Throughout a lengthy 82-game NHL season, every team goes through ebbs and flows. But when that team is in playoff positioning, every ebb and flow in one particular direction can have consequences — whether a stretch helps a team move up the standings to solidify their status, or starts to plant seeds of doubt into their spring.
There are teams who seem to just continue trending up, like the Calgary Flames and the Florida Panthers. That may be true, but there’s also a consistency to their high level of play. Instead, we want to take a closer look at teams who aren’t on as firm footing as those at the very top or very bottom of the standings — focusing on those currently in a playoff spot, but still jostling for position, since these trends can be particularly influential to whether a team is overly reactionary at the deadline.
By December, it seemed that the Stars’ hopes of the playoffs were all but gone. But the team didn’t throw in the towel just yet. Come February, they started to turn it around and now find themselves in the second wild card seed with a 32-21-3 record and 67 points — just one behind the Nashville Predators and two behind the third-place Minnesota Wild.
What’s behind it?
There are two key fixtures: their top line and goaltending.
The top line of Jason Robertson, Roope Hintz, and Joe Pavelski has been incredibly effective for the Stars all season. That trio drives play best for Dallas, rocking a 65.8 percent expected goals rate. Through much of the season it’s been this line, and this line only, creating quality offence for the team. Now, they’ve kicked it up a notch with Robertson’s scoring chance generation and finishing talent on display this past week in particular, and are getting some more support from the rest of the lineup.
But over the past month, while they’ve trended up, they’ve generated only 2.14 expected goals for per 60 at 5-on-5, which is 28th in the league. While Dallas is finishing close to that mark, it just shows that their overall offensive attack isn’t that much stronger despite their push for the post-season.
Their defensive efforts and goaltending have backed that up, at least. Jake Oettinger’s saved 93 per cent of the shots turned on net, and is slightly exceeding expectations in all situations.
For some, the Kings are the surprise of the season. Their new-look second line of Viktor Arvidsson, Philip Danault, and Trevor Moore has been a key source of offence and strong defensive play, helping keep the action up the ice and out of their own zone. And the addition of that two-way pivot has helped revitalize Anze Kopitar’s game. Plus, Drew Doughty’s having quite the season on the blue line now that he’s healthy and back up to speed.
The trouble for them earlier this season wasn’t their offensive generation, rather, it was their finishing. That’s trended in the right direction, as they’re now scoring .10 goals per 60 above expected on the season as a whole in all situations. Plus, they’ve played really steady defence as they’ve pushed up the division standings. That’s why they’re in the playoffs and second in the Pacific, and have pushed out the Oilers (and at points, the Golden Knights as well), and basically ended the Ducks’ hope of the post-season.
Now the question is how they proceed at the deadline, because this may push them to be more active as long as those moves don’t jeopardize the building process in the long run.
The Bruins are firmly in a wild card spot and should be bound for a post-season run. There’s been a few consistent themes this season in their path to this point. Patrice Bergeron has been absolutely stellar at both ends of the ice. So has Charlie McAvoy, whether positioned with Matt Grzelcyk in a top pair combination that was one of the best in the league, or now with Mike Reilly.
What wasn’t consistent, was David Pastrnak’s scoring to open the year. It wasn’t for a lack of trying, it was just some bad puck luck and uncharacteristically poor finishing.
And now that he’s on the second line, instead of the top trio with Bergeron and Brad Marchand, there’s more scoring depth. The second line of Taylor Hall, Eric Haula, and Pastrnak have generated almost 52 per cent of the expected goal rate while deployed, and that should only improve if Boston goes for a second line centre come deadline.
Boston has also been one of best defensive teams over the past month at 5-on-5, limiting opponents to 1.94 expected goals against per 60. Thanks to goaltending, they’re conceding an even lower rate of actual goals (1.46 per 60). Jeremy Swayman has been particularly strong now that he’s back from his AHL stint; since then he’s saved 7.42 goals above expected against all shot attempts and stopped over 94 per cent of the shots that have reached the net in all situations.
