With the NHL’s implementation of four divisions last year, we as fans were able to remember what it was like to watch hockey back in the 1980s, except with 30 teams instead of 21. That being said, these divisions are starting to stake claim as to which is the toughest in the NHL, and that answer has been pretty obvious since the season even started.
The Central Division has been absolutely stacked ever since Chicago, Dallas, Colorado, Minnesota and St. Louis made the playoffs last year. This year, switch the Wild, Stars and Avalanche with Nashville and Winnipeg and you have this year’s playoff teams from that division. In other words, that’s the entire division making the playoffs in a two-year span. You don’t need the Avalanche being the only team with negative puck possession to prove how ridiculous this division is. So let’s celebrate it by eliminating a team from the worst division in the NHL, the Atlantic division, from this week’s edition of the Nerdy 30.
30. Buffalo (82-game standings points pace: 53 points, Last Week: 30)
29. Arizona (Pace: 69 pts, LW: 29)
28. Edmonton (Pace: 59 pts, LW: 28)
27. Columbus (Pace: 75 pts, LW: 28)
26. Toronto (Pace: 76 pts, LW: 22)
25. New Jersey (Pace: 79 pts, LW: 26)
24. Carolina (Pace: 67 pts, LW: 24)
23. Philadelphia (Pace: 82 pts, LW: 25)
Under new head coach Peter Horachek, the Maple Leafs are performing much better, analytically. Score adjusted corsi has hit at 49.5% under Horachek, and the team’s shot unblocked shot attempts per 60 in close score situations has dropped 3.4 shots. Now, that’s all still the makings of a bottom ten hockey team, but that better not discourage Leafs fans from blaming another head coach for all it’s problems. If anything, it should be another of a six-year realization that the team building philosophy has been one of the worst in the NHL and Horachek is essentially trying to turn “chicken [poop] into chicken salad“.
While Horacheck has gone 1-9-1 during his tenure and seeing his team outscored 14-34, the Leafs have also shot the puck at 3.4% during that time period at even strength. That is more than two percent worse than second lowest Arizona. Now, Horacheck has called out his team to crash the net harder. However, Toronto has been doing that all season, but their shots have not been going in the back of the net. In fact, all the puck luck has been occurring from the right handed point, where the team’s three highest volume shooting defensemen in Dion Phaneuf, Morgan Reilly and Jake Gardiner are parked, and on the left half-wall, aka “Phil Kessel Island”.
- 22. Colorado (Pace: 88 pts, LW: 23)
- 21. Calgary (Pace: 95 pts, LW: 21)
- 20. Florida (Pace: 92 pts, LW: 20)
- 19. Montreal (Pace: 110 pts, LW: 19)
- 18. Ottawa (Pace: 82 pts, LW: 18)
- 17. Vancouver (Pace: 99 pts, LW: 17)
Let’s get this done and over with. Montreal has no business being among the best teams in the NHL. Their puck possession has been floating around 48% all season and if it wasn’t for another out-of-this-world season for Carey Price, this team wouldn’t be in the playoffs. While Montreal doesn’t give up an astronomical number of unblocked shot attempts in close score situations, they give up a lot in the middle of their own zone between the two faceoff dots. That being said, all those shots go ice cold because of Price’s presence. That can be emphasized even more on the penalty kill, where Montreal has given up the 7th most shot attempts, blocked and unblocked, in the NHL. Every stat you see paints Price in a light that should make him, at worse, second to Pekka Rinne as the best goaltender in the NHL. He is second in even strength save percentage, 10th in shorthanded save percentage, leads the NHL in averaging over a 0.25 point shares per 60 minutes and has over 60% of his starts reach “quality” status.
Meanwhile, the offense has been below average once again. Despite his gradual improvements and still being 20 years old, I am still waiting for Alex Galchenyuk to become a world class hockey player and the remainder of the team’s best forwards have either peaked or have plateaued in their goal scoring department of their development. Missing P.A. Parenteau to concussion-like symptoms doesn’t help, but this predicament could mostly be down to the Michel Therrien way of doing things. That being said, having someone not named Dale Weise on the top line with Thomas Plekanec and Max Pacioretty is vital for Montreal to even think about going beyond round one of the playoffs.
