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March 16, 2010
Driving To The Net
Blue Shirts in, Blues still hanging around

by Timo Seppa

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You’ve seen playoff projections from both Tom Awad and myself over the past week. Two’s good, so why not make it three? Sure, in a couple of weeks, it’ll be much easier to see the remaining playoff picture at a glance, but for now, it’s nice to lean on some enlightened stats to sharpen our focus. The projections in Tom’s Power Rankings column are based on the level of play you can expect from teams based on their season-long goal scoring and goal prevention abilities. My approach didn’t delve down to scoring rates like Tom’s did, but simply adjusted each team’s level of play (winning percentage) based on remaining strength of schedule (average of opponents’ winning percentages) for their remaining games.

That seemed to be a pretty good estimate, but it just didn’t sit 100 percent right with me as I pondered it over this week. For instance, we know that—even with the Cam Ward injury and the trades of Matt Cullen and Joe Corvo—Carolina is not the fantastically horrible team of the beginning of the season (an NHL worst .343 winning percentage through December 20th), nor a Jekyll and Hyde average of the best and worst of their season (.471), but actually one of the more dangerous teams you could meet at this stage of the season (.606 since December 20th, fourth best in the Eastern Conference). We also remember the great second half runs of St. Louis, Carolina and Pittsburgh last season—runs that carried the Blues to the playoffs, the Hurricanes to the Conference Finals and the Penguins all the way to the Stanley Cup. What’s that teach us? That there definitely is some value to a “What have you done for me lately?” approach to looking at potential postseason contenders.

To get an idea of how the fortunes of teams have changed over the course of the season, we can look at winning percentages before and after December 20th—roughly the halfway point of the season thus far. Further, we can use those “second half” records to refine our projections, utilizing each team’s winning percentages over the past 33-35 games coupled with their remaining strength of schedule (opponents’ winning percentages over that period).

Legend:

Current: Current number of points

Opp%: Average win percentage of remaining opponents

GR: Games Remaining

PRJT: Projected number of points

Projected standings - Based on winning percentages since December 20th

									
                               Total  Thru 12/20 Since 12/20		
Eastern Conference    Current  Win%   Win%	 Win%	     Opp%   GR  PRJT
Washington Capitals   101      0.732  0.694	 0.773	     0.509  13  122.7
Pittsburgh Penguins    87      0.630  0.708	 0.545	     0.544  13  101.4
Buffalo Sabres	       82      0.612  0.662	 0.561	     0.519  15   99.9
New Jersey Devils      85      0.625  0.750	 0.500	     0.531  14   99.6
Philadelphia Flyers    76      0.559  0.471	 0.647	     0.506  14   95.8
Ottawa Senators	       79      0.572  0.571	 0.574	     0.535  13   94.4
Montreal Canadiens     76      0.543  0.473	 0.621	     0.524  12   91.7
New York Rangers       71      0.514  0.500	 0.529	     0.519  13   85.6
Boston Bruins	       72      0.529  0.574	 0.485	     0.552  14   85.6
Tampa Bay Lightning    68      0.500  0.471	 0.530	     0.556  14   82.7
Carolina Hurricanes    64      0.471  0.343	 0.606	     0.559  14   80.7
Florida Panthers       64      0.485  0.500	 0.466	     0.568  16   78.5
Atlanta Thrashers      67      0.493  0.574	 0.412	     0.573  14   78.1
New York Islanders     65      0.471  0.458	 0.485	     0.566  13   77.3
Toronto Maple Leafs    58      0.420  0.458	 0.379	     0.531  13   68.2
							
Average - East		       0.544  0.547	 0.541			
Average - All Teams	       0.558  0.565	 0.551			

Hot and Cold—Eastern Conference

Of the top teams in the East, only the juggernaut that is the Washington Capitals has played at a consistently elite level throughout the season. Pittsburgh (.545), Buffalo (.561) and especially New Jersey (barely back to .500 with their win against Boston on Monday; playing worse than any other projected playoff team) have been very, very average for months now, and hold onto the high seeds in the Eastern Conference only by virtue of their scorching hot starts. Along with the Hurricanes—whose surge starting too late after playing too poorly this season——the hottest teams are Montreal (.621) and Philadelphia (.647), teams to definitely watch in the second season.

