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  • Let’s Take a Look Around the League: Western Confernce


    About a third of the season is in the books and the end of the year is looming around the corner. Last week I took a look at how the Minnesota Wild fit into the bigger picture of the league. Now let’s take a look at how the rest of the league is shaking out so far this season, starting with the Western Conference.

    Central Division

    The biggest surprise at this particular point in the season might be that the Central Division, a.k.a. Conference III, would actually only have three teams in the playoffs if they were to start today.* [UPDATE: Nashville now occupies the 2nd wild card spot thanks to tie breakers] The reason for this is that the Pacific Division’s top five teams are all very close in the standings, but that will be discussed further below.

    Currently, two usual suspects occupy the top three spots in the Central. [UPDATE: Minnesota has taken second place in the division from St. Louis] The Chicago Blackhawks have mostly stopped the bleeding on the penalty kill and enjoyed a stretch of 11 games from late November into December in which they went 9-0-2.

    The St. Louis Blues simply refuse to go on a pointless streak longer than two games so far this season.

    The Wild sit tied for 2nd, but have at least two games in hand on every other team in the Central except the Nashville Predators and the Colorado Avalanche.

    After the Wild are Dallas and Nashville, who are tied with 30 points. The Predators are playing a strong possession game and, after briefly leading us to believe that the Montreal Canadiens won the Shea Weber - P.K. Subban trade outright, Subban seems to be meshing well with the loaded D-corps. Their low position doesn’t feel like it accurately reflects the quality of this team.

    Meanwhile, the Stars are still suffering in the hockey hell that is their goalie tandem ($10.4 million in cap space for the second- and seventh-worst goalies in the NHL with a minimum of 10 games). The Stars can’t keep puck out of their own goal.

    Then here come the Winnipeg Jets, who lag seven points behind the Wild despite having played four more games.

    Rounding out that last spot: the Avalanche. No big mystery as to why they are there. The Avalanche recently celebrated breaking a six game losing streak with a win against the Boston Bruins by losing 10-1 against the Canadiens in the very next game. They aren’t scoring, aren’t defending, and aren’t possessing the puck in a way that suggests either of those two factors are going to change.

    Here’s a not so fun fact about the Central Division: As of December 12th, a Central Division team currently leads the league in goals allowed in all three periods and its a different team in each. The Avalanche (34), the Jets (44), and the Dallas Stars (35) are all doing their best to guarantee exciting hockey for anybody but their fans in the first, second, and third periods respectively.

    Pacific Division

    The Pacific Division can best be described as a knife fight. The San Jose Sharks, the Anaheim Ducks, and the Edmonton Oilers are in a three-way tie for first place. Only one point behind them area the Calgary Flames, and four points off the division leaders but with at least a game in hand on every team in front of them are the Los Angeles Kings. The tie for the lead is a little misleading as each team has played a different number of games. As mentioned above, at the time of writing, the Pacific Division would actually send five teams to the playoffs were they to begin now. However, the top-three Central teams actually rank ahead of all the Pacific Division teams in the Western Conference. Rounding out the division are the Vancouver Canucks and the Arizona Coyotes. Unless they find a way to clone Devan Dubnyk, these teams will remain outside the playoff picture for the rest of the season.

    Looking at the underlying stats, the biggest thing that stands out is how infrequently the Pacific Division's leading teams stand out. For example, the best team in terms of goal differential is San Jose with a +8. That's good for eighth in the NHL. The Central Division has two teams ahead of the Sharks, including the Wild, and the Metropolitan Division has four teams ahead of the Sharks by this metric. It seems likely that the parity within the division is having a dampening affect on the teams' performance. No one team is finding consistent success, so the top five teams are neither great nor terrible.

    The Sharks owe some of their success to the productive “Captains Line” made up of Patrick Marleau, Joe Thornton, and Joe Pavelski. They are scoring and maintaining possession at a pretty impressive pace, covered in greater detail by Fear the Fin here.

    The Ducks got off to a poor start, not getting a W until their fifth game of the season. Nevertheless, old new head coach Randy Carlyle has them performing average to above average in most areas and their 23.5% powerplay conversion rate is third in the league.

    Much of the storyline around Edmonton could easily focus on Connor McDavid, but also worth mentioning is that the Oilers are playing some of the highest event hockey in the league. They are 4th in goals for and 24th in goals against.

    The Flames have been on an absolute tear lately, going 8-1-1 in their last ten games and are enjoying a Western Conference-leading six game win streak.

    The Kings are a fantastic possession team with an Corsi For % of 53.9 which is second in the league overall. Anze Kopitar leads the way at sixth in the league by that measure (minimum 10 games played), but six other players for the Kings feature in the top-50. The injury to starting goalie Jonathan Quick has forced them to rely on Peter Budaj and Jeff Zatkoff which has definitely hurt them. Unfortunately for them, Quick will be out indefinitely.

    The Canucks are in trouble on the back end. Their top D-pair has been injured and their goalies have not been playing well. Despite leading the league briefly at the start of the season, every team can seemingly find a way to beat them, even coming back from three goal deficits like in the recent game at Carolina.

    Unlike Vancouver, the Coyotes can’t blame their goaltending for their predicament. Mike Smith is playing great with a 92.9% save percentage. An early injury to Smith hurt the team, but he’s back and making up for lost time. The team in front of him isn't clicking though with key youngster Anthony Duclair amidst a sophomore slump.

    There is obviously much more at play for each of the teams covered here, but hopefully this provided some small measure of insight into the rest of the NHL's performance so far this season.

    Stats are all from www.nhl.com except embedded links.




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