The day before Thanksgiving, six new playoff teams


We wrote yesterday about the significance of being in a playoff position by Thanksgiving. At the time, the Islanders, Maple Leafs, Predators, Flames, and Canucks were all in that category after failing to qualify last season. And last night, the Jets leapfrogged the Wild into the final wild-card spot in the Western Conference.

What are the chances each of those six teams hangs on to a playoff spot? Click here for the standings, and let’s briefly run it down:

Islanders (15-6-0): Eight points up on the third-place Rangers in the Metropolitan Division, which is a pretty nice cushion to have built by this point in the season. The Isles have won nine of their last 10, responding as well as possible to a short spell in late November that had coach Jack Capuano in the critics’ sights. On paper, this is a much improved team, and it’s playing out that way on the ice. The Isles have been one of the NHL’s top possession teams, and goalie Jaroslav Halak has been outstanding in November, allowing just 11 goals in his last eight starts.

Toronto (11-8-2): Tied with Ottawa in points, but the Leafs have won more in regulation/overtime, so they get the nod. For all the negativity that’s surrounded this club this season, Toronto has beaten some pretty good teams, including the Islanders, Blackhawks, Bruins, and Lightning. It’s the Leafs’ inconsistency that makes them so hard to predict. One night they’re all on the same page, the next they’re getting smoked in Buffalo. The Leafs play in Pittsburgh tonight, then host the Capitals Saturday. That Washington game will be worth watching, since the Caps may be the team Toronto has to beat out when all’s said and done.

Vancouver (15-6-1): With last night’s win over New Jersey, the Canucks tied a franchise record for their best 22-game start, matching the points total they set in 1991-92 when they went 14-5-3 out of the gates. With improved depth up front, Vancouver is no longer so dependent on the Sedins to provide the offense, and new coach Willie Desjardins seems to have injected his players with some renewed enthusiasm. The caveat is that the Canucks have played a relatively easy schedule, with four of their wins coming over the Oilers. Add to the equation that defenseman Dan Hamhuis is expected to be out a considerable length of time and Vancouver can’t afford to let off the gas as it embarks on a seven-game road trip.

Nashville (14-5-2): One of the surprise teams of the season. (Though, as previously noted, not altogether unexpected.) A healthy Pekka Rinne is the major key to the Predators’ success, but certainly not the only one. Nashville, like the Islanders, has been one of the top puck-possession teams in the NHL. While you still wouldn’t call the Preds’ offense “potent,” and you do have to wonder how hot rookie Filip Forsberg can stay, with Rinne in goal and Shea Weber on the ice for almost half the game, it should only have to be capable to make the playoffs.

Calgary (13-8-2): The biggest surprise team of the season. You just wonder how long it can last. The Flames have been one of the worst puck-possession teams in the league, and that has a tendency to catch up to a group over the long run. At the same time, there’s nothing wrong with admiring this team’s resilience. Five times Calgary has won games it’s trailed after the second period, with seven losses. Their Alberta neighbors to the north, meanwhile, have also trailed 12 games after two, but are 0-11-1 in that situation.

Winnipeg (11-9-3): One point up on Minnesota, though the Wild are playing very well and have three games in hand. The biggest difference between this Jets team and previous unsuccessful editions is that this one is getting solid goaltending. Backup Michael Hutchinson has been especially good (.947 save percentage in seven appearances), while Ondrej Pavelec (.917) has middle-of-the-pack numbers, which at least beats what he’s done in prior seasons. Still, even if one assumes the goaltending can hold up, the Jets are probably going to need to start scoring a bit more. Currently, only Buffalo has a less effective offense.

Why are the Oilers still bad? Look at their drafting


No, this isn’t about Nail Yakupov. Enough has been written about the Oilers’ decision to use their third straight first overall pick on that guy.

This is about the drafting that took place early on in Edmonton’s playoff drought, which started all the way back in 2006-07, the season after they lost the Stanley Cup Final to Carolina, and continues to this day.

In 2007, the Oilers had three first-round picks. They chose forward Sam Gagner (6th), d-man Alex Plante (15th), and forward Riley Nash (21st). All three are no longer with the club.

Imagine, if you will, that Plante had turned into an impact defensemen, as opposed to playing just 10 NHL games before leaving for Austria. At 25 years old, he’d be the same age as P.K. Subban, who, by the way, was drafted 43rd overall in 2007.

Heck, imagine if any of the many defenseman the Oilers drafted from, say, 2007 to 2010 had panned out. Alas, Johan Motin, Troy Hesketh, Kyle Bigos, Ryan Martindale, Jeremie Blain — all taken in the fourth round or before — have not. Maybe Martin Marincin (46th overall in 2010) will. Then again, given the trade rumors, he might soon be gone from the club, too.

