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Western Conference Update: Vegas is back on top

It’s fitting, really, the franchise has only ever known top spot in the Pacific.

Colorado Avalanche v Vegas Golden Knights
LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - DECEMBER 27: Mikko Rantanen #96 of the Colorado Avalanche looks on as Marc-Andre Fleury #29 of the Vegas Golden Knights dives in the crease as he defends the net in the third period of their game at T-Mobile Arena on December 27, 2018 in Las Vegas, Nevada. The Golden Knights defeated the Avalanche 2-1.
Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

New year, New me, right? Western Conference Power Rankings are so 2018 (and I was super tired of doing them) so how about a new series? We can call this: The Good, The Bad, The Ugly of the Western Conference.

Every week, I’ll go through the juicy story lines of the Western Conference and find the stories and trends people actually care about. Honestly, did anyone really read the updates on Chicago, LA, or Arizona? No! I barely did when I wrote them. This takes all that fat out of the equation.

Ready? Let’s begin.

And as always, we really appreciate your feedback in the comments. Knowing what you want to read only helps us better provide that for you.

Week 14 (I think)

The Good

Vegas Golden Knights

Hold the phone. When did Vegas jump all the way up to first in the Pacific? In a word: luck. And not in the bad way.

For whatever reason (possibly due to team chemistry and getting back into game speed), the first 20 games of the season saw both the Golden Knights’ goaltending disappoint (team .891 sv%) and the team shoot poorly (team 7.3% sh%). Usually those two numbers added together (PDO) get a number close to 100, but the Knights were at 95.

As a result, public perception of the team defaulted to, “oh, this team actually sucks. We were right all along,” without people seeing the underlying numbers improving. And why should we have? They were 8-11-1 and far from a playoff spot.

However, over the next 24 games (mid-November until today), the Golden Knights saw their PDO level back out. They went 17-4-3 while posting a 102 PDO (.918 sv%, 10.6 sh%). The team’s goals per game increased a whole goal (2.50 to 3.45), but it was honestly the work of Marc-Andre Fleury that made the real difference. Fleury played 21 of the 24 games since November 16th and stopped 92% of the shots he faced. Those aren’t Vezina numbers by any means, but they are more than enough to help a positive shot share team win a lot more games than not. Which is exactly what happened.

And let me be clear, throughout this whole time the team was owning about 54% of the shot share in each game, they were getting their chances consistently, the problem was simply that the bounces weren’t going there way. Randomness has a lot of patterns in it, and as a result, hot and cold stretches happen all the time.

The Bad

Colorado Avalanche

Am I allowed to say this? I feel like it’s sacrilege. Is Tom able to fire me over this? Whatever, it’s his loss. I’m his best writer by a mile. He’s just going to have to deal with it. Two weeks or so before the Christmas break, we did a roundtable here at MHH, and one thing I was really looking forward to was Mikko Rantanen and the Avalanche really walking all over their opponents for the rest of the month.

They pretty much did the opposite of that, going 3-6-3 in those 12 games since. That’s 15 of a possible 24 points lost. And it was really frustrating, too, because a lot of Colorado’s opponents were really bad. Five of their opponents were in playoff spots, sure, but they also got to play Chicago, Arizona, St. Louis, and LA a total of five times, too. Unfortunately, in those five games against the bottom-feeders of the West, the Avs went 0-2-3. Not a single win. Yep. That’ll kick you out of a divisional spot quite effectively.

A lot of people (including us) have written long and hard about the Avs’ struggles this past calendar month, but I think the consensus is that Semyon Varlamov got injured and Philipp Grubauer was not up to the task. I wanted to go into more depth about how the forwards aren’t starting well or that the team is taking too many penalties and all that, but after looking at the numbers, it really does look like the team just really needed a save during that 12-game stretch. They were getting down early on often-times weak shots, and taxed themselves for the rest of the game while trying to catch up.

By the sounds of it, the Avs are about to get Varlamov back (hopefully on a more permanent basis) in the near future, so hopefully that brings about some change.

The Ugly

Edmonton Oilers

The day this article was released, the Oilers went on a six-game losing streak, sending them closer to last in the Western Conference than in a wild card playoff spot. The team was (mostly) safe in a playoff spot at that time, and Peter Chiarelli was well on his way to keeping his completely undeserving job. Now, they are on the outside looking at what might only be a wild card berth at this point (honestly, no one is taking a spot from Calgary, Vegas, and San Jose now).

After his career year in 2016-17, Cam Talbot has been a shadow of his former self. This season in 22 games, he has a meager .893 sv% and way below average advanced goalie numbers across the board. Luckily, Pete signed Finnish netminder Mikko Koskinen to a contract in the summer, and over his first 15 games, he posted a Vezina-calibre .930 sv% and a massively successful 11-3-1 record. However, since then, he has one win in six games and a .870 sv%.

Some will argue it wasn’t just the goaltending that caused the Oilers steep drop in the standings, and they’re most definitely right. The Oilers lost Oscar Klefbom and Kris Russell at nearly the exact time as the start of the losing streak and haven’t looked the same defensively since.

The Oilers have a few problems, but the biggest one is by far depth. The Oilers cannot score a single goal when Connor McDavid is on the bench. When he gets cold/the other team is able to shut him down, there is no one on the roster who can pick up the slack. When the defense is fully healthy and clicking on all cylinders, it’s middling at best. And when the defense falters or gets an injury, they and the goaltending collapse. It’s been happening for years and nothing’s changed.

I’m glad Chiarelli understands that the problem is depth; he tried to make moves to fix it. Unfortunately, he made the worst possible moves for the worst possible depth options. It’s like he noticed his laptop was a 5% battery so he turned off the Slack app that was running in the background to save it.

The future is bleak in Edmonton. I just don’t see anyone in that city capable of doing anything different than the status quo. Rogers Place is a building full of old white men with a room full of jerseys and special sticks in each of their basements.