- 16. San Jose (Pace: 98 pts, LW: 16)
- 15. Dallas (Pace: 89 pts, LW: 15)
- 14. Minnesota (Pace: 89 pts, LW: 14)
- 13. Anaheim (Pace: 116 pts, LW: 12)
- 12. Boston (Pace: 100 pts, LW: 13)
- 11. Los Angeles (Pace: 89 pts, LW: 8)
- 10. New York Rangers (Pace: 106 pts, LW: 10)
- 9. Washington (Pace: 100 pts, LW: 11)
Since New Year’s Eve, the Sharks have gone 8-4-2. Now they are being outscored 40-42 during that current stretch, but considering how terrible the Pacific Division is (no team in that division is in the top ten of the Nerdy 30), any momentum for San Jose should be a positive one in terms of getting ready for the playoffs. Anaheim might be the only team standing in their way from being swept in the Conference Finals to any of the three best teams in hockey (yep, the Central is THAT GOOD!), but they shouldn’t see them until round two.
Their potential round one match-up with Vancouver could be interesting in that the best penalty kill will go up against San Jose’s power play, which ranks third in total shot attempts for per 60 minutes. Come playoff time, you should favor the better defensive outfit, which the Canucks have the edge in both special teams and in five-on-five play. Vancouver is not the offensive juggernaut like they used to be four years ago, but neither is San Jose. That being said, their shot attempts for per 60 minutes in close score situations goes from 11th in the NHL when blocked shots are discounted to fourth when they are included.
One possible area for San Jose to fix is finding a Dan Boyle replacement who can improve the team’s puck possession while taking plenty of offensive zone starts. So far, that deployment has been given to the third pairing of 35-year old Scott Hannan and “Insert Name Here” and they have been shredded in puck possession this season. Are we looking at a perfect Mike Green destination?
- 8. Winnipeg (Pace: 94 pts, LW: 9)
- 7. Pittsburgh (Pace: 105 pts, LW: 6)
- 6. Detroit (Pace: 110 pts, LW: 7)
- 5. Tampa Bay (Pace: 109 pts, LW: 5)
- 4. New York Islanders (Pace: 107 pts, LW: 3)
- 3. St. Louis (Pace: 115 pts, LW: 4)
- 2. Nashville (Pace: 118 pts, LW: 2)
- 1. Chicago (Pace: 103 pts, LW: 1)
Don’t look now, but the Red Wings are tied with Montreal for the best 82-game standings point pace in the Eastern Conference. Last time we checked, this was supposed to be a team that is rebuilding after struggling to get out of round one in last year’s playoffs. Now they look like a potential Stanley Cup contender thanks to their third best score-adjusted puck possession in the league. I mean, look at this rolling 15-game graph and tell me you’re not scared of this hockey team. Going 11-4-0 during and outscoring your opponents 55-41 since December 23rd helps too.
Now, like last year’s Tampa Bay Lightning team, the key to Detroit’s season will come down to the health of goaltender Jimmy Howard. So far, Howard has only played 32 of the team’s 50 games and even if he were to come back for next Wednesday’s game against Pittsburgh, groin injuries are a terrible thing to determine how much one can fully recover from, especially for goaltenders. Add the fact that they could be in a goaltending battle with the Canadiens or a shot suppression staring contest with Tampa Bay in round one and you have full proof how much Detroit needs Jimmy Howard to be as Gumby-like as possible.
One thing Detroit might have to start doing more is to avoid finding the perfect shot or let their defenseman engage in the offensive zone more often. One look at Detroit’s shot chart shows that due to their love for shooting from below the faceoff dots. Again, we found another destination for Mike Green, but having another player attack from the middle will be key too. So picking up a center to cover for a 34-year old Henrik Zetterberg and a 37-year old Pavel Datsyuk will be crucial as well.