Is it fair to criticize a team for failing to draft diamonds in the rough? Not on a case-by-case basis maybe. There’s a whole lot of luck involved when it comes to drafting 18-year-olds. But when taken as a whole? Absolutely it’s fair. Otherwise, what’s the point of having scouts? Just let a monkey make the picks.

Consider Duncan Keith’s importance to the Blackhawks. He was taken 54th overall in 2002. With time to develop in the AHL, he was able to enter his prime just as forwards Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, selected in 2006 and 2007, respectively, were entering theirs. Everyone knows defensemen take longer to develop than forwards. Shea Weber is another Norris Trophy candidate who wasn’t drafted in the first round. He was taken 49th overall in 2003 and needed two more seasons of junior, plus some time in the AHL, before he was ready for the show.

Drafting beyond the first round, then properly developing those players, is of paramount importance in the NHL.

From 2007 to 2010, the Oilers made 23 draft picks that weren’t in the first round.

What have they got to show for it in 2014?

An extremely frustrated fan base, that’s what.

Related: Strome, Nelson giving Isles that all-important cheap production

All due respect to Trotz, Preds are playing some entertaining hockey


It was understandable that Shea Weber didn’t want to answer the question. With Barry Trotz still held in high esteem in Nashville, the captain of the Predators wasn’t about to suggest that things are so much more fun now that there’s a new coach behind the bench.

“Honestly, I don’t want to get into comparing,” Weber said Sunday when asked if the style of hockey the Preds are playing under Peter Laviolette was more “enjoyable” than it was under Trotz.

“I’m not going to say it’s more enjoyable or not. Obviously, it’s been pretty successful for our team this year. We’re just going to keep doing what we’re told.”

Weber deftly ducked the question after Nashville had improved its record to 7-2-2 with a 3-1 win over the Canucks in Vancouver.

At the very least, he admitted that things were different this season.

“We’re playing an aggressive style,” he said. “We’re really trying to play forward.”

The Preds still aren’t scoring a ton, and they’re still solid defensively. Just like under Trotz. But Sunday’s game featured the kind of back-and-forth, entertaining action that Nashville GM David Poile had hoped to see when he hired Laviolette.

It sure helps that Pekka Rinne has been back to his old self in goal, and that newcomers James Neal and Mike Ribeiro, along with rookie-of-the-year candidate Filip Forsberg, have developed chemistry as a first line.

And while some observers remain skeptical, pointing to Nashville’s NHL-high PDO (a statistic that, essentially, measures luck), the Preds are leaving their opponents impressed.

“They have a deep lineup with a lot of threats on different lines,” Canucks captain Henrik Sedin said. “You have to be focused every time you’re on the ice.”

Smith, Predators halt Oilers’ winning streak


Onlookers can debate whether Nashville Predators forward Craig Smith was robbed of a goal during Wednesday’s 4-1 win against the Edmonton Oilers. There’s no denying that he had a big impact on tonight’s game, anyway, as he scored two goals (that counted) as Nashville ended Edmonton’s four-game winning streak.

(Speaking of streaks, the Predators won five straight home games for the first time since 2008, according to Sportsnet.)

Smith, 25, scored the first of his two goals after a nice bit of defensive work. Here’s the end result:

Ben Scrivens made some tough saves, yet Nashville was just too much for Edmonton. Also too much: Shea Weber’s ridiculous shot for his fourth goal of 2014-15:

Here are a couple possession charts if you’re into that sort of thing:


(via Natural Stat Trick)


(via War on Ice)

Even with Edmonton fighting to get back into the game in the third period, Nashville outscored the Oilers 2-1 in that final frame.

Plenty left to learn about both teams

The Predators have been looking pretty good, especially considering that 6-1-2 record. Still, we’ll find out more about this squad soon; tonight’s game kicked off a six-game road trip that will get tougher as it goes along. (Their possession stats are solid enough so far, so that’s good.)

The pendulum seems to swing violently for the Oilers each week so far in 2014-15. Perhaps a 4-5-1 record is fair enough for Edmonton so far. While the Oilers’ four-game winning streak was heartening, they’re also 0-5-1 against Western Conference opponents this season.

The Oilers finish their seven-game homestand on Saturday and then face five straight road games, so we may very well see more peaks and valleys through November.

Overall, the jury’s still out on both teams, yet the grade for the Predators is “so far, so good.”

Video: Toews OT winner leads Blackhawks over Preds

Jonathan Toews picked up the overtime winner with less than two minutes remaining as the Chicago Blackhawks doubled up the Nashville Predators 2-1 Saturday night.

Toews forced Preds defenseman Roman Josi to cough up the puck at the Blackhawks blue line then broke in all alone on Nashville starter Carter Hutton and poked home his own rebound.

Johnny Oduya had Chicago’s other goal while Nashville captain Shea Weber had the lone Preds goal.

Corey Crawford made 19 saves as Chicago won for the third time in four games. Hutton made 35 saves in the loss.

Nashville failed to pick up two points for the second time in three games.