Insights around the NHL: Examining divisional playoff races at a macro-level

By Constantine Maragos

Hello from abroad everyone, I hope everyone has been enjoying the quality hockey that I have been missing for the past month! With the All-Star break upon us, we are approaching the critical juncture of most teams’ seasons. The trade deadline is, at the time of writing, about a month away, and there are very few clear sellers and buyers in the market right now. Teams like the Washington Capitals, Boston Bruins, and St. Louis Blues look poised to load up for a big run, whereas the LA Kings, Ottawa Senators, and Detroit Red Wings are looking to establish the market for their pending UFAs with veteran experience.

All four divisions have seen their own unique storylines unfold. In the Pacific, the Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames have reignited their deep hatred for each other in the Battle of Alberta, and are probably praying they meet one another in a seven-game series come spring. The Metropolitan Division is dominating the Eastern conference, with teams like the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins (surprisingly at this point) gearing up to go deep into the postseason this spring. The St. Louis Blues do not look like they are suffering from too much of a Stanley Cup hangover, and the Boston Bruins and Tampa Bay Lightning are dominating the Atlantic Division to the surprise of nobody (apart from the first two months of the year). In the latest edition of QSAO’s Insights Around the NHL, we will assess the current landscape of all four NHL divisions, and give our predictions moving forward.

1.    Tight at the top in the Pacific – Who ends up where?

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While the Pacific Division has not been dominant relative to the rest of the league, it certainly boasts the most competitive playoff race this season. Heading into the All-Star break, the Vancouver Canucks lead the division with 58 points, followed by the Edmonton Oilers, Calgary Flames, Arizona Coyotes, and Vegas Golden Knights with 57 points each. Unlike the rest of the league, there is no clear-cut favourite to take the division, or even finish with a playoff spot for that matter (however, with the Winnipeg Jets and Nashville Predators faultering, the playoffs are becoming a very likely possibility for all five teams). 

Throughout the duration of the season, the division-leading Vancouver Canucks have brought an air of unpredictability to the Pacific. The Canucks have shown they can consistently score 5 goals every game, yet at the same time can go on incredible dry streaks paired with horrid defensive play. However, since December they seem to have gotten things together. Since December 1st, the Vancouver Canucks have gone 14-8-0 (28 points, 7th in the NHL), while also going 4-2-0 against their Pacific competition. Behind them in that span are the Calgary Flames, who have gone 13-7-1 in that span, while also posting an NHL 3rd best 0.935Sv% at 5v5, as per NaturalStatTrick. The Vegas Golden Knights have played at a high pace since December, scoring a league 4th best 56 goals, while allowing 53 (25th in the NHL). Possession wise, the Knights rank 2nd in Corsi (55.76), behind only Tampa Bay, as per Natural StatTrick

The Arizona Coyotes and Edmonton Oilers, however, have not been anything special, winning only 11 and 10 games respectively since December 1st. Although, Edmonton has rebounded since, winning 6 of their last 8 games, including a 7-3 win over Arizona heading into the All-Star break. For Arizona, after starting January with three-straight wins, they went on a two-game scoreless streak and only won one other game (against the San Jose Sharks) since. Not a good look heading into the most important stretch of the season.

My key to the Pacific race is divisional games left. Amongst the five teams, Vancouver and Edmonton have seven games left to play against the other three teams, having finished their season series. Arizona also has seven games to play spread across the other four teams, with three games left in their season series against Vancouver. Calgary has eight games left to play, with three games left in the exciting Battle of Alberta, and Vegas has nine games left to play against these teams, with three games left against Edmonton. Edmonton’s play down the stretch may have the largest impact on the final standings, having to play three games against both Vegas and Calgary (with two of those games in close succession of one another). If Edmonton can maintain form, at least against these opponents, they can position themselves ahead of the pack comfortably.

