16 Stats: The Eastern playoff race, the other Nylander and difficult defensive minutes


The Eastern Conference playoff race is a hot mess; a middling sludge containing seven teams that wish they were anywhere else. 

Not one team is where it wants to be right now and it’s made for a completely chaotic slide to the finish. The clubs that want to lose for the hope of a brighter future are finding ways to keep winning, and the teams that want to win keep falling all over themselves trying. The eighth seed is currently on pace for just 90 points and that number seems to get lower each week.

Does anyone in the East actually want to make the playoffs? 

The Flyers were probably hoping to add another blue-chip prospect to the cupboard this season. Instead, they somehow have the best postseason shot at 70 percent — something no one could’ve reasonably expected at the start of the season. They traded arguably their most valuable defenseman at the deadline and have looked lost at five-on-five since with just 41 percent of the goals and 49 percent of the expected goals. They’re 10-12-2 over the last two months and their playoff odds haven’t changed since — that’s how bad everyone else is.

The Capitals were probably hoping to retool in preparation for Alex Ovechkin’s final seasons and their results suggest they’ve succeeded in building a team capable of that. Washington is 29th in five-on-five goals percentage, 20th on the power play and 20th on the penalty kill. The Capitals have a worse goal differential than both Arizona and Ottawa and it hasn’t mattered thanks to a 16-2-9 record in one-goal games. In mid-February, it looked like they were finally finding their path toward the bottom. Instead, they’ve gone 10-5-1 since and have seen their playoff odds jump to 33 percent.

The lack of desire from either of those clubs to make the postseason should’ve made for an easy opening for another team to step in. But the teams that should be there just can’t seem to seize the opportunity.

The Islanders were hoping to return to conference final form and currently have the inside track on a wild-card spot at 47 percent. But it sure doesn’t feel like it now that the team has dropped five straight games, four of which have been by three or more goals. They have just one more win than the Senators and have a .426 win percentage. That’s a 35-win pace. The lowest full-season win total in the cap era for a playoff team is 38, set by the 2011-12 Panthers and the 2015-16 Wild.

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The Red Wings were hoping this season could be their big leap, and while it looked like it would be at some point, they’ve had a disastrous drop-off over the last few weeks that’s blown this race wide open. Detroit has lost eight of its last 10 games and seen its playoff odds drop from a peak of 76 percent, all the way down to 36 percent.

The door is wide open and it doesn’t matter because arguably the three strongest teams spent the first part of the season making sure they wouldn’t have a shot by March. The Devils couldn’t get a save, the Penguins couldn’t score a power play goal, and the Sabres forgot how to score. The three teams have a combined 11 percent chance to make it all because they spent months refusing to fix their obvious problems. 

The Sabres were too far gone after a weak first half and while their recent run has been admirable, it’s far from enough. The other two? They have no excuse as they’ve seemingly thrown in the towel despite the golden opportunity in front of them. The Devils are 5-10-0 over the last month. The Penguins are 8-12-2 since the All-Star break. Yuck.

New Jersey and Pittsburgh are the league’s most disappointing teams this year and their inability to get their stuff together at any point this season has led to this mess.

The final two spots in the East remain anyone’s game — even if it seems like no one wants to play.


16 Stats

1. From Jan. 2 to Feb. 27, few teams were hotter than the Red Wings who went 16-4-2. Since then, no team has been colder.

Interestingly, there’s not a whole lot of difference in the team’s underlying process in either stretch — the difference is just the rate of pucks going in or staying out. 

At five-on-five, the Red Wings actually had a worse expected goals percentage during the hot streak (43.1 percent, 30th) compared to their recent cold streak (45.4 percent, 25th). Perhaps more interesting is a house-of-cards penalty kill that has predictably fallen over. The Red Wings goals-against rate has dropped from fourth best (5.3 per 60) to sixth-worst (10.9 per 60) while their expected goals against per 60 has stayed consistent the whole time (11.2 per 60, one of the worst marks in the league).

The Red Wings are currently tied for the final playoff spot and have tons of time to cement it, especially if Dylan Larkin returns soon. But the signs have been there all along that the team was punching above its weight. 

2. Perhaps releasing Moritz Seider from his burden of extreme usage might help. He has Detroit’s lowest goals (38 percent) and expected goals (37 percent) rates in the new year. We all know he can provide a lot more than that and his numbers are at a point where even the most extreme usage can’t excuse the results. 

Seider’s Defensive Rating on the year is minus-7.2 and even if his league’s toughest usage is factored in (more on that later), his defensive value still comes in below average. Easing things up for Seider could greatly benefit both the player and the team. It just doesn’t seem like it’s working right now.

