By the time the NHL season is about a quarter of the way over we tend to have a pretty good sense of how good teams are and about what we can expect from them. Inevitably, though, there are some teams that are still hard to figure out. The toughest are the teams that are expected to be good – serious contenders once the playoffs start – that just aren’t playing any good this far into the season. Sometimes a good team that is struggling at this point will eventually turn things around and will play much better down the stretch. Other times, though, they just have problems that have become more serious as the season has progressed, and their year ends up becoming a lost one for the team. Needless to say it can be very useful for handicappers to be able to tell which category a good team that is struggling after 20 games or so is likely to fit into. Here are seven factors to consider when trying to figure that out:
Do they have an excuse for the slow start? – There are some reasons that are totally understandable, common, and reasonably acceptable for a slow start. Chief among these is if the team played in the Stanley Cup finals the previous season. It is often very tough for teams to bounce back from an appearance in the season finale – win or lose. Another example of an acceptable excuse is if the season started with an abnormal number of games on the road – perhaps because their home building was booked for other purposes.
What changes were made since last year? – Roster changes can be, as I just mentioned, a big issue for teams. Even significant upgrades don’t always look like it in the short term until the new players become comfortable with their new surroundings, learn what the coach wants, and build chemistry with his new linemates. If big changes were made to a team then it is probably a good idea to be patient, though you want to be sure that you are seeing signs of progress and at least some flashes that the players added are doing what they were expected to do.
Has health been an issue? – If a team has started the season without key players in the lineup then it only makes sense that they haven’t looked as good as they could be. It only stands to reason, then, that if they were to get healthy things could turn around. By looking at the injury reports you can learn a lot about what is possible for a team.
How are the best players playing? – A team will struggle to accomplish anything interesting if the best players aren’t playing like stars. It isn’t hard to figure out who is supposed to be carrying the most load on a given team. Is that player performing as well as we know they can, or are they struggling? Are they healthy, or have they struggled to play at full strength? Are they improving, have they been static, or are they getting worse as the season goes along? Is their play and production consistent, or are their swings in their effort and output?
Who have they been losing to? – It’s always a concern when a team that is supposed to be a top level contender is losing more than they are winning, but some losses are more concerning than others. Are they losing their games against the best teams and taking care of business otherwise, or have they struggled to beat bad teams? Are they taking care of business at home, or have they struggled to maximize their advantage? Are they struggling against offensive teams, or having big issues with strong defensive teams? How are they doing when they play elite goaltenders?
How have they been losing? – As significant as who they are losing to is how they are losing games. Are they falling behind early because they are lacking focus, or are they losing late because they lack stamina and mental durability? Have they lost mostly because they have been outplayed, or are they just suffering a lot of bad bounces and tough losses? Are they losing a lot of games played in a similar style?
Are they improving? – If a team started out really poorly then it is possible that they are showing a lot of improvement, but not yet enough to be enjoying consistent success. Subtle but distinct signs of progress won’t be recognized by the public or the general media if it isn’t showing up in the standings, so by looking at what the numbers are telling you you can often get a big jump on the public in terms of spotting when things are ready to turn around.