The idea that the NHL regular season is just an 82-game preseason is perhaps the last vestige of a time when 16 of the then 21 teams made the playoffs. These days, when exactly half the teams get knocked down, some really decent teams don’t make it. Teams like the Knights last year can put up over 90 points and not make it, although we give them credit for that because it was totally hilarious. It can be a pointless and endless jaunt for teams firmly entrenched at the top of the standings, but for a whole host anywhere near the cutoff line, it’s a necessary exercise filled with excitement and drama. As dramatic as a Thursday night in Calgary can be, that is.
But that doesn’t mean the NHL deciding who has 82 games ending rightfully or in complete despondency isn’t one of the dumber 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 lineup (just thought of that) is currently in third place in the Pacific, the last automatic playoff spot with 58 points. Guys, let me tell you, Kings are good for nothing. They are number 17 in goals per match. They are number 22 in goal-against per match. Their execution makes the baby Jesus cry. Their power play barely reaches a decent level. Their goals are just above average, 13th in Corsi percentage and 10th in expected goal percentage at even strength. Their goaltending is less presentable than a puke puddle in Hollywood, a far more common occurrence than most people realize. They’re not even that lucky, considering their shooting percentage is 24th in the NHL.
This isn’t even a team carried by an Atlas-like performance by anyone. Kevin Fiala is producing at a point-per-game rate good for 32nd in the league, and their leading scorer Adrian Kempe (I always have this urge to call him “Mario” because I apparently have a fascination with mid 70s Argentinian strikers with incredible hair. I’m unlikely to be the only one. And yes, it was “Kempes”, but that’s the kind of day) is on pace for 31 goals. There is simply nothing remarkable about the Kings that screams to be a team that misses the playoffs by anywhere from 5-10 points.
And yet they have not just a spot, but an automatic spot thanks to three wins in overtime and another four in the shootout. That’s seven points they’ve gained in the standings in things that don’t really have much to do with hockey as we know it.
Yes, I know, fans love 3-on-3 overtime. Listen to the crowd below it, I’m told. This is 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 faux excitement. It is a farce. It is false. I know a lot of things are happening. But it’s really no different than the Manfred man in extras, and everyone hates it too. It’s simply getting 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 but batting practice fastballs, we’d see some of the game’s greatest sluggers end games with majestic explosions that would make a whole lot of oozing goobers clap like seals. What makes baseball’s best baseball’s best is that they can do it while facing the toughest 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 also prevalent elsewhere in the NHL
The kings are not alone. The division-leading Knights have five overtime wins and three more in the shootout. Again, eight points they pretty much go out of a skee-ball machine. Their 21 regulation wins are good for 11th best in the league. And this is a division manager? 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 that a whole lot of coin flips—basically rebounds that bounced a certain way, leading to a 2-on-1 the other way, which is all overtime— have not gone their way. And now they are scrapping for their playoff lives, even though they have a goal difference of about 14 goals better than the Kings.
The Oilers have 25 wins in regulation, again the whole point of the exercise, eclipsing anything anyone else in the division has done. They get a wild card for their trouble.
We know why it works this way. Gary Bettman and his buddies figured out the shootout long ago, and the point of just getting to overtime creates false parody. Teams always look like they’re in the playoff hunt unless they really are 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 “look” 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 difficult it is to gain ground in this wasteland of initiated equality.
But it is not what it seems, and never has been. And for that we get, whatever it is, this Kings thing being presented as a playoff team. Maybe it’s all a waste of time.