The NHL's Great Pretenders: Teams that are not what they seem


Last week we looked at some players who were prime regression candidates, for both good and bad reasons.

It’s an especially useful mental exercise to go through at this point of the season, because we’re at a crossroads point of sorts in the calendar. We now have enough of a sample to reliably evaluate performance, but we’re also left with more than enough time to turn things around if all of the other performance indicators suggest a change is coming.

Just because someone has been producing in the early going doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll continue to do so. Especially if the process hasn’t been there, and he doesn’t have something concrete to fall back on should the bounces stop going his way. Just as in life, luck in sports is great while you have it, but it can be quite fleeting.

That same logic applies when stretched out to the team level. While points banked in the standings are all that matters when it comes to determining team success, how teams got there can tell us just as much about how successful they are going to be moving forward.

So let’s stick with that theme by digging beyond the wins and losses to get a better sense of how well teams have been playing, and where they’re headed. Whose underlying numbers don’t match up with the results they’ve received so far?

The sleeping giants

One simple yet effective metric I like to look at as a smell test for teams is the amount of time they spend leading versus trailing in their games. The logic is pretty intuitive: The better you are as a team, the more likely you are to be outscoring your opposition at any given time.

Looking at pure wins and losses on the surface can be quite misleading. In particular, there’s all sorts of noise in one-goal wins and two points acquired via shootouts and three-on-three overtime. String together enough of those in a row, and you can really fake your way up the standings early in the season.

But if you truly are a top team that should be feared, you’re typically not going to be leaving the outcome up to chance like that. If you’re a top team, you’re going to make a habit of taking care of business by thoroughly walloping your opponents from the jump. There can be some outliers early in the season based on wonky results, but over the long haul we should theoretically see that trend start to crystallize.

These are the teams that have spent the largest percentage of their total time on the ice this season holding a lead (data is courtesy of Natural Stat Trick, and is current through the games of Dec. 16):

1. Colorado Avalanche: 46.02%
2. Washington Capitals: 42.94%
3. Boston Bruins: 40.99%
4. Tampa Bay Lightning: 39.18%
5. New York Islanders: 38.82%
6. Vegas Golden Knights: 36.99%
7. Dallas Stars: 36.98%
8. Arizona Coyotes: 35.87%
9. Carolina Hurricanes: 35.62%
10. St. Louis Blues: 34.32%

It’s a pretty consensus list of the top teams this season, which means that the one name that really stands out here is the Tampa Bay Lightning. Not that they aren’t a top team in their own right, but simply because of the general perception of how their season has gone.

The idea that there’s something wrong with the team is largely a consequence of the unrealistic expectations the Lightning set for themselves with their phenomenal past season, when they won 62 games and took home nearly every accolade imaginable. They obviously haven’t been as good as last season’s juggernaut, but this version looks like it’ll be just fine in its own right. The Lightning are out of a playoff spot right now, but their underlying résumé looks like one of a sleeping giant as opposed to a team that’s at any real risk of actually missing out on the postseason.

Beyond just the time-spent-leading metric, here are some other notable categories and the Lightning’s NHL rank:

  • 5-on-5 shot share: 52% (8th)

  • 5-on-5 high-danger chance share: 54.6% (4th)

  • 5-on-5 expected goal share: 53.5% (5th)

  • Power play efficiency: 11.2 goals/hour (2nd)

If there’s one area they need to clean up, it’s in net. They’ve dipped all the way down to 22nd in save percentage and 24th in goals against at 5-on-5, while being an even worse 23rd in save percentage and 27th in goals against across all situations.

That’s primarily on Andrei Vasilevskiy, who hasn’t looked like himself yet. After saving 26.4 goals above average last season, good for second best in the league, he has cost his team 1.2 goals above average in his 23 appearances thus far (putting him at 32nd among 55 qualified netminders).

Considering he’s 25 years old, coming off a Vezina Trophy campaign, and has been blessed with arguably the best set of physical tools we’ve seen from a goalie, it’s unlikely he suddenly forgot how to stop pucks since last season. The goaltending position can be a highly unpredictable one, but if ever there was a candidate to put it all together and rip off a hot stretch of games that flips those early-season numbers, he’s it.

It makes for good fodder to wonder whether last season’s postseason failure fundamentally “broke” the Lightning, and whether they’ll ever be the same. Beyond some minor things that are easily fixable, there’s nothing in their underlying metrics that reflects that theory. If there’s one psychological area where that may hold some water, it’s that they’re potentially changing the way they’re approaching the regular season.

