Opening faceoff: Stuck in the middle with you
Most Mondays, we spend a chunk of this column trying to figure out who the league’s best and worst teams are. That makes sense – even beyond the importance of playoff seeding and lottery odds, the teams at either end of the standings are the fun ones. These days in the NHL, if you’re not truly good or truly bad, you’re nowhere.
But every now and then, it’s worth stopping to recognize the league’s mushy middle. After all, in the age of parity, that might be the most crowded category of all. So today, before we move on to the best and the worst of the NHL, let’s ask the question: Who’s the league’s most average team right now?
It’s a tougher question than you might think. Sports fans have come to equate mediocrity with being .500, but that term has become meaningless in today’s NHL. So instead, we’ll need to toss the loser point aside and focus on old school wins and losses, with some help from goal differentials and other stats.
For example, the Bruins would have been our best contender heading into yesterday's action; they had 11 wins and 10 losses and a minus-1 goals differential. But they pulled off an impressive 4-1 win over the Lightning to nudge themselves out of the running.
The entire state of California could make a case; the Kings and Sharks both have 12 wins and 10 losses, while the Ducks are 10 and 12. In terms of goals differentials, the Sharks and Ducks are both at plus-4 while the Kings are plus-3. That's pretty average all around, and helps explain how the Oilers are still holding down top spot in the Pacific.
You could also make a case for the Devils. Thanks to a recent cold streak, they've now won 10 and lost 11 while posting a minus-3 goals differential. Then there's a team you might not expect to see here: the St. Louis Blues, who have 12 wins, 10 losses and a minus-2 differential. Thanks to three loser points and league-wide parity, the Blues are sitting seventh overall in the standings, but they've been a decidedly average team so far.
One of the Blues' fellow Central Division teams nearly takes the title, as the Nashville Predators have won 10 and lost 11. They're great at home and terrible on the road. They've yet to have either a winning or losing streak longer than three games. And even their possession numbers are right around dead even. Only their goals differential – they've scored eight more than they've allowed – keep them from claiming the crown.
Instead, the honour of the NHL's Most Average Team goes to the Florida Panthers, who've been close to the Platonic ideal of "just OK." After last night's loss to the Hurricanes, they're the only team in the league that's dead even in terms of wins and losses, with 11 of each. They're almost dead even in terms of goals differential, at minus-2. And their mediocrity has been a season-long pursuit; they haven't been more than two games above or below the break-even mark at any point all year.
Congratulations, Florida. You win a warm glass of milk and a slice of unbuttered toast. And also, a new head coach. Apparently, mediocrity has its price.
Road to the Cup
The five teams that look like they're headed towards Stanley Cup favourite status.
5. Pittsburgh Penguins (13-6-3, even true goals differential*) – It's hard to say what's more surprising, that Sidney Crosby is pulling away with the goal-scoring lead or that it hasn't happened more often during his career.
4. Washington Capitals (13-6-2, +10) – They return to the top five with a two-for-three week, despite Saturday's loss to the Maple Leafs. Five of their next seven are against the Islanders, Sabres or Canucks.