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Two wildcard races and the desperate effort to come last fill up the last month of NHL hockey

There are a lot of teams contesting the four wild card playoff spots. There are some familiar teams contesting the coveted last place.

Canada v Sweden: Gold Medal Game - 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship

For the Maple Leafs, their playoff structure has been set in concrete for so long, only the most inventive can come up with a scenario where they fall to a wildcard spot and therefore prosper by playing Washington. But outside of the static Atlantic, things are strange all over:

The Penguins have 84 points today. But the Stars were right last night in that the divisional and conference balance is out of alignment. The bad teams are concentrated in one spot in the east, one spot in the west, and the resulting knot of parity in the other divisions is evidence that how many points you have in the NHL doesn’t mean a whole lot anymore. Everything is relative.

At the moment, the Leafs are in sixth place in the NHL by points. How good you think that makes them depends on how much you rate straight up winning a lot over relative position. Of course, Tampa is first and Boston is third. With less than a month to go before Boston and Florida cap off the regular season on the last day, that’s not likely to change, but there are races in the NHL, still. Three of them.

Western Wild Card

Dallas is not a sure thing in that wild card race, even though they’ve held onto a playoff spot for a long time, and are tenth in the league in points. Ahead of them in the Central Division is Nashville in second place overall, Winnipeg in fifth and Minnesota in seventh. Dallas is only three points behind the Wild, with the same 13 games left to play. They can take the divisional third place, but second (Winnipeg has 91 points) is out of reach.

Below them in the second wild card spot is the Colorado Avalanche. They’ve got a solid and respectable 80 points in 68 games and a decent goal differential, so they aren’t there simply by virtue of being the least bad, which happens a lot with the wild card races. They can take Dallas’s spot. It’s as plausible that they take third in the central from Minnesota as it is the Stars do it, meaning not very, but streaks happen.

But both Dallas and Colorado should look down, not up. Behind them are Los Angeles, Calgary and St. Louis, all at three points or less of Colorado’s 80, and only Calgary has played more games. There is definitely a five-team contest for those two wild cards, and maybe it’s six, if you factor in Minnesota. This race right now looks too tight to call.

Chicago, at 68 points on a dismal season, is out of it.

I haven’t mentioned the Pacific Division much, but Anaheim at 80 points in 69 games is only nominally ahead of Los Angeles (currently out of a playoff spot) at 79 points in 68 games. San Jose only has 81 points; they aren’t securely in second place in the Pacific. This game of musical chairs is complicated. If LA moves up to third in the Pacific, dropping Anaheim into the wild card race, which seems plausible, then it might be time to say that St. Louis, who looked like they had called it a day at the trade deadline, are out with 77 points in 68 games. The Pacific race is less tight simply because all the really bad western teams are in that division.

HockeyViz calls the western playoff race this way:

With Colorado at 55% probability, that simply means they can make the playoffs, they just aren’t as likely to as the teams above them like Anaheim, LA, and the Dallas Stars who come to Toronto to see the Leafs on Wednesday. It’s conceivable that by next week, this all looks completely different, which isn’t a knock on the model that produced this current probability. No one can accurately predict close playoff races well in advance. That’s what too close to call means.

Moneypuck has Colorado ahead of Dallas, Anaheim, LA and all the stragglers, but behind the Sharks and the Wild. Both of these predictive models are based on team strength, past performance, schedule strength, etc.

Eastern Wild Card

The race in the east seems a bit tame compared to that one. We may have largely ignored it, since the Leafs will likely never play a wild card team in the playoffs, barring a lot of upsets.

No one is catching Toronto for third place in the Atlantic. Florida is 12 points behind, and while bridging that gap is not technically impossible, it is impossible. No other team in the Atlantic matters but Florida, and that’s amazing in and of itself, considering they were well out of the playoffs until a couple of weeks ago. They have 75 points in 66 games played, and it’s the games in hand that give them the edge in this race, even though they have never spent a day in a playoff spot since the season got going.

The rest of the wild card race in the east is all Metropolitan Division. The Flyers have a decent grip on third place with 81 points in 69 games. New Jersey is holding the first wild card with 78 points in 69 games. There’s potential there for the Devils to move up and the Flyers down, but even that gap is hard to close so late in the season. Columbus, with 77 points in 69 games have been steadily falling through the Metro division over the season to mirror Pittsburgh’s rise.

Columbus is at .558 points percentage, and Florida is at 0.568. New Jersey is at 0.565.

Carolina, the team that always seems like they should make the playoffs but never does, is at 71 points in 68 games, and without a hot goalie to ride on a winning streak, I can’t see how they make it in. Behind them is the New York Islanders, the team that began squandering John Tavares’ brilliance a long time ago and is keeping on with that right up until his contract decision needs to be made. At 70 points in 69 games, they look out of it. Below them are the Rangers, who should be tanking, and the rest of the Atlantic, who are just naturally bad.

