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Faking it, making it, and who is really great in the NHL

How the league stands at approximately 1⁄3 of games played.

Boston Bruins v New Jersey Devils Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

The Toronto Maple Leafs play their 27th game tomorrow, which marks one-third of the season finished. Normally the first major opinionating on the state of a team, players and the league rolls out after one-quarter of the season is gone. But that seemed uninformative for the Leafs this year. The first 10 games were not much like the second 10 games in any way — quality, personnel, outcome, and they didn’t seem representative as a whole. That’s likely always true about some teams, and it shows how you can get tunnel vision, seeing only the team you watch all the time, and none of the others.

Waiting until a little later than 20 games in is a better idea every season, but this season seems to have a lot of uncertainty still baked into the standings. There’s a lot of teams faking it.

To look at the whole league, I’m going to toss out the really bad teams, the no-hopers, the bottom six of the standings by Points %. It it were halfway into the season, I’d toss more, but I’m ignoring(in order of badness):

  1. Anaheim - .288
  2. San Jose - .357
  3. Chicago - .375
  4. Columbus - .391
  5. Arizona - .409
  6. Philadelphia - .420

Next is the large muddy middle. In a month this group will likely be culled down with five or so teams dropping to bad and one or two moving up to be a lock for the playoffs. By then, goal differential will line up with Points % more closely, but for now, when a few lucky or unlucky runs of goals can skew that relationship, it’s not a clear relationship. This section is where most of the teams that are faking it are to be found.

Sticking with reverse Points % order, the fakes and the truly mediocre are:

  1. Ottawa - .348 - Fake, they aren’t the seventh worst team in the NHL with only a -3 differential. They have the bones of a bubble team, but they’ve scored goals when they didn’t need them, and haven’t when they do. They need some kind of heater to pile on the points to make the playoffs, though, and I don’t think it’ll happen.
  2. St. Louis - .458 - Weird, they aren’t a bad team by the roster, but they obviously have a huge goalie catastrophe when the coach is publicly calling out the overpaid starter. They never score because their offence is worse than that of the truly bad teams. I think they’re cooked for this year, and the reasons why might get someone fired.
  3. Buffalo - .460 - Fake. With a +4 goal differential, there’s no way they aren’t better than they seem. They score a lot of goals, and are relying on Craig Anderson while their rookie goalies come along. They would look like a plausible wild card team with their deserved points by now.
  4. Vancouver - .460 - They just don’t have it. Their points likely overstate their playing quality.
  5. Washington - .462 - Injuries might be the excuse, but that doesn’t make them a good team. They can’t score, and even if their Shooting % went up, they’d still be bad. Their big buy on Darcy Kuemper isn’t as bad as it seems, but he can’t put the puck in the other team’s net.
  6. New York (Rangers flavour) - .519 - Fake. Igor Shesterkin made up for their weaknesses last year with an inhuman performance. This year, they have a zero differential, and are better than they seem even with Shesterkin proved mortal. They have a terrible Shooting %, and could gently rise up the standings just from a little regression there. I’ll be very surprised if they aren’t a playoff team.
  7. Calgary - .521 - Mild Fake. They have less offensive punch than they should have, but they also have terrible goaltending and Shooting %. They can rise in the standings if that changes. But to really be better than a first-round sweep, they have to have a functional power play, and stop being satisfied with getting good percentages on defence alone.
  8. Montréal - .521 - Big Fake. In their case, they are way worse than their points. With a -13 goal differential they belong in the first group. Their offence is appallingly bad, their power play worse, and their defence is hideous. I can’t overstate how bad every aspect of this team is. They got these points on eight games of hot play from Sam Montembeault, who has stats the mirror of Connor Hellbuyck so far. Jake Allen has also been not bad. But everything else — real, real bad.
  9. Los Angeles - .556 - Fake-ish. They have the third-worst goaltending in the NHL, and if they didn’t they’d be a playoff team. But they’d be a very weak one, worse considerably than the Flames, even.
  10. Edmonton - .560 - They are getting the points they deserve. They are a power play supported by a negative value five-on-five team.
  11. Florida - .560 - Fake - They should be a playoff team, maybe a bubble team if the goalies go super cold. They have the highest all-situations Expected Goals in the NHL with over 100, and only have 88. That’s not really likely to be sustainable, and they will be gunning for the rest of the Atlantic in due course.
  12. Nashville - . 565 - Fake - They can’t score because they aren’t actually very good, and they have a differential of -7. They’ve gotten points on luck and a string of wins against weak teams. They are Montréal West.
  13. Minnesota - . 583 - They don’t score much, and are likely in the bubble range by rights.
  14. Pittsburgh - . .600 - Playoff team, but not a strong one. They really belong in the next group, but...
  15. Detroit - .604 - Fake. They have a +1 differential and got some points on luck. They are approximately equal to the Sabres, and should duel it out with them for fifth place, but they aren’t staying in playoff range.

