Nearly every team in the NHL has made it to the halfway point of the season. Here’s what’s going down in the Eastern Conference.
The Atlantic Division has basically been settled. The Lightning are on their way to a division title, while Boston and Toronto are on a collision course for a first-round tilt this April. On the other hand, the Metropolitan Division is still a bloodbath. No team in the Metro is more than one point out of the playoffs right now.
At this point in the season, we have a pretty good idea of each team’s makeup and should be able to identify where value may lie as we turn down the stretch.
The runaway train: Tampa Bay Lightning
Record: 30-9-3, 63 points, first in Atlantic Division
Opening Night Stanley Cup Odds: +1000
Current Stanley Cup Odds: +500
The Bolts have looked like a wire-to-wire team since day one, and not much has changed around Amalie Arena since then. On opening night, the Lightning, who were listed at +1000, were tied with Edmonton and Washington for second-shortest odds behind Pittsburgh to win the Stanley Cup. But then they won 15 of their first 19 games and have been the favorites (+250*) for Lord Stanley ever since.
Everything looks scary good under the hood for the Lightning, too. Prior to the season, it would have been fair to suggest that the Lightning’s middle six didn’t look all that special, but Brayden Point and Yanni Gourde have been fantastic behind Steven Stamkos and have solidified things up front. On the back end, the defense seems to be coming into its own, and even Dan Girardi, whose signing pulled a few eyebrows towards the heavens, has been good for Jon Cooper in Tampa. If you want to nitpick, you could definitely suggest the Bolts need to get a suitable backup for goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy. The 23-year-old has been a standout this year, but it is his first season as a starter and the Lightning will probably want to find an upgrade over Louis Domingue to give Vasilevskiy some rest before the tournament.
The NHL’s current setup can sometimes screw over the best teams — look at Washington’s path last year — but this year it doesn’t look so cruel for the Bolts. Tampa will likely play the fifth-place finisher in the Metro before taking on the winner of the almost-certain Boston vs. Toronto series. If they get through that, it’ll be whoever comes out of the Metropolitan gauntlet in the conference finals. Much easier said than done, but everything seems to be set up for Tampa, and anything less than a trip to the Stanley Cup would be considered a disappointment.
Keeping the window open: Washington Capitals
26-13-3, 55 Points, first in Metropolitan Division
Opening Night Stanley Cup Odds: +1000
Current Stanley Cup Odds: +1100
They had us going for a while there, didn’t they? The Washington Capitals got off to a flat start by their standards and had the hockey world considering if Father Time was shutting the proverbial window on Alex Ovechkin and his Merry Men. But the Capitals are in the middle of a 16-4-2 run over the past two months and have seemed to have figured out a working game plan for their current roster. But are the Capitals punching above their weight?
It certainly seems that way. Washington’s expected goals (xG) differential at 5-on-5 is -14.58, which is the third-worst mark in the NHL, and their actual goal differential is +8, so there figures to be some black magic involved in their success.
In terms of PDO (a statistical measure of luck), it would be fair to call Washington one of the luckier teams in the league. Their current mark sits at 101.75, the fourth-highest in the league, but the Caps are always among the league leaders in PDO. Over the past two-plus seasons, Washington has the highest PDO in the league. In their case, it isn’t really about luck but more about having good shooters and a consistent goalie in Braden Holtby.
This may be Washington’s last shot to win something with this group, but they are priced correctly in the futures market.
The sleeping giants: Boston Bruins
23-10-7, 53 points, second in Atlantic Division
Opening Night Stanley Cup odds: +1800
Current Stanley Cup odds: +1000
The top line in Tampa Bay might put up bigger counting stats, but it is actually the Bruins that boast the best line in hockey. Just how good have Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak been? The trio played over 220 minutes together this year before allowing a goal against at even strength. They made it to January. Crazy.
Having a line that controls 60 percent of the shot attempts goes a long way, but the supporting cast is sound as well.
The Bruins’ path to the final is obviously complicated, what with the juggernaut Lightning in their bracket, but the bookies think those are the two teams to beat right now. And Boston would have to get by Tampa at some point, so why not in the second round?
After an up-and-down 2016-17 campaign, the Bruins were banged up early and got off to a slow start. That made them a good value play in the futures market for some time, but the boat has probably left the station. This number suggests the Bruins have a nine percent chance of winning the Cup, and that number is appropriate.
They are who we thought they were: Toronto Maple Leafs
25-16-3, 53 points, third in Atlantic Division
Opening Night Stanley Cup Odds: +1400
Current Stanley Cup Odds: +1300
Coming into the year, we knew the Maple Leafs were going to be good. The odds haven’t changed much with the Leafs, and that’s fair, because this is probably just about where we expected them to be through the halfway point.
The Leafs are a sub-50 Corsi team but generate the third-most expected goals in the league. But as noted above, we knew the Leafs offense was going to be good coming into the year.
Toronto’s season will likely be decided by the performance of their defense, which is not special by any means. Fortunately, their goaltender, Frederik Andersen, has been solid, and has had the Leafs’ backs.
The Leafs are in a tough spot because we basically know what their path to the finals looks like. They’ll have to beat Boston and Tampa, and it’s hard to see them doing that with their defense.
