Guide to the four realms of NHL divisional play in 2021


Connor McDavid is going to win the Hart Trophy this season.

They literally should just list his name three times as the winner and the finalists. No one else should even be in the conversation. As an example, Matt Larkin of The Hockey News noted that through April 26, the Edmonton Oilers were a plus-88 in scoring chances when McDavid was on the ice at even strength.

Without him? They were a minus-183! That’s ridiculous!

Even with that kind of case, it won’t be a unanimous vote. There’s always a caveat. There’s going to be the Pittsburgh writer who votes for Sidney Crosby, the “Nathan MacKinnon is due” voter who puts the Avalanche center first, and the Boston writer who feels the only way to give the criminally underrated Brad Marchand his due is to criminally overrate him as being more valuable to the Bruins than McDavid is to the Oilers.

But it also won’t be unanimous because there’s this widespread perception that the division in which McDavid plays — for lack of a more nuanced term — absolutely stinks.

Normally, this wouldn’t be an issue. The Pacific Division has, in many years, also stunk. But the North Division is different, because McDavid has faced only those teams over and over again in this truncated pandemic season, thanks to intradivisional schedules.

McDavid has racked up a 1.76 points-per-game average against two good teams (Toronto and Winnipeg), two woefully inconsistent teams that fired their coaches (Montreal and Calgary), the worst team in expected goals against per 60 minutes (Vancouver, 3.06) and the second-worst defensive team in the league in goals-against average (Ottawa, 3.47).

Yet we’ll hear praise for Crosby and Marchand despite the fact that they play in a division with three of the four worst teams in goals-against average (Buffalo, New Jersey and Philadelphia).

Is the East worse than the North? And is the North really that bad? With the regular season nearing its finale, we know enough about these divisions to both quantify and define them. We know what they are, and what they aren’t.

Presenting your official guide to the four realms of NHL divisional play this season.

Note: All stats are through Tuesday night’s games. Expected goals statistics are for all situations. My thanks to Andrew Davis of ESPN Stats & Info for pulling it together. For comparison’s sake, NHL league averages for this season are in parentheses.

Realm 1: East Division

Motto: “Lovers, not fighters”
Official song: “I Don’t Wanna go Down to the Basement” — The Ramones
Would Connor McDavid dominate this division? Yes
Goals-per-game average: 2.94 (2.89)
Expected goals per game: 2.66 (2.60)
Shots per game: 29.7 (30.0)
Team save percentage (average): .903 (.904)
Power plays per game: 2.87 (2.95)
Power-play percentage: 20.4 (20.3)
Penalty-kill percentage: 79.6 (79.7)
Penalty minutes per game: 7:48 (8:09)

This is the highest-scoring division in the NHL this season by 0.01 goals over the North. It had better be, since the two lowest team save percentages in the league — the Devils (.888) and Flyers (.879) — are found here, along with the 26th-ranked team save percentage (Buffalo, at .897). Other divisions have their dregs, but no other division has a bottom three teams that have combined for a minus-136 goal differential.

The least of the East will make you a star. Take the New York Islanders. Is this a good team? No doubt, but maybe not a .643 points percentage team in another division. New York is 16-2-2 against the Flyers, Devils and Sabres — that’s an .850 points percentage for those keeping score at home. Which means they’re only 13-13-3 against the rest of the division — i.e. the not-horrible teams.

One of the oddest stats of the intradivisional season: The East has the lowest penalty minutes per game average, at 7:48. It’s actually the only division under eight minutes in that mark. This is wild when you consider four of the top 10 teams in penalty minutes per game last season — the Rangers, Capitals, Bruins and Devils — are here, and that the division is populated with all manner and sort of traditional rivals.

Familiarity usually breeds contempt. Maybe these guys prefer to hit and run, rather than hit and face the same team seven more times.

Realm 2: Central Division

Motto: “Can you tell us more about the Panthers?”
Official song: “Shots” — LMFAO featuring Lil’ Jon
Would Connor McDavid dominate this division? Yes
Goals-per-game average: 2.83 (2.89)
Expected goals per game: 2.55 (2.60)
Shots per game: 30.4 (30.0)
Team save percentage (average): .902 (.904)
Power plays per game: 2.92 (2.95)
Power-play percentage: 20.8 (20.3)
Penalty-kill percentage: 79.2 (79.7)
Penalty minutes per game: 8:01 (8:09)

The Central has been fun to watch, but a challenge on which to wager. There isn’t a more inconsistent division in the NHL this season when it comes to scoring. One night it feels like you’re watching a game from the 1980s, where no lead is safe. The next night, the Dallas Stars aren’t allowing a shot for 10 minutes, or the Carolina Hurricanes are pitching a shutout with a rookie nicknamed “Ned.”

