If the NHL and NHLPA come to terms on a new CBA agreement sometime in the next week or so (which they will or hockey fans will go crazy and storm the figurative castle with pitchforks after this tease of a week), we’re looking at an NHL season between 50 and 65 games. Obviously it’s not ideal, but hey, it’s better than the amount they played during the ’04-’05 “season.”
Limiting the number of games increases the odds of “small sample size” phenomenons. We occasionally see guys get hot for a stretch of 12 games (or whatever) during your average season, but when we do, that stretch usually doesn’t make up nearly a quarter of the season. We could see guys with big point-per-game numbers, some goalies with outrageous save percentages and GAAs, and some teams with surprising records in both directions. Not to mention, one major injury could really do some damage.
Hell, if last season were only 62 games long (arbitrary number, but you get the point), the Kings miss playoffs AND THE COURSE OF HISTORY IS CHANGED.
So who’s best suited for a potentially short campaign? Who would be crippled by being denied a late push? Here are definitive answers to those questions, because in no way is this guesswork that could possibly go wrong…right?
Teams That Could Benefit
Teams with a lot of active players
And even better is if a lot of those players are in the AHL, playing on NHL-sized rinks, playing the North American-style game, staying in game shape, and waiting for things to get going. And it’s not just a matter of having guys playing – it’s a matter of having your good players playing.
What that means is that the Edmonton Oilers, Carolina Hurricanes and Chicago Blackhawks could be be looking pretty good right now.
Mark Spector of Sportnet wrote an article with a similar premise yesterday, and he include a quote from “one NHL executive,” who echoed that sentiment:
“Edmonton, Carolina and Chicago will have a big advantage. They have a lot of young key players playing in North America on the small ice, getting a ton of ice time. It’s a big difference from playing in Europe,” he said. “If we start in two weeks, there will be guys who have played over 30 games, and guys who have played zero.”
Normally you’d think that guys who’ve already played 30 times prior to a tight NHL grind would be at disadvantage, but you have to think: if they’re eligible to play in the AHL, they’re pretty young and their bodies should respond well. Maybe down the road it’ll hurt them, but I think they’d come out roaring. The Oilers have their top-six forwards playing somewhere right now, and that could propel them up the standings early on (especially if Justin Schultz can play goal, too).
Teams with great goaltending tandems
It’s always great to have a rock solid number one starter who can play a ton of games, but even those guys need to be spelled off a dozen times a year or so. With games being pushed closer together, they’re still going to need that dozen games if you don’t want them to go into the post-season completely beaten down. There’s just too many games in too many nights. So instead of playing 87% percent of your teams games, now they’re only playing 78%, and your back-up becomes more important.
To me, that gives a leg up to great duos like Halak/Elliot in St. Louis, Quick/Bernier in Los Angeles, and even Fleury/Vokoun in Pittsburgh if both those guys can reestablish the form they once had. Peter Budaj in Montreal…not gonna cut it at this point.
Mainstay, defensively responsible coaches
Some teams almost have an institutionalized way they like to play, and they don’t stand for someone getting a wild hair, flying around and worrying about their own numbers. These coaches have consistent success, and their teams are often sharper earlier, given that the players know what to expect going into the year.
To me, that helps out the following four teams: the Vancouver Canucks and Alain Vigneault (4th in goals against per game in 2011-12 – 2.33), the Phoenix Coyotes and Dave Tippett (5th – 2.37 GA/G), the Boston Bruins and Claude Julien (6th – 2.43 GA/G), and the Detroit Red Wings and Mike Babcock (7th – 2.44 GA/G).
While the Blues, Kings and Rangers topped the league in goals-against-per-game, I have less faith in the “culture of defense” in those places than I do in the ones I mentioned. Not saying those other teams are going to be suddenly shitty on D, I can just see the four I mentioned tighter than a lot of the teams in the league in the early going, and of course, a hot start is key in a short season.
Teams Who Could Be Hurt
Older teams are likely to struggle during a short season more than the youthful ones. Not in the early going, but by about halfway through the year. It takes a bigger and bigger effort as you get older to feel your best (especially the day after a game), and two teams in particular stand out to me. In 2011-2012, two of the three oldest teams were the New Jersey Devils (oldest at 29.34) and the Florida Panthers ( 3rd oldest at 28.561. both according to QuantHockey).
And more on age…
Teams with older, or injury-prone stars
As I implied earlier in the post – if your top-gunner gets hurt in a pushed together schedule, you’re going to feel the effects. I won’t single anyone out like Marian Gaborik of the New York Rangers (who played every game last season, but has had some big injuries in the past), but I could see a team that heavily relies on an older star suffer when the wear and tear of a condensed schedule has an effect on their body. Patrick Elias of the New Jersey Devils finished 10th in NHL scoring last year, and he’ll be 36/37 this season – can he keep up that pace when the league mashes 60 games in four or five months? I’m skeptical.
The other teams I’d worry for is teams with bad backups (Columbus? Edmonton? Anaheim?), teams with new coaches and teams with vastly different rosters from the previous season. In regards to the latter, it really does take some time before a new groups starts to understand their teammates tendencies, and begin clicking.
Which brings us to our final team…
The Minnesota Wild
I have no clue what to expect from this group. They just added Zach Parise and Ryan Suter, two legitimate NHLers, Olympians, all-stars. But will it take time for them to click? Or will their abilities override that and immediately make them better?
Last year, the Wild started out like a house on fire, even leading the Western Conference at one point before apparently driving the team bus off a cliff and missing playoffs by a sizable chunk. Could they have another hot start and hold on to a good seed? How will the team fare in the wake of their goalie being diagnosed with MS? Will they rally for him, will he struggle, will he excel? Will Mike Yeo turn into one of the league’s great coach or become a failed experiment? Is Dany Heatley even good anymore?
One things for sure about the Wild this year that we haven’t been able to say in, oh, ever (read this hilarious post, for example): they’re interesting. We’ll be watching, and we’ll be tracking who were the rest of the big winners and losers of the (eventual) shortened season.