The idea that the NHL regular season is just 82 preseason games is perhaps the last vestige of a time when 16 of the 21 teams made the playoffs. These days, when exactly half the teams are eliminated, some really respectable teams don’t make it. Teams like last year’s Knights can rack up 90+ points and not make it, though we have them to thank for that because it was Absolutely hilarious. It may be a pointless jaunt for teams that are solidly at the top of the standings, but for a full-fledged host anywhere near the cut-off line, it’s a necessary exercise full of action and drama. It can be as exciting as a Thursday night in Calgary, that is.
But that doesn’t mean the NHL deciding who has 82 games that justifiably end up or is in a utter depression isn’t one of the dumb things going on in sports right now. One need look no further than the Pacific Division to see why.
God save the kings
Let’s start with the Los Angeles Kings. The Figueroa Formation (you just guessed it) is currently third in the Pacific, the last automatic playoff spot, with 58 points. Guys, I tell you, Kings aren’t good at anything. That’s 17 goals per game. It’s 22 goals per game. Killing them their punishment makes baby Jesus cry. Their playing power hardly rises to a decent level. Their measures are slightly above average, 13 in Corsi ratio and 10 in expected goals ratio in pair strength. Their target is less presentable than a vomited pool in Hollywood, and is a much more common occurrence than most people realize. They’re not even lucky, considering their shooting percentage is 24th in the NHL.
This isn’t even a team that holds up to an Atlas-like performance by anyone. Kevin Fiala is producing at a point-per-game average, good for 32nd in the league, and his leading scorer is Adrian Kempe (I always have this urge to call him ‘Mario’ because apparently I’m infatuated with him). Argentine strikers in the mid-70s with incredible hair. It is unlikely that I am the only one. And yes that was Kempes but that kind of day) he’s on track to score 31 goals. There is simply nothing cool about the Kings, who yell that they must be a team that misses the playoffs by 5-10 points.
However, they not only have a spot but an automatic spot thanks to three wins in overtime and four more in penalties. They got seven points in the standings in things that have nothing to do with hockey as we know it.
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Yes, I know, fans love 3-on-3 overtime. Listen to the crowd during it, I’m told. This is the same argument the Cherry-acolytes trot out to keep fighting in the game, and no one who can count to six thinks fighting should be in hockey anymore. 3-on-3 is faux excitement. It’s a farce. It’s fake. I know, lots of things happen. But it’s really no different than the Manfred Man in extra-innings and everyone loathes that too. It’s being simply handed a chance to score without doing anything to earn it, which is the whole point of hockey. I’m sure if we decided baseball games by not allowing pitchers to throw anything other than batting practice fastballs, we’d see some of the game’s biggest sluggers end games with majestic blasts that would get a whole lot of ooze-filled goobers clapping like seals. What makes baseball’s best baseball’s best is they can do that while facing the most difficult challenges on the mound. Ditto hockey. Connor McDavid isn’t Connor McDavid because he can scorch through space that other teams simply can’t cover, it’s because he creates it against five defenders.
Problem rampant elsewhere in NHL, too
The Kings aren’t alone. The division-leading Knights have five overtime wins and an additional three in the shootout. Again, eight points they basically go out of a skee-ball machine. Their 21 regulation wins are good for 11th best in the league. And this is a division leader? Their +17 goal-difference is 12th. Meanwhile, the Calgary Flames, a genuinely well-constructed team, lead the league in losses in overtime with nine. That doesn’t mean they lack something, it just means a whole bunch of coin-flips–basically rebounds that bounced a certain way that led to a 2-on-1 the other way which is all overtime is–haven’t gone their way. And now they’re scrapping for their playoff lives even though they have a goal-difference some 14 goals better than the Kings.
The Oilers have 25 wins in regulation, again the whole point of the exercise, which dwarfs anything anyone else in the division has done. They get a wildcard spot for their troubles.
We know why it works this way. Gary Bettman and his cronies long ago figured out the shootout and the point given for just reaching overtime creates fake parody. Teams always kind of look like they’re in the playoff chase unless they’re truly a disaster (and most of them these days are trying to be a disaster as they “Suck Hard For Bedard”). Only nine of the 32 teams right now would “appear” to be under .500 to the layman, and a three point gap to a playoff spot or division lead sounds small if you don’t know how hard it is to gain any ground in this wasteland of ginned-up equality.
But it is not what it appears to be, and it never has been. And for that, we get whatever it is this Kings thing is presented as a playoff team. Maybe it is all a waste of time.