(An aside: The Calder Trophy race is obviously set up as Minnesota Wild forward Kirill Kaprizov vs. Dallas Stars forward Jason Robertson, and that’s fine. They’re both great. But is there room in the discussion for Carolina’s Alex Nedeljkovic, who’s 13-4-3 and leads all rookie goalies with a .932 save percentage and a 1.94 goals-against average? Any chance a guy who is sixth in goals saved above average with 19.3 gets some awards love?)

The shot averages being higher than the NHL season average could be chalked up to Chicago and Detroit being two of the weakest shot suppression teams in the league, but it’s probably more about the Central having some shot-generating machines. Florida is first (34.6) and Carolina is fifth (32.1), having both made the top 10 last season in that category. The Lightning are ninth (30.3), which is remarkable given how much time Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov have missed. (In the latter’s case, all of the time.)

The Central is one of the season’s great mysteries. It may also produce a Stanley Cup champion in a couple of months.

Realm 3: West Division

Motto: “Godzilla vs. Kong”
Official song: “Save Tonight” — Eagle Eye Cherry, and yes, this is probably the first Eagle Eye Cherry reference in a hockey column since 1998
Would Connor McDavid dominate this division? Yes
Goals-per-game average: 2.88 (2.89)
Expected goals per game: 2.65 (2.60)
Shots per game: 29.7 (30.0)
Team save percentage (average): .909 (.904)
Power plays per game: 3.04 (2.95)
Power-play percentage: 18.8 (20.3)
Penalty-kill percentage: 81.2 (79.7)
Penalty minutes per game: 8:29 (8:09)

The Colorado Avalanche are the NHL’s top team in expected goals against per 60 minutes (2.08). The Vegas Golden Knights are the top team in goals-against average (2.15), team save percentage (.922) and penalty-kill percentage (86.1%). The Minnesota Wild are fourth in save percentage (.916), ninth in expected goals against (2.43) and fourth on the kill (84%), where they’re tied with the Los Angeles Kings.

All of this adds up to the numbers you see above, where the West Division is the best in the NHL this season in team defense and goaltending. While the Blues, Coyotes and Ducks are all in the bottom 10 in goals-against average, they all have their moments of defensive stonewalling. Only the Sharks (3.42 GAA) have been a sieve — and that’s yet again a goaltending failure (.891 save percentage, 29th in the NHL).

Beyond the goaltending, the penalty kill is obviously the story here. There are only two teams in the West that aren’t in the top 15 on the penalty kill: Arizona (16th) and St. Louis (28th). Some of this could be the result of average power plays — only three of these teams were in the top 15 last season — but there are also some very effective PKs in here.

At the end of the day, it still feels like the rest of the division exists in service of two behemoths in the Golden Knights and Avalanche, who are (for my money) the two best teams in the NHL when at full capacity.

It’s going to be such a bummer when the hockey gods deprive us the chance to see them face off for the division title with a first-round upset of some kind. Such is their wicked comicality.

Realm 4: North Division

Motto: “The chicken or the egg?”
Official song: “Let’s Go to the Mall” — Robin Sparkles, aka the unofficial Canadian national anthem
Would Connor McDavid dominate this division? I mean, given the available evidence …
Goals-per-game average: 2.93 (2.89)
Expected goals per game: 2.66 (2.60)
Shots per game: 30.4 (30.0)
Team save percentage (average): .901 (.904)
Power plays per game: 2.97 (2.95)
Power-play percentage: 21.3 (20.3)
Penalty-kill percentage: 78.7 (79.7)
Penalty minutes per game: 8:20 (8:09)

On the one hand, the North Division has below-average defense, goaltending and penalty killing compared to the league averages. On the other hand, these defenses, goaltenders and penalty killers are seeing a steady diet of the Leafs’, Oilers’ and Jets’ respective fireworks factories; not to mention Flames, Canucks and Senators teams that are all in the top 15 for expected goals per 60 minutes.

So is this a collection of average teams being marauded by some of the best offensive players in the world, or is it a collection of bad defensive teams (and goaltenders) allowing Connor McDavid to have the best points-per-game average since Mario Lemieux‘s legendary 2000-01 comeback season (1.77 PPG)?

“JFresh” of Elite Prospects, one of my favorite analytics follows, had a different take on the expected goals vs. goals allowed dynamic in the North. While it does little to disprove that defense has no home here, it does help take the goalies off the hook:

The real key here are the power plays, which are en fuego compared to the rest of the league. Four of the top 10 power plays in the NHL over the past two seasons reside in the North: Edmonton (28%), Vancouver (22.6%), Winnipeg (22.5%) and Toronto (22.4%). Before he was injured, Nikolaj Ehlers was averaging a preposterous 9.91 power-play points per 60 minutes for Winnipeg.

So the North is bad. But maybe not terrible.

Many divisions through the years have had their own personalities. The Norris Division was the “black and blue” one. The Southeast Division was the “Southleast.” These one-and-done divisions this season have their personalities, too, as well as their own statistical quirks.

All of it should be noted when discussing the relative greatness or weakness of teams. All of it should be taken into account when considering players for postseason awards, as their performances have been siloed off from the rest of the league.

