In November, I looked at the whole league to see who is good, bad or faking. Now that it’s very nearly the trade deadline, I’m having another look to see who is in, out and really on the bubble. One of the truisms of the NHL is that even if you get your points early in the season on a lucky run of shooting or hot goaltending, they don’t make you give them back. So faking being good early, at this point, is as good as having being good for real. That is, if you’ve improved your team. If you’re still a faker, you might fake your way into the playoffs, but most of those teams blow up in the first round.
Good enough to be in the playoffs
Tampa Bay (1st in everything): It’s not that Tampa isn’t very lucky, they are, and they’ve soared on some shooting luck spikes all the way to 82 points in 54 games. But they’re also really, really good. Damn them.
Toronto (2nd in conference): The Leafs are a really good team, maybe not quite as complete down the lineup as Tampa, but still excellent, even during some downturns in play. They’ve also had some shooting and goaltending percentages that have helped them and hurt them in turn, so they haven’t had as smooth a season as the Bolts.
New York Islanders (3rd): Now here’s the luck beast, right? Sort of. They’ve got six overtime and shootout losses helping them up the standings, and they’ve had extremely good goaltending from two goalies. Some of that might be a hot run, or it might be real talent. It doesn’t actually matter which because, when both of your goalies are good, you can have one go cold and shrug it off.
Back in November, I said they were fakers riding shooting percentages, and they were. But they banked those lucky points and used that goaltending stability to shelter them while Barry Trotz built a better shot share team and even better expected goals team.
That November point was their bottoming out on overall five-on-five performance, and this is a cumulative differential graph, so to get to the positive position they’re in now, they had to make up for the negatives that came before.
Without that early luck run and the goalie’s efforts, they’d be barely a bubble team. They’re a bit top-heavy, but they’re depth is still solid enough when not absurdly lucky to be useful, and they are, just, really a playoff team.
Montréal (4th): I think Montréal is a bit too flawed to make a deep run, but they sure look like a solid low-end playoff team who has picked the right time to get better.
Boston (5th): They’re twinned with Montréal in the standings, most projections, and my estimation. Their goaltending is more reliable, but I don’t see a powerful team in the Bruins as currently constructed.
On the bubble
Washington (6th): On the one hand it’s absurd to call a team in second place in their division on the bubble. In the Atlantic, Washington would be in a wild card spot like Boston is, and they are only three points ahead of Pittsburgh in the last wild card now. But Washington is on the bubble because their five-on-five play is fairly bad. They’ve got shooting talent and luck going for them in a weak division.
Columbus (7th): The Blue Jackets have gone from good enough to top the weak Metro to hitting the skids hard heading into the trade deadline. They might trade their starter and their best forward! That weighs on a player’s mind, I imagine. They could miss the playoffs entirely with a run of bad play, or finish first in the division. But their play this year has been mediocre.
Pittsburgh (8th): To some extent, Pittsburgh is faking being a bubble team and is the best of these three and more likely to rise than fall. They have good underlying play, good special teams, have been shooting well, but not unnaturally well, but they might as well be Philadelphia for all the good their goalies have done. Your goalie is part of your team. If he’s bad, you’re bad.
Carolina (9th): Just out of a playoff spot, the Canes have their work cut out for them to make up for opening the season with excellent play and no points. They are good enough to be in the playoffs this year, but they picked the most difficult way to do that. Having Curtis McElhinney as their most reliable goalie is a thing they’ve chosen as well.
Buffalo (10th): Like the Islanders, the Sabres had some runs of luck early, and they also have a new goalie producing good results for them. Their luck was largely in winning a lot of one-goal games, a form of luck that you can’t find in a PDO stat, so it’s often discounted. They are not quite as good as Boston and Montréal in my estimation, and they need help from one of those teams to rise up. They are very close to falling out of the race, however.
Out of it no matter how close the points are
Philadelphia (11th): They’re on a tear lately, and they still won’t make the playoffs.
New York Rangers (12th): The Rangers had some early luck in the weak Metro and sat seventh in the conference in November. Luckily they’ve lost a lot of games since then. They are bad, mostly on purpose, and they know they’re rebuilding.
Bad to the bone
Florida (13th): While the Panthers have been legitimately bad all year, they have some good players and seem poised to perhaps add at the deadline to move forward into next year. If they do what they’re rumoured to want to do: Get Sergei Bobrovsky with an eye to signing him, that might set them up well for next year. Goaltending is their weakness. Bobrovsky is an old man of 30, but their current starter has a decade on him.
Detroit (14th): In a shock to no one, the Red Wings are terrible.
New Jersey (15th): They took such a huge step back this year led by an explosion of horrors in the net, that it’s hard to say what this team should do next. They likely can’t answer that until they get a yes or no from Taylor Hall. Their play has been mediocre at best, and they have holes to address all over the lineup, so it’s a tough, slow climb up for them.
Ottawa (16th): They are not the worst team in the NHL, and that’s all they can say about this season. I predict they will trade both Mark Stone and Matt Duchene, so they’ll have a couple of poor first-round picks this summer, but they need so much that they are barely a team now, it’s hard to imagine the time it will take to regrow that franchise with all the good older players gone for less than they should return.
There isn’t anything really weird going on in the east where a team that should be in isn’t, or a team that is all a luck balloon has floated up the standings. Good luck has helped paper over the Islanders’ early bad play, and bad luck has added to the Hurricanes’ problems, but that’s about it.