What are they doing at this party?: New Jersey Devils
22-11-8, 52 points, third in Metropolitan Division
Opening Night Stanley Cup odds: +100000
Current Stanley Cup odds: +2600
So, yeah, I guess the Devils are really doing this.
New Jersey came into the season with some of the lowest expectations in the league and has already turned this season into a success. The Devils are basically out-boxing opponents every night. They are absorbing whatever they can take; thanks to goaltender Corey Schneider their threshold is pretty high, and they’ve been converting on their opportunities going the other way.
More than likely, this will all catch up to New Jersey and they will be fighting for a playoff spot as we get closer to the spring. There’s no sense in betting the Devils at this number, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a nice story.
Banged up but dangerous: Columbus Blue Jackets
25-16-3, 53 points, second in Metropolitan Division
Opening Night Stanley Cup odds: +2500
Current Stanley Cup odds: +2000
Once again, the Blue Jackets look like a quiet contender with a roster that has no real weakness and features the best goaltender in the league. The Blue Jackets lead the league in expected goals for, generate more shot attempts than their opponents and probably haven’t hit their stride yet this season.
The Jackets have dealt with, or are still dealing with, injuries to Cam Atkinson, Zach Werenski and Brandon Dubinsky this season and have still managed to stay near the top of the Metropolitan Division all year. There’s no reason that they should fall off this pace.
When they are healthy, the Jackets have all the ingredients you need to contend for a Stanley Cup. They have Sergei Bobrovsky in net, and he gives them a chance to win every night. In front of him, the Jackets have perhaps the league’s best defensive pair in Seth Jones and Zach Werenski. Artemi Panarin, and Atkinson are dynamic players up front, and breakout stars Josh Anderson and Pierre-Luc Dubois have given the Jackets a fantastic top six.
The number here suggests Columbus has a five percent chance of winning the Cup, and that feels short. In this case, injuries have given speculators some value, and there’s no shame in hanging a punt on the Jackets at this number.
Don’t look under the hood: New York Rangers
22-15-5, 49 points, first wild card spot
Opening Night Stanley Cup odds: +1600
Current Stanley Cup odds: +2000
Somehow the Rangers, who are in the second wild card spot with 49 points, pull off this smoke-and-mirrors routine every season. Despite having some of the worst possession metrics in the NHL, the Blueshirts find a way to stay in the mix thanks to their goaltender, Henrik Lundqvist and a counter-attacking style of play that may not generate many shots but does lead to scoring chances. In fact, the Rangers, despite their poor shot metrics, have created more high-danger scoring chances than any other team in the league according to Natural Stat Trick. Their heat map, taken from HockeyViz, gives you an idea of why the Rangers are able to keep up.
It’s just hard to see a team with this formula for success surviving a hellish Metropolitan Division. There are so many good teams around them in the division — not to mention the conference — that everything would have to go right for the Rangers to jaunt through the tournament. The Rangers have the worst Corsi For (46.5 percent) in the East, and they give up a ton of scoring chances.
The two-time defending champs: Pittsburgh Penguins
22-19-3, 47 points, second wild card spot
Opening Night Stanley Cup odds: +800
Current Stanley Cup odds: +2000
The Pittsburgh Penguins seem to do this. They’ll go through a middling stretch through the first couple months of the season and lull you to sleep before clobbering you over the head in the spring and skating off with Lord Stanley.
Pittsburgh has had troubles in a couple of different areas of the game, but the most surprising red flag has been that goaltender Matt Murray has struggled to find his form thus far. Luckily, Tristan Jarry looks like a starter-in-waiting behind him and has given the Pens the opportunity to make a charge up the ladder.
As poorly as they have played in the first half, the Penguins can consider themselves the unluckiest bunch in the league. Their 95.64 PDO is the lowest in the league, and it’s really hard to imagine they won’t improve on their league-worst 5.45 shooting percentage.
The Penguins are always going to be dangerous, and the fact that they are due for some positive regression makes it that much more difficult to count them out. This number is short, and getting the Penguins at 20-to-1 is never a bad idea.
The perennial dark horse: Carolina Hurricanes
19-14-8, 46 points, sixth in Metropolitan Division
Opening Night Stanley Cup odds: +6600
Current Stanley Cup odds: +4000
The Carolina Hurricanes are the weirdest team in the weirdest sport. The Hurricanes have been the “sexy pick” in the East for what seems like forever, but it actually felt like they would end up putting things together this year after acquiring goaltender Scott Darling from Chicago.
That isn’t how things shook out early in the year, as Carolina continued to dominate possession but Darling couldn’t find his game. It looked like another season of “What could have been” for the ‘Canes, but a recent run has them well in the mix, and they could be a dangerous out when the tournament starts.
Even though they play a great system, have an exciting group of forwards and boast one of the game’s best defenses, it’s hard to foresee Darling being able to provide stable enough goaltending for Carolina to run through the Eastern Conference.
The also-rans: New York Islanders, Philadelphia Flyers, Detroit Red Wings, Florida Panthers, Ottawa Senators, Buffalo Sabres
Photo: Charles LeClaire, USA Today Sports
All odds current as of 1/8/18