The Senators had the biggest jump in playoff chances of any team in January, and this late in the season it's unlikely they'll collapse. The same can't be said for the Lightning.
Each month is an end and a beginning for each NHL team. String a few good months together and it probably means a playoff berth. A couple bad months though and that’ll cost you.
Every month we like to highlight three teams that are trending up and three teams that are trending down to get a better sense of the landscape of the league. These aren’t your typical trends citing best and worst records in the league because those things can be fickle over a single month of hockey.
Instead we’ll dig a bit deeper toward each team’s underlying numbers. We’ve got a projection model that assesses each player’s value that’s updated daily throughout the season that can estimate point projections and playoff chances. It’s based on the past three seasons of a player’s Game Score and it’s what we used for season previews for each team. These posts are a way to check in with how teams have progressed, comparing how good they were projected to be at the start of December and how that’s changed since.
Here’s which teams are playing better and worse over the last month, as well as a look at the current projected playoff picture.
I’ve made a lot of enemies in Ottawa this season and it’s time to make due. I still don’t think they’re very good, but it’s getting a little late in the season for them to collapse and the playoffs look more and more likely. They had the biggest jump in playoff chances of any team going from 29 percent at the start of the month to 64 percent now. Credit where credit is due though, they have looked better lately. Their Corsi percentage for the month was 48.2 percent, which isn’t great, but it’s closer to 50 percent and a slight improvement over where they were at the start of the season. Plus, they get Craig Anderson back soon, and just in time, as Mike Condon has really started to falter lately. There’s still time for them to implode, and even if they make it, they’re a first round guppy, but we’re at the point where they’re firmly in the playoff conversation.
Pre-Season Me: 120 points is a lot for any team and even though the Caps are one of the league’s best teams, expect regression. No team is that good on true talent alone.
Post All Star Break Capitals: Nah.
With a 33-11-6 record the Capitals are apparently that good. Again. That’s a 118 point pace and while I still believe no team is that good, it’s hard to ignore that they’re doing the same thing they did last year all over again. In January, the Capitals scored 74.5 percent of the goals at 5-on-5, which is essentially three for them, one for the other guys. Hard to lose like that. There’s a lot of luck involved there, but they’re earning it too with good play posting the third highest expected goals ratio at 54.5 percent, a 3.2 percent increase from their prior numbers this season. The scariest part about the Caps is that their usually lethal power play is only 13th in the league. So while they may regress in other ways, that’s probably going to go up. With the way they’re playing right now, they’re the team to beat this season (although the Penguins will have a few words to say about that).
New York Islanders
Remember when the Islanders were done, over, finished, out of it? Well, here we are in February and they are right in the thick of things. The catalyst for it all was sending Jaroslav Halak down and anointing Thomas Greiss the starter by default. Not that sending Halak down was any good (he’s probably better than JF Berube), but making Greiss 'The Guy' was the best decision this team has made, perhaps a little too late. Greiss is fifth in save percentage this season and is fifth among starters since 2014-15. He’s sneaky good and is the biggest reason the Isles are relevant right now as their underlying metrics are still a bit wonky. They did have a 49.6 percent Corsi for the month, a solid step in the right direction, and when you combine that with elite goaltending, you’re bound to get some wins. Since Halak was sent down on December 30, the Isles are 8-2-3, the fourth best points percentage over the time frame. The playoffs are still a long shot, but if they can make a late season surge back into the picture, it’ll be all thanks to Greiss.
Tampa Bay Lightning
Here lie the Tampa Bay Lightning, pretty much done by February. Hard to believe for a team many expected to compete for a Cup this year, but when a team only has 31 games left and is “six” points out (absurd games in hand makes this calculation trickier than it actually should be) and is one of only two teams in the conference “below .500” (absurd point systems makes this even worse than it sounds), it’s time to start writing obituaries. Only the Red Wings have a worse record from the East and we all agree they’re probably done. It’s time to do the same for Tampa Bay. They had the largest drop in playoff odds over the month dropping from 40 to 11 percent, and while a run is still possible, it’s looking more and more unlikely. Blame injuries for this one, but this team was supposed to have depth to compete despite them. They don’t, especially on defense where they’re a mess outside the top pair. Goaltending obviously hasn’t helped and while their expected win percentage hasn’t actually dropped that much the results weren’t there to keep them afloat. Maybe next year, Lightning fans.
