We’ve officially entered the All-Star break and the playoff picture in the Western Conference is completely unpredictable.
The top five teams in the Pacific Division are separated by just one point. Beyond that mess, the third-placed team in the Western Conference has just a seven-point lead on the 11th-placed team. You can probably guarantee that St. Louis and Colorado will be in the playoffs come April and that the three California teams won’t be, but everything else in the middle is wide open.
Rather than looking at the Pacific Division on its own, this time I’m going to take a look at that big clump of teams in the middle of the Western Conference standings.
3. Dallas Stars
27-17-4 (58 points) / Goals For: 125 (28th of 31) / Goals Against: 120 (1st of 31)
After getting off to a 1-7-1 start, the Stars have gone 26-10-3, so that ugly showing in October looks like a fluke. They fired head coach Jim Montgomery in December due to an issue with alcohol abuse, but haven’t missed a beat under Rick Bowness. Dallas is the best team in the league at keeping the puck out of the net and, barring disaster, will be battling down the stretch with Colorado and St. Louis for home ice in the playoffs.
4. Vancouver Canucks
27-18-4 (58 points) / Goals For: 162 (8th of 31) / Goals Against: 149 (13th of 31)
The Canucks sit with a one-point lead in the Pacific Division at the All-Star break thanks largely to a seven-game winning streak that came in late-December and early-January. Vancouver got off to a strong start to the season but went cold in November due to a wealth of injuries to some quality depth players in their lineup. When they’re healthy, though, the Canucks have played well, so it seems their spot in the standings isn’t a mirage at this point. Jim Benning went all-in this summer to acquire guys like J.T. Miller and Tyler Myers to make the team competitive. Is there any room for more deadline improvements?
5. Edmonton Oilers
26-18-5 (57 points) / Goals For: 155 (16th of 31) / Goals Against: 153 (17th of 31)
After an ugly stretch in December, the Oilers have righted the ship with a 6-2-1 stretch since the Christmas break. As it stands right now, the Oilers are good enough to make the playoffs with the roster that they have, but an investment from Ken Holland prior to the trade deadline could set the team on course to do some damage come spring. The Western Conference is wide open. Is Holland ready to take a risk on this team?
6. Calgary Flames
26-19-5 (57 points) / Goals For: 135 (24th of 31) / Goals Against: 147 (12th of 31)
The Flames have had an up-and-down season that featured a poor start and some big winning and losing streaks. It’s difficult to say exactly which team the Flames really are given their inconsistency, but their 14-7-1 record under head coach Geoff Ward is a positive sign. Brad Treliving will surely be aggressive at the trade deadline as missing the playoffs would be a colossal failure for a team that finished at the top of the Western Conference last year looking to prove everybody wrong after their surprising first-round exit
7. Arizona Coyotes
26-20-5 (57 points) / Goals For: 146 (20th of 31) / Goals Against: 138 (9th of 31)
The Coyotes went all-in with their acquisition of Taylor Hall from the New Jersey Devils back in December and it’s produced mixed results. The post-Hall Coyotes have achieved their goal of becoming a stronger team offensively, but they’ve also been worse on the defensive side of the game, which had been their strength earlier in the season. Getting Darcy Kuemper back from injury will be a big boost for the Coyotes down the stretch.
8. Vegas Golden Knights
25-20-7 (57 points) / Goals For: 161 (9th of 31) / Goals Against: 159 (21st of 31)
The Golden Knights are having a disappointing season, and, as a result, figured it was best to get in on the head coach firing parade. Despite Vegas being in a playoff spot and boasting strong underlying numbers, Gerard Gallant got fired and was replaced by the recently-fired San Jose Sharks boss, Peter DeBoer. Vegas is being carried by their offence but they’ll only go as far as their goaltending takes them. Marc-Andre Fleury is having a difficult season and there isn’t anybody behind him to compensate. Putting DeBoer behind the bench won’t fix that.
9. Winnipeg Jets
25-22-4 (54 points) / Goals For: 152 (19th of 31) / Goals Against: 160 (23rd of 31)
The Jets appear to be in freefall mode as they’ve lost four in a row and six of their last seven games. It was only a matter of time before this happened. Given the way that Winnipeg’s blueline got decimated in the off-season, it was always going to be an uphill battle to get back into the playoffs. They got propped up for a while by amazing play from Connor Hellebuyck, but that can only last for so long. The Jets have the third-worst expected goals against rating in the league, so, unless Dustin Byfuglien decides he wants to play hockey again or Hellebuyck goes into god mode, they might be toast.
10. Chicago Blackhawks
24-21-6 (54 points) / Goals For: 155 (16th of 31) / Goals Against: 161 (24th of 31)
As the Jets are crashing, the Blackhawks have done the exact opposite. The Hawks have won nine of their last 13 games since Christmas break and are suddenly alive in the playoff picture. The key for Chicago during their heater has been goaltending as Robin Lehner has a .917 save percentage and Corey Crawford has a .914 save percentage during that stretch. Like the Jets, though, Chicago allows a lot to be desired on defence, so can they rely on goaltending to keep them afloat?
11. Minnesota Wild
23-21-6 (52 points) / Goals For: 156 (14th of 31) / Goals Against: 166 (28th of 31)
In somewhat of a role reversal for a Minnesota Wild team, they’re struggling because they can’t keep the puck out the net. When you think of the Wild, you usually think of a boring team that plays good defence and can’t score. But this year, Devan Dubnyk and Alex Stalock have combined for a .900 save percentage, resulting in the Wild floating around in mediocrity.
12. Nashville Predators
22-18-7 (51 points) / Goals For: 156 (14th of 31) / Goals Against: 154 (18th of 31)
The Predators have been arguably the league’s biggest disappointment this season. Despite having strong underlying numbers, their goaltending has been much worse than we’ve come to expect and their offence has been mediocre. They fired head coach Peter Laviolette a few weeks ago to give the team a spark, but have gone just 3-3 under new head coach John Hynes. Unless something drastically changes in the new few weeks, we’ll likely see Nashville sell at the deadline for the first time in years.
What does it all mean?
Though the big mix of teams just outside the playoffs in the Central Division makes this race look even bigger, the Oilers’ focus still is the Pacific Division. They ultimately hold their destiny in their own hands and a strong finish to the season will get them into the playoffs. In previous years, the Oilers were one of the teams on the outside looking in at this point, focusing on having to climb over multiple teams to make the playoffs. That isn’t the case this season. Win and you’re in. It’s as simple as that.
If I had to venture a guess right now, I would say that five Pacific teams make the playoffs while that group of Central teams currently sitting between ninth and 12th end up on the outside looking in. Of course, things can change especially with the trade deadline coming up quickly, but all of them are too flawed to warrant a major investment from their general managers at this point.
So, focusing on the Pacific, the Oilers will face Calgary three more times, Vegas three more times, and Arizona once more. They’ve already played Vancouver four times and won’t see them again. Another added benefit the Oilers have over the Central teams gunning for the wild card is six games against the group of Anaheim, San Jose, and Los Angeles, the bottom-feeders of the West.
While no wins are easy in the NHL and nothing is guaranteed, the Oilers have put themselves in a great position. It’s up to them now to capitalize. The real battle at this point is beating out the other Pacific Division teams to grab home-ice advantage in the playoffs.