is where they have to make decisions on whether or not they are legitimate playoff teams and should try to add to their rosters before the trade deadline, or if they would just be chasing a mirage.
On paper the Wild probably have the best and most well-rounded team out of this group, even if it hasn’t played out that way on the ice this season. They have a top coach, a goalie that can be one of the best in the league when he is on his game, and a decently balanced roster. You would like to think they could get this season sorted out and get back on track.
The Ducks are pretty much the Western Conference version of the Buffalo Sabres at this point. Only worse. A team that banked a lot of points early in the season and has badly fallen back to the pack as reality punches them in the face.
In the Ducks’ case it has been an 11-game losing streak that has featured a couple of crushing losses over the past week where they allowed early multi-goal leads to spectacularly disappear. It is kind of remarkable they could go through such a losing streak and still be in contention. Nothing about the way this team plays suggests it is a playoff team, but it does have the one X-factor that could give it an edge in the race. That X-factor of course John Gibson, arguably the best goalie in the league this season.
That is the one position and the one player that can significantly elevate a mediocre team above the rest in a race like this.
But the team to really watch here is going to be Edmonton.
They have the best player in the league (Connor McDavid), they are on the fringes of the playoff race, they have a desperate general manager that is almost certainly trying to save his job, and what is seemingly a playoffs-or-bust mandate from ownership and upper management. After all, you can not keep wasting the prime years of a generational superstar.
The problem, of course, is that even with that generational superstar this is still a team that is probably more than one or two mid-season additions away from even being a playoff team, let alone a legitimate Stanley Cup contender. Can you really risk trading a 2019 first-round draft pick, or your No. 4 overall pick from two years ago (Jesse Pulujarvi) to try and chase what might only be a wild card spot and likely being a sacrificial lamb for one of the Western Conference’s powerhouses?
Doing so would be risking what could still be something that could benefit the McDavid-Leon Draisaitl core in the future for what is basically a Hail Mary attempt at trying to make something out of this season. Those types of trades have not exactly worked out well for this particular organization.
On one hand, a lot of crazy things can happen if you get in the playoffs. A goalie can get hot, the other team’s goalie can fall apart, a superstar like McDavid can go off for seven games and throw everything off course and open the door for a 2017 Ottawa Senators like run.
But you have to actually get in the playoffs for that to be a possibility, and that still seems like it could be a big challenge for this team.
Then we have the Canucks and Blues, who are for all intents and purposes tied based on their current projections.
The Canucks are the feel-good story here because they seem to be ahead of schedule in their rebuild thanks in large part to the rapid development of Elias Pettersson and Brock Boeser. But even with those two, and even with their better-than-expected record, they are still only an 82-point pace for the season right now, still have a deficit to make up when it comes to catching the the wild card teams, and still are not that great of a team. Keep in mind that 82-points would have been 13 points short of a playoff spot a year ago, and while the threshold to get in this year will probably be lower than that, there is still a chance that it increases from the 85-point projection it is at now with the Wild. All it is going to take is one of those current Wild Card teams to go on a five or six game winning streak (something they are both perfectly capable of doing) to change the target.
Look at it this way, only one Western Conference team in the salary cap era has made the playoffs with less than 90 points (the 2015-16 Wild made it with 87 points). Reaching the 90-point plateau would require Vancouver to play at a .614 points percentage over its remaining 35 games. This is a team that has played at a .500 pace over 47 games.
Then there are the Blues, winners of five of their past seven and 11 of their past 17, trying to dig themselves out of their slow start. This seems like a case of too little, too late. Goaltending is still a big issue and the they just seem to have put themselves in too deep of a hole to make up that much ground.
So that is where every team stands and what is ahead of them.
If you are a Stars or Avalanche fan, you should be somewhat comfortable. If you are a Wild fan perhaps cautiously optimistic. If you are fan of the other teams, you should hope your team does not do something drastic and could potentially damage the long-term outlook of your team.
Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.