BOCA RATON, Fla. — The Vegas Golden Knights might still be the story of the year when it comes to surprising performances. But, heading into the final weeks of the season, the expansion team has plenty of company.
The Colorado Avalanche, who finished with the league’s worst record last season, is currently holding down the first wild card spot in the Western Conference. The New Jersey Devils, who had the No. 1 overall pick, is the second wild card team in the East.
And then there’s the Florida Panthers.
On Dec. 18, Florida had the third-fewest points in the league. Since then, only Boston, Nashville and Winnipeg have picked up more points than Florida (52 points in 38 games). A team that was 12 points back of a playoff spot — with four teams to pass — has gone 18-5-1 over the past few months and is now trailing the Devils by just one point, with two games in hand.
It’s a remarkable turnaround, one that no one saw coming — not even GM Dale Tallon.
“No one expected us to be doing what we’re doing, especially after the first half and especially with all the young defencemen, new players and new coaches,” Tallon said. “So, we’re enjoying it. The meaningful games are more important for what we plan to do down the road. It’s a great experience for our young guys and I’m excited to see how they react to it.
“Six of our seven defencemen have played less than 200 games, so we knew that there would be growing pains and there would make mistakes. But they’re getting better and making fewer and fewer mistakes and playing with composure.”
While Selke Trophy candidate Aleksander Barkov leads the team in scoring — his 30 points since the all-star break rank him eighth in the league — it has been Roberto Luongo’s turn-back-the-clock play in net that has really made the difference.
“Lou has been incredible as far as his work ethic to get back after a tough summer and after last year with the physical problems he had,” Tallon said of the 38-year-old, who is 15-9-2 with a .928 save percentage in 28 appearances this year. “But, boy, you have to give him a lot of credit in working back to play at this level.”
PLAYOFF SHUFFLE DENIED
A year after the second- and third-best teams in the East were forced to play each other in the opening round of the playoffs, a similar scenario is about to unfold as the top-three teams in the Atlantic Division (Tampa Bay, Boston and Toronto) currently lead the conference.
While potentially eliminating two of the top-three teams by the end of the second round seems like a problem to some fan bases, it isn’t to the NHL.
“No thought to that whatsoever,” commissioner Gary Bettman said, when asked if changing the playoff format was up for discussion. “No discussion to that whatsoever. The GMs, the group that focuses on the games on a daily basis, are extremely pleased with the way things are.
“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
Since 2014-15, the NHL has gone with a division-based format, with the top-seeded teams in each division facing a wild card team. Prior to that, the league went with a 1-vs-8 format.
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The so-called “Robidas Island” remains a mystery.
In response to allegations that the Toronto Maple Leafs — and other teams — have buried players in the minors with questionable injuries in order to circumvent the salary cap, the NHL admitted it has investigated multiple claims per year. As of right now, though, they haven’t been able to find any wrongdoing.
“We go through a thorough review process,” Bettman said. “If we think there’s an issue, we investigate, look into it and in some instances do our investigation.”
Added deputy commissioner Bill Daly: “We’ve never had issue confirming the conditions. He said the complaints did not come from rival GMs but rather were initiated by the league. “It’s not to call into anybody’s integrity or judgment, it’s to make sure the (Collective Bargaining Agreement’s) integrity is maintained. All of the issues that were raised were looked into.”
EXPANSION HEAD START
Whether it’s in 2019 or 2020, Seattle is going to get an NHL team.
And when it does, Daly confirmed that the expansion draft would be identical to what Vegas had last year — with one exception, of course.
The other 31 teams will now have time to prepare for which players they can and cannot protect.
“Keep in mind that teams are now planning when they’re signing players,” Devils GM Ray Shero said.
“They know what the rules are. With Vegas, we had no idea what the rules were. There were no rules.
Teams got caught, but it’s not as if they did it on purpose. There were no rules. So, you didn’t do any planning.
“It will be harder for the next expansion team, because we know the rules and in two or three years — or whenever it is — you can plan that way.”
WAITING GAME BEGINS
If the Avalanche qualify for the playoffs, don’t expect the team to get additional help on the back end.
While GM Joe Sakic said he reached out to defenceman Cale Makar after his season ended with University of Massachusetts-Amherst, the earliest he expects the fourth-overall pick in 2017 to be in the NHL would be next season.
That is, unless the 19-year-old decides to return for a sophomore year of college.
“I’ve had conversations with Cale and his dad and now we’ll wait to see what happens,” Sakic said of Makar, who turned down an invitation to represent Canada at the Olympics after winning gold at the world juniors.
“There’s no rush. Not for this year. He’s a guy that can wait to come up. He’s going to decide if he feels he’s ready or not. I believe he’s ready to come up, but he’s got to make the decision that he feels is best for him and his development.”