Does Toronto’s firing of Ron Wilson signal a desperation move in Toronto, that Brian Burke is willing to exhaust all possibilities to return his team to the playoffs for the first time since 2004?
It looks like it. Down to 12th in the Conference in both points and points-per-82 rate, Toronto are of course coming off a 1-9-1 stretch. Anything that Burke can do to ignite his Leafs, including fire a coach mid-season, a rare move for the fiercely loyal Burke.
But if the Leafs have dropped out of the Eastern Conference playoff hunt, barring a miracle to get back into position for the dance, that opens up a spot for a team. Toronto had been in the picture all year, but poor puck possession, team defence, and goaltending finally caught up to a squad that spent the entire first half looking like they’d be a shoo-in.
As an aside, it took 93 points to get into the Eastern Conference playoffs last season but just 88 a season prior. This year, it looks like that 88 figure will be closer to reality. The Washington Capitals are 8th place in points-per-82 in the Conference, riding a rate that will see them get 88.4 points. 89 could be the cutoff. Like 2010, it doesn’t seem like anybody really wants to take a hold of this.
So who has a chance to step into contention? A fellow Canadian team and a fellow team dressed in blue and white, oddly enough. The Winnipeg Jets are a surprisingly good possession team, measuring 9th in the Eastern Conference in score-tied Fenwick percentage and 5th with the score close. What’s done them in, unfortunately, is league average goaltending and a low shooting percentage. There was a stretch of games in late January/early February where the Jets scored just 9 regulation goals in 8 games. Their opposition save percentage at even strength is .924, which is pretty tough goaltending to face night after night and despite a pretty good group of young forwards like Evander Kane, Blake Wheeler and Bryan Little.
The good news is that the team is only a slight pace behind Washington, who are a total wild card at this point in the season. There isn’t a lot of confidence in the Capitals among their fans right now, but amazingly, they may have a chance because the field is so poor this season.
The other Southeast team though that have come out of nowhere are the fast and exciting Tampa Bay Lightning, led by Steven Stamkos’ 45 goals. (Another aside: Stamkos has 45 goals already? Holy smokes) I don’t know exactly when Tampa came into contention: they were sellers at the deadline, spent some time in the cellar and you couldn’t convince me they had strong enough goaltending to win at the AHL level. But, lo, after a six-game losing streak at the start of January, the Bolts have shot 15% at even strength since the 13th of that month.
Actually, what’s weird about Tampa Bay is if you look at their PDO number. PDO is the simple addition of shooting and save percentages (usually tabulated at even strength) to give you some idea of how the bounces have benefit a team over the course of the season. The idea is that shot indicators and differential are more predictive than a team’s overall goal total. Tampa Bay, thanks to their very open game, have the highest shooting percentage in the entire NHL, but their PDO still falls below the NHL league average of 100% thanks to .899 goaltending.
So whatever the source of Tampa Bay’s modest success is, they are just three points back of the Caps and, with just under 20 games remaining in the season, have a chance. Their recent run may be unsustainable, but it makes up for the awful goaltending they earned at the start of the season. As a possession team, they are no better than the Toronto Maple Leafs, but they’ve won a disproportionate amount of one-goal games, with a .690 winning percentage to lead the National Hockey League.
Is that indicative of team talent? No, and it doesn’t set the Bolts up for any sort of postseason success, but it has them in the hunt, and from how far back Tampa was even in mid-January, 13th place and 8 points back of a spot, being simply in the mix makes the second half a modest success for Steve Yzerman’s club.
Of course, you can’t count out the Leafs. Should their shooting find a level it did at the start of the season and the goaltending holds steady, they’re still a player in this too. Then there’s still Buffalo, another of six teams competing for just two spots.