Predicting the 2017-18 NHL standings using analytics

As the 2017-18 NHL season opens for business, we find ourselves on the precipice of relatively significant change. Teams that have long been fixtures atop the standings are beginning the slide down the wrong side of the aging curve. Meanwhile, clubs that have rising young stars in are climbing up the other side. Caught in the middle are teams that are a mix of prime-age talent, with a bit of old and a bit of new, trying to sustain whatever success has found them in recent years.

This year I have taken a slightly different approach to projecting the 2017-18 standings by combining three different seasonal projection models, two of which haven’t featured in this space in the past, and one of which I have expanded to a level not seen in prior years.

Emmanuel Perry of (@mannyelk of Corsica.Hockey) and Micah-Blake McCurdy (@ineffectivemath of HockeyViz.com) have kindly given me permission to incorporate their seasonal projection results of their models (Salad and Edgar), while Dawson Spriggings has given me permission to use the outcome data from his version of Goals Above Replacement dating back to the 2010 season in a third projection system. I have combined the distribution of results from all three models in an effort to assess the likely standings of this coming season.

It should be noted that each projection system varied fairly significantly in their confidence. Salad had roughly half the confidence interval size of Edgar and the Goals Above Replacement model. For the sake of balance in the combination of all three model-result distributions, I have adjusted the confidence intervals provided for Salad towards that of the other two models – so each team’s projected average point total is +/- approximately eight standings points.

The results of the combination are shown in the tables below, so let’s delve into what seems to be going on with this year’s projections and why.

Surprise Showings

Chicago Blackhawks
The Hawks’ forward group remains high-end and the repatriation of Brandon Saad and Patrick Sharp paired with internal development should compensate for the losses of Marian Hossa (LTIR) and Artemi Panarin. However, the Hawks have also seen a significant drop in their defensive strength in comparison to recent years.

Surviving the departure of Brian Campbell, Trevor van Riemsdyk and Johnny Oduya while coping with the age-related decline of Brent Seabrook is a monumental task. Newcomer Connor Murphy and the development of returning youngsters Gustav Forsling and Michal Kempny will be counted on to fill the gap, but it seems unlikely they will be able to replace all that has been lost.

Nashville Predators
The Predators appear to be a fan favourite to reach the top of the table following an impressive run to the Stanley Cup final last spring. Built on the league’s best defensive core, the Preds have a lot to like both in their top-four and in their young defensive depth pushing for a regular spot in the NHL. But there is cause for concern in net and up front.

The Predators sacrificed some top-end forward depth in James Neal (expansion draft) and Colin Wilson (traded for a fourth- rounder) and are obviously hoping the signing of UFA Nick Bonino and development from within can replace what was lost. None of the models foresee them as a top contender in the Western Conference, but they should make the playoffs again.

Edmonton Oilers
It looks as if the time has finally arrived for Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl and the Edmonton Oilers. Given the impressive recent years from Oscar Klefbom and Cam Talbot, the team has shown obvious signs of growth. Peter Chiarelli has built a legitimate contender – despite the misgivings of much of the analytical community. Now the question is can they turn the corner and show up as a legitimate Stanley Cup contender over the course of the regular season?

Arizona Coyotes
The Coyotes and John Chayka appear to be the darlings of the analytics community given their moves the past couple of off-seasons. Now they are poised to return from the depths of the NHL basement and potentially contend for a playoff spot. The biggest question marks in the desert surround their young forward group featuring the likes of Max Domi, Anthony Duclair, Lawson Crouse, Dylan Strome and Christian Dvorak. With the acquisition over the summer of Derek Stepan, Nik Hjalmarsson and Antti Raanta to help shelter the kids, expect a significant improvement in results in the desert.

Surprise Showings

Toronto Maple Leafs
Given all the hype of this past off-season and the signing of Patrick Marleau, many Leafs fans and observers around the NHL have projected the team at 100-plus points and contenders for the Eastern Conference crown and potentially the Stanley Cup. While the young core likely makes significant strides forward this season, the defence remains a work in progress and a 38-year-old Marleau likely provides less impact up front than many are anticipating. A playoff spot should be within reach, but they likely aren’t a top contender just yet.

Carolina Hurricanes
The team that the NHL seems to have forgotten about, and one poised to make significant strides up the standings, are the Carolina Hurricanes. The Canes have added significant forward depth to their ranks over the past few years, and are slowly compiling one of the more impressive groups of young defenders in the NHL led by Jaccob Slavin. Now they have finally addressed one of their biggest problems by acquiring Scott Darling to take over in net. Carolina locked up the former Blackhawks backup for the long-term and is hoping the move pans out similarly to how Edmonton made gains by acquiring Talbot (who had been backing up Lundqvist). If Darling can keep putting up the results he posted in Chicago, Carolina should be a surprising contender in a tough Metropolitan Division.

Ottawa Senators
Despite a sweetheart run to the Conference Final last season, the Senators are unlikely to make the post-season in 2017-18. Their forward core is one of the weaker groups in the East, and their goaltending projects as mediocre. Despite featuring a multiple-Norris winner on the blue line, the Sens also continue to hamper their own success by loading up tough minutes on players who struggle. It will be an interesting year in the nation’s capital if the team stumbles out of the gate, and I remain curious how long the honeymoon lasts with owner Eugene Melnyk, GM Pierre Dorion and head coach Guy Boucher.