The idea that the NHL regular season is just an 82-game preseason is maybe the last vestige of a time when 16 of the then-21 teams made the playoffs. These days, when exactly half the teams are culled, some genuinely decent teams don’t make it. Teams like the Knights last year can rack up over 90 points and not make it, though we thank them for it because it was utterly hilarious. It may be a pointless and endless jaunt for teams firmly ensconced 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 that the NHL decides who has 82 games end justifiably or in utter dejection isn’t one of the dumber things going in sports right now. One need look no further than the Pacific Division to see why.
Let us start with the Los Angeles Kings. The Figueroa Formation (I just thought of that) currently sits third in the Pacific, the last automatic playoff spot, with 58 points. Folks, lemme tell ya, the Kings aren’t good at anything. They’re 17th in goals per game. They’re 22nd in goals-against per game. Their penalty kill makes the baby Jesus weep. Their power play barely rises to the level of decent. Their metrics are just above middling, 13th in Corsi-percentage and 10th in expected goals 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 getting all that lucky, considering their shooting percentage is 24th in the NHL.
This isn’t even a team being carried by some Atlas-like performance by anyone. Kevin Fiala is producing at a point-per-game rate, good for 32nd in the league, and their leading goal-scorer Adrian Kempe (I always have this urge to call him “Mario” because apparently, I have a fascination with mid-70s Argentine strikers with incredible hair. Unlikely I’m the only one. And yes that was “Kempes” but it’s that kind of day) is on pace for 31 goals. There is simply nothing remarkable about the Kings, who scream that they should be a team that misses out on 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 an additional 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 during it, I’m told. This is the same argument the Cherry acolytes trot out to keep fighting in the game, and no one who can count to six thinks fighting should be in hockey anymore. 3-on-3 is faux excitement. It’s a farce. It’s fake. I know, lots of things happen. But it’s really no different than the Manfred Man in extra-innings and everyone loathes that too. It’s being simply handed 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 other than batting practice fastballs, we’d see some of the game’s biggest sluggers end games with majestic blasts that would get a whole lot of ooze-filled goobers clapping like seals. What makes baseball’s best baseball’s best is they can do that while facing the most difficult 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.
The Kings aren’t alone. The division-leading Knights have five overtime wins and an additional three in the shootout. Again, eight points they basically go out of a skeeball machine. Their 21 regulation wins are good for 11th best in the league. And this is a division leader? Their +17 goal difference is 12th. Meanwhile, the Calgary Flames, a genuinely well-constructed team, lead the league in losses in overtime with nine. That doesn’t mean they lack something, it just means a whole bunch of coin-flips — basically, rebounds that bounced a certain way that led to a 2-on-1 the other way which is all overtime is — haven’t gone their way. And now they’re scrapping for their playoff lives even though they have a goal difference some 14 goals better than the Kings.
The Oilers have 25 wins in regulation, again the whole point of the exercise, which dwarfs anything anyone else in the division has done. They get a wildcard spot for their troubles.
We know why it works this way. Gary Bettman and his cronies long ago figured out the shootout and the point given for just reaching overtime creates fake parity. Teams always kind of look like they’re in the playoff chase unless they’re truly 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 “appear” 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 hard it is to gain any ground in this wasteland of ginned-up equality.
But it is not what it appears to be, and it never has been. And for that, we get whatever it is this Kings thing is presented as a playoff team. Maybe it is all a waste of time.