The NHL Season is approximately 22% over as of today. Playoff projections you say - crazy you say. Of course it is too early to project actual teams since as early as we are into the season, it's impossible to project what will happen with injuries. However, the likely minimum number of points it will take to make the playoffs in each conference can be projected based on results to date. The interesting thing to note is that salary cap parity is affecting both conferences and driving the projected magic number down slightly this year. Last season the minimum number to be 91 points in the Western Conference (the 8th place Nashville Predators) and 94 points in the Eastern Conference (3 teams Washington, Ottawa, & Boston). This season despite an increased rate and number of "3 point games", the projection for the magic number both conferences based on play to date is 87 points. Also projecting ourselves to April 2009 it's not hard to foresee a dogfight for the last three spots in each conference by five or more teams in each conference.
What does this all mean to NHL teams right now, in mid-November? It sounds cliche but as the saying goes, each point won now, especially points earned on the road could be worth 1 1/2 points in late March and early April. Why do we always hear things like that? Basically because they are true. It might be hard for Caps fans to relate after last years amazing finish to the regular season. But it's true and that's what makes the Washington Capitals run last March and April even more amazing. However, it's far better to start off well, like the Capitals have done so far this season and keep up a solid pace, than to face a do or die every game from February 1st until the end of the season. By doing so, you give your coaching staff options. Options like not having to cross your fingers and ask a 38 year old future hall of fame center come back early and play hurt. Or options like keeping a young, solid journeyman who is surprising everyone an emerging as a top 4 defenseman after toiling in the minors for seven years so you can give one of your other minute munching defenseman, a 31 year old top flight guy, who recently logged over 24:00 TOI on 36 shifts in a Shootout Loss, a little time to get over bronchitis. These options only come with continued solid play by the entire team in all facets of the game. They come because one aspect, such as goaltending, solid goaltending by both players on the roster, sometimes to the surprise of those around the league who picked this aspect of the game as the likely Caps weak spot; makes up for a dinged up and currently depleted blue line corps, or for a slow starting group of richly talented forwards and allows your team to start off the seasons first five weeks with a 10-4-3 record.
To date the Caps have captured 23 of 34 (or 0.676) available points. That alone projects as a 110 point season. Last year, the Montreal Canadeans had the best record in the Eastern Conference with 104 points and the only team with more than 110 points were the President's Trophy/Stanley Cup Champion Detroit Red Wings with 115 points. Think about this one, while it is highly unlikely the Capitals can keep up their recent 7-1-2 pace, if they did they would finish the season with, are you ready for this, 127 points. There, now if you are a Caps fan, you know how the Ottawa Senator fans felt this time last year. The morale of that story - don't get too cocky; the Senators finished the 2007-2008 season in 7th place in the Eastern Conference with 94 points and were defeated in the first round of the playoffs by the Pittsburgh Penguins.
The logical conclusions from these analyses and projections:
1) It's unlikely that the top 4 or 5 teams in either division will keep up the pace they are on but it's also likely that winning a division in this year's NHL will take at least 104 or 106 or even more points, no matter which division you are looking at.
2) The top teams in both conferences are all playing very, very well right now as each conference has at least 5 teams on pace to reach 100+ points. (Last season only a total of 5 teams reached that mark; this season twice as many are on track to do it.)
3) Coach Bruce Boudreau is probably smart to already be looking for opportunities to rest various players, especially those other than the "young guns" - Nylander, Poti, Federov, Kozlov, Bradley, Brashear, and Clark; and to build some confidence in the second tier group of defenseman: John Erskine, Milan Jurcina, Tyler Sloan and to a much lesser degree Jeff Schultz and Shoane Morrisonn, now so the entire team will be available, in fairly decent shape and ready for a real playoff run this spring. He'll be looking for these opportunities while working hard to keep the Caps sharp and on or above their 0.650+ pace.
4) Goaltending coach Dave Prior will be working hard to make sure both Caps goalies #1 Jose Theodore, and recent #1b Brent Johnson are both played enough to stay sharp, happy and ready for anything that comes their way the rest of the regular season and, hopefully the playoffs. Coach Prior might end up with the toughest job on the team, for all the right reasons; if Theodore and Johnson keep playing with the verve and skill they have exhibited during the first 17 games of this season.
5) General Manager George McPhee has to be looking at his options and thinking about how he might use some of the flexibility the continuing maturation of so many "home grown" talents gives him to make some salary cap room so he has some real options and flexibility again at the trade deadline. He'll be wanting that flexibility so he can use it to once again pick up some help for the final stretch run and the playoffs; since everyone knows you can't anticipate exactly what a team will need then but you know it will be something. Rumors of late have been circulating about Michael Nylander, moving Nylander has several complicating factors: a) he hasn't been playing to his potential in the last 6 or so games; b) he comes with a $5+M cap hit; c) he is 36 years old - 1 year over that 35 year old mark in the NHL CBA; and d) he has a "No Movement Clause" in his contract so he can "pick his spots." Another mitigating factor is that when he is "on his game" Nylander is very good. Nyls started the season "on his game" but then cooled off. He over stickhandles at times and his reaction to being told to play more North-South hockey sure seems like it has driven him to take more low percentage shots. After not having seen him take a slapshot in the past two seasons; Caps fans have seen him take one or more in each of his last three games played - from low percentage angles without having a man in position to get a rebound. While this type of action is bad enough from a young defenseman with a blistering slapshot and mediocre stickhandling skills; it's inexplicable from one of the better stickhandling centers in the league who makes five times as much. This has to be only one of several things that Coach Boudreau and GMGM are looking at. Right now the Washington Capitals only have just under $670K of salary cap room; you have to believe that GMGM sure would like to free up at least $1 - $2 million more before the winter meetings are over so he has some "maneuvering room" when the trade deadline approaches.
6) It's a great year and time to be a hockey fan, especially a hockey fan in the DC Metro. Everyone should come out and "Rock the Red" at least once or twice this year since the Capitals are not only playing very, very well; they are indeed the most exciting team to watch in the NHL.
Next Up the Anaheim Ducks, Wednesday 11/19 in Anaheim, CA.
LETS GO CAPS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!