Looking towards playoff matchups, Vegas seems to have the upper hand on the rest of the division, but their struggles against the rest of the league have put a strain on their campaign thus far. Looking back to December, the Knights dominated the Canucks 6-3 at home, where the score does not justify how badly they outplayed Vancouver. With that being said, Vancouver did rebound in a 5-4 OT win at home four days later. The Calgary Flames have not been as lucky, being outscored by Vegas 12-2 through two games this year (keep in mind that both of those games were played in Vegas). Looking at my predictions, I think Vegas can reclaim a divisional playoff spot, allowing Vancouver at least one round before making the trip to Nevada in the spring. While the Oilers have seen a bit of a resurgence this season with Connor McDavid & Leon Draisaitl playing like gods amongst mortal men, their lack of depth and divisional games remaining make the playoffs a true uphill battle for Edmonton once again, and I am not sure that they can overcome that challenge just yet.

Prediction: 1st: VAN 2nd: CGY 3rd: VGK WC1: ARI, EDM Misses Playoffs

2.  The Nashville Predators vs. Winnipeg Jets – Who has the better shot at climbing back to the playoffs?

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While only two years removed from one of the most exciting playoff series’ in recent memory, the Nashville Predators and Winnipeg Jets both find themselves at risk of missing the playoffs in a year where there are few clear-cut contenders in the West. In 51 games this season, the Jets own a record of 25-22-4, good for 54 points and 9th in the West. Through 47 games this season, the Nashville Predators hold a record of 22-18-7 and 51 points, leaving them 12th in the West currently. 

For the Jets, their losses on the backend, namely Dustin Byfuglien and Jacob Trouba, have left their defense destitute. While they have still been able to score goals, their 160 Goals Against place them 12th in the conference in that category. Comparing them to their Central Division rivals, the Predators have also outscored them in four fewer games, despite only one player with more than 15 goals, that being Filip Forsberg (16), this season. When looking at possession numbers, Nashville and Winnipeg find themselves on opposite ends of the spectrum. Since December 1st, the Nashville Predators have controlled 52.04% of 5v5 chances, placing them 8th in the NHL in that span. On the other hand, Winnipeg’s 47.31% Corsi For places them 25th in the NHL.  

Despite an outstanding bounce-back year for Connor Hellebuyck, it has not been enough to buoy the Jets torrid defensive play. Amongst goalies with 20 games played or more, Hellebuyck has the highest Goals Saved Above Expected (0.659), all while starting 40 games for the Jets, the highest workload in the league. For Nashville, their goaltending has been their weakest link all season. Even looking back to their 2019 playoff series against the Dallas Stars, Pekka Rinne just has not been able to get it done. In 29 games played (28 starts) this season, Rinne has posted a 16-10-3 record, 0.899Sv% and 2.95GAA, along with 8 starts finishing with a sub-0.85 Sv%, behind only Martin Jones. With Rinne faltering, heir apparent Juuse Saros has not instilled immediate confidence in Predators fans this season either, posting a 6-8-4 record, 0.895Sv%, and 3.13GAA. These numbers give the Predators one of the worst goalie tandems in the league, something unthought of even a season ago. 

Circling back to the play of their defense, Nashville has still been far better, and for good reason. Since December 1st, Winnipeg has allowed the most High Danger Goals Against (42) and holds the lowest High Danger Chances For % (38.06). For Nashville, despite shipping out defenseman PK Subban to make room for centre Matt Duchene, rookie defenseman Dante Fabbro has slotted in nicely into Nashville’s defense core. On top of their decent possession game, Roman Josi has been dominant this year, posting 14 goals and 48 points this season, behind only Capitals star John Carlson. At the rate he is scoring now, Josi is on pace to smash his career highs in goals and points. Exactly what you want to see after inking a monster 8-year, $72-million contract extension. 

Looking forward, if Nashville’s goaltending can stabilize itself, and if they can utilize their games in hand effectively, there is no reason for them to not slip into the 2nd wildcard spot. Unfortunately for Winnipeg, unless Connor Hellebuyck can elevate his play to “Merzlikins levels” for the rest of the season, I just do not see them making up their lost ground at this point. Come playoff time, look to see Nashville take on defending Cup champions St. Louis, and the Colorado Avalanche claim home-ice advantage against the Dallas Stars.

