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Sports Authority

McGuinness: Pretenders or contenders? Evaluating 4 of the NHL’s most confusing teams at the All-Star break

| Thursday, February 3, 2022

The NHL All-Star break always provides a nice opportunity to reflect not only on the hockey we’ve seen so far, but also the hockey we’re likely to see moving forward. Every team except the New York Islanders has already completed at least half of their season, giving us a pretty good idea of who will be playing into May.

But not all playoff teams are created equal, and not just in terms of seeding. Among the teams likely to reach this year’s tournament, a few are bona fide Cup contenders. Some of the teams that make it will just be happy to get playoff experience in for their young players. Then there are these four teams. All are comfortably in a playoff spot by points percentage, but what our expectations should be in May is anyone’s guess — including mine, as we’re about to explore.

New York Rangers

Why they’re contenders

There was a legitimate path to the young Rangers potentially earning a wild card berth in October. Instead, they’ve burst through the glass ceiling and are on pace to tie their second-best regular-season record ever. You need star power to win in the playoffs, and they have that in spades: from Artemi Panarin and (Rocket Richard frontrunner!) Chris Kreider at wing to Mika Zibanejad at center, Adam Fox on the back end and Vezina frontrunner Igor Shesterkin in net.

Why they’re not

They’re not actually all that great at 5-on-5. In fact, they’re pretty bad, with a 45.1% expected goals rate, which would be the third worst of any playoff team since the 2007-08 season. Referees tend to swallow their whistles a lot more in the playoffs, enhancing that issue and shrinking the advantage the Rangers’ outstanding special teams provide.

The verdict

The Rangers really have the makings of something special here. But with their 5-on-5 play in the dumps and young players like Alexis Lafrenière and Kaapo Kakko still not living up to their hype, this is probably going to be the typical “learning experience” year for them.

Boston Bruins

Why they’re contenders

Most of the core contributors from their 2019 Final run are still here, and they’ll likely be bulking up at the deadline with Patrice Bergeron’s contract about to end. Despite all of their stars upfront, this is a Bruins team built on their defense; Boston is first in the league in expected goals against per 60 minutes (2.53) and known for their typical strong special teams.

Why they’re not

If the saying “If you have two goaltenders, you really don’t have any” holds true, what does that mean for a Bruins team with three legitimate starting options? Tuukka Rask hasn’t looked great since coming back, but some rust is understandable and he does have the best playoff save percentage of any active goaltender. Linus Ullmark has been inconsistent but has shown flashes. And Jeremy Swayman was playing just as well before he was sent down to the AHL to make room for Rask.

The verdict

In truth, the Bruins have only flown under the radar because they had way fewer games played than most other teams for the first few months. With the extra motivation of going deep in potentially Bergeron’s last year in Boston, I wouldn’t want to draw them in a best-of-seven.

Nashville Predators

Why they’re contenders

Only the Avalanche, Penguins and Lightning have better records than the Predators over the last two months. Matt Duchene, Ryan Johansen and Mikael Granlund have all turned in impressive bounce-back years, making the Predators incredibly deep down the middle. And yet none of them have more points than Roman Josi, who is turning in another Norris-caliber if not underrated season.

Why they’re not

Not only is Juuse Saros carrying a lot of the load here, he’s also playing a lot, which runs the risk of burnout. After all, no goaltender who’s led the league in starts (which Saros currently is) has even made the third round of the playoffs in the cap era. They also haven’t replaced Ryan Ellis’ presence in their top four or committed to their most dynamic forward, pending UFA Filip Forsberg.

The verdict

It feels like Nashville has more caught lightning in a bottle than found a formula for long-term success. The cap will probably come off sooner rather than later, but getting to see their raucous fanbase back in the playoffs is always a welcome sight.

Calgary Flames

Why they’re contenders

Coaches making their second stint in a market usually don’t fair well, but that hasn’t been the case for Darryl Sutter. He’s got the Flames playing excellent defense (top in PK% and shots against per game, first with nine shutouts). Oh, and they’ve also got one of the best first lines in hockey, led by a career year for Johnny Gaudreau, with Andrew Mangiapane’s 40-goal pace leading the depth.

Why they’re not

Like Nashville, they lost a key defender in the offseason (captain Mark Giordano) and haven’t replaced him; you have to wonder if Calgary can be consistently dominant defensively with such an unassuming group on paper. Mangiapane’s 19.8% shooting percentage is due for regression. And whatever happened to Sean Monahan? He’s scoring at just a 36-point pace.

The verdict

Sutter’s teams are always better than the sum of their parts, and these Flames are no exception. With Gaudreau set to hit free agency, I’d expect general manager Brad Treliving to make a big move or two at the deadline and try to lift the Flames past the second round for the first time since 2004.

About Andrew McGuinness

Andrew McGuinness is a sophomore in Siegfried Hall from Haddonfield, New Jersey, a short drive away from Philadelphia. Naturally, he loves all of his Philadelphia sports teams, even if they don't always love him back. Feel free to reach out to talk sports or TV shows, especially if they're Ted Lasso, Stranger Things, or/and Survivor.

Contact Andrew