Bubble teams—Eastern Conference

Montreal is a postseason lock, on a roll and facing below average .524 opponents for their last 12 games. They will likely safely slot into the seventh seed, an interesting matchup for reigning champions Pittburgh — an upset is not out of the question. And don’t look now, but the New York Rangers project in a dead heat with Boston for the final playoff berth. While giving a point in the standings and a game at hand to the Bruins, the Blue Shirts’ modest .529 clip is outdoing Boston’s lousy .485 rate, while New York’s strength of schedule is an easy .519, as opposed to an average .552. The projections, of course, know nothing of Marc Savard’s season-ending injury, which further hamper the Bruins’ chances. Tampa Bay and Carolina project to fall short, as they have even more points to make up than New York, and against slightly above average opposition. Florida and Atlanta also face above average competition; more importantly, they’re playing poorly (.466 and .412). It’s hard to remember how well the Thrashers started the season (.574).

Legend:

Current: Current number of points

Opp%: Average win percentage of remaining opponents

GR: Games Remaining

PRJT: Projected number of points

Projected standings - Based on winning percentages since December 20th

		                Total	Thru 12/20 Since 12/20		
Western Conference	Current	Win%	Win%	   Win%	       Opp%  GR	PRJT
San Jose Sharks	        96	0.706	0.671	   0.742       0.554 14	116.7
Chicago Blackhawks	94	0.691	0.721      0.662       0.554 14	112.4
Vancouver Canucks	89	0.645	0.556	   0.742       0.579 13	107.4
Phoenix Coyotes	        89	0.645	0.611	   0.682       0.557 13	106.6
Los Angeles Kings	85	0.625	0.618	   0.633       0.554 14	102.7
Colorado Avalanche	84	0.618	0.622	   0.613       0.592 14	100.0
Detroit Red Wings	80	0.580	0.569	   0.591       0.505 13	 96.8
Nashville Predators	81	0.587	0.653	   0.515       0.571 13	 93.9
St. Louis Blues	        73	0.537	0.515	   0.559       0.529 14	 89.3
Calgary Flames	        77	0.558	0.629	   0.485       0.625 13	 88.1
Minnesota Wild	        72	0.529	0.529	   0.530       0.544 14	 87.1
Anaheim Ducks	        70	0.515	0.500	   0.530       0.537 14	 85.2
Dallas Stars	        71	0.522	0.586	   0.455       0.594 14	 82.8 
Columbus Blue Jackets   67	0.479	0.486	   0.471       0.582 12	 77.7
Edmonton Oilers	        49	0.355	0.486	   0.221       0.595 13	 54.3
							
Average - West		        0.573	0.583	   0.562			
Average - All Teams		0.558	0.565	   0.551			

Hot and Cold—Eastern Conference

Unlike the East, most of the elite teams in the West have played consistently well throughout the season. That’s actually saying a lot, as many of us experts were picking some subset of early surprise teams Phoenix, Los Angeles and Colorado to falter. In fact, the Kings and especially the Coyotes have actually played better. Wow. To tell you how good the Western Conference is, the Bryzgavlov-led Coyotes have only been the third hottest team (.682) — San Jose (.742) and Vancouver (.742) have actually been much better. Conversely, the two biggest drop-offs have been Nashville (.653 to .515) and Calgary (.629 to .485), which brings us to the…

Bubble teams — Western Conference

It’s been a long, long time since Vancouver and Calgary were neck and neck, vying for the Northwest Division lead. The playoff hopes of the Flames continue to dim — Since their impressive road win against Detroit last week, Calgary’s recent losses, poor .485 winning rate and NHL’s toughest schedule (eight of their remaining games are against Washington, San Jose, Chicago, Vancouver, Phoenix and Colorado) give them little chance of making the playoffs. On the other hand, the Detroit Red Wings are heading in the opposite direction, winning at a .591 clip. With hockey’s easiest remaining schedule (.505), they’re a lock. While Nashville has the inside track, don’t count St. Louis out quite yet. The Blues are playing better hockey (.559 to .515) and have a significantly easier schedule (.529 to .571). Further, St. Louis has a game at hand and have the benefit of meeting Nashville three more times. But those who say the Blues must win all three games are probably overstating it a bit. A minimum acceptable record against their rival might be two wins and an overtime loss, splitting the points 5 to 2. While Minnesota’s in nearly the same boat as St. Louis, they’re just a bit worse off in every facet — enough to consider them already outside the race.

Timo Seppa runs the statistical hockey site Ice Hockey Metrics. Follow Timo on Twitter at @timoseppa.

Timo Seppa is an author of Hockey Prospectus. You can contact Timo by clicking here or click here to see Timo's other articles.

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