Assessing NHL Playoff Contenders

More than any other major sport there is a lot you can tell about a team in the NHL regarding their readiness to compete in the playoffs before the regular season even ends. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t still upsets or surprises in the NHL playoffs – there certainly are. It’s just that oftentimes teams that surprise the media and the general public aren’t nearly as surprising as they seem if you have taken the time to assess readiness going into the playoffs. A team that isn’t ready heading into the playoffs will rarely do much once they get there, and a team that is very ready can be poised to shine. Whenever an obscure team comes from nowhere to go shockingly deep – like Philadelphia and Montreal did in 2010 and Calgary, Edmonton, Anaheim, Carolina, Tampa Bay and others have done in past years – you’ll see some common characteristics that they shared heading into the playoffs, and some key problems that their opponents had along the way. Here’s a look at three questions you can ask to assess how ready a team is to make a charge in the grueling NHL playoffs:

How do their last 10 games compare to their middle 10 games? – Almost without exception a team that does well in the playoffs is one that shows marked improvement between the middle of the season and the end. It’s crucial to note here, though, that that doesn’t necessarily mean that they will have a better record over the latter period. There are so many factors that affect a team’s record – location of games, quality of opponents, health of team, and so on – that looking at records is at best misleading, and at worst will lead you down the wrong path. What you want to look at instead are key statistical measures that really impact how effective a team has been – things like power play and penalty killing percentages, and shots allowed, for example.

Is the shots on goal differential positive? – I have separated this one stat from the rest because it is such a remarkably strong indicator of playoff success. Shot on goal differential is simply the difference between the number of shots per game a team takes and the number they allow. A positive differential indicates that the team indicates more shots per game than they give up. Here’s what’s incredible – between 1991 and 2010 every single Stanley Cup winner has had a positive differential. Quite often they have had the biggest differential as well. If a team is coming into the playoffs with a negative regular season differential, then, it would be very hard to take them seriously as a contender.

How are the goalies really playing? – A goalie who gets hot in the playoffs can carry his team unlike any other player in any position in sports. Time and again we have seen how a hot goalie can take a decent team far further than anyone would have expected. Goalies can get hot once the playoffs start, but typically they have shown signs of their form late in the regular season if you know what you are looking for. There are four things I look for to determine if a goalie is ready. First, I am interested in consistency – a goalie has to be able to perform at a high level almost every game to do well in the playoffs. To measure this I look at the last 20 games the goalie has played. Over that period I find his save percentage – the best widely available stat to indicate goalie effectiveness. Once I have the safe percentage over the whole period I compare that to the save percentage in each of the 20 individual games. I don’t want to see more than five games in which the players save percentage was significantly below the average. If there are more than that then the goalie is likely too streaky to trust in the playoffs. Second, I look at his ability to bounce back. Bad games are inevitable, and they will happen in the playoffs. Good playoff goalies can shake those situations off and get right back into top form. If a goalie’s bad performances during the season are followed consistently by anything other than very strong games then I am concerned. Third, I look at how they handle success. Some goalies get complacent when things go well. That can’t happen in the playoffs. To judge this I look for two games in a row when a goalie has allowed one or fewer goals per game. The third game in that streak should be a good one. If the save percentage in the third game is significantly worse than the first two, and if that happens more than once, then it could be a sign that the goalie’s focus wavers when things go well. Finally, I look at how a goalie responds to high pressure situations. To measure this I compare his GAA and save percentage when playing against the two best teams in his division, the best team in his conference (assuming that team is not in his division), and against his team’s natural rival (assuming that rivalry is fierce and both teams are playoff teams) to those stats overall for the whole season. The pressure should be higher in those games than the typical game because the games mean more. If the goalies’ stats aren’t better in those games than they are overall then I am concerned about his ability to elevate his game, and I am not convinced he is ready for the playoffs. Not all goalies who shine in the playoffs will do well by these measures, but if a goalie raises concerns in two or more of these four measures then I have real concerns about his playoff readiness.

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