The idea that the NHL regular season is just an 82-game preseason may be the last vestige of a time when 16 of the then 21 teams made the playoffs. These days, when exactly half the teams are shut out, some truly decent teams fail. Teams like the Knights last year can put up over 90 points and not make it, although we thank them for that because it absolutely hilarious. It can be a pointless and never-ending run for the teams firmly planted at the top of the standings, but for the entire household anywhere near the cut-off line, it’s a necessary exercise filled with excitement and drama. As dramatic as Thursday night can be in Calgary.
But that doesn’t mean the NHL deciding who gets to finish 82 games is justified or in utter dejection not one of the dumber things happening 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. Figueroa’s lineup (I just thought of that) is currently third in the Pacific, the last automatic playoff spot, with 58 points. Guys, let me tell you, the Kings are not good at anything. They are 17th in goals per game. They are 22nd in goals per game. Their penalty kick makes baby Jesus cry. Their power play barely rises to a decent level. Their metrics are slightly above average, 13th in Corsi percentage and 10th in expected goals percentage at even strength. Their scoring is less visible than a Hollywood puke puddle, which is far more common than most people think. They are not so lucky, considering their shooting percentage is 24th in the NHL.
This is not even a team that someone carries with some Atlasian performance. Kevin Fiala is putting up a points per game rate, good for 32nd in the league, and their leading scorer Adrian Kempe (I always want to call him “Mario” because he clearly fascinates me mid-70s Argentinian strikers with incredible hair. It’s unlikely that I’m the only one. And yes, it was “Kempes” but that’s the day) is on pace for 31 goals. There’s just nothing special about the Kings, who scream that they should be a team that misses the playoffs by 5-10 points.
And yet, they not only have a spot, but an automatic spot thanks to three overtime wins and an additional four in the shootout. That’s seven points they won in the standings in things that don’t really have much to do with hockey as we know it.
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Yes, I know, fans love 3-on-3 overtime. Listen to the audience during it, I’m told. It’s the same argument Cherry-acolytes trot out to keep fighting in the game, and nobody who can count to six thinks fighting should be in hockey anymore. 3-on-3 is false excitement. It’s a farce. That is false. I know, things happen. But he’s really no different than Manfred Man in extra innings, and everyone hates that too. It’s simply giving yourself a chance to score a goal without doing anything to earn it, which is the whole point of hockey. I’m sure if we decided baseball games didn’t allow pitchers to throw anything but fastballs for batting practice, we’d see some of the greatest hitters in the game end games with glorious bangs that would have tons of muddy goobers clapping like seals. What makes baseball’s best baseball’s best is that they can do it while facing the toughest challenges on the mound. Same with hockey. Connor McDavid isn’t Connor McDavid because he can fry through space that other teams just can’t cover, but because he creates it against five defenders.
An issue widespread elsewhere in the NHL
The Kings are not alone. The division-leading Knights have five overtime wins and an additional three in shootouts. Again, eight points basically come from a skee-ball machine. Their 21 regular season wins are good for 11th in the league. And this is the division leader? Their +17 goal differential is 12. Meanwhile, the Calgary Flames, a truly well-constructed team, lead the league in overtime losses with nine. That doesn’t mean they’re missing anything, it just means a whole bunch of coin flips–mostly jumpers that bounced a certain way that led to a 2-on-1 the other way, which is all overtime–didn’t make the trip. And now they are fighting for their lives in the playoffs even though they have a goal difference of some 14 goals better than the Kings.
The Oilers have 25 wins in the regular season, again the whole point of the exercise, which eclipses anything anyone else in the division has done. They get a wildcard for their troubles.
We know why it works that way. Gary Bettman and his friends figured out the shootout a long time ago, and a point awarded just to go to overtime creates a false travesty. Teams always somehow look like they’re in the playoff chase, unless they really are a disaster (and most of them are trying to be a disaster these days while they’re “blasting Bedard hard”). Only nine of the 32 teams would currently “appear” to be under .500 to the layman, and a three-point gap to a playoff spot or the division lead sounds small if you don’t know how difficult it is to gain any ground in this wasteland of broken parity.
But it is not what it seems, and never has been. And for that, we get whatever this Kings thing is presented as a playoff team. Maybe it’s all a waste of time.