Prediction: 1st: STL 2nd: COL 3rd: DAL WC2: NSH, WPG Misses Playoffs

3.   The Atlantic Division – Who outlasts the rest of the group?

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The Atlantic Division has brought us some of the biggest surprises on the ice this season. From the Tampa Bay Lightning’s apparent inability to recover from their first-round exit to the Toronto Maple Leafs’ deterioration under Mike Babcock, the Atlantic has provided some of the biggest drama in the NHL this year. As far as playoff competition goes, the Boston Bruins have run away with the division lead, with 70 points, followed by the Tampa Bay Lightning with 62 points, the Florida Panthers with 61 points, and the Toronto Maple Leafs with three points out of a playoff spot with 57 points. 

The Boston Bruins have dominated the Atlantic all season, led by one of the best lines in hockey; David PastrnakPatrice Bergeron, and Brad Marchand. The trio has combined for an xGoals For of 22.9, tied with Florida’s Huberdeau/Barkov/Dadonov (also in the same division, go figure), and behind Montreal’s (again same division, funny enough) Tatar/Danault/Gallagher line for forward lines with a minimum 350 minutes together. With that being said, their xGoals% ranks 4th in the league, behind Vancouver’s “Lotto Line” (that being Miller/Pettersson/Boeser), Montreal’s aforementioned line, and Vegas’ Marchessault/Karlsson/Smith line, as per MoneyPuck. With that being said, their xGoals Against of 14.2 ranks third-best in the league, talk about driving play am I right. 

While it is great to talk about how talented the Boston Bruins are, they are sitting pretty with roughly a 98.55% chance of making the playoffs this year (average of MoneyPuck and Dom Luszczyszyn’s playoff probability models). The rest of the division, however, is where things get a little murky. While Tampa Bay has certainly made up for lost ground at the beginning of the year, they are in no way guaranteed to make the playoffs. This season, Tampa is currently being led by their usual suspects. Nikita Kucherov leads the team in points and goals (22G, 54P), and while far from his level of play last year, Andrei Vasilevskiy has provided stability in net, posting a respectable 24-9-2 record, 0.917Sv% and 2.54GAA in 35 starts. Possession-wise, Tampa Bay has been exceptional, ranking 5th in Corsi For % (52.82%), and have led the league in Corsi% since December 1st, as per NaturalStatTrick

Remaining in Florida, the Panthers are looking to finally do some damage this spring. The Panthers have posted a record of 28-16-5 this season and have been led by their top line of Jonathan Huberdeau (18G, 65P), Alexander Barkov (16G, 54P) and Evgenii Dadonov (23G, 40P), who rank amongst some of the best lines in hockey. Huberdeau is on pace to smash his career-high of 92 points and hit the 30-goal mark for the second time in his career. With minimal media exposure, it makes sense that Barkov and Huberdeau were ranked the two most underrated players in the NHL, as per The Athletic’s Annual Player Poll. Look to see the pair show off their talents come playoff time. 

After initially recovering from their involvement in the NHL’s “CoachGate,” the Toronto Maple Leafs looked like they were on their way to a fourth-straight playoff berth, however, have fallen back on the same issues plaguing them at the beginning of the year. In their last 10 games, the Leafs have gone an aggressively average 4-3-3, while allowing the 7th most goals in the league in that span (27). Despite this, they have posted some decent possession and goalscoring numbers, ranking 10th in CF% (52.35), and scoring the 11th most goals for (25). With that being said, Toronto’s PK has struggled immensely. The Leafs have allowed 33 powerplay goals on 139 opportunities, placing their 76.3% penalty kill 25th in the NHL. Additionally, in their last ten games, they have had the 4th worst 5v5 Sv% (90.15), on the 8th lowest High-Danger Scoring Chances Against (82). The Leafs have found themselves caught in an ebb and flow of average-to-atrocious defense, followed by offensive explosions. To have any chance of leapfrogging the immensely talented Metropolitan Division, they need to remedy these issues, however, keep in mind that star defensemen Morgan Rielly and Jake Muzzin have missed some time (or all in Muzzin’s case) during the past 10 games. Muzzin is set to return on January 27th against the Nashville Predators. With that being said, look for the current state of the division to remain as is, and watch the Toronto media implode at the thought of missing the playoffs!

