Finding clarity in the Wild West's playoff picture

Jordan Binnington has helped the Blues get back in the playoff hunt. Keith Gillett/Icon Sportswire

We're fast approaching the crossroads of the 2018-19 regular season. The trade deadline serves that purpose on the NHL's annual calendar, becoming an inflection point for teams by which they need to answer some important questions.

How good is our team right now as currently constructed? What are we realistically trying to get out of this season? And what moves do we need to make to put ourselves in the best position possible to achieve those goals?

For teams that view themselves as legitimate contenders, it's the last chance to go out and load up for a playoff run. For teams that are out of it, that shopping spree presents an opportunity to squeeze value out of spare parts and brighten the future outlook. While that sounds pretty straightforward in theory, sometimes trying to accurately figure out which of those two camps you fall into can be trickier in practice.

The complicating factor throwing a monkey wrench into the entire equation is the loser point. That's by design. The league prides itself on being able to point to the parity in the standings this late in the season. Thanks to the number of three-point games being dished out on a nightly basis, there's really only a select few teams that aren't at least on the peripheries of a playoff race. That intentionally keeps the overwhelming majority of fan bases engaged in the daily product for as long as humanly possible.

The unintended consequence, though, is that it also creates a holding pattern on the trade front. With so little separation, it's easy for teams that are still hanging around to delude themselves into thinking they've got a chance even when they really don't. When you're that deep into the weeds and feeling the pressures of a hopeful fan base and an ownership group that's salivating at the potential monetary gain from hosting even a couple of playoff games, it can be quite difficult to ostensibly wave the white flag on your season by becoming a seller in the trade market.

Competing in a salary cap world is a cutthroat business by nature though. If you're not able to take a step back, critically assess your place in the league's hierarchy, and act accordingly, you risk getting up in a vicious cycle of mediocrity. That's the worst place you can find yourself as a franchise, because it's really difficult to get out of once you're already there. The reality is that despite what the standings say, only so many teams can actually contend at a high level in a given season. If you're not one of those teams, the sooner you come to terms with it, the better off you'll be in the long run.

The meat of the Western Conference playoff picture is a good example of that. A cursory glance at it doesn't necessarily provide any clarity on where anyone stands -- all it really shows is one big jumbled mess of teams squished together. At the moment there are up to 10 teams technically still vying for just the three spots that aren't already cinched up, with eight of them separated by just six points. All of those teams could conceivably talk themselves into going for one of the wild-card spots still there for the taking.

For our purposes, we need to get a better sense of what's actually going on. Let's start by peeling back a layer and looking at some underlying performance indicators, including comparing the first 25 games of the season to the most recent 25-game sample. Below we'll take a closer look at some of the more intriguing storylines. All data in this piece is accurate prior to Wednesday evening's games, and has been mined from invaluable online resources such as Corsica, Natural Stat Trick, and Puck on Net.


The St. Louis Blues have been the hottest team in the league of late, and there's a lot to like about the way they've been playing. They're a prime of example of why this exercise is important, because the full-season picture doesn't fairly account for how much their situation has fundamentally changed over time.

Their recent tear has been a sight to behold. They've gone 13-4-1 since the calendar flipped to the new year, winning their past seven by a 29-14 margin. The Blues recently went into Tampa Bay and outplayed the best team in the league, before more than holding their own in a home-and-home weekend series against the Nashville Predators. They have been playing well enough for long enough now that we need to start seriously buying into what they're doing.

They've controlled a whopping 57.2 percent of unblocked attempts and 57.9 percent of shots on goal at 5-on-5 over their past 25 games, both of which are tops in the league. The trio of Vladimir Tarasenko, Ryan O'Reilly and Brayden Schenn has been the main driving force behind that success. In just over 100 minutes played together, that trio is outscoring opponents 10-3, while controlling nearly 60 percent of the shot share. The key is getting Tarasenko going. After his struggles early in the year got so bad that his name started unfathomably popping up in trade rumors, he's gotten back to being a lethal scorer. Since Jan. 1, he's up to 11 goals and 10 assists in just 17 games, getting him back to a season-long pace of 33 goals (which is exactly what he had last season).

Everything else behind them has also fallen into place. The Blues have seemingly finally become the team some of us expected them to be all along: A team with very few weaknesses and that can roll four lines, all of which can skate and handle the puck. As good as that skater group has been, the biggest difference-maker has still been the promotion of Jordan Binnington from the AHL and into their net. He's been nothing short of fantastic in his 12 starts thus far, already saving 3.42 goals more than we would've expected a league-average goalie to stop based on his workload. To put that into perspective, he's been worth nearly as much in his 14 games as Pekka Rinne has been in his 39 for the year, and is already ahead of goalies like Braden Holtby, Marc-Andre Fleury, Connor Hellebuyck and Carey Price.

The Blues have obviously been better in front of him defensively as a collective than they were earlier in the year, but that shouldn't detract from what he's accomplished, nor should it excuse the dreadful play of those who guarded the net before him. It's remarkable that Jake Allen got as long of a leash as he did, considering he was coming up on nearly 100 games of well below league average play. He is especially bad this season, coming in at 72nd out of 73 qualified goalies with a goals-saved above average of minus-12.4 and a save percentage south of .900. Even if Binnington's true talent level moving forward isn't as good as it's been thus far, he's afforded ample wiggle room to regress while still providing the Blues with an improvement in net from what they started with in Allen and Chad Johnson.


