With the Montreal Canadiens losing two games out of three to the Maple Leafs in the month of February, the big rivalry in the North Division goes dark until April 7. The Leafs play mostly the middle of the division for the next six weeks. There’s only two games in the mix at the Senators and two at the Canucks.
This six weeks will very likely not decide anything for the Leafs. But it may well start to set the course for the Jets, the Flames and the Oilers. The Leafs began last night against the Flames, who they play six times in this period, then they visit the Oilers, who they play five times and finally the Jets are the focus, and the Leafs play them five times over this six weeks. So who are these three teams, beyond the only other teams in the North who have a hope of taking the final two playoff spots?
Winnipeg and Edmonton have separated themselves a little in points percentage over the Flames, who seem to be having an existential crisis. Winnipeg is, at time of writing, ahead of the Canadiens for the first time as well. But none of the three are outright bad teams like the Canucks, or are being sunk by the worst goalies in the NHL like the Senators. They’re all varying shades of mediocre.
And now a caution about number of games played. All teams in the North have hit 18 games or the approximate 1⁄3 mark of the season except the Canadiens. Forget the fraction or the less than 40 games remaining for a minute and remember how small a number of games that is. The very nature of the divisional play this season creates unbalanced schedules. Add to that the unbalanced schedules within the division, and you should expect the standings to lie.
Fans, coaches and GMs who have total faith in win/loss records all over the NHL are going to get rude awakenings in the playoffs when they suddenly exit divisional play in the third round. That problem is months away, though. In the meantime, we have the present to focus on.
The Senators’ results are so poor, however, they do know their future now. The Canucks as well, and the Flames are teetering on the edge, not at .500 with the win last night. You can go on a losing streak in a short season, but you need to right the ship fast.
I expected the Flames to contest with the Canadiens and the Leafs for the top three spots in the division, and when I looked at goalies in the North Division a few days ago, Jacob Markstrom was solidly sharing second place with Frederik Andersen. This is the danger of looking in-division only. Both Markstrom and Andersen have been middle of the pack as starters, which puts them on the edge of a being below average. They play a lot — the two of them plus Mikko Koskinen and Connor Hellebuyck lead the North in shots faced and are top six in the NHL — but neither is carrying their teams. Markstrom isn’t harming the Flames either. If they’re losing a lot, the skaters are doing the deed.
After 19 games, the Flames sit at 51% Corsi at five-on-five, 50 in Fenwick %, so shot blocking isn’t a story for them regularly unlike last night, and a better Expected Goals % at 52%. Those numbers are nearly identical to the Maple Leafs with the nod going to the Leafs for a bit better overall offensive shot quality. At 10,000 feet, it seems like these two teams are nearly the same off the power play (ominous music plays).
Digging a little deeper, the Flames have a low-ish shooting percentage at five-on-five, which is to be expected to some extent. The Leafs have more talent, the Flames should play a bit more solidly all over the ice. And that is the story at five-on-five — the Flames don’t shoot enough or well enough to score enough to overcome the goaltending which is just there, not amazingly good.
If their coach seems frustrated, he has a right to be, because they are just slightly out of tune, not terrible, not going off the rails flawed. On the other hand, their power play is terrible, both in the rate, the quality and the shooting skill utilized. If the Leafs are augmenting their mildly okay five-on-five play with the hottest power play in the North (and everywhere else), the Flames have one of the coldest.
What can change? Markstrom can easily go on a run of better play. Matthew Tkachuk is shooting cold, and he could heat up. Sean Monahan the same. Without a power play that works, however, the level they can reach if all of that happens is mediocre enough to take a playoff spot, but they’ve set the table for themselves to make that hard by losing so much early on. They need to improve now, or it’s over.
The Oilers are a team I expected to dazzle offensively and give it all away defensively, while playing in front of hilariously bad goalies for a team that thinks it’s a contender. They have achieved all of that, but it’s still a question of balance when you put that together into a set of wins and losses.