Prediction – 1st: BOS 2nd: TBL 3rd: FLA, TOR Misses Playoffs

4. Rookie Report: The next generation of NHL goalies are arriving

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This past month and a half we have seen some impressive rookie goaltending, namely in the Eastern Conference. Elvis Merzlikins has been the hottest goalie in the league in that span, posting back-to-back shutouts against the Boston Bruins and Vegas Golden Knights en-route to becoming the NHL’s Second Star of the Week, ending January 19th (3-0-0, 0.67GAA, 0.982SV%, 2SO). While his shutout against the Bruins did not count for that week’s rankings, he did post another 41-save shutout in a 5-0 win against the New Jersey Devils. Merzlikins’ three shutouts in four games make him only the seventh rookie goaltender in modern NHL history to do so.

While Columbus has been simply unbeatable as of late, Merzlikins has been crucial for the Jackets in their surge up the NHL standings, and back into playoff contention. In the month of January, Columbus has posted a 9-2-0 record, with Merzlikins between the pipes for 8 wins and 2 losses. Further, amongst goalies with minimum 20 games played, Merzlikins has posted a 0.451 Save % Above Expected, ranking him 5th in the league in that category. 

Behind him. Matiss Kivlenieks provided Columbus with a 31-save performance against the New York Rangers for his first career win on January 19th. For Columbus, goaltending depth has to be the most pleasant surprise of their season, considering that star goalie Sergei Bobrovsky left for the Panthers in the summer.  

The Washington Capitals’ prized rookie Ilya Samsonov has given Washington a tough decision to make this summer surrounding veteran netminder Braden Holtby. In 19 games (16 starts) this season, Samsonov has posted a 15-2-1 record with a 0.927Sv%. Looking deeper, Samsonov has also posted a 0.83 Save % Above Expected at 5v5, behind only Jake Allen (17GP) for all goalies. Samsonov also ranks 10th in the NHL for Goals Saved Above Average, with 9.49. Despite playing for the league’s best team, Samsonov has posted some pretty impressive numbers as a rookie, and for a team tight to the cap, can the Capitals afford to keep Holtby around? Or is it worth taking the chance on the goalie tandem of Samsonov and another cost-controlled netminder? These are just some of the few questions surrounding an ageing Capitals team this summer. 

Another promising Russian goaltender who has seen some time this year is New York Rangers goaltender Igor Shesterkin. In his first 3 career starts, Shesterkin went 2-1, winning games against the Colorado Avalanche and New Jersey Devils, and falling to the white-hot Columbus Blue Jackets. He has since been sent down to the Hartford Wolf Pack to get some more games in, as Rangers’ backup Alexandar Georgiev has created a logjam in the position.

In other rookie news: Chicago Blackhawks forward Dominik Kubalik has led rookies in scoring since December 1st, scoring 15 goals and 22 points amid the Hawk’s unlikely return to the playoff conversation. Cale Makar has continued his steady pace as the Calder frontrunner, scoring 9 points in 12 games since his return from injury in late December. Right behind him is newly minted NHL All-Star Quinn Hughes. Hughes is the third straight Vancouver Canucks rookie to be named an All-Star. Hughes has scored 5 goals and 34 points on the season, while consistently leading all rookies in NHL ice-time (21:36).