HockeyViz has New Jersey as the bitter loser who doesn’t hold onto a playoff spot. But not by a big amount, there’s room for all of that to change.

Florida should be the story of the NHL in March and April. Their steady incremental improvement through the season has been impressive. If all you know about Florida is that they’ve made some questionable trades, you don’t know the whole story. Their top line is one of the best lines in hockey, and if one good line is enough to get people talking about trophies in Colorado, maybe it is long past time Aleksander Barkov got some votes for more than just the Selke.

Moneypuck’s numbers give the edge to Florida and Columbus over the Devils as well, with the Hurricanes having only a 14 per cent chance of sneaking in.

Tank Race

The third race is the cleanest one. Throw out divisional oddities, even conference differences, this race is just about being bad. There are, however, several different ways to be bad. The biggest division is between accidentally bad and bad on purpose. Once you hit March, though, and you are bad, however you got there, the smart play is to maximize your badness. Everyone not in the playoff race should tank. The miracle of the NHL, in its current incarnation, is that some teams don’t.

It doesn’t matter who won the draft lottery last year. It doesn’t matter that the lottery has been jiggered around to make it harder to guarantee the first overall draft pick, widely believed to be Rasmus Dahlin. The fact is, the best way to maximize your odds of drafting first is still by coming last.

As of today, the bad list looks like this:

  • Arizona: 55 points in 68 games
  • Buffalo: 56 points in 69 games
  • Ottawa: 57 points in 67 games
  • Vancouver: 59 points in 69 games
  • Montréal: 62 points in 68 games
  • Detroit: 63 points in 68 games
  • Edmonton: 64 points in 68 games
  • New York Rangers: 67 points in 68 games
  • Chicago: 68 points in 70 games
  • New York Islanders: 70 points in 69 games

The bad race is likely between four teams. But Montréal, more because of circumstance than design, have embraced the tank and are charging hard for the bottom of the standings, so I’ll count them in. Detroit seems to be stubbornly refusing to try to lose, at least superficially.

The Rangers have not made the choice to sit Henrik Lundqvist, and that’s rule number one of a tank: You need a bad goalie. You can win with a bad goalie, but it’s really hard to tank with a good one. Just ask Arizona, they’ve parlayed one of the better teams they’ve put on the ice in years of trying to lose into a last place team, largely with shrewd goalie moves.

Buffalo have somehow turned a pair of decent enough goalies bad, so they’re okay, and Ottawa is where they are today because of some of the worst goaltending results in the NHL. They don’t need to make any further effort to be bad. Vancouver could easily maximize their inability to win by making some choices in net and in forward ice time, but they don’t seem to realize they should, and that’s why I give the edge to the injury-annihilated Habs here.

You’d think Edmonton would know how to lose, but nope. They’re good enough everywhere but goal (and the PK) to end up rising higher over the last part of the season even as the playoff race intensifies in the west. Chicago just seems confused, and are the most likely to pull the trick of having the worst non-playoff draft pick. The Islanders had that honour last year, and they traded the pick to Vegas for Expansion Draft considerations, and Vegas took Erik Brännström. Oops. If Vegas signs John Tavares as a free agent, that would be the circle completing on that deal, and would be my second choice of place for him to sign.

So, how do you pick between the baddest of the bad and choose who can really tank hard for the rest of the year? Once you’ve got a career backup or a prospect in your net, the next best thing is to be totally unable to score goals. I think this matters a little more than being outshot by a massive amount. No one gets outshot like the Rangers get outshot, but the Sabres really try. So does the Minnesota Wild, oddly enough.

Buffalo and Arizona really excel at not scoring, and Buffalo has no Jack Eichel right now to help them along. Montréal, for all their hilarious incompetence offensively, have scored ten more goals than the ‘Yotes. Vancouver has scored 20 more.

In terms of track record at being horrible, bad goaltending, inability to score and ability to get outshot, the Sabres would be my pick to win it all by losing. But they play the Leafs three more times (just ask Nazem Kadri) and they will try to win those games. Arizona might take it on sheer level of ennui by their players who live in a place where you can go golfing right now, why wait?

You might be upset at the idea that a player might go to Buffalo who will come in and play 30 minutes a night as a top pairing defender and score a record-setting number of goals in his first year, win the Calder, the Norris and the Hart and likely the Byng too, or so I’m told. Don’t be. The Toronto Maple Leafs are working towards actual greatness, not just relative greatness. I believe this absolutely. They want to be a team that can win in the toughest division against the toughest opponents, and they don’t care where all those top-end draft picks end up. (There’s no guarantee they succeed at this, but I do think it is the plan.)

The draft lottery is scheduled for late April, likely the 28th, which is when we’ll know then who really won the race to be bad enough to win a really good player. The other two races might be over before the last day, or the Panthers might take it to the wire. Stay tuned.