But none of it — truly, none of it — should be used as a counterargument against Connor McDavid as league MVP this season.

Provided, of course, the Oilers make the playoffs.

Hey, there’s always a caveat.

Three things about the playoff races

1. As I reported earlier this week, no bubbles are in the forecast for this postseason, which should be sweet music to the players’ ears. But the real pressing issue for the postseason is whether the North Division champion will be playing in its home arena or at some neutral site in the U.S.

I think Dr. Isaac Bogoch, an infectious disease expert with whom I spoke, has it right. There is no palpable public safety risk to flying a U.S. team into Canada for a couple of hockey games, or a Canadian team flying back and forth across the border for games in the U.S. These players and staffers are thoroughly tested and there are protocols in place. What it comes down to is the Canadian government giving a dispensation to the NHL to cross the border — a decision much more about optics and politics than it is about pandemic safety.

Color me an ugly American … but I sorta figured Canada, of all places, would bend the rules for the Stanley Cup playoffs? Maybe I’m wrong.

2. If the Dallas Stars qualify for the playoffs — and Money Puck gives them only a 39.6% chance — they could become the darlings of the postseason again. This is a team that battled through a COVID-19 shutdown to start the season and then an ice storm that paralyzed their state and postponed more games. They’ve played the whole season without Ben Bishop and Tyler Seguin. They haven’t had Alexander Radulov since March 18 due to injury.

The defending Western Conference champs have scratched and clawed and found a way to contend for the last playoff spot in the Central. If they get in and pull a first-round upset, they’re a team worth rallying around.

3. We’ve waited 28 years for an all-Florida playoff series, and odds are we’re going to get it. The Carolina Hurricanes have an 89.7% chance of finishing first in the Central. The Florida Panthers and Tampa Bay Lightning are basically locked into the second and third spots. The Lightning, with Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov back? The Panthers, with Sergei Bobrovsky looking for another first-round shocker against Tampa; or failing that, the legend of Spencer Knight growing by getting the crease as a rookie?

Best of all, it’s the Panthers getting a chance to get one over on their much, much more successful local rivals in a playoff series. As a Mets fan, I nod in appreciation. I just hope it goes better than the Subway Series did.

Winners and losers of the week

Winner: Charles Barkley

Congratulations to Turner Sports on getting the other half of the NHL rights package for the next seven seasons. I’ve said for years that the best thing for the NHL was to be on multiple media platforms in the U.S., and the two they’ve chosen in this next contract are going to innovate and invigorate the product, exposing multitudes of new fans to this incredible sport. But the big winner here is, of course, Charles Barkley. Not only will the Tampa Bay Lightning fan get a chance to opine on the NHL, but the search for the “Charles Barkley of hockey” for Turner Sports’ coverage must be flattering for him.

Loser: Business

I didn’t love everything NBC Sports did as the steward of NHL coverage in the U.S. for the past 16 years. But I did respect the hard work that went into it, especially the way it presented live game action. Here’s hoping many of the people behind that effort get to continue covering the game, wherever they end up.

Winner: Avangard Omsk

For the first time in the KHL team’s history, they won the Gagarin Cup, the greatest trophy in sports that’s named after a cosmonaut. On the roster: a plucky, well-compensated 38-year-old winger named Ilya Kovalchuk. Pozdravlyayu!

Loser: SC Bern

Swiss goalie legend Florence Schelling made headlines last year when she was named the general manager of SC Bern of the National League. At 31, she became the first female general manager for a top-level men’s pro hockey team. But she was let go after just one season this week, with Bern CEO Marc Lüthi saying: “Florence Schelling achieved a lot in her year at SCB, but she does not have enough experience for the difficult short- and medium-term situation at SCB.”

And as we all know, it’s super easy for a female general manager of a men’s pro team to gain experience, considered there had never been one until last year [eyes roll out of head]. This is a frustrating development.

Winner: St. Louis Blues

St. Louis followed three straight losses with three straight wins — two over the Avalanche, one against the Wild — to dramatically increase its chances for securing the fourth seed in the West. You know things are going well when Jordan Binnington is getting feisty again:

Loser: Arizona Coyotes

Ugh. Arizona has lost nine of 11 games down the stretch, including two straight to the San Jose Sharks. Captain Oliver Ekman-Larsson capped the poor effort on Wednesday with a couple of brutal turnovers and two minor penalties in the third period, with his team down by a goal. Ugly all around for what could be coach Rick Tocchet’s last run in the desert.

Winner: Auston Matthews

Matthews has scored 22% of the Maple Leafs’ goals this season, which is the highest percentage for any single player on any team this season. That includes this circus act:

Loser: Getting taken out by a referee

Does the department of player safety cover referee-on-player violence? Asking for Cole Caufield.

Puck headlines

In case you missed this from your friends at ESPN

Inside the New York Islandersfancy new arena.

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