Connor McDavid’s season has gone from the sublime to the ridiculous.
Come to think of it, you could say the same about Auston Matthews.
The two young superstars are doing things that really shouldn’t be possible in a shortened NHL season. McDavid is running away with the scoring race. He’s 16 points clear of his teammate, Leon Draisaitl, an enormous gap after less than 50 games. Incredibly, McDavid might yet hit 100 points, needing 13 points in his final seven games to do it.
Matthews, meanwhile, is running away with the race for Rocket Richard Trophy. He’s nine goals ahead of McDavid. If you believe McDavid is the best player in the world, this is an enormous achievement by Matthews to be so far ahead.
Both play the game in such a way that they should be finalists for the Lady Byng Trophy, if you care about that historically insignificant trophy, and the Hart Trophy. McDavid, it seems pretty clear, will win the Hart. His Edmonton Oilers will almost certainly finish second in the all-Canadian North Division behind Matthews and the Maple Leafs. But the Oilers without McDavid would be weaker than the Leafs without Matthews, which provides a strong argument for McDavid even if you believe, as you should, that goals should be weighted much more heavily than assists.
So, if McDavid walks away with the Art Ross and Hart Trophies, and Matthews takes the Rocket Richard and the Lady Byng as a consolation prize, it will be a reasonable representation of the impact they’ve had on the NHL this season. The asterisk to their respective seasons, of course, is that their achievements have all been confined to the North Division. Nathan McKinnon’s 1.45 points per game average, meanwhile, has been achieved only against the West Division, while Patrick Kane and Jonathan Huberdeau have enjoyed great success against only teams of the Central Division.
How do you measure all these seasons against one another if there are no shared opponents? Really, there should be four winners of each individual trophy, but the NHL is not going to do that.
So, other than these individual awards, what is there to watch for during the final days of this COVID-influenced season?
We still don’t know when the Stanley Cup playoffs will begin. The end of the season was extended from the original May 8 to May 16. The playoffs, in theory, could start in the three American divisions before the North is even finished its regular season. That said, the only real drama left in the North is whether Montreal can overtake faltering Winnipeg for third place, thus denying Canadian hockey fans a Leafs-Habs series, at least in the first round.
The East, West and Central divisions will all have completed their schedules by May 13. The Leafs and Jets will play on May 14, and that may or may not have an impact on the standings. We know the Vancouver-Edmonton game on May 15 and the Canucks-Flames game the next day will be irrelevant to the standings. The only reason to play those final two games will be to calculate McDavid’s final stats — will he even play that game? — and to add up the final win-loss records for the purposes of the draft lottery and the draft itself.
The four playoff teams in the East are decided; Pittsburgh, Washington, the Islanders and Boston. It’s almost done in the West as well, with Arizona having only a remote chance of catching St. Louis. Right now, it looks like Golden Knights-Blues and Avalanche-Wild in the first round. Yowza.
Finally, Dallas is the only team currently sitting in a fifth-place position with a definite shot at gaining a playoff spot. The Stars trail resurgent Nashville by three points with a game in hand, but don’t get to play the Predators again. So last year’s Cup finalists are in serious jeopardy of missing the playdowns this spring.
How those playoffs will be conducted also remains an open question. There is talk of a “bubble” or two. The issue of what will happen when a champion of the North Division emerges to play the other three divisional winners has not been decided. With the U.S.-Canada border still closed to all but essential traffic, it’s unclear whether the North winner should have to travel to the U.S., whether one of the U.S. winners should bubble in Canada or if rapidly changing rules might even allow cross-border travel by then with the blessing of the Canadian government.
You can say this should have all been decided by now. But given the shifting circumstances of the season, that would have been extremely difficult, and subject to change anyway. Commissioner Gary Bettman has called the situation “wildly unpredictable,” and that’s probably understating it. The women’s world curling championship in Calgary, after all, learned that the hard way this past weekend when matches were postponed because of COVID cases among the broadcast crew covering the competition.
Key elements remain varied from place to place. Vaccination rates among the general populations in the U.S. and Canada have been different, and while many U.S. clubs are close to completely vaccinated, it’s believed none of the Canadian teams are. As well, 23 of 24 U.S. teams currently allow fans into games; none of the seven Canadian teams do.
So while there’s relative certainty in individual trophy races and playoff positions — 15 of the 16 spots are all but spoken for — the NHL’s second season remains filled with enormous question marks.
The only certainty? The playoffs in the North Division among four Canadian teams to determine an unofficial Canadian champion will be historic — it’s never happened before — and spectacular.
When will they start? Nobody knows.
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