With 82 games on the agenda, the regular season is a marathon, not a sprint, and the Lightning can afford to bide their time and play the long game. Especially considering how wide open the Atlantic Division is beyond the Bruins. Based on the glimpses of dominance they’ve flashed in spurts to show us that it’s still there, the Lightning remain in great position to eventually pile up points in a hurry and surge up the standings.

‘Show me a good coach, and I’ll show you a good goalie’

This preseason, I was firmly in the group that believed the Winnipeg Jets weren’t going to be very good. The argument was that the losses they incurred on the blue line over the summer would simply be too extreme for them to overcome. Down four of their five most heavily used defensemen from the prior season, it seemed more than fair to project them to struggle to keep the puck out of their own net with any real consistency.

Not only has that not been the case so far, it’s actually been quite the opposite. The Jets currently sit as the third seed in the Central Division, and have allowed the eighth-fewest goals against on a per-minute basis. How have they managed to completely flip the script and exceed preseason expectations?

Kudos to goaltender Connor Hellebuyck, whose efforts this season have been nothing short of Herculean. His .930 save percentage puts him behind only Darcy Kuemper and Ben Bishop among goalies who have started the majority of their team’s games this season; unlike those two, he plays behind a far less forgiving defensive system. He ranks second with +16.2 goals saved above average, behind Kuemper. Based on both performance and sheer degree of difficulty, he deserves to be the front-runner for the Vezina Trophy.

Being as reliant on a goaltender as Winnipeg has been is both a blessing and a curse. While it’s great in the moment, it can really mess with the perception of reality and trick a team into believing things are better than they really are. Put another way: A great goalie can be viewed as the ultimate concealer, covering for all of the flaws beneath it. But it’s also not a particularly sustainable formula for future success, particularly since it means you’re relying on a position where performance has historically been the most volatile.

Beyond Hellebuyck having an out-of-body experience, there isn’t much in the underlying data to suggest that the Jets are actually better than expected. They give up the seventh-most shots, the third-highest rate of high-danger chances and sixth-most expected goals against. At 5-on-5, they’re currently 27th in shot share, 31st in high-danger chance share, and 30th in expected goal share.

Coach Paul Maurice has come to the defense of his team, publicly noting that the Jets keep internal metrics that show they’re actually in better standing than indicated by the publicly available ones we use. While it’s certainly possible the Jets are not as feeble as they appear to be by all of the numbers above, we’ve also seen this story enough times over the years to know how it’ll eventually turn out. If and when their goaltending comes back to earth, there’s going to be a real moment of disillusionment in Winnipeg.

One final note: Here’s the list of the teams that have spent the least amount of time leading during their games this season. If the Jets really are as good as their 20-11-2 record would suggest, then they sure are keeping some interesting company:

31. Detroit Red Wings: 19.13%
30. Calgary Flames: 24.83%
29. Columbus Blue Jackets: 25.35%
28. New Jersey Devils: 26.29%
27. Ottawa Senators: 26.57%
26. Winnipeg Jets: 27.61%

It’s no coincidence that the two most recent coaches fired for performance reasons were ones who simply couldn’t buy a save from the goalies they were handed. The Sharks are currently 30th in team save percentage, while the Devils are not too far ahead, at 28th.

The two teams sandwiched between them are the Red Wings at 31st and the Kings at 29th, but in those particular instances we have a coach who’s transparently overseeing a full-blown tank and a coach who was just hired this summer and has a longer leash.

Both New Jersey and San Jose have flaws beyond just that one position, but without the luxury of a goalie who can bail them out when they need it, those flaws have not only been exposed but intensified to the highest order. While John Hynes and Peter DeBoer took the respective falls because it was easier to replace them than their entire teams, we shouldn’t expect those clubs to get better until they address the issues that are actually at the root of their problems.

Shot in the arm

The Arizona Coyotes made a splash this week when they traded for Taylor Hall, and it was an important move for a number of reasons.

It signals another step toward legitimacy for the Coyotes, showing that they’re willing to spend the type of money it takes to win. While their overall cap number is still inflated by the empty shell of Marian Hossa‘s contract, the new ownership group has invested some legitimate resources into this roster.

The team is spending north of $70 million in real dollars this season, and with pricey long-term commitments to players like Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Clayton Keller, Nick Schmaltz, Christian Dvorak and Jakob Chychrun, it’s clear that this really is a new era of hockey in the desert.

