The sweet spot in an NHL season starts at around the 30-game mark. That's when the gap in predictive power between analytics and traditional analysis begins to reach its widest point. We can use that advantage to determine which of this year's disappointing teams are showing the strongest signs of an imminent recovery.
How can analytics figure this out? Some teams have been playing far better than their record indicates but haven't been able to catch a break. Perhaps that's due to critical injuries, puck luck or bad bounces at critical moments in close games. Each of these factors can be measured analytically to help determine which teams are in the best position to turn things around.
Getting hot is a relative term, of course. It means something different for a bubble team than it does for a lottery draft contender. This analysis studied all the teams in the lower half and ranked them by what their performance could be the rest of the way relative to what it has been thus far.
Which teams are the likeliest to go on a tear? Let's begin.
Overtime/Shootout Record: 1-3
Regulation Time One-Goal Game Record: 5-0
Empty-Net Goals For/Against: 3 / 4
Shots For/Against/Differential: 883 / 917 / -34
Goals For/Against/Differential: 71 / 89 / -18
Shooting Percentage For/Against/Differential: 8.0 / 8.9 / -0.9
Power Play Percentage For/Against/Differential: 17.9 / 15.7 / 2.2
After missing the postseason for only the second time in nine seasons, Nashville invested almost $11 million to add Matt Cullen, Viktor Stalberg, Matt Hendricks and Eric Nystrom (not to mention rookie Seth Jones).
While the Predators were expected to have restored themselves to at least the level of a playoff bubble team, they instead find themselves dead last in the Central Division. Can this trend be reversed?
Just getting some more so-called loser points might really help the Predators. They've taken only four games into overtime, more than only the New York Rangers, and recorded just a single win in those games.
Nashville is also hoping to get a little bit more puck luck. Opponents have managed only 34 more shots but have scored 18 more goals. Things should obviously start to turn around once Pekka Rinne is back from his hip infection, but that isn't expected to occur until after Christmas.
Overtime/Shootout Record: 6-4
Regulation Time One-Goal Game Record: 2-7
Empty-Net Goals For/Against: 4 / 2
Shots For/Against/Differential: 1,009 / 1,004 / +5
Goals For/Against/Differential: 83 / 90 / -7
Shooting Percentage For/Against/Differential: 7.7 / 8.5 / -0.8
Power Play Percentage For/Against/Differential: 11.3 / 16.7 / -5.4
This franchise has made the postseason only once in its 13 seasons, back in 2006-07. Whether in Atlanta or Winnipeg, it has been a bubble team ever since.
There were high hopes of making the playoffs this year, but instead, the Jets find themselves a single point out of last place in the Central, a division without a sub-.500 team.
Better shooting luck would help the Jets. They are actually outshooting opponents this year but are being outscored by seven goals. Improved sniping especially needs to strike on the power play, which is currently third worst in the NHL.
Better puck luck at critical moments would also help Winnipeg, which has lost all but two of its nine games decided in regulation by a single goal.
Things are already starting to turn around for the Jets. They started off 6-9-2 but have gone 8-5-2 since then. If they continue at that pace, the Jets can finish with 92 points. Better, but not quite enough to play hockey in May.
Overtime/Shootout Record: 4-5
Regulation Time One-Goal Game Record: 4-3
Empty-Net Goals For/Against: 3 / 3
Shots For/Against/Differential: 922 / 930 / -8
Goals For/Against/Differential: 83 / 86 / -3
Shooting Percentage For/Against/Differential: 8.7 / 8.6 / +0.1
Power Play Percentage For/Against/Differential: 10.8 / 18.6 / -7.8
After five years as one of the best non-playoff teams in the NHL, the Dallas Stars completely reinvented themselves this past summer.
General manager Jim Nill, coach Lindy Ruff and new players like Tyler Seguin, Valeri Nichushkin, Rich Peverley, Shawn Horcoff and Sergei Gonchar gave the team a whole new outlook.
