After 20 or so games, the playoff hunt is starting to get much clearer and as surprising as it sounds, expect the Blue Jackets to be in the post-season.
Each month is an end and a beginning for NHL teams. String a few good months together and it probably means a playoff berth. A couple bad months though and it’ll cost you.
Every month we like to highlight three teams that are trending up and three teams that are trending down to get a better sense of the landscape of the league. These aren’t your typical trends citing best and worst records in the league because those things can be fickle over a single month of hockey.
Instead we’ll dig a bit deeper toward each team’s underlying numbers. We’ve got a projection model that assesses each player’s value that’s updated daily throughout the season that can estimate point projections and playoff chances. It’s based on the past three seasons of a player’s Game Score and it’s what we used for season previews for each team. These posts are a way to check in with how teams have progressed, comparing how good they were projected to be at the start of November and how that’s changed since.
Here’s which teams are playing better and worse over the last month, as well as a look at the current projected playoff picture.
Toronto Maple Leafs
The Leafs aren’t exactly tearing up the league right now, but they’re definitely not the bottom-feeder many expected. They’re currently playing at an 86 point pace – a huge improvement from last season – but may be even better than that with a projected point total of almost 92 points. That probably seems far-fetched to a lot of you, but they’ve got decent shot rates, their goaltending is trending up, and they’ve got one of the most explosive offenses in the league. Last year’s team was a mess that couldn’t score, but when you add a full season of James van Riemsdyk plus three of the league’s best rookies, you get an offensive powerhouse. Defense is still a big concern and that’s why their expected win percentage is around .500 and not higher. Still, that’s likely much higher than most would expect and I doubt many see them just above 40 percent to make the playoffs, which they just might be.
Remember just a couple weeks ago when everyone was worried about the Predators? They’re now playing how we thought they would. They had the biggest Corsi jump this month going from a 26th ranked 47.2 percent in October to a third best 54.3 percent in November. To go along with that, they also had the third highest points percentage behind only Chicago and the next team on this list. By my model, the Predators are a top five team, an almost lock for the playoffs and a legit Stanley Cup threat this season. That’s pretty much what most of us expected from them before a slow start soured some opinions. While that’s understandable, this team should continue rolling along now that they’ve ironed out whatever issues plagued them in October.
Columbus Blue Jackets
A team that many thought would be competing with the Canucks and Coyotes for last place is somehow a top 10 team this year in points. Go figure. Not only that, they’re absolutely destroying some very good teams in the process. No one saw them being this good (and they won’t continue being this good), but I was cautiously optimistic about their chances before the season started, pegging them as a bubble team. They’ve surpassed that so far and have seen the biggest playoff chance increase this month going from 41.5 percent to 73.3 percent. What’s most important though, is that it isn’t all a transparent PDO mirage, the Blue Jackets are playing really good hockey lately. They controlled 52.3 percent of the shot share in November, a modest jump from their 48.9 in October, plus they’ve got some talented scorers and great goaltending that can out-score their possession rate, too. Columbus isn’t a great team, not unless they keep their possession rates up a bit longer, but it’s safe to say they’re at least an above average one right now.
Tampa Bay Lightning
After talking about one team lighting up better teams, we now arrive at one of those very teams. Columbus trounced Tampa Bay 5-1 on Tuesday and there was never really a point where the Lightning were really in it, getting dominated 27-13 in shots through the first two periods. The team has now lost three straight and face St. Louis and Washington next, so things might get uglier before they get better. By their expected win percentage, the Lightning dropped from an elite powerhouse at .551 to an okay playoff team at .526. Part of that is losing Stamkos, but they also just haven’t played really well either. SB Nation’s Lightning blog Raw Charge goes into this deeper here, but the basic gist is that the team isn’t dominating play like you’d expect a team with this much talent to. They were a bottom 10 Corsi team in November. That’s not a good sign, but with their roster, and Anton Stralman coming back soon, they should be able to bounce back.
I was much higher on Philadelphia than most before the season started, and that’s been somewhat justified by their consistent top 10 shot rate this season, yet the team continues to flounder with an 11-10-3 record. All of it comes down to goaltending as Steve Mason looks more like the Columbus version of himself than the one who’s given Philadelphia respectable goaltending during his tenure there. This year, Mason ranks 42nd among goalies with seven or more starts with a .898 save percentage. In the three seasons prior (this time looking at goalies with 50 or more games) he’s 11th with a .921. Up until this season, Mason has been a borderline top 10 goalie for the Flyers, but he’s looked like a sieve on numerous occasions this year. With the Blue Jackets surging, the playoffs are looking more and more unlikely for the Flyers with each passing game. Mason looked terrific in a win against the Bruins Tuesday, so all hope is not lost, but he needs to start doing that on a consistent basis for the Flyers to reach the post-season.
New York Islanders
Woof. Has there been a more disappointing team this season? Probably not, as many people had them in a playoff spot. Instead they’re challenging for worst in the league. The biggest problem here is that the losses of Kyle Okposo and Frans Nielsen have created some big holes that none of the young guys have been able to fill yet. John Tavares is practically on his own island as the lone good forward on the team. The Islanders rank second last in Corsi this season at 45.9 percent, ahead of only the Arizona Coyotes and have looked uninspired on most nights. It’s baffling that there hasn’t been a coaching change yet after their putrid start, especially considering some of the head-scratching decisions made by Jack Capuano. Among his most egregious decisions, he’s put Cal Clutterbuck on the first line, sent Ryan Strome to the press box, and placed Andrew Ladd on the fourth line. None of those moves make much sense, but the Islanders descent towards the bottom suddenly does.
THE PLAYOFF PICTURE
After 20 or so games, the playoff hunt is starting to get much clearer, but there’s still some teams that currently hold a spot that are likely to fall out, while the same is true for some of the teams on the outside looking in. Based on the games that have already been played, and what we think is likely to happen over the next 60 games, here’s how the playoff picture shakes out.
In the East, two teams currently in a spot – Ottawa and New Jersey – likely find themselves out of it by the time the season comes to a close in favour of two much stronger teams from the Atlantic: Boston and Florida. Yes, Florida has struggled, but they’ve had some big turnover and need some time to gel. They’ve also dealt with some big injuries early on. The next month or so will be critical in showing that the talent they’ve got on paper can translate onto the ice. In the West, everyone currently in a spot should stay that way, but there’s still a few teams that can make things interesting.
Virtual Locks (90 percent or more): Chicago, Pittsburgh, Montreal, San Jose, Los Angeles
Safe Bets (70-90 percent): Washington, Nashville, St. Louis, Rangers, Minnesota, Anaheim, Columbus, Boston
Squeaking In (50-70 percent): Florida, Edmonton, Tampa Bay
On The Bubble (30-50 percent): Winnipeg, Toronto, Philadelphia, Calgary
Fighting For Life (10-30 percent): Dallas, Ottawa, New Jersey, Detroit, Colorado, Islanders
Pretty Much Out (10 percent or less): Carolina, Arizona, Vancouver, Buffalo