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Maple Leafs in a battle for a playoff spot

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Parity has come to the league, and the Eastern Conference has decided to go for it in a big way.

2017 Honda NHL All-Star Game
The Atlantic Division is not one big happy family.
Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

So, how about that Wild Card race, eh? Could it get any tighter?

Yes, actually it can get worse.

This morning, the Leafs are in a playoff position in the second wild card spot. The New York Rangers are in the first wild card place with 71 points, which is more than any Atlantic team has. That doesn’t mean the Metropolitan Division is better, as so many like to say, it just means there is more spread between the top teams and the bottom, while in the Altantic, they all seem to be heading for a six- or seven-way tie.

The Leafs are three points behind Boston and Ottawa, but have games in hand on the Bruins. Ottawa holds that advantage over the rest of the division, however. So instead of asking if the Leafs can catch the Senators and take second spot, we should likely be asking if the Senators can make up the six points Montréal is leading by. The answer is likely yes, if the Habs keep playing the way they have been.

Never count on that! Parity means you can get beat by the last place team, and then easily win one over someone five spots above you. Strength of schedule means less and less. Unless you’re playing the Washington Capitals, but they just aren’t like other teams.

Meanwhile, the Leafs are tied in points with the Philadelphia Flyers, who a week ago looked like they might be out of contention. The New York Islanders are only one point back, and they really looked dead in the water. One losing skid by the Carolina Hurricanes later, and the bottom of the Metropolitan is as knotted up as the middle of the Atlantic.

Florida is only three points back of the Leafs, and while Tampa is about to start their bye week, and perhaps watch other teams pass them, they could come out rested, ready and very capable of going on a winning streak.

I’m not counting out Buffalo or New Jersey, although the former seem more like a team that could Hamburgle a playoff spot than the latter.

How do you even tell who is better than whom with all this bye-week induced games in hand business? Funny you should ask that...

NHL Standings February 13, 2017

Team GP W L OT PTS ROW G DIFF POINTS % ROW %
Team GP W L OT PTS ROW G DIFF POINTS % ROW %
1 Washington 56 39 11 6 84 38 71 0.750 0.679
2 Minnesota 55 37 12 6 80 34 58 0.727 0.618
3 Columbus 54 35 14 5 75 33 42 0.694 0.611
4 Pittsburgh 54 34 13 7 75 32 38 0.694 0.593
5 Chicago 57 35 17 5 75 33 19 0.658 0.579
6 NY Rangers 55 36 18 1 73 34 44 0.664 0.618
7 San Jose 57 34 18 5 73 32 21 0.640 0.561
8 Montréal 58 31 19 8 70 30 15 0.603 0.517
9 Anaheim 57 29 18 10 68 27 4 0.596 0.474
10 Edmonton 56 29 19 8 66 25 11 0.589 0.446
11 Ottawa 53 29 18 6 64 25 0 0.604 0.472
12 Boston 58 29 23 6 64 27 2 0.552 0.466
13 St. Louis 56 29 22 5 63 28 -4 0.563 0.500
14 Nashville 56 27 21 8 62 25 7 0.554 0.446
15 Toronto 54 25 18 11 61 24 4 0.565 0.444
16 Philadelphia 56 27 22 7 61 22 -21 0.545 0.393
17 NY Islanders 54 25 19 10 60 24 3 0.556 0.444
18 Los Angeles 55 28 23 4 60 27 2 0.545 0.491
19 Calgary 56 28 25 3 59 25 -10 0.527 0.446
20 Florida 54 24 20 10 58 21 -19 0.537 0.389
21 Tampa Bay 56 25 24 7 57 22 -6 0.509 0.393
22 New Jersey 55 23 22 10 56 20 -29 0.509 0.364
23 Buffalo 56 23 23 10 56 22 -21 0.500 0.393
24 Vancouver 56 25 25 6 56 21 -25 0.500 0.375
25 Carolina 53 24 22 7 55 22 -16 0.519 0.415
26 Detroit 56 22 24 10 54 16 -28 0.482 0.286
27 Dallas 57 22 25 10 54 22 -24 0.474 0.386
28 Winnipeg 58 25 29 4 54 23 -19 0.466 0.397
29 Arizona 53 18 28 7 43 13 -45 0.406 0.245
30 Colorado 53 15 36 2 32 15 -74 0.302 0.283

Points percentage is the percentage of the available two points for a win each team has so far. This is what the AHL uses to rank teams because they don’t play the same number of games across divisions. If you sort by this number, you see that Toronto is ahead of Boston and in 12th place, but not in the range of Ottawa. And how about those Habs, eh? Huh. Hot starts do not make a full season. Who knew.

That’s a quick way of accounting for the games in hand, but it doesn’t account for the loser point. The three point games that muddle the standings up and mean that a team hitting .500 is just not desperately awful, not actually good.

Sort by the ROW %, and you see something closer to real team strength rankings. ROW, or regulation and overtime wins, are the teams that got points the old-fashioned way—by winning the game playing hockey. This is less true now that overtime is not really hockey, but it’s truer than including overtime losses and shootout wins in a big mess of unearned points.

Now Montréal is back looking strong again, and Ottawa less so. Ottawa, getting it done on loser points and luck? I’ve never heard of such a thing. Toronto is 17th, stuck in the middle, the ultimate mediocre team. But now the Islanders look scary; Boston is harder to catch, and Tampa Bay and Buffalo look dangerous. Curiously, the Arizona Coyotes are the worst team in the NHL by this marker.

Teams have between 24-29 games left, or 48-58 points left available. There will be movement, and while the old adage about how hard it is to move up in this league has some truth in it, it dates from the age before parity, and is less true now—at least in the Eastern Conference—than it’s ever been before.

How can you have a trade deadline when no one knows if they’re in the playoffs or not? Who buys? Who sells?

The answer to that may mean a change in GM thinking. And that never happens fast, but with parity—if this isn’t just a one-season blip—GMs may need to start asking themselves the really hard question: are we contenders or are we first or second round losers? Staking your job on an actual read of your team and not the standings might be very scary for some GMs, but the alternative is to just make splashy trades that lead nowhere. Right Boston?