After a disappointing start, the Stars are already starting to get hot with a 3-1-3 record in the last seven games and are 11-5-5 in the last 21. They will finish with 101 points if they keep that pace up the rest of the season.
Overtime/Shootout Record: 5-2
Regulation Time One-Goal Game Record: 0-7
Empty-Net Goals For/Against: 2 / 3
Shots For/Against/Differential: 792 / 1,066 / -274
Goals For/Against/Differential: 53 / 92 / -39
Shooting Percentage For/Against/Differential: 6.2 / 8.3 / -2.1
Power Play Percentage For/Against/Differential: 13.5 / 21.0 / -7.5
OK, the Buffalo Sabres are bad—everybody knows that. But they're not this bad!
Their special teams are bad, but not this bad. And even a bad team ought to win at least one of their seven one-goal games.
Their shot differential may also be bad, but it's actually better than the Maple Leafs' (minus-316). The big difference is that Toronto's shooting percentage differential is plus-2.9 percent, and Buffalo's is minus-2.1 percent.
New management and coaching should help, but not as much as a little more puck luck will. Buffalo is bad and will be in the draft lottery, but the Sabres should finish with far more than the 42 points that they're currently on pace for.
Overtime/Shootout Record: 1-1
Regulation Time One-Goal Game Record: 4-6
Empty-Net Goals For/Against: 2 / 2
Shots For/Against/Differential: 985 / 931 / +54
Goals For/Against/Differential: 70 / 84 / -14
Shooting Percentage For/Against/Differential: 7.1 / 8.8 / -1.7
Power Play Percentage For/Against/Differential: 19.1 / 14.3 / +4.8
The New York Rangers were seen as legitimate but dark-horse Eastern Conference contenders going into this season, but they have struggled around the .500 mark all year. There is still time to pull this team together and become one of their division's greatest threats.
Some better puck luck is a must. Despite outshooting opponents by almost two shots per game, the Rangers have been outscored by 14 goals. The good news is that Henrik Lundqvist's contract issues are resolved, meaning that he may soon resume his Vezina-caliber goaltending and help reverse that trend. He might also help them get more than two games into overtime, leading to at least a few so-called loser points.
And while their special teams are already humming along, the Rangers should get more scoring at even strength, where they have just 49 goals and a shooting percentage of just 5.9 percent, second worst in the league, according to Extra Skater. When their shooting starts to catch fire, so will their win-loss record.
Overtime/Shootout Record: 2-6
Regulation Time One-Goal Game Record: 2-4
Empty-Net Goals For/Against: 4 / 4
Shots For/Against/Differential: 1,063 / 1,089 / -26
Goals For/Against/Differential: 92 / 105 / -13
Shooting Percentage For/Against/Differential: 8.6 / 8.8 / -0.2
Power Play Percentage For/Against/Differential: 19.3 / 21.0 / -1.7
The Ottawa Senators have fooled a lot of pundits this season, myself included. I could only find three analysts anywhere who projected them any lower than third in their division, and yet here they are sixth in the Atlantic.
The primary reason for their struggles have been on the defensive side of the ice. They have allowed a lot of shots, failed to kill penalties and have gone through some very bad stretches between the pipes (backup goalie Robin Lehner excluded).
Last year, we saw the type of defensive game that Ottawa is capable of, and it's not too late if some of that magic is rediscovered soon.
Overtime/Shootout Record: 3-5
Regulation Time One-Goal Game Record: 2-6
Empty-Net Goals For/Against: 1 / 3
Shots For/Against/Differential: 934 / 942 / -8
Goals For/Against/Differential: 73 / 106 / -33
Shooting Percentage For/Against/Differential: 7.5 / 10.5 / -3.0
Power Play Percentage For/Against/Differential: 11.0 / 25.8 / -14.8
The Florida Panthers have had bad luck across the board. For starters, they have won only six of the 20 close games that were decided either in overtime, shootout, by a single goal or with an empty-netter.
