Photo: Jeff Vinnick, Getty Images
Given that we’ve just completed the All-Star break and passed the unofficial midway point of the 2021-22 season, it’s a good time to take a look at how the other teams in the NHL are doing, including their current performance and how they are doing in comparison to preseason expectations.
This review is divided into two parts: one for the Eastern Conference (here) and one for the Western Conference. Here is the update on the teams from the Western Conference.
This is a year of restoration in that the normal powerhouses in the Central division (i.e. the Colorado Avalanche, St Louis Blues, and Minnesota Wild) are back and the powerhouses from the Southeast (Carolina Hurricanes, Florida Panthers, and Tampa Bay Lightning have returned to their regular scheduled divisions). Nashville has also returned to prominence. Similar to the two Eastern Conference Divisions, there is a discernible gap between the top four teams and the bottom four.
The Playoff Locks
The Avalanche have unsurprisingly claimed their position as top team in the Central Division. It didn’t happen at the outset, as the team dealt with key players out with either injury or due to Covid protocol. But then the Avalanche got hot, as in really hot. They posted a 15-0-1 record for the month of January which tied an NHL record for most wins in a month and they closed January with a ten-game winning streak. They appear to be running away with the Central Division title.
Nashville got off to a poor start to the 2020-21 season and seriously considered a rebuild. But they rebounded enough to make the playoffs, although they were eliminated in the first round. Their rebound has continued and they are in a dogfight with the Minnesota Wild and St Louis Blues for second place. Matt Duchene and Filip Forsberg have already exceeded 20 goals. Mikael Granlund and Ryan Johansen are both contributing significant assists. The Predators do not really miss Pekka Rinne in goal, as his replacement, Juuse Saros has a save percentage exceeding .920.
The Wild got off to a good start but were slumping at the time of the Winter Classic. But, they have rebounded during the month of January, going 8-1-1, which included the loss on January 1. They are enjoying another great year from Kirill Kaprizov, who has nearly 20 goals and already has more than 50 points.
St Louis Blues
The Blues have hung around in playoff position nearly all season despite dealing with player absences from either injuries or Covid. Often, the combination of players out with Covid and out with injuries at the same time left the Blues shorthanded for some games. Jordan Kyrou has blossomed and leads the team in goals and points. Vladimir Tarasenko has rebounded from his injuries and ranks second on the team in goals and points. Pavel Buchnevich has proven to be a great acquisition. Ivan Barbashev, a former fourth liner, has now earned a role on the Blues’ first line while Robert Thomas has established himself as the second line center. The Blues clearly have plenty of forward talent.
Potential Wild Cards
The Dallas Stars and Winnipeg Jets are currently out of the playoffs and would be hard pressed to catch up to the top four teams of the Central. The best hope for either of those teams is to qualify for the second wild card position by compiling a better record than the fourth place team in the Pacific Division.
The Stars have improved from the 2020-21 season where they missed the playoffs after reaching the Stanley Cup Final the prior season. Joe Pavelski seems to be an ageless wonder who is leading the team in points and second on the team in goals. Roope Hintz leads the team in goals with 20. Second year player, Jason Robertson, is following up a fine rookie year with a great sophomore year. Goalie Braden Holtby has improved his stats over his prior two seasons but has not regained his Vezina Trophy-caliber form.
It’s been a mediocre season for the Jets, despite individual heroics by Kyle Connor and Pierre-Luc Dubois. Connor Hellebuyck’s save percentages have been up and down this season, with great games and poor games, but his save percentage is average. They will struggle to make the playoffs since they’re far removed from fourth place.
It’s been a rough season in the Windy City. They began the season with the Kyle Beech scandal which had ramifications not only for the Blackhawks. Their Head Coach from their Cup winning days, Joel Quenneville, was let go as coach of the Florida Panthers. The team started off poorly on the ice as well, posting a 0-7-2 for October. The team has stayed in seventh place for most of the year since they are in same division as the Arizona Coyotes.
It has been a Coyote Ugly season for Arizona. They started the season losing their first nine games, going 0-8-1. The season has continued to be ugly since then. The report is that the City of Glendale did not wish to renew their stadium lease. Now the talk is that they will play in a 5000 seat arena in the region until a new arena is built.
There is more suspense in this divisional race as to which teams will make the playoffs. As expected, the Vegas Knights are in first place, aided by the fact that the Colorado Avalanche, St Louis Blues, and Minnesota Wild have returned to the Central Division. Earlier this season, it appeared that the Battle of Alberta had revived but then there were signs that the Battle of California may be returning. It appears that the combatants from California and Alberta will be battling each other for the last three playoff spots in the Western Conference.
The Playoff Locks
Vegas Golden Knights
In spite of injuries and Covid cases galore which slowed their start to the season, the Vegas Knights are in their customary position at the top of the division standings. They still await the return of Jack Eichel who they acquired from Buffalo and who finally got the type of back surgery he thought was appropriate.
Fighting For Playoff Spots
Los Angeles Kings
The Kings have been rebuilding in recent years and collecting prospects. Captain Anze Kopitar seems to have found the Fountain of Youth and is leading the team in points. Adrian Kempe has found a new gear and has already reached a career high in goals in just over half a season.
Everyone expected the Ducks to be terrible this year, given how bad the team was last season, finishing dead last in the Pacific. However, they have rebounded this season and are currently in second place. They are getting great scoring from young players, Troy Terry and Trevor Zegras and Ryan Getzlaf is generating tons of assists. John Gibson, their long-time goalie, has rediscovered his old form.
The Flames got off to an excellent start and have great possession statistics, according to Natural Stat Trick. But then nearly all their players entered Covid protocol in early December so they played no games from December 12 through December 30. Their first line of Johnny Gaudreau, Matthew Tkachuk, and Elias Lindholm has been very productive. They also have a Breadman of their own named Andrew Mangiapane whose last name literally means “maker of bread”. Jacob Markstrom has performed very well in goal for them. The Flames rank only behind Vegas in points percentage.
The Oilers started the season battling it out with the Calgary Flames for first place and were fueled by Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl battling for the league lead in points. But the Oilers had a tailspin in late December, which continued through January, which dropped them into sixth place. They are not far out of playoff position and are competitive in Points Percentage with Los Angeles and Anaheim, who sit in second and third place. The Oilers also signed a contract with controversial winger, Evander Kane, who the Sharks parted ways with.
San Jose Sharks
The Sharks looked like a potential feel-good story for much of this season. Timo Meier and Tomas Hertl have been a one-two punch on offense. But now defenseman Erik Karlsson is missing time with injuries, again. The Sharks had a rough January and are out of playoff position, but just barely. The possession statistics for them do not look good.
The Canucks were off to a bad start, had several players slumping, and found themselves in last place in the Pacific Division. They purged much of their management, including their Head Coach, and hired Bruce Boudreau, former Capitals Coach, to be the new coach. The team immediately went on a seven-game winning streak. While they have struggled in recent days, there still is more hope than earlier this year.
The Kraken were released as an NHL team at the beginning of the season, but they have not been able to duplicate the success of the Vegas Golden Knights from four seasons ago and are performing like a typical first season expansion team; i.e. bad. Both of their goalies, Chris Drieger and Philipp Grubauer, are having worse-than-expected years, with save percentages under .900.
By Diane Doyle