Ever since the 2012 LA Kings made a Cup-winning run in the NHL playoffs as an eighth seed, there has been a sense that even those squads that barely squeak into the playoffs have a chance at making a serious run. Sure enough, this season has brought fans more than a couple teams whose place in the standings fails to demonstrate their status as potential contenders.
Conversely, the postseason failures of teams like the Capitals, Blues, and Rangers have made fans and media members alike more aware of a team’s potential to be a “pretender” heading into the most intense championship tournament in all of sports.
So if we all know ahead of time that these two kinds of teams exist in the NHL, which squads could fall into one of these categories in 2017? The answers may surprise you, though looking to the numbers can certainly go a long way towards predicting who excels and who disappoints in a few weeks.
Surprising Contender #1: The Calgary Flames
Before anyone closes this article at my suggestion that the Flames could be legitimate contenders this spring, just look at what the team has done in their past ten games (as of 3-11-17):
- 9-0-1 record
- 8-game winning streak
- Outscored opponents 15-5 over the last four games
Those are some seriously scary numbers from a team that seems to be hitting their stride at just the right time, which raises another point about their candidacy. Often times the most dangerous teams in the playoffs are the ones that play their best hockey over the second half (or last quarter) of the season. The Flames seem to be doing just that as they rank third in the NHL in CF%, fifth in GF%, and seventh in xGF% since the start of 2017.1
Those who read my last piece on OtherLeague know that I am not the biggest fan of the xGoal statistic as an end-all be-all for both teams and individual players, but I use it in this instance to verify their high CF% and GF% tallies relative to the rest of the league over the same stretch of time; it really shows that the pace the team has established is due largely to their ability to limit scoring chances against (they rank eighth in xGA60 during that same stretch) rather than super-human goaltending or conversion.
The emergence of Calder Trophy candidate Matthew Tkachuk and his chemistry with Mikael Backlund and Michael Frolik adds a qualitative element to a team that looks dangerous from an analytics perspective already.
Surprising Contender #2: The Boston Bruins
The 2016-17 Bruins have had one of the strangest seasons of any NHL team that I can remember from the last several years. For one, they fired one of the game’s most respected coaches, only to see him sign with their rivals in a matter of hours. Secondly, the team seems to be giving credence to the belief that some players “game” their Corsi totals by shooting from anywhere and everywhere as the squad’s elite Corsi numbers have failed to translate to wins thus far.
The idea that the team has been gaming their CF% is utterly absurd for a variety of reasons, not least of which being that they have the second lowest CA60 in the entire NHL (how does shooting from ridiculous areas of the ice help your ability to deny shots against?). Still, the team has an average record and a disappointing GF% for a roster that has compiled the second best CF% and best xGF% in the entire league over the course of the season. The discrepancies become even more curious when the emergence of snipers like Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak is also considered, so what is going on with this team?
I for one believe that the number of abnormalities present in Boston’s season to date is entirely unsustainable, and the team’s performance of late seems to corroborate that to some extent. The Bruins have gone 7-3-0 in their last ten games and their overall play seems have improved following the hiring of Bruce Cassidy in early February. The result is a very dangerous team that I would not want to see in the first round if I were a team near the top of the Atlantic Division, which brings me to my list Stanley Cup pretenders.
Pretender #1: The Ottawa Senators
The Ottawa Senators have been one of the hottest teams in the NHL since they started their sprint up the standings around the beginning of 2017. As of March 11th the Sens had won seven of their last ten games, including five in a row. And with veteran wingers Viktor Stalberg and Alex Burrows joining the team around the trade deadline, this appears to be a team on the rise rather than one on the verge of regression. So why do they find themselves on this list of NHL playoffs pretenders?
Believe it or not, the Senators have landed on this list mostly because they just aren’t that good. Despite their lofty perch in the league standings the Sens are still 19th in goals per game, 10th in goals against per game, and sit solidly in the league’s middle tier for special teams efficiency.
Still not convinced that the Senators are secretly one of the league’s most average teams? Even since the start of 2017 – a timeframe in which the Sens have the third most points in the NHL – Ottawa sits in the league’s bottom third for both CF% and xGF%, while actually compiling a -5 goal differential despite their winning ways. This should be extremely concerning for fans and management in Ottawa, but I sense that the improved record has been quashing doubts about the team’s legitimacy ever since the turn of the calendar.
So while the Senators have made some nice additions to their roster and managed to climb the standings, they seem more likely to regress than excel come playoff time.
Pretender #2: The New York Rangers
For years the Rangers have relied on the regular season heroics of star goaltender Henrik Lundqvist to bail them out of some disappointing shot differential metrics, thus allowing them to maintain a lofty place in the standings before trailing off in the playoffs. Like with the Capitals, seeing the Rangers register an impressive regular season before faltering in the playoffs is not a new concept, and you shouldn’t expect that trend to end this season either.
Despite hanging around the top five spots in the NHL standings for most of the season, the Rangers’ shot differential metrics have failed to improve as they currently hold a 47.72 CF% while standing amongst the league’s bottom ten teams for both CF60 and CA60. That isn’t a winning formula for any team, and the lack of shot attempts overall suggests that the team’s 3.18 GF/GP is one of the league’s most surprising figures (converting on only 18.4% of their power play opportunities doesn’t help either).
With Lundqvist hurt and failing to play up to his standards this season, it’s remarkable that the Rangers have won as many games as they have. A healthier roster will undoubtedly help the team heading into the playoffs, but I still wouldn’t recommend picking the Rangers to win the Cup this spring.2