5.    Why the Metropolitan Division is the best division in hockey

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The Metropolitan Division has long been one of the most daunting in the NHL, however, the caliber of play that we have seen within the division this year has not been seen for quite some time. As of writing, five out of the top ten teams in the NHL play in the Metropolitan Division (Washington, Pittsburgh, NY Islanders, Columbus Blue Jackets, Carolina Hurricanes), with the Philadelphia Flyers one point behind the Hurricanes for 11th in the NHL. While teams like Washington and Pittsburgh are already cruising to the finish line, the playoff race between the New York Islanders, Columbus Blue Jackets, Carolina Hurricanes, and Philadelphia Flyers looks to be quite exciting, even without considering outside pressure from the likes of the Toronto Maple Leafs and Florida Panthers for wildcard placement.

To describe how dominant this division has been, four out of the top six teams in the division (Carolina, Washington, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia) have a Corsi Rating above 50% on the season, with the Hurricanes leading the league with a shot-share of 54.67%, almost a full percentage above second-place Montreal. Another testament to the overall skill of these teams is that only one line (with 300 minutes played) from these six teams features in the most effective lines in hockey, that being the Pittsburgh Penguins’ shutdown trio of Brandon TanevZachary Aston-Reese, and Teddy Blueger. This serves as a testament to not only the depth of these teams but also represents the impressive roster makeup and depth of these organizations. While teams like Washington and Carolina (up until the loss of star defenseman Dougie Hamilton) have been lucky with injuries, the Pittsburgh Penguins and Columbus Blue Jackets are two of five teams to have lost more than 200 man-games already this season.

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Graphic retrieved from Man-Games Lost NHL

To think that Pittsburgh has been without the likes of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Jake Guentzel at various points in the season, and are still second in the Metropolitan is remarkable. With that being said, contributions from unlikely heroes such as Bryan Rust are a big reason why they are so successful. In 36 games this year, Rust’s 21 goals and 43 points have beaten his previous career highs of 18 goals and 38 points in 38 fewer games than when he set them in 2018-19 and 2017-18, respectively. Rust’s individual xGoalsFor/60 (min. 300 minutes played) of 0.96 ranks 10th in the entire league, as per NaturalStatTrick. Additionally, his individual Corsi For of 14.39 ranks second amongst Penguins forwards, behind only Pittsburgh\’s other breakout forward Jared McCann, as per NaturalStatTrick.

Goaltending has also been a major factor for Metropolitan teams this year. Amongst goalies with a minimum of 20 games played, both the Carolina Hurricanes and NY Islanders’ have their goaltending duos in the top 15 in Save % Above Expected, along with Blue Jackets goaltender Elvis Merzlikins and NY Rangers backup Alexandar Georgiev. For Carolina, James Reimer has proved to be an excellent backup for Petr Mrazek this year. As it stands now, Reimer is two wins away from matching his wins total from last year while having played 16 fewer games, which is an impressive statistic to go along with his 0.614 GSAA%, good for second in the NHL (all situations, min. 20 GP). Despite 2019 Vezina winner Robin Lehner departing the NY Islanders in the summer, Thomas Greiss and new teammate Semyon Varlamov have been the backbone of this Islanders team. Along with their top-10 ranking in GSAA%, they also are amongst the top-15 goalies in the league in Sv%, with Greiss’ 0.925% good for 7th, and Varlamov’s 0.915% placed at 15th in the NHL. Further, the Islanders are also tied for 8th in High Danger Save % (83.82). Looking towards the playoffs, goaltending depth is of utmost importance, and these teams have it.

With the playoffs in mind, Washington and Pittsburgh are all but guaranteed to finish at the top of the division. On the back of their huge winning streak, watch for Columbus to overtake the NY Islanders for third place, with the Isles and Carolina claiming both Eastern wildcard spots, leaving the Philadelphia Flyers to be the league’s latest example as to why the current playoff system needs tweaking.

Prediction – 1st: WSH 2nd: PIT 3rd: CBJ WC1: NYI WC2: CAR, PHI Misses Playoffs

Statistics retrieved from NaturalStatTrick, MoneyPuck, Hockey-Reference, The Athletic, and NHL.com

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