We're nearly halfway into the 2015-16 NHL season, and if there is one word that had to be used to describe the current state of the league, it would have to be parity.
Ever since the NHL started using a salary cap, the margin between best team and worst team in the league closed significantly. Although this year, the difference between being one of the league's contenders and facing an early draft pick next summer is closer than we've ever seen.
To this point, there's a clear front-runner in each conference. The Dallas Stars from the Western Conference and Washington Capitals from the Eastern Conference have undoubtedly appeared to be the hardest teams to get a win against. If there wasn't another half of the regular season to play, or the always unpredictable Stanley Cup playoffs, the Final would come down to the Stars and Capitals, because no other team has demonstrated the ability to play as consistently well on a night to night basis as those two.
Early on, it looked like the Montreal Canadiens were shaping up to be one of the best teams in hockey ever. They started 9-0, had an early jump on every team in not just their division, not just their conference, but also the league. Carey Price has been hit by the injury bug, however, and as a result the Atlantic is so absurdly tight that any combination of possibilities could affect the way the standings in that division look when the regular season wraps up. Currently, it looks like this:
1) Montreal, 45. 2) Florida, 44. 3) Detroit, 43. 4) Boston, 42. 5) Ottawa, 42. 6) Tampa Bay, 40. 7) Buffalo, 34. 8) Toronto, 33.
That is incredible! Two wins and an overtime loss is all that separates the Lightning from leading their division to being out of the playoffs altogether. And those same Lightning were in the Stanley Cup Final last season, two wins away from claiming the franchise's second championship.
Speaking of teams who were near their second Stanley Cup last season, let's talk about the Anaheim Ducks. They gave the eventual champion Chicago Blackhawks everything and then some in what was an absolutely incredible West Final last spring. You could easily make the argument that all things considered, from top to bottom as a team, the Ducks were the best team in hockey last year. Over the summer, the Ducks made very few changes. They have their core of Corey Perry, Ryan Getzlav, and Ryan Kesler. Cam Fowler is still a beast on the blue line, very good players such as Chris Stewart and Carl Hagelin were added, and the only key piece they lost was Francois Beauchemin who came to Colorado. Yet they find themselves dead last in the West, and second to last in the entire league. Unfathomable.
Let's now look at what's between Anaheim and third place in the league. With all due respect to the Columbus Blue Jackets, they're the worst team in the league. It's not all that close, even if it is surprising since they were a team on the rise just a year and a half ago. With Dallas and Washington clearly being the leaders of the pack, the other twenty-seven teams are within 16 points of each other. St. Louis leads this pack with 48 points, and the aforementioned Ducks round it out with 32.
To dissect just how muddled the middle of it is, let's take a look at the Devils who are the sixteenth best in the league at 39 points, and the San Jose Sharks who are twenty-second and have 36 points. Before anything else, just let it sink in that only three points is the difference between almost right in the middle of the league, and being in the bottom 33%. If you took a win away from the Devils and gave it to the Sharks, New Jersey would fall to 18th, 19th, 20th, or 21st in the NHL depending on tiebreakers. The Sharks would rise to 17th, and the Avs would be bumped from 17th to 16th.
This is all hypothetical of course and a bunch of what if's, but this is just evidence as to how razor thin the margin is right now and how close a team right in the middle like Colorado, is from being one of the best teams in the league, and also from being one of the first. The Avs' five game win streak 1-2 weeks ago bumped the Avs from being one of the bottom three in the league, to now being in a cluster with about a third of the league for a possible playoff spot.
Lastly, to wrap up this article, speaking of playoffs, this could very well prove to be the first season of the NHL's new playoff format to backfire. The first two seasons have gone quite well between early rivalries and some amazing postseason hockey, which is what it's all about. The problem is that if the season ended today, the current 18th and 21st best teams in the league would be in, and the 15th, 16th, and 17th best would all miss.
That comes as a result of the Pacific division being so bad this year. Beyond Los Angeles, who looks poised to challenge for the Western Conference once again, Arizona and Vancouver, who would make it by virtue of being 2nd and 3rd in the division, are just a tiny bit better than San Jose, Calgary, Edmonton, and Anaheim. And that all comes back to parity. It's that close. But the Coyotes and Canucks would play in the first round of the playoffs, meaning of the final eight teams remaining, one of them would be either the 18th or 21st best in the league. That's not what playoff hockey is about. It should be the best teams playing, and unless the Pacific gets it in gear for the second half of the season, that is what will take place and the quality of play will go down as a result.
For the time being, though, let's part with the knowledge that for as rough as a beginning the Avalanche had to this season, they are just a few
wins OVERTIME LOSSES away from being a playoff team, and from a points perspective, one of the best in the league. A lot can happen in a few months, and Colorado is playing some of the best hockey of any team in the league right now. Where this team ends up in the midst of all the others with this state of major parity, will be fascinating.