The Chicago Blackhawks have been garnering plenty of buzz about their surge up the standings of late, but it looks like that's a lot more about residual name brand value than actual present day substance.

On Dec. 8, they had just completed a 3-14-3 stretch during which they were outscored by 32 goals, sinking them all the way down to 31st place in the league. While there was literally no place to go but up at that point, it's still stunning to see them hovering around the fringes of the playoff race. Part of that has to do with how mediocre the rest of the competition has been, but part of it has to do with a recent 14-7-4 spurt in their past 25 games.

There's three main driving forces behind that success. For one, the power play has been running hot, with no other team scoring more raw goals or generating a higher rate of man-advantage tallies on a per-minute basis of late. Then, Patrick Kane is in the Art Ross conversation thanks to the 53 points he has in 31 games since the start of December, during which he's routinely been playing an almost unheard of 23 minutes per night. And finally, Collin Delia was called up and has performed admirably despite being thrown into a wildly unfavorable situation. More Delia has ultimately meant less Cam Ward, which is arguably the most important part of the equation. Whereas Ward had a minus-5.4 goals-saved above average in his 24 appearances, Delia has been plus-5.28 in just 13 games.

Yet despite that turnaround in the win-loss column, all of the underlying red flags that were there to start the year when they were losing are still there. Chicago is still 29th in shot attempts and 30th in shots on goal over the last 25 games, only rivaled by the Edmonton Oilers and New Jersey Devils. That's largely due to its persisting defensive woes, where the Blackhawks have been stunningly porous this season. For the year at both 5-on-5 and in all situations overall, only the Ottawa Senators give up a higher rate of shots against, and only the Anaheim Ducks have a lower expected goal share.

Until that changes, there's no reason to believe they've actually turned the corner, regardless of how many games they've recently won.

Without goaltending, you have nothing

For all of the analysis we can do about all of the different factors that go into winning and losing, at the end of the day, if you don't have a certain level of goaltending, that's awfully difficult to overcome. Similarly, great goaltending can go a long way towards covering other flaws.

Just look at the Ducks. Their trip out East drew a bunch of attention and eventually got their coach fired, but the reality is they've been this bad all year long. It's just that early in the season, John Gibson was such a singularly dominant force that he was masking their issues and carrying them to victories. Without him stopping nearly 93 percent of the high volume of shots he was being peppered with, everything quickly unraveled. In a weird way, maybe it was for the best in the long haul, because at least now they actually have to address the deeper rooted issues that plague their roster.

The Colorado Avalanche are another extreme example of the importance of goaltending. While all of their numbers have been perfectly normal -- their 5-on-5 performance as a team has actually improved as the year has progressed -- no team has experienced a more dramatic fall than they have over the past 25 games because their goaltending has completely tanked.

In the first two months of the season, the Avalanche goalies were fourth in save percentage, and the team was giving up the third-fewest goals against overall. Since then, they've plummeted all the way down to 31st and 30th in those two categories, respectively. It's been a rather stunning turn of events considering both how good they were early on, and that the tandem of Semyon Varlamov and Philipp Grubauer is the fourth-highest paid duo in the league.

Regardless of how lethal the Avalanche's top forward line still is, these past couple of weeks have shown that even that can't make up for the league's worst goaltending. There's still enough time for them to turn it around and salvage the season, but the fact that they're now on the outside looking in speaks to how south things have gone in Colorado. It wasn't too long ago that people were wondering whether they were capable of taking the next step and entering the conversation for Central Division supremacy with the Winnipeg Jets and Predators.

That's wild

One final note on the Minnesota Wild, who are currently holding on to one of the wild-card spots and should emerge from the group if only by process of elimination. While their underlying numbers have been solid throughout, it's worth noting that they've also been one of the healthiest teams in the league this season. Aside from the big blow of losing Matt Dumba, they hadn't really lost a key contributor for an extended period of time prior to Mikko Koivu's season-ending injury.

That one will really sting, because he's somewhat quietly been one of the league's most dominant defensive forwards for some time. While Minnesota actually has good internal depth at the center position and will presumably rely on the 1-2 punch of Mikael Granlund and Eric Staal to do the majority of the heavy lifting, neither of them can fully cover what Koivu brought to the table.

One of the rationales behind sending Nino Niederreiter out of town in exchange for Victor Rask a couple of weeks ago was that the latter provided some added utility in the middle. At the time, the deal didn't pass the smell test for Minnesota, and it certainly has only aged more poorly with each passing day. Niederreiter has unsurprisingly thrived in his new home, riding shotgun with Sebastian Aho. Much as he did in his time with the Wild, he's been a beast generating shots and has been a force to be reckoned with around the net. Meanwhile, Rask is not only playing on the fourth line at the moment, but has actually been bumped off to the wing to further pour salt on the wound.

Ouch. That's a bad beat for Minnesota, who could certainly use Niederreiter's strong 5-on-5 play on both ends of the puck more than ever right about now.