It’ll be interesting to see if Boston maintains its positioning or finds a way into those top three Atlantic seeds. That’ll be nothing short of an uphill battle considering the strength of the leaders of the division. However, one of those leaders has trended in the wrong direction as of late.
Yes, we’re up to the ‘how does this affect the Leafs’ segment of the story. Toronto's last month of play has been particularly chaotic and it stems from one of the more volatile positions in hockey: goaltending.
There were some finishing issues for the Leafs over their last stretch of play, and most of those stemmed from the middle-six of the lineup. The problem has been magnified because this team has needed quite a few goals to keep up with what their goalies have conceded.
In all situations, Toronto’s limited their opponents to just 2.55 expected goals against per 60 over the past month — that’s the fifth-best in the league over that stretch. But they’ve allowed four goals per 60, or 1.44 more than expected over that time which is the third-worst in the league.
Jack Campbell jumped out as a Vezina consideration this season, and then they added a healthy Petr Mrazek back into the rotation. But right now, literally nothing is going right for either goalie. If neither can bounce back, there could be trouble for a team that should be one of the stronger groups in the league.
When we talk about the Stars trending up, we have to look at the teams they’re putting pressure on. That’s the Wild and the Predators.
Minnesota’s been in playoff contention through much of the season, and that probably isn’t changing anytime soon. But they don’t have the cushioned lead they once did on those in the wild card slots now that they’re in third place.
It’s their play over the past month that’s raised a red flag. Some injuries have gotten in the way, slowing down their pace. But what really stands out is that what they’re creating isn’t matching what they’re conceding. Over the past month, the team’s letting its goaltenders face 3.31 expected goals against per 60 in all situations — which isn’t quite the stout defensive play they’re known for. It ranks 27th over that stretch.
The killer is that their goaltenders aren’t responding well to that workload, either, as they’ve allowed 4.38 goals against per 60 over the past month -- 1.07 above expected. With both Cam Talbot and Kaapo Kahkonen struggling, they obviously need to tighten play in their own zone sooner than later, but there’s no doubt they need more between the pipes as well to avoid going 5-8-0 over the next month, like they just did, and earning just 39 per cent of the available points.
Sticking with the Predators, there are some definite questions about the future in Nashville — most of which surround pending free agent Filip Forsberg. This team seemed like it was firmly in the playoff race, either in that third place seed or the top wild card, but there’s been a noticeable slip in play over the past month.
We heard this story before last year: Nashville played poorly and for a minute it seemed like management was going to move some core pieces around to shake the team up, hoping for a quicker turnaround. Then Juuse Saros played outstanding hockey to bring his team into the post-season, where they lost in the first round.
This season, playoff odds are in their favour, over say the Edmonton Oilers, another team that continues to trend the wrong way, according to a handful of public models from HockeyViz, MoneyPuck, Evolving-Hockey, and The Athletic’s Dom Luszczyszyn. And maybe Tuesday’s 2-1 win over the Stars will help instill some confidence into their play over the next stretch, but they’re probably not as firmly in the mix as they would hope.
It doesn’t help that Nashville's offensive generation has been a bit flat at 5-on-5 this past month, only creating 2.11 expected goals for per 60 at 5-on-5 which ranks 30th in the league. That’s a bit of a skid from the 2.55 expected goals for per 60 they were generating before the past month of play (which they were matching pretty closely with their actual scoring).
The Forsberg situation adds another level of pressure to their recent slip, and the clock is ticking for management to figure it out and decide whether it’s worth going ‘all in’ with this group come the deadline, or taking a step back and reassessing the immediate future.
Honourable Mentions: Vegas Golden Knights and Edmonton Oilers
We’re cutting Vegas some slack given the number of injuries they’ve faced this year; they have the game-breaking talent to help them pull it together when it counts the most. If that doesn’t happen… we’ll circle back and talk about them real soon.
As for the Oilers, a coaching change can only do so much for a flawed roster — especially with that goaltending situation. No need to beat a dead horse, at least, until their playoff chances really start to dwindle. Then we’ll have no choice but to pinpoint every misstep they’ve made during the primes of two of the best forwards in the league.
Data via Sportlogiq