With almost every team at the 20 game mark, it’s time to start thinking about Stanley Cup contenders. Okay, maybe it’s a little early for championship talk, but with a quarter of the season in the books the sample size is just large enough to get a decent read on some teams (most analysts find that looking at 20-25 game averages is best for predictions). Things will likely change throughout the season, but it’s an interesting discussion to have as those things change, especially if the underlying numbers remain consistent. This is about who’s got the best chance right now, who’s playing over their heads, and who could sneak into the conversation with some good bounces. Most people will point to the standings and say “Boom! There’s your contenders,” but with the randomness that comes with hockey it’s not that simple because the standings can lie, especially early on. That’s why many have begun looking towards the NHL’s advanced stat movement to get a better understanding of which teams are the real deal and which teams aren’t.
That’s the usual spiel on the benefits of the NHL’s new numbers game, but this year has been strange in the sense that the actual standings have aligned pretty closely with the puck possession leaderboards. That means the contenders listed below probably won’t be that surprising – they’re likely the teams you’d expect. It’s the pretenders and dark horse teams that might pique interest. Here’s who the numbers like, don’t like and maybe-kinda-sorta like to win the Cup this season. (xGF and xGA are expected goals for and against based on the cumulative probability of each unblocked shot attempt being a goal per 60 minutes, via these charts from @DTMAboutHeart. CF and CA are score-adjusted shot attempts for and against, or Corsi, per 60 minutes, via war-on-ice.com.)
CONTENDERS These teams should be able to challenge for home ice during the regular season, and go far during the post-season. They’re the real deal.
New season, same story. The Kings are the best possession team, again, and are hungry after an embarrassing playoff miss last season. The Pacific division is a cake-walk so they should have no trouble making the post-season, or going deep for that matter. The team is elite at generating and suppressing shots at 5-on-5 and has a very good powerplay to boot. Penalty killing is a sore spot as they are being buoyed by unsustainable netminding. Despite that, the Kings are still probably the most complete team in the league.
The theme of this Canadiens' season has been that they’re more than just Carey Price. He’s been out for more than two weeks and they continue winning games anyway. Credit to Mike Condon for being solid himself, but the team has been dynamite with the puck and that helps a lot. They’re suddenly a very good puck possession team and when you combine that with arguably the best goalie in the league they look unstoppable. There’s no doubt they’ve had some good fortune so far, especially on the powerplay, but even if that corrects throughout the season, the Canadiens are still a powerhouse.
Barry Trotz has been a godsend for this team. The Capitals have become a defensive powerhouse under Trotz’s tutelage and with the weapons they have on offence they’re easily one of the East’s best teams. The Capitals are top ten at generating and suppressing shots in every situation except the powerplay, and knowing their history of success there that’s hardly concerning either. It’s hard to find a fault in any part of the Capitals game and they look like a team that can go very far this post-season. Their penalty kill looks particuarly strong by expected goals allowed.
It’s really difficult to pick just one team from the Central – I almost had a three-way tie with Dallas and St. Louis for this spot – but the early edge has to go to Nashville. They have the best defense group in the league in terms of total quality allowed, their offence is exceptional, and they have the best combined special teams according to expected goals. Not bad. The shot attempt numbers are great, but they don’t immediately jump off the page until you see the quality of those attempts. In a very tight Central division, the Predators might be the early leader of the pack.
DARK HORSE TEAMS Their record might not scream ‘elite’ right now, but there’s something in their underlying numbers that says they’re better than they look right now. This doesn’t necessarily mean they’re better than teams not mentioned with the contenders above, but they have potential to surprise.
Rumours of Boston’s demise have been greatly exaggerated. Their Corsi may be middling, but they have a top five expected goal ratio which takes into account the quality of those shot attempts. And while that hasn’t helped Tuukka Rask much, he’s been an elite goalie for years so it’s likely he bounces back and the Bruins will follow suit. His save percentage on the penalty kill is horrendous, but that simply won’t last, even if the quality of chances is much higher than the amount they actually allow. The Bruins are the league’s best team at generating and suppressing shot attempts on special teams which is something that gets overlooked when focusing solely on 5-on-5 action.
I wanted to use Tampa Bay here, but that’s practically cheating since they were a consensus Cup contender to begin the season. San Jose wasn’t though and they’re off to a so-so start making them a good dark horse pick. Like Boston, their possession numbers don’t look great – in fact they look pretty bad – but they’re a top five expected goals team. In San Jose’s case, the reason for the disconnect is that they lead the league in the ratio of shots that come from the slot. They’re elite at getting to the net on offence and protecting the slot on defence. With Logan Couture coming back soon, San Jose could be a sleeping giant.
PRETENDERS Despite some early season success, there’s some concerns about how these guys have gotten wins so far. Maybe it lasts, maybe it doesn’t, but usually it doesn’t equal sustained success.
The Rangers are currently 14-3-2 and simply can’t lose right now, so it might seem silly to suggest it’s all a mirage, especially after coming very close to two consecutive Stanley Cup final berths. But it is. Their PDO is currently over 106, and you can argue all the day that the things New York does well results in a 106 PDO, but no team has ever been that high and the next ‘best’ team this season is just over 102. This team is likely going to crash sooner or later and if they do, their inability to control the puck will start becoming a problem.
The Wild are third on the PDO leaderboard thanks to a sky-high shooting percentage that is second only to the Rangers this season. Over the previous two seasons, that number was at 8.2 percent, good for seventh of all teams, so it’s not too surprising to see them so high, but their current 10.2 mark will eventually come down. The Wild have middling possession numbers and aren’t very good on special teams, so while they still may make the playoffs, their chances to win the Cup aren’t as high as their record currently indicates.