NHL North: Maple Leafs rule roost

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Since the end of January, the Edmonton Oilers have been one of the hottest teams in the NHL. They had won 11 of their last 15 games and moved into second place in the division. Naturally, the conversation in the hockey world shifted to asking questions like whether or not the Oilers are the best team in the North, and I admittedly felt a little silly suggesting that the Oilers would still probably finish somewhere around eight points behind the Toronto Maple Leafs. 

However, despite the Maple Leafs missing superstar Auston Matthews and starting goaltender Frederik Andersen, they left Edmonton with a pair of shutout wins over the Oilers, who had not been shut out in their previous 22 games. The Maple Leafs held a significant edge (54.6%) in expected goals (all situations) in the two-game series. According to Evolving Hockey, the Maple Leafs have owned 53% of the expected goals at five-on-five (good for sixth in the NHL), while the Oilers’ mark is closer to 50%.

Best of the rest

The Montreal Canadiens have very strong underlying metrics at five-on-five, but the Maple Leafs edge them when taking special teams and other situations into account, and on the surface, things are tilted much more in the Maple Leafs’ favor. On a per-60-minute basis, the Maple Leafs have outscored teams 3.6 to 2.4, which equates to a 60% goal share, roughly four percentage points higher than the Canadiens and eight percentage points above the Oilers. 

The Winnipeg Jets have outscored teams 3.2-2.7 (54.5%) while grossly outperforming their expected goals. The Jets rank as the ninth-worst team in the league by expected goals and look even worse when you isolate their five-on-five play. Bettors should come to expect such things from the Jets, though. They have a world-class goaltender in Connor Hellebuyck and some very talented players up front. In other words, it’s reasonable to expect the Jets to continue to outperform expectations of public expected-goals models. 

I still believe the Canadiens are the second-best team in the North, but they have some things to figure out, specifically on special teams.

Expect the Bruins to turn it up

One of the more surprising developments this season has been just how mediocre the Boston Bruins have been at five-on-five. According to Evolving Hockey, the Bruins have owned roughly 51% of the expected goals that have been generated at five-on-five. The team actually has a negative goal differential, though, and sits at minus-1 on the season. The Bruins are still a very strong puck-possession team, however, which is evident by their almost 55% Corsi for percentage at five-on-five. That’s good for fourth in the league, and generally speaking, if a team has a positive shot differential but a negative goal differential over a large sample size, we should expect positive regression. Forward David Krejci should return for Wednesday’s game against the Washington Capitals, and defenseman Matt Grzelcyk isn’t far behind. Both players will give the team a much-needed boost.

The Bruins have things locked up on special teams. Only the Maple Leafs generate expected goals on the power play at a higher rate, and no other team suppresses expected goals on the penalty kill as well as the Bruins. The team has the third-highest power-play conversion rate in the league and the third-best mark on the penalty kill. Coach Bruce Cassidy and his staff continue to do an excellent job divvying up assignments to their talented roster.

Surprise! Panthers and Wild continue to make noise

Before the season, many hockey forecasters, including myself, pegged the Florida Panthers and the Minnesota Wild as fringe playoff teams. Since then, I have lost my fair share of money betting against these teams. I underestimated the impact offseason changes would ultimately have on these teams. As things stand, the Wild and Panthers are among the top three teams in expected goals at five-on-five, and their ranking doesn’t change when we factor in special teams and other situations. In other words, the Wild and the Panthers are for real.

Florida currently occupies top spot in the Central Division, however, the Tampa Bay Lightning have a few games in hand and the Carolina Hurricanes are right behind them. The Panthers are an improved hockey team, but let’s pump the brakes. The Hurricanes and Lightning are still the best teams in that division. The Wild, on the other hand, are probably better than the St. Louis Blues because the Blues have been ravaged by injury, but the team is still a tier or two below the Vegas Golden Knights and Colorado Avalanche. As a handicapper, I’ve made what I believe are necessary adjustments. If these teams continue to play well and string together wins, further tweaks will be required.

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