October 25 2011 01:55PM
At the outset of the season, there wasn't a pundit or hockey writer around who suggested that the Toronto Maple Leafs or Winnipeg Jets were surefire Eastern Conference playoff favourites. Toronto was lumped in as a bubble team while Winnipeg was sort of on the fence between a bubble team and a lottery team, partly driven on their first-half success of last season.
By the way, the only thing weirder than writing about Winnipeg in an Eastern Conference analysis would be writing about the Toronto Maple Leafs in the Western Conference. Or the Vancouver Canucks in the East. Or the Ottawa Senators in first place.
But who are the other bubble teams in the Eastern Conference who will compete against these teams for the playoffs? We can be sure that Pittsburgh, Boston, Washington and Philadelphia are essentially locks, while the Buffalo Sabres and Tampa Bay Lightning may be right there. Also on the bubble, I think it's safe to say that Carolina, New Jersey, Montreal, NY Rangers and Florida will be right there by season's end, competing for a pair of playoff spots.
So let's analyze some of their early successes and failures.
The Hurricanes have thus far gotten off to a reasonable 3-3-2 start after having played six on the road and just a pair at home. The numbers could be used to swing the Hurricanes either upwards or downwards. In the camp of "the Hurricanes will regress" is their score-tied Fenwick number (percentage of every goal, shot and missed shot with the score-tied at even strength) is just 46.4%. Also, while they find themselves .500, the Hurricanes' goal differential is -5 (22 for and 27 against) so they've had some success winning close games, which is also a non-repeatable talent and will likely regress as they begin playing a few more games,
That said, the Hurricanes shot rates are more or less favourable, particularly on specialty teams: They have the third best powerplay in the league as far as shot rates go, with 62.4 shots per 60 minutes, and their goal scoring has failed to match that total thus far. I think that the Hurricanes will pick it up on the powerplay as they go forward, although their even strength numbers are very worrying.
Florida traded over the weekend for a couple of characters in Marco Sturm and Mikael Samuelsson that they may be able to deal away at the deadline, so the team has a little bit of insurance if they new cast of veterans they recruited during the offseason fails to work out. Currently, the team sports a 5-3 record after a 2-1 win in Montreal. They have a +1 goal differential in their eight games thus far and a team even strength PDO of 986, so their record is thus far an accurate indicator of their overall play.
However, on even strength, they've had trouble scoring goals. Despite a 53.8 score-tied Fenwick going into Monday's game against Montreal, the team had only registered 1.5 goals per 60 minutes at evens. Their 5.1 shooting percentage hangs around for the lowest in the league. On the flip side of the coin, their powerplay scoring rate has exceeded that of their shooting, so their should be a little bit of balance coming there.
The Canadiens are much like the Leafs in that they're quite limited on defense and secondary scoring, but they had the goaltending to make up for it. Not so much luck this season, as the team has gotten off the team's worst start since before the Original Six era with just one win over the Winnipeg Jets. They're 1-5-2 and, before Monday's loss to Florida, have held just a .914 even strength save percentage to start the season. Carey Price is a good enough goaltender to not have to play at that level through the season and this is a Habs team that has really not matched the play of the team.
They have a relatively high score-tied Fenwick of 52.8% but haven't survived on that due to their propensity to give up early leads and play from behind. They've had a lot of trouble staying out of the box
, getting their opponents in the box, and their general amount of trouble has led to speculation that coach Jacques Martin might be coaching for his job. Coming out of Monday's game, the team had a PDO of 998 980 at even strength. If there's regression to be had, it's on special teams , but the amount of time spent with the man advantage as opposed to without is equally concerning.
NEW JERSEY DEVILS
The Devils are an odd bunch that's tough to understand, but they've been a pretty dominant score-tied team of 59.2% Fenwick which is good for second in the NHL, but they've been constrained by some horrible percentages (shooting 4.5%, save percentage .907) and have managed to sneak away from this relatively unscathed by managing somehow a 3-2-1 record. Their score and shot totals are expressly low despite playing a lot of their time from behind. When they're losing, they don't play any better or force any more pucks on goal. When they're winning, they absolutely collapse. They can't buy a goal at even strength, they're brutal on the powerplay (33.7 shots per 60) and their penalty killing hasn't made up for it.
If the special teams isn't good, their five-on-five scoring record hasn't been indicative of their score-tied play, so my point projection probably needs a couple of weeks for their percentages to balance out on either side to give an accurate reading of the team, but the initial prognosis isn't good. They had a horrible start last season and nearly snuck into the playoffs after a dominant second half, so the jury is still out on what kind of team the Devils are. As it stands now, they have a hard time scoring goals, but even a harder time creating shots, and yet they're still winning hockey games.
NEW YORK RANGERS
The Blueshirts came off their murder of a road trip that saw the team play 11 games in six different countries since they left for Europe as part of their pre-season swing, and finished that up with a 3-2-2 record thanks to some awesome play by Henrik Lundqvist and Martin Biron in games that they've been horrible out-chanced. The Rangers PDO of 1019 is very indicative of the sort of start they've had with their goaltending, but Henrik Lundqvist being on the shelf for any length of time can't help. Heading into Winnipeg, Lundqvist had started 37 consecutive games for the Rangers but left a Saturday game in Edmonton due to cramping.
This is a fairly decent hockey club as far as scoring is concerned, but through the road trip, they managed a score-tied Fenwick of 44.7% heading into Monday's game and haven't really picked up their play when they're behind. Said, their shooting percentages are tied into their early goal-scoring troubles and while their goaltending (.953) should regress a tiny bit, their shooting (6.6%) I'd expect to make up the difference. They have the lowest shooting rate of any powerplay in the NHL, which is equally concerning.
However, they have a strong record after finishing up this nightmarish road trip and finally return to Madison Square Garden, although they had a home record of 20-17-4 last season, so that might not be what the Rangers want right about now.
WHAT IT ALL MEANS
We're 10% into the season, so enough time to sort of gauge what kind of team certain ones are, even if we can't gauge exactly how good the teams themselves are. We know that Florida is slightly improved and Montreal and New Jersey are still having trouble with team shooting. If Montreal continues to drop games while they sort out their problems, they could play themselves right out of the race.
Where the Jets are concerned
The Jets have opened up to a dismal record early on, thanks partly to percentages. Their shooting differential is pretty good, even at score-tied (54.2 before their game against the Rangers, and I have to think that it improved from there) but they've received no goaltending so far. It's interesting is that this is what happened to the Thrashers in the second-half of last season; where they controlled play but not the scoreboard.
Where the Leafs are concerned
The Leafs are Montreal and Winnipeg's opposites. They've had trouble controlling the game at evens (46%), but their high PDO has made for an illusory standings sheet that sees the team at 5-2-1 through eight. Phil Kessel is leading the NHL in both goals and shooting percentage among players with more than 8 shots. But the Leafs are having a tough time getting shots after the first line, and if goaltender James Reimer is out for a significant amount of time, their play may regress quicker than expected.
PROJECTED POINT TOTALS OF EASTERN "BUBBLE" TEAMS
Carolina - 93
NY Rangers - 92
Toronto - 91
Montreal - 81
New Jersey - 77
Winnipeg - 77
(Projected point totals are calculated using a formula averaging Pythagorean Expectations based on the team's overall goals and against record at all strenghts, plus each team's overall shooting ability at all strengths. Score-tied Fenwick is not in the formula.)