The Pacific Division is spectacularly bad, and everyone knows it.
And yet, three teams from it are guaranteed a playoff spot. Even though six of seven teams are in the bottom half of the league, and four of them are in the bottom 10, all of them – including the Flames – still have a realistic chance at the playoffs.
The Los Angeles Kings
It was a surprise when the Kings missed the playoffs in 2014-15. After all, they were the defending Stanley Cup Champions, winners of the ultimate prize in two of the previous three seasons. They were a good team, near the top of the analytics game and with the hardware to match.
But they didn’t win enough in the regular season, and ultimately, a season series lost to the Calgary Flames – and one final game lost to the Edmonton Oilers – cemented their downfall.
That was last year, though; this is this year. The Flames have yet to play them, but things might not be pretty when they finally do meet up for the first time on Dec. 31. The Kings have 18 wins, four ahead of the third place San Jose Sharks, and seven points more than the second place Vancouver Canucks. They’re fifth in the entire NHL with the same number of games played as the 28th place Flames. And yes, the fancy stats still love them: they’re first in the entire league with a 57.3% CF.
The Kings are a bastion of competence in an otherwise painfully inept division. They have a goal differential of +14, and everyone else is in the negatives.
The Canucks are in second place by virtue of having lost eight games after regulation. That’s eight points Vancouver has gotten for losing, and it’s vaulted them to second in the division, even though they only have 11 wins: the least in the division, tied with the Ducks and Flames, who have both played fewer games.
The Ducks are in fourth place with 27 points, five of which also came from losing games. In fact, if the loser point wasn’t a thing, the Canucks, Ducks, and Flames would all be tied for last place in the division with 22 points each – except the Flames would rank ahead, because they’ve played fewer games. And they’d be four points out of a playoff spot, instead of the five they currently are.
Remember that the Flames, last in the Pacific Division (again, this is in part, right now, due to having played the fewest amount of games in the division) and tied for last in the NHL, are just five points out of a playoff spot, and that’s including the illusion of parity the loser point helps to create.
The division is a mess. The Sharks are in third place despite having the second most wins, and that’s after the five-game losing streak they’re currently on; they’ve yet to win a game in December. The Coyotes are in fourth place with the third-most wins, and they’re also on a five-game all-losses December streak.
Meanwhile, the sixth place Oilers are on a four-game winning streak, and the seventh place Flames are aiming to match them tonight. The teams that looked to be flourishing are now flopping, and the teams that were flopping are now flourishing, and nobody outside of the Kings has shown a consistent ability to be competitive.
“You’re not out of it”
“Look at the standings. We’re right there,” said Bob Hartley in his post-game press conference after the Flames’ 4-2 win over the Sharks. He’s not lying, but the only reason is because the hole the Flames are digging themselves out of, to paraphrase him a sentence earlier, isn’t much deeper than the holes their division rivals have also been digging.
My favourite was this quote from Willie Desjardins’ post-game presser, following the Canucks’ 4-0 loss to the Bruins just three games ago on Dec. 5:
“Just the way our division is, you’re not out of it.”
The third place teams in all the other divisions right now have 37, 35, and 34 points. To qualify for a wild card spot, right now, you’d need 33 or 32 points. Most of the Pacific teams would absolutely be right on track to being out of it, if they weren’t already, if they played in any other division.
But it’s the Pacific, and it gives you a sparkling illusion of competition (that will likely come crashing down the second they face a real team in the playoffs).
How is this going to end?
At this rate, it’s entirely possible the Pacific teams that just miss the playoffs will end up with great lottery odds.
And hey, wouldn’t that be a great way for the season to go? You get the fun of the chase for the playoffs, and the disappointment of coming up just short would definitely sting – but making the playoffs in the Pacific, unless you’re the Kings, is probably going to mean nothing. One team would win a playoff round by default, but after that, it would likely be a slaughter.
Remember how the Flames stood no chance against the Ducks in the second round last season? It was fun getting there, and I wouldn’t want to trade that experience… but that’s not what’s going to bring the Flames closer to the Cup.
Having a fun season rather than a hopeless one and coming up just short, only to end up with a top draft pick would probably be ideal. You have fun in the short term, get better in the long term, and ultimately, have more fun in the long term.
That’s the real blessing the state of the Pacific provides: the excitement of a playoff chase with the thrill of keeping an eye on the top draft picks, knowing there’s a good chance one of them is going to make your team better for years to come. Then it’s more likely you’ll experience meaningful playoff chases – and meaningful post-seasons.
Hey, I’ll take it.