The first month of the season is officially in the books and with it has come some surprises and some disappointments. That’s the nature of looking at hockey through a handful of games, as teams can go on big winning or losing streaks without really deserving to.
Before the season started THN rolled out previews and projections for each and every team. The projections were based on a players weighted three-year average of a player’s Game Score. Those were updated just before the season started and have been throughout the year after each day of NHL action. We figured it would be interesting to see which teams have the biggest difference between their projections then and now, for better or worse and why that might be the case.
And while it’s still very early, we’re going to take a look at the projected playoff picture according to the model to see what’s changed since the pre-season and which teams might be in trouble.
Better Than Expected
Pre-Season Point Projection: 89.5
Current Point Projection: 95.6
The biggest surprise from the first month of the season has to be this Oilers squad. They’ve rattled off an impressive 7-2-0 record which is good for second in the entire league. It’s easy to see what’s behind this surge out of the gate and that’s Connor McDavid showing he might be the best player in the league right now and Cam Talbot proving he’s a legit No. 1 goalie. We figured McDavid would be among the league’s best, but it’s likely not many pictured Talbot stealing the show. The team is just average in the ever-important puck-possession battle, but with McDavid leading one of the league’s best lines and Talbot being lights out, that might be enough for the team’s first playoff berth in a decade.
New Jersey Devils
Pre-Season Point Projection: 82.2
Current Point Projection: 88.0
Even after the larceny that was the Taylor Hall trade, the Devils were sort of an after-thought in the Metro division and destined for the league basement. That hasn’t been the case early on and they might now be closer to the playoff bubble than the lottery. The team still isn’t very good, but they’ve had the biggest leap in expected win percentage over the past month, according to this projection model going, from .440 to start the season to their current .463. The two keys to that so far are their two rookies Pavel Zacha and Yohann Auvitu. Most of us have heard of Zacha considering he was a top 10 pick and he’s done better than initially expected to start the year, but it’s the other guy quietly making a sizeable impact for the team. It’s a small sample size, but the model loves what Auvitu has shown so far and his contributions have been a welcome surprise to a questionable back-end.
Detroit Red Wings
Pre-Season Point Projection: 84.0
Current Point Projection: 88.6
The Red Wings are off to a surprisingly good start considering their lineup, but their underlying numbers suggest that they’ll start fading soon. They currently sit above only the Islanders and Vancouver in score-adjusted Corsi at 46.3 percent according to corsica.hockey, which is a far cry from the powerhouse teams during their contending years. They’re up big in the model’s projections so far because they’ve banked some points early and also because it’s become increasingly unlikely they keep the worst forward line in the league together once their forward group gets healthy. The initial projections were done with a full-season of the OMG Line while the updated version thinks one of them likely sits out in favour of Andreas Athanasiou, who’s been pretty good for the team early on. That one little move might be enough to keep them in the playoff mix, but it’s still unlikely they reach the post-season for the 26th consecutive season.
Worse Than Expected
Pre-Season Point Projection: 78.5
Current Point Projection: 74.3
When expectations are already extremely low to begin with, it’s hard to disappoint them and yet the Vancouver Canucks found a way. The entire hockey world figured this wouldn’t be a good team and they have been pretty correct so far. The early four game winning streak may have fooled some people into thinking a miracle was on the horizon in the Pacific, but five straight losses likely squashed that belief. As mentioned above in the Detroit blurb, the Canucks are in fact the worst shot rate team in the league so far which should come as very little surprise considering their depth at forward and defense. The difference between them and the 29th place team is the same as the difference between 29th and 20th. They’re in a league of their own and it’s not a good league to be in. They’re the only team projected to win fewer than 40 percent of their remaining games at an estimated .393 win percentage.
Los Angeles Kings
Pre-Season Point Projection: 103.1
Current Point Projection: 96.6
The Kings are off to a rocky start that’s similar to last season’s, but this one is much scarier thanks to big injuries at every position. First Marian Gaborik (although that one should’ve been a given), then Jonathan Quick (and back-up Jeff Zatkoff), and now Brayden McNabb, too. Very few teams can survive that kind of injury bug. The goaltending is the biggest loss as the injury to Quick is long term and the fact remains that he is an above average starter while Peter Budaj is, well, Peter Budaj. The skater injuries hurt, too, as the Kings depth isn’t what it used to be and the team has become very top heavy as a result. They’ve got an excellent system that’s propelled them once again to the top of the Corsi leaderboards, so maybe it’s not a huge deal, but the team is definitely vulnerable right now.
Pre-Season Point Projection: 96.2
Current Point Projection: 89.0
This one stings as the Stars looked really promising just one season ago, but they’ve been hit hard by injuries. They’ve lost two middle six forwards for the rest of the season in Ales Hemsky and Mattias Janmark, which is a huge blow. They’ve also got Patrick Sharp dealing with a concussion and Cody Eakin still healing from a knee injury. The once-scary forward depth suddenly looks very depleted. Combine that with the gutting of the defense corps during the off-season and a powerhouse from last season might be in tough to make the playoffs this season. It’s not just injuries either, as guys like Jamie Benn and John Klingberg haven’t played at the level they’re capable of so far. The Stars had a projected win percentage of .525 to start the year, but with the way they’ve played and their big injury issues, they’re more than likely a below .500 team for the rest of the season unless some players can step up big time.
The Playoff Picture
Is it ever really too early to look at the playoff picture and who’s likely to make it? No. It’s obviously still early, but based on what’s happened so far and what’s likely to happen the rest of the way, this is how the season likely plays out.
In the East, not much has changed so far except for the order of teams. The top eight remain unchanged although the Rangers have put themselves in a much more solid position to qualify. In the West, there are two big changes as Calgary and Dallas plummet early on while Edmonton and Anaheim take their place. There’ll be a big fight for the two wildcard spots here as there’s five teams in legitimate contention for them.