St. Louis Blues
Well, isn’t this timely. The Blues are dropping like a brick and on Wednesday they fired long time coach Ken Hitchcock. That’s what happens when you go from the best save percentage in the league to the worst in just one season, I guess. Goaltending has been a blackhole for this team and Jake Allen has struggled in taking the reigns from Brian Elliott, posting a disastrous .895 this season. Carter Hutton has been better… by a thousandth and sits at .896 himself. Bad goaltending isn’t Hitchcock’s fault, in fact, he did his best to insulate them with a system that allowed the fifth fewest shots against. That was at the expense of offense though as they only generated 0.1 more shots per game than they allowed. With average play and abysmal goaltending, it’s safe to say the Blues are probably now a below average team, which isn’t what we expected going into the season. In a weak West, all hope is not lost, and this team is still more than likely to make the playoffs than miss, but their position is much more tenuous than it was just 30 days ago.
Like their cross state rivals, there was a lot of hope for the Panthers to do big things this year, but they’ve fallen flat on their faces, mostly thanks to injuries. It’s hard to judge either team on the basis of that and things should be better next season, but it’s getting a little late to salvage this season. The Panthers faced the steepest drop in my model partly because of their play and partly because of an updated prognosis to injuries suffered by their two star players. Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau will be back much later than I expected and leave little time for a “healthy” lineup to make up ground. The unhealthy lineup they’re currently running simply isn’t good enough to compete on most nights as the team posted an expected goals ratio in January that was only marginally better than Colorado’s. That’s never a good sign. Those two factors combine for a big drop in their expected win percentage. Unlike Tampa Bay though, this team isn’t done just yet. That duo is coming back eventually, and when they do they’ll be a force to be reckoned with. Whether they come back in time is the real question.
The Playoff Picture
We’re past the all-star break and some teams can go on cruise control already, while others are running out of runway. There are some teams that are technically in a spot now, but live on shaky ground, while others who are out of the picture, but still have time to squeak in. By my count, there’s about nine teams who can start safely thinking about playoffs and three more that have a decent shot. That leaves about four spots that are wide open. One out West (thanks to the collapse of St. Louis) and three in the East (thanks to the collapse of most of the Atlantic division).
While some teams look like they’re only a few points out (see: the entire Eastern playoff picture), their chances may not be all that great given how talented their team is and the strength of their upcoming schedule. Based on the games that have already been played, and what we think is likely to happen over the next 30 to 35, here’s how the playoff picture shakes out.
Please note: 100% doesn’t mean clinched and 0% doesn't mean eliminated. They mean the teams made it into the playoffs in almost every simulation except in less than 0.5 percent of cases.
Perhaps the strangest thing on this chart are the numbers next to Edmonton, given their history. At this point, they’ve got a 97 percent chance at the playoffs, so it’s pretty safe to start pencilling them in right now. But this is Edmonton where anything can go wrong, so I understand any hesitation. Credit is due to them, they’ve been very good this season, but the West has been weak and the cutoff is around 87 points. That’s what makes a collapse from their projected 98 so unlikely and the playoffs all but certain.
Seven spots are basically safe as it stands in the West, but as we learned a couple years ago, the Kings might make things interesting despite having decent numbers. For a while, it looked like the Blues would be fine, but they’re on very shaky ground of late and that final spot is wide open for one of the early season underachievers to grab. It’s possible that spot goes to a team that loses more games than they win this season and will likely be Round 1 fodder for the high flying Wild. Calgary, Winnipeg, and Dallas all have a shot at overtaking them, while the Canucks are more likely to fade out of the picture.
Out East, the Metro is locked up as is the top seed in the Atlantic. The rest is yet to be sorted out. Boston is out on the basis of points percentage, but they’re a sleeping giant and have a soft schedule the rest of the way. The Leafs and Sens look like the best bets while the Flyers, Panthers and Isles are the main threats to the final wild card spot. The other five have a chance, albeit a small one, but need a big string of wins to get there.
Virtual Locks (90 percent or more): Minnesota, Washington, Pittsburgh, San Jose, Columbus, Chicago, Montreal, Anaheim, Edmonton
Safe Bets (70-90 percent): Rangers, Nashville, Los Angeles
Squeaking In (50-70 percent): Boston, Ottawa, Toronto, St. Louis
On The Bubble (30-50 percent): Philadelphia, Calgary
Fighting For Life (10-30 percent): Florida, Winnipeg, Dallas, Islanders, Tampa Bay
Pretty Much Out (10 percent or less): Carolina, Buffalo, Vancouver, Detroit, New Jersey, Arizona, Colorado