Nelson: Around the Metro: Rising Canes and the Sullivan era

The last month across the Metropolitan Division has confounded some expectations. Outside of the Capitals’ continued dominance and the Blue Jackets’ lost season, the teams near the top have been mediocre at best and the teams at the bottom have started a push toward the top.

That’s created a situation where the point difference between second place and seventh is just eight points, and the team in seventh has three games in hand on the second place team.

Here’s a look at a few trends defining the division early in 2016.

CAROLINA HURRICANES
The question that needs to be asked of this team right now is whether or not their rise is for real. They’ve had a great run, placing themselves in playoff contention. As of Friday morning they were at 47 points, tied with the Boston Bruins, who hold the final wild card slot in the Eastern Conference.

We talked earlier in the season about the team’s chronic goaltending issues and low shooting percentage. That’s been a multi-season trend for this roster, which hasn’t changed considerably from last year. Yet, over the last month and a half, they’ve had a rising shooting percentage. You can see that below. Taken in a larger sample, their 8.5% even strength shooting percentage since the start of December isn’t crazy and necessarily destined for a drop, despite it being a very good shooting percentage for this franchise over the last few seasons. (The Hurricanes have a 6.7% shooting percentage at even strength since the start of the 2012-13 season.)

They’ve been getting saves where they weren’t before and that might be a big part of what’s driving their success. They remain a frustratingly good team in terms of their ability to drive possession. With little change there and their PDO on the rise, I’d question the notion that this team is for real. We’ll need to see wins continue through February when their save percentage could fall back to Earth. It’ll be a lot easier to take them seriously when they are winning while getting something closer to their average save percentage from Cam Ward.

Canes save percentage

Canes PDO

Canes Corsi

What is for real is Bill Peters continuing to pull a Dave Tippett and get a lot out of a thin roster. Justin Faulk is playing out of his mind and they have a young defensive group that could be one of the league’s best in a couple of years (particularly when you see that the pipeline to the NHL is far from dry with Haydn Fleury and Roland McKeown on the way).

NEW YORK RANGERS
Early in the season there was a lot of concern about the Rangers while they were off to a franchise-best start to the season. A look at their underlying numbers indicated their winning frenzy was smoke and mirrors. Their high PDO combined with a consistently negative Corsi differential had everyone — including coach Alain Vigneault — questioning the results.

They did start to struggle. Yet, they’re currently third in the division and the concerns from earlier in the season don’t seem to be at the fore anymore. That’s in part because they’ve had a weird combination of things happening. Their ability to drive play early in the season was poor, but they were getting the bounces and some strong goaltending.

In mid-December, they started to drive play. Their Corsi Differential began trending up toward even and into the positive. They were pushing play and looked like a team that could compete. But at that exact moment, their goaltending started to lag. Or at least, the alarms started going off on their goaltending. As you can see below with their 10-game rolling averages, the team’s even strength save percentage started a downward trend in mid-November that didn’t manage to start going the other direction until the end of December. It’s on the rise, but it’s not where you expect Henrik Lundqvist to be.

What does it say about the team? That they’re probably going to be ok. They’re starting to drive play and not gathering more points has been some bad timing with their game coming around at the same time as the goaltending tanked. If they continue to play like they have been they could be in a good spot once the playoffs come around. Lundqvist is one of the few goaltenders in the league for whom a dip like this isn’t that big of a concern.

Rangers Corsi

Rangers save percentage

PITTSBURGH PENGUINS
The Penguins still remain bafflingly outside the playoff picture. Yet, a quick glance at their Corsi Differential shows the team moving in the right direction in terms of how they’re playing. The moment of the upward trend coincides kind of nicely with the arrival of Mike Sullivan as the team’s new head coach on December 12.

Penguins diff

So, he’s triggered their offense, right? Because the knock on Mike Johnston was that he was making the team play too defensively and it was stifling their elite-level offensive talents.

Actually, while their shot attempts per 60 have been on the rise, that shift actually started under Johnston. Sullivan has continued that trend, but they were headed in that direction already.

Corsi For

Despite the criticism of Johnston, what we actually see is that they’ve been even tighter defensively under Sullivan. His arrival triggered a drop in their Corsi Against per 60.

Pit corsi against

COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS
The other in-season coaching change in the division was supposed to get them playing more defensively sound hockey. John Tortorella was going to get this rag-tag band of scruffy street toughs to play the fabled “right way.”

It hasn’t quite gone that way. Their Corsi Differential continues to drop as they work their way toward Auston Matthews. Their Corsi For per 60 minutes has hovered around the same numbers in a 10-game rolling average all season. But their Corsi Against per 60 minutes is tanking.

CBJ for

CBJ against

But that will turn around now that the team has waived (and lost) both Andrew Bodnarchuk and Kevin Connauton in the midst of adding Seth Jones. Right?

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