Goal Differentials - What they tell us

So it has been quite a while since my last Fan Post, forgive the rust.  I wanted to see just how closely Goal Differential equates to the standings.  The obvious thought would be 'The greater the average goal differential for your team the more points you will get.'  That doesn't quite directly correlate into the standings.

Read past the jump if you are interested.

First - all data was pulled from and compiled in Google Docs.

Open this file in a new window to follow along.

What you are seeing is a stats compilation from last year's regular season totals.  Teams highlighted in green made the playoffs in the East, teams in yellow - in the West.  Goal differentials highlighted in red are teams who made the playoffs with a negative goals differential.  Goal differentials highlighted in orange are teams who missed the playoffs and had either an even or positive goals differential.

So, what does this tell us?  The numbers tell us a few things:  League leading Washington had by far the best GD of 1.05 per game.  They destroyed the East in points as the second place Devils had only 103 points compared to Washington's 121. 

Conversely If you look at the bottom of the standings you will notice that Edmonton had the worst GD of -.88 (Toronto was second last at .65, still quite a gap of .23)  As you can see, the extremes tend to bear out the hypothesis.

Looking at the League as a whole only 3 teams made it into the playoffs with a negative GD, 5th place Ottawa and 8th place Montreal in the East, and 7th place Nashville in the West.

Only two teams with an even or positive GD failed to make the Playoffs.  9th place St. Louis in the West (Even) and 9th place Rangers in the East.

Except for that Ottawa result it looks like GD is a pretty good indicator of regular season success.

Let's talk about the outliers in this group.  Those who's GD's seem to indicate an aberration in the standings.  

Phoenix finished with a 107 points, good for 4th in the West.  Yet their GD is only 0.18.  Even Phoenix fans will tell you that this backs up the results from that year, as they won a lot of very close games.  Few of their wins came from blowouts.  In the West it is obvious that this team nearly maximized their potential in GD/points ratio.

Nashville finished 7th with a GD of -0.05.  This is almost close at even so the fact that they made the playoffs shouldn't be to surprising.  The simple logic is they won a lot of close games, and they lost a few games by a multiple goal margin.  This happens, but our numbers over 82 games suggest that this distribution doesn't happen often enough to throw all of these numbers into question.

The East is a bit more compelling as the 9th place Rangers had a +0.22 GD over 5th place Ottawa.  The Sens made the playoffs with a -0.16 GD, seemingly defying the odds that the rest of the data leans toward.  They had to have had an inordinate number of close wins combined with some blowout losses to achieve this. 

Other than those extremes (and Montreal's -0.10 eighth place finish) the rest of the numbers seem to show that GD does play an important role in whether your team makes the playoffs or not. 

The neat thing is that generally the closer your team is to a 0 GD, the more unpredictable your spot in the standings are.  It is interesting to note that even though Ottawa made it into 5th, if you sort the standings by GD, they should have only finished 9th - just outside of a playoff spot.  Teams in the East from 10th-15th had a GD of -0.24 to -0.65. 

To draw some conclusions from last year:  Having a positive GD will almost always get you a playoff spot.  Having a negative GD will usually mean you miss the playoffs, although it is possible for a few teams to get in.

This lends to the fact that 16 of 30 teams make the playoffs and assuming a somewhat even distribution, 2 teams with a negative GD will make it into the playoffs.  Perhaps a few more at the expense of a few teams slightly on the positive side of GD with a poor goals distribution.

It is interesting to note that last year that any team who's GD was greater than +0.07 made the playoffs.

The combined GD for the 5th-8th place teams in the East last year was -0.08.  The average being -0.02.

Now, look at the worksheet and switch to Goal Dif 10-11.  Obviously there are some major differences.  Teams have played between 18 and 23 games and the variances in these numbers seem to reflect the smaller sample size.

The first thing you will notice is Ottawa continues to defy the odds and are currently 8th in the East - and at a much larger variance of -0.71.  To put that in perspective, that is the fourth worst variance in the League!  Also a full season of that variance would have put them last in the East a year ago - worse than the Leafs.  It is also interesting when you realize that all 7 teams in the East with a positive or equal GD are in a playoff spot.

The West is slightly different as Phoenix continues to maximize the value of their GD by being -0.10 and yet still hanging on to 5th in the West.  They are the only team in the West currently in a playoff spot with a negative GD.

Two teams in the West - San Jose (+0.11) and Minnesota (+0.05) are currently out of the playoffs but have a positive GD.

Taking a closer look at the GD's we can only assume that some of these points standings will normalize as the season moves on.  Anaheim is tied with Vancouver at 23 points in the West, but Vancouver has a +0.68 advantage over the Ducks in GD.  Dallas is 13th in the West, but they only have a -0.05 GD.

The exceptions to the general trend indicate that sometimes it is not how many goals you score over a season, but how they are distributed in individual games.  Some teams like Phoenix and Ottawa seem to be able to win a lot of close games, but when they lose, they lose big (especially Ottawa.)  These seem to be the exception to the rule because over an 82 game season these tend to even out.

So, looking at last year in the East, the minimum we should be shooting for to be a bubble team is a GD of -0.08.  The minimum to almost insure a playoff spot would be +0.07.  Currently the Leafs are on pace for a -0.30 GD.  To effectively reach a -0.08 they would need to sustain a GD of -.009 for the rest of the year (someone check my math.)  To reach +0.07 for the year they would need to sustain a GD of +0.1893 for the rest of the year (again, check my math.)

Obviously Goal Differential is not the be all and end all in predicting the standings - especially over partial seasons.  As we see with all statistics, sample size is everything.  Throughout a full year, however, it can give us a general idea of where a team needs to be to be competing for a coveted playoff spot. is a fan community that allows members to post their own thoughts and opinions on the Toronto Maple Leafs and hockey in general. These views and thoughts may not be shared by the editor of

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