They have been outshot by only eight shots but outscored by 33 goals, thanks to a shooting percentage that is 3.0 percent lower than their opponents'.
Their special teams are most alarming of all, converting on just 11.0 percent of power plays while allowing their opponents to score on 25.8 percent of theirs.
Not all of this is luck, of course. In many cases, these figures are a result of a lack of skill, not fortune. History suggests that analytics this extreme involve at least some transient factors and tend to regress back to the norm.
They're already 7-8-1 with their new coach, have lots of value players and a highly underrated goalie who is capable of truly great netminding. Throw in a bit of luck, and the Panthers should escape the draft lottery.
Overtime/Shootout Record: 4-5
Regulation Time One-Goal Game Record: 2-8
Empty-Net Goals For/Against: 0 / 4
Shots For/Against/Differential: 971 / 965 / +6
Goals For/Against/Differential: 80 / 111 / -31
Shooting Percentage For/Against/Differential: 7.8 / 10.9 / -3.1
Power Play Percentage For/Against/Differential: 16.0 / 28.7 / -12.7
The New York Islanders were initially considered a playoff bubble team, and they even acquired Thomas Vanek early in the season to put them over the top. Instead, they went on a 2-13-2 stretch and are currently in last place in the Metropolitan, where I couldn't find a single analyst predicted them to be.
A huge problem is their 2-12 record in games decided in regulation by a single goal or an empty-net goal. They also have a huge gap in shooting percentages, outshooting opponents but actually being outscored by almost exactly one goal per game. The return of Evgeni Nabokov from injury will hopefully improve that somewhat.
The Isles haven't been playing their best hockey, but they've also been on the wrong side of a lot of close calls and bad bounces. Talent-wise, they're still an average team and not a draft-lottery contender.
Overtime/Shootout Record: 4-3
Regulation Time One-Goal Game Record: 1-5
Empty-Net Goals For/Against: 4 / 5
Shots For/Against/Differential: 909 / 972 / -63
Goals For/Against/Differential: 89 / 109 / -20
Shooting Percentage For/Against/Differential: 9.6 / 10.6 / -1.0
Power Play Percentage For/Against/Differential: 19.2 / 17.4 / +1.8
The Edmonton Oilers have far, far too much talent to stay in the basement. I couldn't find a single analyst who had them figured for last in the Pacific Division. In fact, most pundits considered them to be at least a playoff bubble team, and Hockey Prospectus even had them ranked first in the division.
So what went wrong? Inexplicably bad goaltending from Devan Dubnyk, a goalie who really isn't that bad. The arrival of Ilya Bryzgalov should also help improve this situation, assuming his concussion is minor.
After starting the season 4-15-2, the Oilers have gone 7-3-1 in their last 11 and may already be turning the corner and catching teams off guard. Their slow start may have almost certainly cost them the playoffs, but their days of drafting first overall are over for good.
Overtime/Shootout Record: 4-6
Regulation Time One-Goal Game Record: 3-6
Empty-Net Goals For/Against: 2 / 6
Shots For/Against/Differential: 806 / 771 / +35
Goals For/Against/Differential: 73 / 82 / -9
Shooting Percentage For/Against/Differential: 9.1 / 9.2
Power Play Percentage For/Against/Differential: 17.7 / 13.5 / +4.2
To those who study analytics, the New Jersey Devils have been a tough team to figure out. Even when they're consistently outshooting and outplaying their opponents, they wind up losing by failing to convert opportunities into goals, especially in critical close-game situations.
When you account for score effects (teams in the lead tend to sit back to protect their leads and get outshot), the New Jersey Devils attempt 54.0 percent of a game's shots. That typically means they have the puck 54.0 percent of the time and/or are in the opposing end 54.0 percent of the time, fifth best in the NHL, according to Extra Skater. They were second place last year at 55.6 percent.
So just like last year, everything looks good on paper. But the game isn't played on paper. The Devils may very well persist as the team that proves the limitations of the predictive power of hockey analytics, or they're a team about to catch fire. My money is understandably on the latter.