At this point of the season, the NHL standings still look like one big jumbled mess. Sure, there’s a handful of teams on either end of the extreme that have started to distance themselves from the pack. We can say with a reasonably high level of confidence that the Pittsburgh Penguins are once again strong and the Arizona Coyotes most definitely are not.
But aside from those select few, the picture is murky. That’s largely by design, with the league remaining steadfast in its misguided beliefs that the current (loser) point structure and the resulting competitive balance are good things.
It’s easy to see how they’d stand to benefit from feeding that message to their fans. Take the Vancouver Canucks for example, who are unquestionably one of the worst five teams in the NHL by essentially any possible measure. Yet they’re only technically one point out of a wild card spot in the Western Conference and that’s the type of false hope they can go and sell to diehard fans.
So, it’s up to us to avoid being fooled by being proactive in sniffing out which teams are legitimately good and which are just hanging around because of good fortune and circumstance. One way to accomplish that is to sort through shot metrics and PDO (a combination of shooting percentage and save percentage). By now most people understand this measure and are familiar with past mirages we’ve been able to sniff out over the years.
Something else we can do is peel back a layer and look at whether there’s any substance to a specific team’s results, or is it’s mostly just fluff. To do so, here’s a breakdown of how frequently individual teams have been leading versus trailing in the games they’ve played:
|TEAM||% TIME LEADING||% TIME TRAILING|
There are a couple notable takeaways here. Conveniently they both reside in the hotly contested Atlantic Division, which at this point is as difficult to figure out as any.
The company the Tampa Bay Lightning are keeping is at the very least worthy of an eyebrow raise. They’re approaching the distressing 40 per cent mark in terms of time spent playing from behind, which is only rivalled by the true bottom-feeders of the league (the Avalanche, Canucks, and Coyotes are the only other teams that have spent a larger share of their games trailing).
This is an unfamiliar spot for Tampa Bay, considering the universally lofty expectations we had for them coming into the season.
Part of their struggles can surely be chalked up to the glut of injuries they’ve had to deal with up front. Not only have they badly missed Stamkos’ presence as a gravitational pull on opposing defences, but they were without their entire top line (Ondrej Palat and Nikita Kucherov included) for a chunk of time in December.
Still, even then it’s tough to reconcile just how abjectly underwhelming their performance as a team has been all year. They’re currently barely hovering around the 50 per cent threshold in any five-on-five metric, whether it be shots, scoring chances, or goals.
The one silver lining for them: beyond the Canadiens, it’s not as if any other team in that division has taken their spot and run away with it yet — only four points separate spots two through six right now. Maybe it’s wishful thinking that’s too reliant on past performance, but based on the talent alone you’d think the Lightning should still be considered as good a bet as any Atlantic team to secure one of those remaining playoff spots by season’s end.
This is a perfect pivot point to the Toronto Maple Leafs, who find themselves on the opposite end of the spectrum on the chart above. They’re in great company here, with only the Blue Jackets and Capitals having spent more time with the lead.
The issue for the Leafs, though, is they haven’t been able to translate that into the same type of success in the win-loss column as the other two. That discrepancy can be accounted for by their struggles in games decided by just one goal, which only the Coyotes have been worse at converting into points:
|TEAM||GAMES||POSSIBLE POINTS||ACTUAL POINTS||POINT %|
The easy narrative to spin here is that these struggles late in pressure-packed games are a side effect of how heavily they rely upon young, inexperienced players throughout their lineup, but I suspect that’s a red herring. I’m not really buying that the likes of Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner need to lose a certain number of nail-biters before they finally figure out what it takes to win.
The reality is there’s a ton of noise in games decided by one goal, where a single random bounce can be the difference between winning and losing. That’s why good teams generally don’t leave the outcome open to chance — they instead handily beat their opponents. The Leafs have shown well there, currently sitting sandwiched between the Penguins and Capitals for seventh in point percentage in games decided by two or more goals.
|TEAM||GAMES||POSSIBLE POINTS||ACTUAL POINTS||POINT %|
Instead it’s more likely Toronto’s record in one-goal games is just a blip in the radar, a string of bad luck that should even out over time. After all, the notion that the ability to keep overperforming in ‘close’ games is a repeatable skill has been disproven. If it were, we’d surely see the teams that have won an inordinately high number of them in the past be able to maintain that same success year over year far more frequently than we actually do.
So, we’d expect to see some positive regression for the Leafs and that’s started to materialize for them of late, with each of their past three wins coming in either overtime or the shootout. Given how tightly packed the standings are, it’s greatly important to squeeze out any extra possible points because that could be the difference between making or missing the playoffs — so Toronto needs more of these bounces to go their way in the future.
Otherwise I’m not sure it’ll be much comfort to the Toronto Maple Leafs or their fans if they’re on the outside looking in by season’s end for the 11th time in 12 years because a team like the Ottawa Senators had better luck.
The team deserves better, because for the first time in a long time the Leafs are actually good.