Hockey's a game of tremendous skill but also a lot of luck. There are days when a team can fire all sorts of shots at the opposing net and run into nothing but hot goalies and goalposts. Sometimes those days can group together into an extended cold streak, and sometimes they can occur at critical stages of either the regular season or the postseason. This can leave a team with the reputation of being a lot worse than it really is.
Looking at how a team's shot differentials compare with its points in the standings is a simple way to find teams that might be underrated. For example, those whose shot differentials were farthest above the line in the 2011-12 season included the Pittsburgh Penguins, who finished atop the Eastern Conference this past season, the Columbus Blue Jackets, who improved from dead last to a playoff bubble team and the Los Angeles Kings, who won the Stanley Cup that year. A similar chart for 2013 should be equally illuminating.
Not all shots are created equally, of course. Some are up close, on the power play and taken by a sniper, while others are shorthanded, from a distance and/or bad angle and taken by an enforcer. Furthermore, teams that are protecting leads tend to sit back and can get outshot throughout the final period.
Over the long term, however, these factors usually start to even out. Over a shortened 48-game season, on the other hand, that doesn't always happen—at least for some teams. Take, for example, the 2013 team with the league's best shot differential: the New Jersey Devils.
New Jersey Devils
What people think they are: a non-playoff team.
What they really are: a strong playoff team.
The New Jersey Devils actually outshot their opponents by 257 shots last year, the largest advantage in the NHL. Unfortunately, they were betrayed by goaltending that stopped just 89.4 percent of the shots, a problem that has hopefully been addressed with the addition of Cory Schneider, who replaces Johan Hedberg as Martin Brodeur's partner in goal.
The Devils have a collection of underrated two-way players, like defenseman Mark Fayne, youngster Adam Henrique and veteran Patrik Elias. There is some concern about losing the offensive production of Ilya Kovalchuk and David Clarkson, but it has hopefully been addressed with the addition of Ryane Clowe, Michael Ryder and Jaromir Jagr. Either way, the Devils should easily find themselves in the postseason picture and, with a little luck, as a Stanley Cup finalist, just like they were in 2011-12.
Los Angeles Kings
What people think they are: solid mid-tier playoff team.
What they really are: one of the Stanley Cup favorites.
Speaking of the 2011-12 Stanley Cup Final, that year's champions don't often get their full due. Even in that Stanley Cup-winning season, their shot differential was plus-263, and yet they were considered long shots going into the postseason, thanks to a miserable 7.5 shooting percentage.
The Kings are actually stacked with talent. They've got one of the best goalies in Jonathan Quick, a tight defensive set of defensemen led by Drew Doughty and a top-six group of forwards that features Anze Kopitar, Justin Williams, Jeff Carter, Mike Richards and captain Dustin Brown—arguably the best in the league.
Make no mistake, the Los Angeles Kings won that Stanley Cup quite deservedly and remained one of the league's best teams in the abridged 2013 season. Given that this offseason's changes were largely cosmetic, the Kings should be expected to remain one of the top contenders.
St. Louis and Montreal are also teams not far removed from teams like Los Angeles and Boston. Unfortunately, a lack of postseason success means they haven't always gotten their due, either.
New York Islanders
What people think they are: bubble team at best.
What they really are: legitimate playoff team.
The New York Islanders have spent many seasons in the league's basement, but both their shot differential and their position in the 2013 standings was similar to respected teams like San Jose, the New York Rangers and the Detroit Red Wings.
The team features Hart finalist John Tavares, who is flanked by his highly underrated winger Matt Moulson. In Frans Nielsen, Kyle Okposo and Joshua Bailey they have one of the league's most undervalued checking lines, and the club is finally getting reliable goaltending thanks to Evgeni Nabokov.
Adding value players like Cal Clutterbuck, Peter Regin and Pierre-Marc Bouchard may not make a big splash in the headlines, especially when weighed against the loss of Mark Streit, but along with the development of their younger players, they could easily help the Islanders continue their climb.
What people think they are: draft lottery team.
What they really are: playoff bubble team.
Carolina finished tied with Calgary for 26th in the NHL last year but actually outshot its opponents. Edmonton and Buffalo were both outshot by 284 and 263 shots, respectively, but somehow finished ahead of the Hurricanes in the standings. In fact, the Anaheim Ducks had a shot differential almost identical to Carolina's (plus-11 to plus-seven) and actually finished third in the overall NHL standings.
Eric Staal is the underrated captain and star of the team, and his brother Jordan Staal is potentially the league's best defensive forward. They're joined by undervalued puck-possession monster Alexander Semin, surprise breakout star Jiri Tlusty and 20-year-old sniper Jeff Skinner.
The Hurricanes haven't made a lot of moves in the offseason but are hoping that replacing Dan Ellis with Anton Khudobin as Cam Ward's partner will improve their goaltending situation and that Ron Hainsey can adequately replace the injured Joni Pitkanen. If so, it would be a mistake to count Carolina out as one of the league's weaker teams.
All advanced statistics are via writer's own original research unless otherwise noted.
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