Their Corsi is bottom ten of the NHL at 48%, their Fenwick is in the same range. Their Expected Goals only rises to just under 50% which is middle of the pack league-wide. Their Corsi For per 60 minutes is mediocre, so even their shooting talent can only elevate it so far on low volume
Their 10,000 foot diagnosis is that they are a top heavy team with a bottom so bad, so unhelpful and with no defensive upside anywhere, that it’s a miracle they’re not where the Canucks are.
And of course, the reason for that is, much like the Leafs and their talent-soaked power play, that the Oilers can almost make up for all their flaws with a very good showing on the man-advantage. They have been a touch unlucky there, shooting-wise, and expectations should be they score more, not less in the future.
Mikko Koskinen has been just a bit worse than Andersen’s good enough for the North performance, and that plus their total and utter lack of PK or defensive ability has led them to the spot they always seemed destined to occupy: in the playoffs, but not in the top three.
What can change? Their GM could buy a clue and trade for a goalie. They could regress up to more normal (for them) scoring on the power play and get more goals. But I don’t see how they improve defensively without major trades. They are who they are, and will stay that way through the playoffs.
I expected the Jets to be a low-end mediocre team, maybe even outright bad, but carried by their goalie. They’ve surprised me by actually looking better than last season. The big trade was very smart for them, and they seem to be a team that clicks. There’s always another player drama around the corner with them, though.
Connor Hellebuyck has been very good, if not quite Vezina-level so far. He isn’t carrying them outright, but he’s a big help where other goalies in the division are just at best, a bit useful.
Their Corsi is almost good at 49%, Fenwick is lower by a touch at 48% and their Expected Goals are a dismal 45%. Wait, maybe they are bad. Their power play is bad, their PK is bad (that’s a Paul Maurice hallmark, though, nothing on special teams, and no good reason for it given the personell), and their five-on-five achieves mediocrity on a good day. From any altitude, they look bad.
But wait... why are they winning if it isn’t just Hellebuyck? It turns out they have a shooting percentage in the top 10 for all-situations, and while I’ll grant that the Jets have some talent, that seems to be a randomness spike not talent shining through.
Mark Scheifele is shooting at 24% by the traditional measure or six percentage points over expected by a more modern version. That’s not sustainable. Nikoalaj Ehlers, Kyle Connor and Blake Wheeler are all at varying levels of shooting well over expected. They lead the team in points, and at some point, that’s going to cool right off and the Jets will look as bad as a team whose best player is the goalie.
What can change? I’m sure Jets fans can provide all the traditional justifications for believing this player or that is suddenly Steven Stamkos or Auston Matthews with the puck on his stick, but nope, that level of shooting isn’t going to last. The thing is, though, you don’t have to give the goals or the points back.
The player changes might improve the five-on-five play. Hellebuyck could actually get better, and I don’t think Maurice can make a power play that works, but it’s theoretically possible now that he’s not building around Patrik Laine. The Jets made their hay while the sun shone, and the most likely thing to change is that it will cloud right up. They sure look to have a playoff spot locked up right now though.
Who is better?
All three of these teams have taken four wins from either the Senators or the Canucks. This is what makes this division hard to gauge. The Leafs have a nice stack of wins against those two teams as well. No one’s points percentage can be taken very seriously, and for the Leafs and the Canadiens, who play each other six times in the final six weeks of the season, the proof of who they are won’t be revealed until the season is almost over.
For these three teams in the middle, it’s hard not to think the Flames just need to not get overwrought at their record, and they’ll be fine — if it’s not too late. Edmonton, who can win or lose as the wind blows, are already nicely situated to blow into third place, making the Flames’ job very tough. The Jets... I just can’t believe in them. Calgary, if they have anyone on staff capable of crunching simple numbers, has to know they can take the fourth playoff spot from the Jets, even if Winnipeg seem to be flirting with second place right now. Can doesn’t mean will, however.
I certainly hope the Leafs disabuse the Jets of their delusions over the next six weeks, at any rate.
Who doesn’t make the playoffs of these three teams?
This poll is closed
Flames have flamed out early
Jets are going to come down to earth and finish out of contention
Oilers will slide right down the rankings with those goalies