The NHL and its fans are in their inaugural season of the new playoff format. Gone is the conference playoff seeding and back is the divisional playoffs, divisional rivalries and competing head-to-head with your bigger rivals in trying to squeeze into the playoffs. With more than a third of the season in the books, the haves are beginning to separate themselves from the have-nots. In the Atlantic Division, the playoff picture remains uncertain with so many strong teams competing for a few playoff spots.
With the Boston Bruins, Detroit Red Wings, Montreal Canadiens, Tampa Bay Lightning and the Toronto Maple Leafs all angling for their playoff lives, only a few points separate first and fifth place in the division.
But looking beyond point totals of the teams, the stat that ultimately determines playoff seeding; there are more telling stats that separate both the Bruins and Canadiens from their division rivals.
Goal differential is the greatest indicator among teams in determining the degrees of good and bad. If goal differential determined the standings, we would see few changes:
- Detroit and Tampa Bay would flip-flop their current 3rd and 4th position
Metropolitan Division – (most changes)
- Carolina would drop from 2nd place to 7th place
- Washington would jump from 3rd place to 2nd place
- Philadelphia would jump from 5th place to 3rd place
- Columbus would jump from 7th place to 5th place
- Chicago and St Louis would flip-flop their current 1st and 2nd position
- No changes
The Metropolitan Division would see quite a few changes with the biggest being the Carolina Hurricanes dropping out of the playoffs and home-ice advantage to a pitiful seventh place finish in the division.
It is also a very telling stat for teams like Pittsburgh and St Louis. The Penguins lead their division and currently sit ten points up on the second place Hurricanes. Ten points is a comfortable lead. They also have a better goal differential over the Hurricanes of 40 goals. In any of the other three divisions, the biggest separation in goal differential is no more than 14.
Goal differential helps us to understand how much better the great teams are than the good teams, and how much worse the terrible teams are from the bad teams. The Buffalo Sabres have a goal differential of -39. The only team that comes even close to that is the Florida Panthers at -31. The median goal differential of the NHL this season is +.5. The Sabres are off the median by almost 40 goals.
Taking a focus on the Atlantic Division, on any given night the top three seeds could change position. Two points separate the top three seeds, four points separates the top four teams and six points separate the top five. In a weekend the division could be flipped on its head based on the traditional playoff seeding based on points. But applying goal differential as the standard, which is a more effective indicator on the degrees of good and bad, Montreal and Boston separate themselves from the pack. The Canadiens and Bruins both currently share a +19 goal differential. Detroit is currently seeded third in the division and they sit with a +4 goal differential. Tampa Bay sits in fourth with an impressive +11 goal differential, but with Stamkos out of the line-up for the foreseeable future, it will be worth watching to see if they can maintain this pace. Toronto, currently in fifth place, is lagging behind with an average +1 goal differential.
I expect the playoff race in the Atlantic Division to remain close throughout the remainder of the season. Points are determined on a night to night basis and bad teams beat good teams all of the time. Points are not necessarily equally distributed to the better teams. Just look at Carolina Hurricanes, their current point totals have been very generous in relation to just how good they actually are.
The sample size being applied here is approximately a third of a season. Taking this stat and applying it to the full 82-game season last year, the only change that would have been made to the teams who made the playoffs is the Columbus Blue Jackets would have finished in the 8th seed and dropped the Minnesota Wild to the 9th seed. The other 15 teams who made the playoffs still would have made it. And if we exclude the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Chicago Blackhawks, who went on to win the Stanley Cup, had a goal differential that was more than twice as good as any other team in the league.
Goal differential is a strong indicator of how good and bad a team is.
Looking at the Atlantic Division, Montreal and Boston are the safe bet to finish the season in the one-two position.
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