That’s the easy part. The hard part is sorting out the last group of teams into good, very good and great. There’s only 11 of them, so they will get some of the teams below who are faking being mediocre. Of those, Florida is likely the strongest with Pittsburgh and the Rangers behind them. Still in reverse order, the final 11:

  1. Colorado - .614 - They’re playing borderline mediocre hockey with fantastic goaltending, terrible shooting and weak offence. Their once awesome power play has a hole in the middle, too. Cup hangover or genuinely merely good now? I’m not sure.
  2. New York (Islanders flavour) - .615 - Extremely similar to the Avalanche without the Cup excuse. If there’s a fake team in this top group it’s them. The Rangers and the Penguins can both overtake them, and likely will.
  3. Tampa Bay - .656 - That’s a big jump in Points %, and should signal a move to the very good teams. Tampa is just a little bit worse than they should be at everything, though. Except in net, of course. They don’t really need to stress themselves in the regular season, and have nothing to prove, but if Florida starts to surge... they might need to wake up a little.
  4. Dallas - .660 - They have a massive goal differential of +26 and would have more points with better goaltending. While their power play is scary, their overall offence is made out of Shooting %, some of which is inflated. They aren’t a great team in disguise, even though people will tell you they are. They are very good graded on the Western Conference scale.
  5. Carolina - .660 - The Hurricanes are weird. They shoot massive amounts from the points, went out and got Brent Burns to do it more, and they make it work. But their anemic +5 differential for a team sitting 7th in the NHL is deserved. I don’t think they have the formula right this year. Again.
  6. Winnipeg - .674 - Like always, the Jets are papering over weak five-on-five play with Connor Hellebuyck. What’s new is a penalty kill that isn’t horrid, and that’s helping them get a +15 goal differential. I think the Jets are legitimately good, but with some worrying weaknesses that could see them fail to maintain that points pace. I don’t see anything here that counts as very good.
  7. Seattle - .688 - The Kraken are living on excess defensive quality, a weak division and possibly the worst power play a non-tanking team has ever had. Their defensive results are good enough to make them, not fake, but weak in interesting ways. If they added a hot shooter at the deadline and hired a new power play coach, they might be very good.
  8. Toronto - .692 - The Leafs sit below the top three by a significant amount, if you just look at goals. Plus 13 is hardly horrible, nor is it excellent. They are good or very good at everything at five-on-five and are carrying the day with excellent special teams and a tandem of goaltenders who are both top 10. Shooting % regression will make the power play look as good as it really is, and will help a little at five-on-five, but their offensive decline at a time when the NHL as a whole is getting better says they aren’t great this year. Not yet.
  9. Vegas - .712 - Legitimately weird team where their Expected Goals against is so dramatically better than the volume of shots would indicate, they are one of a kind. They’re getting great goaltending out of people no one had heard of six months ago because of this feat. Their offence is a little hazily weak at times, and it’s tough to know if this is real, but for now, a goal differential of +22 is a little hard to argue with. They’re at least very good.
  10. New Jersey - .820 - I know where the impressive, overwhelming Leafs offence went. We left it in New Jersey. This is the most legitimately great team I’ve seen in some time. They could use some improvement on the power play, but they don’t need it. They are good to great at everything else. They also have some injured players who are legitimately great coming back, so they could get better. This is all real and the early caveats about a weak schedule were overstated. I want to see them play Boston, though.
  11. Boston - .870 - Very different to New Jersey, the Bruins have no weaknesses anywhere and have an overwhelmingly good power play. They’re arriving by a different path, but they are as legit as the Devils.

There’s going to be a lot of movement in the standings in the next two months. There is a notable disconnect still between five-on-five percentages and points, and that might be because the two really outstanding teams are in the Eastern Conference with a pack of very good teams in the same divisions. The Devils lead the league in Expected Goals % at five-on-five, but the Panthers are fourth, the Penguins sixth, the Flames ninth, and the Islanders 25th. This is not all just goalies deciding fates and skewing the results, the standings are still very uncertain.

I struggle to name any team great other than the obvious two. They won’t keep those .800 plus points paces going, so they will lose a little more often from now on, while the other teams get a chance to win more. The fakes will rise or fall as they should — mostly, it’s not guaranteed — and the only really sure thing in hockey is who the bottom three or four teams are. That’s always obvious.