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Easing Moritz Seider’s usage could help the Red Wings in their playoff chase. (Rick Osentoski / USA Today)

3. While it may seem odd for a team to healthy scratch their captain in the middle of a playoff push, Sean Couturier’s recent form needed a wake-up call. John Tortorella has pushed a strict mandate on team-wide accountability and making an example out of his captain is his boldest push of that agenda yet.

Couturier may not be happy about it, but the choice to scratch him isn’t without merit. Over the last two months, he’s seriously struggled with just one goal and six points in 23 games while being outscored 23-7 at five-on-five. His expected goals percentage has been fine, but results that extreme might not be completely due to bad luck. Some will say Couturier is due to regress, but sometimes that regression needs something to jump-start it.

If the Flyers’ culture reset is preaching accountability from top to bottom, this move shouldn’t be all that surprising. Especially from Tortorella. In true hockey fashion, the Flyers won the game, too.

4. Carolina’s trade for Evgeny Kuznetsov felt like a huge gamble at the time, one that would’ve been widely ridiculed if it was a move made by any other team. The Hurricanes have shown time and time again that they deserve the benefit of the doubt and Kuznetsov’s play so far has justified that.

It’s not so much that he has five points in seven games, it’s what he’s doing at five-on-five that’s so impressive. Over the past few years, Kuznetsov’s game has really floundered in that regard, with the Capitals earning just 42 percent of the expected goals and 43 percent of the goals with Kuznetsov on the ice since 2022-23. Both marks were well below team average with his relative expected goals rate particularly poor at minus-0.8, the absolute worst mark in the league.

In Carolina though, Kuznetsov has found new life and his game is thriving. We’re talking 63 percent of the expected goals while outscoring opponents 5-2. To put that into perspective, it’s the first time Kuznetsov’s expected goals rate has been above 60 percent over any seven-game stretch since November 2021. And that’s not just because he’s on a better team — both numbers are way up from the team average.

The acquisition of Jake Guentzel is going to take up a lot of the spotlight in Carolina, for good reason given what he’s done since arriving. But Kuznetsov has started his Hurricanes tenure off very well and could actually become a difference-maker for this team.

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5. With 55 points in 69 games, Seth Jarvis is very quietly on pace for 65 points. He’s been a machine this year and seems to have found instant chemistry with Guentzel on a new-look top line. Carolina has a good one here.

The Hurricanes have more than one good one, though. Jarvis is one of five Carolina forwards pacing for 60 or more points this season. Only Dallas has as many, leading the way with six. That’s the kind of oomph we’ve always been looking for from the Canes and they may finally have it. 

Combine that with Frederik Andersen looking like his vintage self since coming back from a blood clot (.947 save percentage in four games) and Carolina looks like it has a lot more scoring and saving skill than usual. Will that be enough to go all the way?

6. It has to be said: It’s extremely funny that the Penguins — who have struggled all year to find depth scoring — shipped out Alex Nylander and a sixth for Emil Bemstrom.

What may have seemed like a nothing swap at the time now looks like yet another cruel jab at this mess of a Penguins season. Since the deal, Nylander has eight goals and 11 points in 12 games plus 57 percent of the goals and expected goals on a bad Columbus team. He’s been so good that he’s now playing on Columbus’ top line and his average Game Score since the deal is 1.3. That’s higher than every single Penguin during the time frame — ouch.

7. Sometimes all that’s needed is a little extra motivation, a push that can arrive via a variety of avenues. For Ilya Samsonov, that was a trip through the waiver wire on Jan. 1. Since then he has a .911 save percentage and has saved 8.9 goals above expected in 17 games. That’s good for 14th in the league and is much closer to the guy he was last season. Good for him.

8. It’s almost unfathomable how bad Anaheim’s special teams have been since the deadline. In the Ducks’ last 10 games, they have just one power-play goal (1.6 per 60) and have surrendered 16 goals against (16.7 per 60) while short-handed. Both are league lows, and their minus-14 goal differential (the Ducks do have one short-handed goal) over the time frame is nine goals worse than the next-worst team, Toronto.

9. Anaheim hasn’t made the playoffs since 2017-18 and I’ve noticed a trend with John Gibson since then: His first half usually looks a lot better than his second half.

Splitting his games right down the middle, since 2018-19, Gibson has saved 45.3 goals above expected to start each year. During the back half, he’s allowed 34.9 above expected. The split is worse in some seasons than others, but every year, the first half is always stronger. This season features his widest variation yet: 14 goals saved before the new year, 10 goals allowed after. 

Perhaps it’s the burden of playing behind Anaheim’s consistently porous defense. Maybe it’s the knowledge that Anahem’s fate is usually sealed by Christmas. Either way, it seems like it does take a toll on Gibson as he toils away on a rebuilding franchise. His results may not look great overall over the last half decade, but I do wonder what Gibson would look like on a winning team.

