Three up, three down: Penguins a team to watch in the wide-open Eastern Conference

The Penguins’ off-season moves made them an early favorite, but only now is Pittsburgh starting to look like a real contender. Meanwhile, Boston’s deadline moves are even more befuddling considering the Bruins’ play of late.

Another month has gone by in the NHL season meaning it’s time to look at which way teams are trending. With the passing of the trade deadline, the focus on the playoffs is in full swing and teams that go into the playoffs playing their best hockey generally carry that through on their way to a potentially deep playoff run. That means looking at who’s hot and who’s not is something worth keeping an eye on down the stretch. Most people would take that to mean which team had the most points in February, but with the NHL’s numbers movement we can dig a little deeper than that. What’s more interesting is which teams have actively improved (or worsened) their game regardless of results and identifying which teams are trending in the right or wrong direction. Some use shot rates to measure trends as it’s a good indicator of a team’s true talent. Shot rates can fluctuate throughout the year and that movement is worth keeping an eye on. That’s what this trend report is all about, because how a team is playing lately is usually good indication of what’s to come. Here are three teams going in the right direction, and three teams trending the other way:

All stats are score-adjusted and per 60 minutes via
Los Angeles Kings: Okay, this one’s cheating a bit, but it’s a shame the Kings haven’t been mentioned at all in the past three trend reports. The reason? They’re probably the most consistent possession team in the NHL. Their shot attempt differential for each month has been +13, +14, +14, +13 and +15 which is good for first in every month except October, where they were second. The Kings lowest differential +13 is exceptional considering the next best team’s lowest month is Dallas at +6. No team possesses the puck like the Kings and they’ve been crushing it this season, as usual. Some folks have Washington as this year’s best team with Chicago being the team to beat out West – especially after all of their deadline additions – but it’s arguable that the Kings are better than both.
Pittsburgh Penguins: We’ve put Pittsburgh in this space before back when Mike Sullivan replaced Mike Johnston, but they deserve it again because they haven’t stopped improving. Pre-Sullivan the Penguins shot rate differential was +1, but that has jumped to +5, then +8 and now +10 this month. That’s the fourth-best mark for February. Evgeni Malkin is healthy again and the rest of the Penguins are firing on all cylinders. They may still only be a wildcard team, but it’s hard to argue any teams other than Washington and Tampa Bay could be superior to Pittsburgh. They came into the season with a lot of hype and faltered out of the gate. Now they’re showing how good they can be. Just in time, too.
Columbus Blue Jackets: In a tradition like no other, the Blue Jackets are once again winning a lot of hockey games when it no longer matters. The team was all but eliminated following a disastrous first month, but that hasn’t stopped them from surging up the standings. It was a spirited late-season run last year that convinced management the team could be a contender in 2015-16, but that obviously didn’t come to fruition. It seems as if the same is happening again this year, hopefully with more cautious optimism than last time. The Blue Jackets were never as bad as they looked to start the season, but they weren’t as good as they were hyped to be during the pre-season either. Still, their improvement over the year seems very real as they’ve consistently inched towards the break-even mark for possession. At -2 net shot attempts, they’re still not great, but it’s a much better showing than their first few months under coach John Tortorella and a step in the right direction for a team that desperately needs one.
Colorado Avalanche: After many pundits predicted Colorado to finish last in the Central Division, the Avalanche instead find themselves occupying a playoff spot. Déjà vu? It feels like it, especially given the way Colorado has been routinely out-chanced. That’s not a strategy that usually turns into wins, but the Avs proved that wrong two seasons ago. This year is turning into a case study of whether lightning can strike twice. With the way they’ve played recently, I wouldn’t count on it. The Avs are usually bad, but February was low even for them as they allowed 20 more attempts than they mustered. That’s the second-worst mark in the league all season — only Colorado’s October was worse. The wins simply won’t continue like this, but Colorado clearly thinks otherwise after trading for Mikkel Boedker yesterday. The deal was actually quite fitting considering Boedker, like his new team, is a possession blackhole with a lackluster defensive skillset and whose point totals are a complete mirage.
Nashville Predators: The Predators are finally winning hockey games and Pekka Rinne is finally stopping pucks. That’s good news for a team that was dominating opponents only to be let down by their goaltender. Over the last month those two things have reversed, though. The Predators are suddenly the ones being out-chanced and it’s Rinne bailing them out. For much of the season Nashville was a top possession squad, especially at limiting shots. In February, they’ve dropped from a top-five team at shot suppression to one that’s in the middle of the pack. They’ve also seen a huge drop off in shot generation, where they had the fourth-worst mark for the month. That’s two troubling signs for a team that looked like it had some dark horse potential. The Preds need to find their game if they stand a chance in the Central, especially after Chicago and Dallas loaded up at the deadline while Nashville stood pat.
Boston Bruins: There were two teams with a worse shot attempt differential than Boston last month: the aforementioned Avalanche and the Arizona Coyotes. That’s not great company. The Bruins have experienced the biggest drop off of any team this month, falling to -13 in net shot attempts after hovering around even for the season. These are all troubling signs for a team that hasn’t exactly solidified a playoff spot, and things can go south quickly if they keep playing like this. At this point in the season, it’s probably safe to say the Bruins aren’t going to be contenders come playoff time and that’s what made Boston’s actions yesterday all the more confusing. They didn’t trade their biggest chip in Loui Eriksson and doubled down on that by acquiring Lee Stempniak and John-Michael Liles for four draft picks. That’s a high price for maybe six extra games come April…if they don’t collapse on the way there. Here’s how the rest of the league fared over the last month compared to the previous two:
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