Analyzing the NHL’s five best teams at even strength

Erik Karlsson spoke with Sportsnet’s Sean Reynolds after the San Jose Sharks shut out the Vancouver Canucks. Karlsson recorded his first three-point game with the Sharks.

Since we’re now past American Thanksgiving, we’re already being inundated with stats about how likely it is for teams to move from outside the playoff picture to inside it. People love to see those scenarios, even though the efficacy of that cutoff date seems to be getting less potent each year as NHL parity becomes more pronounced.

Hot and cold streaks in small samples can change perspectives in a hurry, and there’s no small sample that sticks in the mind more than one at the beginning of a season. Remember when Patrik Laine couldn’t score anymore? A small sample of poor shooting luck was followed by another small sample of excellent luck, and now he has 19 goals in 23 games.

This happens for whole lineups, too. Teams that look great on the surface can be getting lucky while playing poorly, and the opposite can be true as well. Because of that, I try to not really look at the standings at all for the first 30 games or so.

So if you ignore the standings, how can you evaluate which teams are playing well and which aren’t? Using a similar methodology to how I ranked position players for my summer project for Sportsnet, I used a bunch of 5-on-5 statistics that measure offensive and defensive performance, and weighted them based on importance, with the heaviest weighting on goals so that we aren’t ignoring what’s already happened this season.

Based on that, the top five teams at 5-on-5 so far this season are the Tampa Bay Lightning, Carolina Hurricanes, Vegas Golden Knights, Calgary Flames, and San Jose Sharks.

5-on-5 is the biggest and most important component to winning hockey games, but it’s far from the only one. So while it’s somewhat surprising that until last week a couple of those teams weren’t in the playoff picture, and Carolina is certainly precarious, it’s not impossible for a great even strength team to be undone by poor special teams or goaltending.

Let’s look at a cross-section of stats to see what makes those teams so effective at even strength.

Three of these teams have been surprisingly unlucky to start the season, with Vegas being dealt some much-anticipated regression after all the great fortune they had last year. Carolina is having its usual struggles to turn great play into goals, and San Jose has been undone by poor shooting luck and a rough start to the season from Martin Jones.

The Lightning came out ranked as the top even strength team in the league based on the numbers, despite the fact their high danger scoring chance and shot differentials are good but not great. Their ability to create and limit pre-shot movement has taken a huge step forward.

Last season the Lightning were a strong even strength team, but weren’t dominant — the power play was their most potent weapon. But another year of seasoning for Brayden Point, and this team seems to just keep getting better. This has allowed them to weather the loss of Andrei Vasilevskiy, which is something that would devastate most teams.

The Hurricanes are in many ways the opposite of the Lightning. They aren’t bad at controlling pre-shot movement, but they spam shots on net from all areas of the ice, including the high danger area. Creating great pre-shot movement is far from their biggest strength, even though they’re above average at it. But it could be a reason why they score at a lower than expected rate despite being the gold standard in terms of territorial play for multiple seasons now.

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Vegas is doing everything well. They control more than 54 per cent of every measure except goals, and despite their finishing ability likely being much less than we saw last year, don’t be surprised if through the rest of the regular season they score much closer to 55 per cent of the goals rather than their current 47.5 per cent.

The Flames look to be starting this season off right where they ended 2017-18, a dominant even strength team that can’t get a save from Mike Smith. Luckily they’ve got “Big Save Dave” Rittich stopping 93 per cent of the shots he’s facing right now as he’s taken over the starting position.

Last year the Flames were my dark horse pick to sneak into the playoffs and do major damage, but they could never get over the poor shooting luck from Mikael Backlund’s line and bad goaltending. This year looks different, and they’d be a scary team to face in a seven-game series.

Ranking fifth, the Sharks were anointed off-season champions after acquiring Erik Karlsson for pennies on the dollar, and while it hasn’t worked out glowingly yet, Karlsson is starting to heat up after a terrible offensive start in spite of strong play. As a result, the Sharks look like bona fide contenders once again.

After being a little too complacent with just letting Brent Burns fire shots from the point constantly last year, the Sharks have pushed the play into the slot and inner slot far more often this year, while maintaining some of the best defensive numbers in the league. The results haven’t been great yet, but I have no doubt they will start turning that way soon.

Just outside the top-five were the Toronto Maple Leafs, who should likely take a step forward with the return of Auston Matthews, not to mention the potential of William Nylander if they can actually get a deal done.

Right behind the Leafs on the edge of being among the league’s elite were the Colorado Avalanche, who brought a shockingly efficient speed game with them last season, but have diversified to be a better all-around team while keeping their ability to attack off the rush.

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