The weakness of the Metro is going to make for one really interesting playoff race down the stretch, and it might be that the Atlantic teams take both wild cards and kick someone to the curb everyone assumes is in the playoffs. Buffalo will need to get a bit better for that to happen, or maybe they can just get lucky, but I don’t think the east is completely predictable yet.
Good enough to be in the playoffs
Calgary (1st in conference): Calgary has one problem keeping them from being in the Tampa and Toronto range of firing on all cylinders: They’re playing the wrong goalie as their starter. That will only really matter come playoff time, but other than that, they’ve put together an excellent season. They rode out some early bad luck just by playing in the easiest division in the NHL, and now they can conceivably win the west and have home ice deep into the playoffs.
San Jose (3rd): The best team in the Pacific is a little bit better goaltending away from an easy ride through the playoffs until they slam into one of the better central teams. Not that there’s many of them. San Jose has what may be the best five-on-five play in the NHL, which is a safe thing to rest on while you wait out the goalie downturn.
Nashville (4th): Better on paper than the Jets, who they trail in the standings, they are good at everything, but not excellent at anything. They almost have to make a big splashy buy at the deadline to try to change that.
Vegas (5th): Vegas is paying in spades for their shooting luck last year with some epic over-regression. Their five-on-five play is superb, and some of their low shooting percentage is lack of skill, but they are a very good team that can compete at the top level.
Winnipeg (2nd): Winnipeg is a little bit of a fake. They’re still good, but not quite as good as their points imply. Their five-on-five play is not as bad as Patrik Laine might make you think from watching him, but his teammates are not really making up for his epic fail at anything but shooting. As a team, their shooting is carrying them, and they are getting worse, not better, so they might enter the playoffs looking stronger than they really are, since they can’t really fall farther than second in the central.
On the bubble
Dallas (6th): Dallas, while comfortably in a playoff spot because so much of the west is terrible, are not a very good team. They’re mediocre at five-on-five, lack depth, and have also been very unlucky. Shouting at people doesn’t actually fix their shooting percentage. In the east, the Stars would be more obviously flawed, and in the Central, they aren’t really a bubble team because they’ll make the playoffs, but they are unlikely to impress once they get there. Put that together with their ownership, and watch this space come summer.
St. Louis (8th): This team is super weird. If this is all just down to the coaching change in late November, then just how bad was Mike Yeo?
Not long ago, the Blues were hopelessly mired in the bottom of the standings, and they now have a legitimate chance to take a playoff spot, maybe even the third place in the central Dallas is holding down now. This turnaround is way harder to pull off than the Islanders’ similar one because the Blues had no luck and no goaltending early, and it might end up too little too late.
Minnesota (7th): The Wild might be the best five-on-five team not called the Sharks. But that’s all they got. Their goaltending has been suspect, and they’ve been unlucky, or they’d easily be in a playoff spot like Dallas. But their shooting skill is sorely lacking, and add in the injury to Mikko Koivu, and there is nothing there to carry them deep. They should sell off, but they might be dumb enough to buy instead.
Colorado (10th): The Avs have fallen farther and harder than I predicted back in November when I called them faking being good. They have such a weak foundation, that they can’t ride out any bad luck or goalies who go cold, like they’ve had now. They could make the playoffs or they could finish totally out of it, and that’s too volatile to predict, and might still be come deadline day.
Bad to the bone
Edmonton (11th): The strength of Connor McDavid has the terrible Oilers very nearly a bubble team, but just not quite. If you swapped their goalie for Vancouver’s, Edmonton would likely make it.
Vancouver (9th): The Canucks have been legitimately bad all season, and have been lucky enough to win just enough to be sniffing the playoffs still. It’s all fake.
Arizona (13th): They’re better when healthy than some of the teams ahead of them in the standings, but they aren’t good. They can’t be a competitive team until the cap hit spent on floor-clearing contracts go to actual players. Simple as that.
Chicago (12th): People are starting to talk about Chicago having a chance at the playoffs because the west has so much parity at the bottom end. They have too many teams to climb over, and it’s not like they aren’t legitimately terrible. It’s not technically impossible, but they’re bad and they’re out.
Los Angeles (15th): Yes they’re last in the standings, but I don’t think that will last. They are bad, though, just not on the same epic scale as the grand prize worst team in the NHL...
Anaheim (14th): They are the worst team in the NHL, and they have one of the best starting goalies, one of the best defencemen, a corps of other defenders easily the match of any team but maybe Nashville, and a lot of good forwards. Yes, they’re a bit old, and they aren’t built for speed, but that’s a minor consideration when you look at this team who all (other than the goalies) play like they don’t care about anything. This team was coached into the ground. In the weakest division in the NHL in years, this roster is good enough for second place.
But don’t get me wrong, while Randy Carlyle has no business behind an NHL bench, and he has ruined this team beyond belief, Bob Murray has put together a weak forward roster and hasn’t made any good moves to improve it. He also seems to think his coach isn’t the biggest problem. Until they’re both gone, nothing can get better on this team.
The Ducks suck, and sadly for the players, they know it isn’t their fault. Does the ownership?
The west is an incredible conference this year, with so much concentrated badness, anyone is right to question teams in the top spots like San Jose or Winnipeg. I don’t think the first round of the playoffs is going to be too exciting as the cull happens and the four or five decent teams there move to the second round.
The flip side is, it’s a little tough to judge just how good Calgary, Nashville and Vegas are. Maybe one of them will take home the cup. Anything is possible.