Think of all the events that can affect an NHL team over the course of a season. A great player (or players) might sustain injuries that take a month or more to get better, teams can get hit by a flu-bug or perhaps a literal pandemic, you can have stretches against fully healthy or fully hurt opposing teams. You get lucky sometimes, and sometimes you don’t. Some nights you don’t get the calls. But over a large sample, it all comes out in the goal differential wash.
We all value different stats, and by this time of year, goal differential is the temple at which I worship to pick through which teams are legit and which are phony. (Yes, some teams made bigger deadline deals, and we have to see how those additions shake out, but in hockey adding a couple guys can only move the needle so much.)
It’s amazing what a truth-teller goal differential is. Going back five seasons to 2016-17, only two teams have been a minus in the category and made the Stanley Cup Playoffs (ignoring the weird play-in year). Only a handful have been plus in that category and missed. It’s a clear dividing line. Sort each conference by goal differential and teams that are a positive are usually in or around the playoff cut line, and the teams in red are in the bottom 16. Outliers either got robbed or got lucky.
So what can we learn about the NHL this season from goal differential? I’d argue for three obvious things straight away.
1. SO MUCH FOR PARITY
We always hear about how the NHL loves and pushes for parity. They hand out a bonus point to teams that lose in OT so everyone feels like they’re in the playoff hunt all year long. The salary cap is supposed to keep the playing field fair. The worst teams get the best draft picks.
But not this year. This year there’s more disparity than there has been in years, and as Nick Kypreos has argued on our “Real Kyper and Bourne” podcast, this year there are basically two leagues. There’s the premier league and tier two, with a few teams kicking around the middle looking at relegation/fighting for promotion.
In 2019-20, when the league stopped for COVID, over a third of the NHL was within the range of plus-10 to minus-10, with another five teams not far off. It was rife with parity.
It was an absolute mess of OK teams. Those teams head-to-head was basically coin-toss hockey. This season, just five teams fall into that same range despite similar games played:
And don’t those five teams seem perfectly grouped together, when you think about if they’re good or bad? They’re the definition of the league’s middle, few though they may be.
What we’ve got instead is a whole heap of teams, 27 to be exact, that have definitively decided which direction they want to go this season. In that 2019-20 season the best goal differential team was the Bruins at plus-53. Two seasons prior, the best team after 82 games was plus-60 (Tampa Bay). A couple seasons before that, the best team was plus-59 (Washington). It’s not uncommon to see the best teams in that range. There are still games to go this season, but already four teams (more on them later) are better than the best of those totals. Oh, and seven teams are worse than minus-50, having fully committed to not winning this season.
The next five-lowest teams by goal differential, who would appear just above this list, are all minus-30 or worse.
The gap between the haves and have-nots this season, she’s big.
2. TRUTHS REVEALED
Let’s look again at the same “middle pack” image to talk truths:
• The Kings are second in their division, and almost certain to lock in a playoff spot here, but maybe don’t get too excited about the rebuild just yet. They’ve taken massive strides, but they’re still just a break-even team (roughly) by this telling stat. Their underlying numbers have them better than this (particularly defensively), so I expect this to improve next year, but keep expectations low this post-season. Getting from bad to here is an accomplishment. The next step up is not a given.
• The Golden Knights, for all the shenanigans and all the drama around the team, are still keeping their head above this pack of “middling” teams by a breath. I can’t help but see a worst-case scenario unfolding for Calgary or Colorado. That being, Vegas sneaks into a playoff spot, then get all their great players back (Mark Stone, Max Pacioretty, maybe Robin Lehner, plus they got to keep Evgenii Dadonov?), and become a formidable playoff force, closer to what we expected them to be at the start of the season.
• Here's where you can see the softness of the West. Of all the teams above, only the Islanders are from the East, and they’ve been digging themselves out of a big hole since they started the season with 13 straight road games, followed by a month-long battle with team-wide COVID before the NHL permitted shut downs. The Isles might be the best team of this group, and likely finish as a plus.
• With just one East team, you can see how clear the dividing line is between good/bad in that conference. It got even more disparate after the trade deadline. It also means playoffs on that side are going to be mayhem, because all eight teams are legit.
3. GOAL DIFFERENTIAL TIERS REVEAL SOME DARK HORSES
Earlier I mentioned there were four teams that were already above recent highs for season-long goal differentials. Those teams look like this, with three of them being plus-70 or better. (The numbers on the far left are if you sorted the whole league by raw points, if you’re curious.)
The rest of the league grouped by tens looks like this. First the plus-40s:
Only the Oilers haven’t shown up in an image among definitely-playoff-bound teams yet, so let’s include them for context:
So, more thoughts:
• As with the Islanders mentioned above, second half success is obviously much more important for playoff odds, and a team like the Bruins are a lot better than the 13th-best team in the league (which is where they are in goal differential). As I’ve written about last week, the numbers don’t love Tampa, but we know they’ve done it before, so dare we doubt them? (Still, part of me can’t help but note teams that numbers are generally down on don’t often rise and become a different group in playoffs, so maybe they’re more gettable than the collective seems to think?)
• Are we sleeping on the Blues? If they get some goaltending coming out of the West, I don’t think they’re going to be a pushover. A lot to like in their top-nine, no?
• How about the Wild, who shake out pretty well by this stat too, and play a tough brand of “playoff” hockey. We’ve all been talking up Calgary and Colorado for weeks, but with Gabriel Landeskog hurt and Nathan MacKinnon out, could the door be a little open in the West for a surprise run?
• If the Penguins have Tristan Jarry playing up to his best level, does anybody want to play them? Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby, Jake Guentzel, Bryan Rust, Kris Letang, heck, Evan Rodridgues, Jeff Carter, Kasperi Kapanen…that’s still a Cup contender to me, and goal differential has them close to that tier.
No single stat category tells us everything, and fanbases of every team will look at this and have their “Yabuts.” Yabut our best guys were hurt, Yabut COVID, Yabut the trade, and all those contentions. And certainly many are relevant. But for a wholesale look at the league, you can do worse than starting with the simple idea of “who generally shoots it into the net more than their opposition,” then tease out a few conclusions.
And for us, those conclusions are that it’s been a strange year of heavy disparity, the West has a soft underbelly, and with that, there are a few dark horses lurking outside the most-discussed teams that shouldn’t shock us if they complete first-round upsets.