By going out and supplementing that core by landing exciting star players like Phil Kessel and Hall, the Coyotes are giving people a legitimate reason to watch their games, buy their jerseys and fill up the seats. Of course, all of that ultimately will take you only so far. As teams like the Hurricanes and Lightning have reaffirmed most recently, when it comes to keeping the attention of fans, nothing is more important than consistently contending for a playoff spot.

That takes us to the on-ice perspective, where the significance of the acquisition is rather obvious. For as stingy as the Coyotes are under Rick Tocchet, they struggle just as much offensively. They’re 25th in offense at 5-on-5, and 29th overall. If they’re going to pose a legitimate threat to not only make the playoffs but advance beyond the first round, those figures will need to improve.

Hall gives them a chance to do just that, because he’s a player through whom they can funnel the offense. While his overall production this season has been rather underwhelming by his own lofty standards, it’s unfair to evaluate it in isolation without considering the circumstances. He was in a tough situation, essentially playing out the string on a team that couldn’t get out of its own way. Now he jumps into a more competitive environment and gets a fresh start, which should go a long way toward getting him going. So will some natural regression, once he stops converting only 5.5% of his shots into goals, and gets closer to his career average just north of 10%.

To put into perspective just how badly the Coyotes need his talents, he comes to the team as their leading scorer despite the low shooting percentage, having played on the 29th-ranked power play in New Jersey, and having played five fewer games than Arizona has.

Whether he’ll be able to move the needle enough by himself to make a real difference remains to be seen. The Yotes continue to deploy a low-event, defensively oriented system that doesn’t do high-volume offensive players like Hall any favors — as Kessel can surely confirm. That said, the Coyotes like to turn defense into offense by counterattacking off the rush, which fits into how Hall likes to attack. Plus, this immediately becomes the best NHL team on which he has ever played, which says as much about his time in the league as it does about the 2019-20 Coyotes.

For as deficient as they are offensively, there’s a certain baseline level of competence in Arizona that Hall has never really enjoyed. No team he has ever played on has had a goal share north of 45% at 5-on-5 with him off the ice, which is stunningly bad, and explains why a player of his caliber has appeared in only five total playoff games.

The Coyotes are betting on those numbers changing this season, and considering the reasonable price they had to pay to make it happen, it’s hard to fault them for taking their chances.

Out of the infirmary, and into the penthouse

While their claim to being the team that’s been most aggressively ravaged by injuries this season may be viably contested by only the Avalanche, the success the Pittsburgh Penguins have had despite all of the man games they’ve already lost has been staggering. Here’s the exact list of players they’ve missed for extended stretches, and how many games they’ve each missed:

For those keeping score at home, that amounts to six of their top nine forwards, and their top three defensemen. Credit to Mike Sullivan and the masterful job he has done mixing and matching out of necessity. He’s operating at the highest level of coaching right now, where he can plug and play nearly anyone in an important spot on the depth chart without the team missing a beat.

The Penguins have been downright dominant as a team at 5-on-5, coming out near the top of nearly every single important performance indicator:

As excellent as Sullivan and the supporting cast have been, it needs to be mentioned that Pittsburgh is uniquely equipped to survive losing its No. 1 center for a prolonged period of time … because it happens to have two of them on hand.

When Evgeni Malkin missed 11 games early this season, Sidney Crosby put the team on his back and carried it to a 7-4 record. He had five goals, nine assists and 32 shots in those 11 games. With Crosby on the ice at 5-on-5, the Penguins outscored opponents 11-5, while controlling a 57.9% shot share and 56.5% high-danger chance share.

When Crosby got hurt, Malkin casually slid up the depth chart and assumed his spot down the middle playing with Jake Guentzel. In the 17 games that Crosby has missed since then, the Penguins have a 10-4-3 record largely because Malkin has taken his game to another stratosphere. During that stretch Malkin’s résumé includes:

  • 6 goals, 17 assists

  • 53 shots on goal, 84 shot attempts

  • Penguins up 19-12 with Malkin on ice at 5-on-5

  • Penguins up 26-15 with him on ice in all situations

  • Penguins have 60.1% shot share, 64.3% high-danger chance share with him on ice

Based on his full career, it’s no surprise that Malkin has been able to do this. But considering his decline in production last season and shaky start to this season, it’s been reassuring to see that Malkin still has this in him. The Metropolitan Division is stacked right now, but those who counted the Penguins out in 2019-20 were clearly premature in doing so.

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