Monday, January 7, 2019

Weekend power rankings: Who's the NHL's most middle-of-the-pack team at the midway mark?

By​ design, these power​ rankings​ focus​ on​ the​ league’s​ best and​ worst. Those are​ the fun teams​ to​ talk about –​​ the Cup contenders and the train wrecks. And if a handful of teams in between get largely forgotten about, oh well. Who wants to spend time arguing about the mushy middle?

But now that we’ve officially crossed the midway mark of the NHL season, it’s a good time to tackle a question I like to break out every year around this time: Who’s been the most middle-of-the-pack team in the league this season? Who’s the reigning champion of being utterly average?

It’s a tougher question than you might think. In most sports, “average” means .500, but we can’t use that in the NHL thanks to the horrible, awful, embarrassing loser point. But we can look for teams that have won about as many games as they’ve lost, while also looking for a goal differential that’s close to even. Maybe even dig into some advanced stats and look for someone hovering right around 50 percent in possession or expected goals.

And when we do that, one team stands out as the obvious choice. The Minnesota Wild are almost perfectly average right now. Through 40 games, they’ve won 20 and lost 20. They’ve won ten and lost ten at home, and they’ve won ten and lost ten on the road. Their goals differential is +5, which is a little higher than average but not by much. And they’re just a shade over 50 percent as a possession team.

It’s an easy call. The Wild are the league’s most average team.

But are they? Being average would seem to imply some consistency and that’s not Minnesota. They looked great over the first month or two, even sneaking into our top five list for multiple weeks. Since then, they’ve been awful, including a recent five-game losing streak, and last week I had Wild fans demanding to know why they haven’t made their way down to the bottom five. But then they beat a pair of top-five teams in the Jets and Maple Leafs.

Take a step back, and the Wild look less like an average team and more like one that’s wildly careening back and forth across the standings, and just happened to have been right in the middle when we took this midseason snapshot. Therefore, I don’t think they can be our middle-of-the-pack champs after all.

But if not them, then who? A good place to start might be with the seven teams that haven’t appeared in either our top five or bottom five all year long. Of those, Boston and Columbus are too good, Carolina is too bad and Edmonton is closer to the Wild’s path of chaos than anything we’d call average. And I’m not picking the Islanders, because lord help me if those fans show up in the comments section again.

That narrows the list down to two teams: Dallas and Montreal. The Stars have 22 wins and 21 losses, a dead even goals differential and an expected goals differential hovering right around 50 percent. But I like the Canadiens’ case just a little bit more. They’ve won 22 and lost 20, with splits of 11 wins and 10 losses both at home and on the road. They’re close to even on goals differential, at -3. And they’ve been fairly consistent all year long; they had one five-game losing streak, but have only lost back-to-back games on two other occasions and haven’t won more than three straight all year. Also, their CEO didn’t go ballistic on them in an epic f-bomb tirade, which was a lot of things but didn’t seem especially average.

Congratulations, Montreal. Through the first half of the season, you’ve been the most middle-of-the-pack NHL team. Given how most of us expected you to fare, there are worse places to be.

OK, enough mediocrity. On to the teams that are actually good and bad …

Road to the Cup

The five teams that look like they’re headed towards a summer of keg stands and fountain pool parties.

Speaking of winners, congratulations to Team Finland for their gold medal at the World Juniors. Fans in Vancouver were no doubt hoping to see Team Canada playing for a medal, but they can’t say they didn’t get their money’s worth in that thrilling gold medal game.

5. Vegas Golden Knights (26-15-4, +17 true goals differential*) – Well well, look who finally decided to show up.

The Knights become the 13th team to appear in our top five this season. It’s a return to the territory they owned for much of last year when they were in the top five for 12 of the season’s final 13 weeks. This year they started slow, plodding along with a losing record until late-November. But lately, they’ve been unbeatable, winning six straight to catch the Flames at the top of the Pacific (although Calgary has games in hand).

We’ll slip them into the top five for now, if only barely; the Flames could be here instead, and you could make a case for the Sharks too after they beat the Lightning on Saturday. I’m feeling just a little bit better about the Knights these days because their goaltending situation is more settled, but it’s close. And it’s going to make a fascinating finish in the Pacific. All three teams are basically playoff locks already, but two of them will play each other in the first round while the other gets a theoretically easier matchup with a wildcard. Every point is going to matter down the stretch.

4. Washington Capitals (25-12-4, +32) – Last week, we had the Caps all the way up at No. 2. They drop down a bit this week, not so much because they’re playing any worse but rather because the Penguins look vaguely terrifying right now. The Metro might be more of a dogfight than we thought.

And if you’re wondering why the Pens aren’t holding down this spot … well, yeah, maybe they should. We try not to overreact to streaks around these parts, but the Pens are a week away from being just about impossible to ignore.

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

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