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Ranking the North Division

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The great white north fights it out for four playoff spaces this year.

Christmas in the zoo Photo by Paul Zinken/picture alliance via Getty Images

Now that we’ve trashed all seven teams in the North Division and examined them with a little more seriousness at the same time, were do they rank against each other?

I asked the masthead this a week ago, and got some interesting answers. Instead of just listing off everyone’s predictions, however, I’m going to look at why this is a difficult exercise. I thought it would be easy and then once I got done with the obvious, it really was hard to decide. This may be a very tight race for playoff spots.

The Obvious

Almost everyone thinks the Ottawa Senators will come last in the division. I think seldo put the Jets last, but he might have been ranking on an emotional scale. Most serious season projections have the Senators a convincing last place. And if it weren’t for the Red Wings, they’d be contenders again for last in the entire league.

That’s not to forget that anything is possible in hockey. We have numerous examples of legitimately terrible teams going on luck-fuelled runs and finishing in a playoff position they can’t make good on. There are also examples of legitimately great teams getting shut out entirely. Divisional strength often plays a role, but the two biggest factors are nearly always goaltending variance and shooting variance.

Both of those skills vary naturally in effectiveness. Add in some team tendencies and you can get a good team, full of skilled shooters, failing to get enough goals to make the playoffs. You can get elite-level starters sinking a team with a bad year. And you can get the other effect as well. Connor Hellebuyck papered over some big, gaping holes in the Winnipeg Jets last year. Usually you get a big combination of skill, luck and other effects that it’s hard to sort out.

What that means is that Ottawa could finish somewhere other than seventh, it’s just very unlikely. It would probably require some other team to cooperate by being extra unlucky and also bad in unexpected ways.

Almost everyone thinks the Toronto Maple Leafs will come first in the division. There is a lot of talk about the Montreal Canadiens improving this year, and making a big push, and again, like with Ottawa, that’s possible. But by one measure, Toronto has a stronger hold on first than Ottawa does on last.

From this year’s preview.

The dark blue square in the middle is the most likely finishing spot for each team. If all you do is look at that, Toronto is fully separated, but Ottawa overlaps Vancouver by a tad. But if you look at the three darkest squares together as the higher probability finishing location, every team overlaps with every other to some degree.

It’s unlikely by this analysis to have Montreal or Winnipeg or Calgary take the top place. It’s extraordinarily unlikely that Ottawa makes the playoffs or Toronto does not. But it’s not a sure thing. It never is.

The Middle is Once Again Muddy

If you list these teams out in the order they appear on that chart, you’ve told a dramatic lie about what the chart says and what is likely to happen. At the end of the season, there is only one way the seven teams can fall out: in some order with no ties. But now, when we’re looking ahead, that central set of five, and particularly Edmonton, Calgary, Winnipeg and Montreal are so close to being tied, it won’t take much luck one way or another to completely scramble the order.

Here’s a very handy compilation of several model predictions:

From an entire thread on Twitter of prediction model aggregation. Well worth a look.
Colin Cudmore

You see exactly the same thing. Ottawa is overwhelmingly thought to be last, Toronto has an edge for first that is fairly substantial, and the rest is anyone’s game.

I started out making my list and it went:

  1. Toronto
  2. Calgary
  3. uh....

I was going with my gut, more than a deep analysis and even allowing for Calgary’s propensity to have bad goalies on purpose, they have some game-breaking skill. And while boring hockey where the surplus value comes from systems (the drab Habs) can win you the regular season, skill and good systems usually do better.

This is why I don’t buy in on Winnipeg. I see how a second or third placing is possible. It requires amazing goaltending and some huge strides taken by the special teams and defence, but again, the basic systems on the team were terrible last year. The coach hasn’t changed, and the defence is still very weak.

Edmonton is an inverse Montreal, and they can use their surplus value of skill layered on... uh... well, nothing, and get a lot of points. Calgary is a little more balanced, and Vancouver forgot they need goals to win and likely is a good contender to challenge Ottawa for last.

Figuring that out is the easy part, coming up with an order for the teams is not.

Frank Seravalli at TSN did a survey approach like we were doing on the masthead, but he had the gumption to compile it. He had 22 responders including TSN people, GMs, coaches and other team staff.

They had this order:

  1. Toronto Maple Leafs: 35 points
  2. Montreal Canadiens: 59 points
  3. Calgary Flames: 77 points
  4. Edmonton Oilers: 79 points
  5. Vancouver Canucks: 90 points
  6. Winnipeg Jets: 99 points
  7. Ottawa Senators: 152 points

Interestingly, he says that every team had at least one vote for sixth place, which... thanks, whoever that was. The result is as plausible an order as any other, though.

Now your turn. You get to rank the seven teams. If you can’t see the survey, you can use this link. Unlike the T25, though, this isn’t unlimited responses, so do it quick or you might get locked out.

I’ll post the results later on today.

Results

Sorry, I had to cap this at 100 responses because I just wasn’t willing to pay for unlimited!

Two responses were skipped because they didn’t answer anything, I assume, so it’s actually 98. And the order selected in a form easier to read than below is:

  1. Toronto
  2. Calgary
  3. Montreal
  4. Edmonton
  5. Vancouver
  6. Winnipeg
  7. Ottawa

Sixteen people did not rank the Leafs first, and they will be identified and detained. Vancouver and Winnipeg were more clearly thought to be fifth or sixth and the other three middle teams were close to being tied.

Here’s the results report for when you’re too cheap to pay for it, so sorry for the watermark.