10. Sometimes a winning environment isn’t a winning solution, though. It takes a while for a lot of players to acclimate, but so far it’s been a slow start for former Duck Adam Henrique in Edmonton. In six games he has just two points and is getting destroyed at even strength with just 31 percent of the expected goals. Henrique has some time before the playoffs to figure things out, but that’s not an ideal first impression.

11. It’s a different story for Bowen Byram, who quickly captured the hearts of many Sabres fans after scoring five points in his first seven games. Under the hood, though, things don’t look as rosy. The Sabres have only 43 percent of the expected goals with Byram on the ice, which is specifically a result of allowing 0.64 more expected goals against per 60 with him on the ice. The flashy skill has been on full display and he’s getting results, but the process still needs work. 

As for Casey Mittelstadt, it’s the complete opposite: quiet effectiveness. Mittelstadt has a solid four points in five games, but it’s his work at five-on-five that’s been so encouraging. The Avalanche have earned 60 percent of the expected goals with him on the ice so far, well above team average at both ends of the ice. If he can be someone who reliably wins minutes on the second line, the Avalanche will look significantly more formidable than they did in last year’s playoffs.

This deal still looks like a potential win-win for both sides, but the extremely early edge goes to Mittelstadt.

12. In the last edition of 16 Stats, the big question for Colorado was about the team winning its superstar minutes, specifically Cale Makar’s. His underlying numbers had looked dodgy since he was sidelined with an injury in December, especially in his own end. His production also dropped below its usual lofty height.

Consider any questions surrounding Makar answered. Since that last edition of 16 Stats, Makar has 13 points in nine games with the Avalanche outscoring teams 15-6 in his minutes, thanks in part to his earning 57 percent of the expected goals. Yeah, it’s safe to say he’s probably fine.

13. I don’t think a lot of us figured the Predators would be this good this year; they’re currently on pace for 100 points. It’s a lesson to not doubt franchise talent, but it’s also a testament to what the team is getting out of its stable of veterans.

I didn’t think Ryan O’Reilly, 33, still had it in him as a top-line center. He’s on pace for 67 points while returning to form as a strong play-driver. I didn’t think Gustav Nyquist, 34, had much left to show considering how poor he looked in Columbus. He’s been a legitimate top-line winger for Nashville who already has 60 points. I didn’t think Ryan McDonagh, 34, could still handle tough minutes after how rough his underlying numbers looked in his first season with Nashville. He’s putting up career numbers in that regard this season.

It looked as if all three of their careers were on the downswing. Instead, they’ve turned back the clocks, looking their vintage selves — or better. That’s hard to predict for three guys firmly in their 30s and it’s a big reason why Nashville has surprised this season.

14. Thought this was interesting from Hockey Stat Miner on Twitter: This is apparently the tightest the top of the league has been at this point of the season in modern history. On March 18, only five points were separating first from eighth place. In the 40 years tracked, it’s only the sixth time there’s been a gap smaller than 10 points. 

That gap is up to six points as of March 20, but it may close further given how close all the teams are. Our latest forecast projects only a three-point difference between Florida at the top and Dallas in eighth. That’s tight.

15. Around this time last year when I made some much-needed changes to my model, I said there was still more work to be done — specifically when it comes to usage. Over the last few weeks, I’ve finally been able to get my hands on the data necessary to make that a reality (shoutout to Cole Palmer, who runs Hockey Stat Cards, for collecting it). 

After a few weeks of hard work, those adjustments are ready to roll with a deep dive coming next week. The basic premise: What should we expect a player’s value to be at both ends of the ice given his circumstances? Essentially, that boils down to what their expected Offensive Rating should be given their offensive teammate quality and their defensive opponent quality, with the opposite being true for Defensive Rating.

It’s the same thought process I’ve used previously this year when looking at the extreme usage of Connor Bedard and Seider. Now, thanks to usage data from thousands of games, that effect size can be tangibly measured rather than inferred.

16. Here’s what that means in practice for Seider, whom we mentioned earlier. His Defensive Rating of minus-7.2 is really low, but what should we expect for a player buried against the league’s toughest competition? The answer: A minus-3.7 Defensive Rating.

That’s a substantial quality adjustment — significantly more than has been previously measured by analysts in the public sphere. And yet it’s still not enough to answer for Seider’s results entirely. Not enough to bring him above average for this season, anyway.

I’ll have more to show next week. For now, here’s a sneak peek at the largest defensive adjustments for this season, a list littered with shutdown defensemen.

Screenshot 2024 03 21 at 1.01.04%E2%80%AFAM

Data via Evolving Hockey, Natural Stat Trick and Hockey Stat Cards

(Top photos of Alex Nylander and Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang: David Kirouac / USA Today and Steph Chambers / Getty Images)





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