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Making sense of the NHL standings as a few teams approach the halfway mark

Is the Eastern Conference really decided now?

NHL: OCT 16 Maple Leafs at Capitals

The NHL schedule has descended into chaos unlike anything we saw even last year. Anaheim has played 41 games, Tampa 40, and the Islanders and the Senators 31 after Monday’s games. Points are an illusion created by games played, and just like last year, it’s necessary to use points percentage to judge the standings.

Prior to Monday’s action, the Leafs were in fifth place overall. Their percentage is excellent at .708, in the range of sustainable at the top end of the NHL. Over 82 games, that’s 116 points, or the bleeding edge of what’s likely. Last year, in fewer games to even out the results and with the effects of in-division play, Colorado and Vegas finished with .732, but the third-place team was Carolina at .714, the same percentage Boston led with in 2019-2020 when the season was cut short.

In the last full season, 2018-2019, Tampa had an amazing .780, while the second-place team was at .652.

Suffice it to say, it would be unusual if all the teams in the 700s stayed where they are by the end of the season. At the other end of the scale, it’s easier to be very bad than very good, so I won’t predict the depths the Montréal Canadiens will sink to, nor can I say if Arizona can get bellow them, but I bet they’ll try hard.

So, about that Leafs in fifth ranking. The trouble is that two of the teams ahead of them are in the same division, and only one of them, Colorado, is in the Western Conference. To make this more ominous, the predicted regression of the Bruins seems to be occurring just as the predicted return of Tuukka Rask gives them another arrow in the quiver to improve their standings placement. Boston is currently ninth with .657, a very respectable playoff team kind of percentage. This means we have a four-way race in the Atlantic.

Atlantic Division, January 17

Team GP W L OT PTS Points % RW ROW GF GA Differential
Team GP W L OT PTS Points % RW ROW GF GA Differential
Florida 38 26 7 5 57 0.750 20 25 158 111 47
Tampa Bay 40 26 9 5 57 0.713 18 24 135 113 22
Toronto 36 24 9 3 51 0.708 20 23 123 93 30
Boston 35 22 11 2 46 0.657 19 21 111 90 21
Detroit 39 17 17 5 39 0.500 11 16 105 128 -23
Buffalo 37 11 20 6 28 0.378 8 9 96 130 -34
Ottawa 31 11 18 2 24 0.387 9 10 89 112 -23
Montréal 36 7 24 5 19 0.264 6 6 76 131 -55

Prior to the season starting, a look at the better points projection models led to the obvious conclusion that this Atlantic race was inevitable. There was every reason to think Montréal would hang around in fifth place, and the only surprise here is that they’ve swapped places with Detroit.

Add in the Metro, and each conference gets a wild card (the places align with the points percentage at the moment) and each half of the East has four teams in the mix.

Eastern Conference, January 17

Team GP W L OT PTS Points %
Team GP W L OT PTS Points %
Florida 38 26 7 5 57 0.750
Carolina 35 25 8 2 52 0.743
Tampa Bay 40 26 9 5 57 0.713
Toronto 36 24 9 3 51 0.708
NY Rangers 39 25 10 4 54 0.692
Pittsburgh 37 22 10 5 49 0.662
Boston 35 22 11 2 46 0.657
Washington 39 21 9 9 51 0.654
Detroit 39 17 17 5 39 0.500
Columbus 36 17 18 1 35 0.486
NY Islanders 30 11 13 6 28 0.467
Philadelphia 37 13 17 7 33 0.446
New Jersey 37 14 18 5 33 0.446
Ottawa 31 11 18 2 24 0.387
Buffalo 37 11 20 6 28 0.378
Montréal 36 7 24 5 19 0.264

This is hardly likely to be the final result in this order, although I think those top four in the Atlantic are set. I don’t believe the Red Wings can catch the Bruins over the second half of the season without some kind of confluence of multiple events that are very unlikely. I know everyone here is very adept at making up back of the envelope ways that the Leafs will implode, but at some point, that becomes a pose, and that point was three years ago. So, no, the Leafs won’t drop down to a non-playoff spot either.

But just switching from points to percentages takes the Rangers down a few pegs. They have great goaltending, and some improved play, but they don’t seem to be division leading material just yet. At the same time, the Islanders just don’t seem to have the stuff this year to overcome their poor start, even with more games than almost anyone else to do it in.

If the Islanders aren’t likely to make it, the Red Wings and the Blue Jackets are even less likely. This really does seem like the East has decided early who is going to the post season. The only thing left unknown is the order.

With Carolina so powerful, and seemingly looking to get better via trade, according to rumours, it doesn’t matter if a team in the Atlantic finishes fourth, third or second, they’re playing a really tough team in the first round. The reward for finishing first is likely Washington or Pittsburgh, so while that’s preferable to Tampa or Carolina, it’s hardly easy.

Some wag recently said that the Atlantic is so close, a top five team is going to lose in the first round, and there won’t be any shame in it. (It was Bob McKenzie on one of the late games out west with a smirk on his face a mile wide.) I hate to say it, but he is right. Someone very, very good is going to get seven games at most, and that is very likely to be any one of the Atlantic teams. Or two.

The West has real races, with LA and Anaheim making it very possible the Oilers don’t even make the playoffs. Dallas could get over whatever is going on there (they’ve decided it’s John Klingberg’s fault, though) and make a real mess of the race. The East is grind to make it to the spring with as many bodies intact as possible.

The Leafs can and should push for first in the Atlantic. It might make a meaningful impact of the chances of playoff success, but that’s a lot easier to say than to do.