When the Olympics are all said and done, which players are going home to join teams with the most difficult NHL schedules? There are some awfully tight playoff races, most of which could boil down to seemingly minor details like long road trips or tough opponents. In that regard, some teams definitely have it worse than others.
Using analytics, the difficulty of every NHL team's schedule can be measured in a variety of ways. For instance, the average winning percentage of their opponents can be calculated, even with home and road splits taken into account.
Sometimes a team's record doesn't accurately reflect the true strength of the team, in which case the estimated average time of possession for each team (via Extra Skater), can be checked for confirmation. Or, for who those who prefer placing their faith more in goal-based statistics, it can be established using each team's goal differentials.
In the end it's reasonably clear that the easiest schedule belongs to the New York Islanders, though the New Jersey Devils could also have one of the simpler stretch runs.
As for the toughest schedules, the top 10 are all ranked in reverse order in the upcoming slides. Let's begin!
All advanced statistics are via writer's own original research unless otherwise noted.
Home/Road Split: 9-13
Key Stats: Average opponent winning percentage of .569 overall, .576 including home/road splits. Average opponent goal percentage of 50.6 percent (10th), and possession percentage of 50.7 percent (eighth)
Net Impact: The Toronto Maple Leafs are a team that needs all the breaks they can create. So far they've been successful, with a winning percentage that is almost bang-on with the league average despite being outscored, allowing more goals than all but three teams (Edmonton, N.Y. Islanders and Ottawa) and being dramatically outshot.
Currently in a postseason position, the Leafs started off hot, went cold, and have recently re-ignited with a 9-2-1 stretch. They are nevertheless just seven points out of 12th, and the tough schedule might be enough to cool them off once again.
The Leafs come back from the winter games to play eight of their first 10 games on the road, including the dreaded swing through California.
Even though their post-Olympic schedule is otherwise not that bad, and generally not against particularly dominant teams, every point could matter in the tight Eastern Conference playoff race.
Home/Road Split: 11-12
Key Stats: Average opponent winning percentage of .572 overall, and .572 when including home/road splits. Average opponent goal percentage of 51.1 percent (fourth), and possession percentage of 50.9 percent (fifth).
Net Impact: The Minnesota Wild started off playing some great hockey, but their possession-based play has been on a steady decline almost from the get-go.
Since their 15-5-4 start, the Wild have been a sub-.500 team, and their playoff spot is a prime target for the four Western Conference chasers in Phoenix, Winnipeg, Dallas and Nashville.
The Wild do come back from the Olympics with five of eight games at home, including three games against Alberta's weak teams, but then it gets tougher.
Eight of the next 10 games are on the road—and against pretty decent opposition. And based on their average goal and possession percentages, those late-season contests will also feature opponents whose win-loss records may not fully reflect their strong play.
Home/Road Split: 12-10
Key Stats: Average opponent winning percentage of .587 overall (ninth), and .582 when including home/road splits (sixth). Average opponent goal percentage of 50.8 percent (eighth), and possession percentage of 49.9 percent.
Net Impact: Oddly enough, a really tough schedule may have helped Chicago snap out of a cold stretch recently. It was a bad run that featured four straight losses for a 5-3-6 record since their combined 12-4 clobbering of New Jersey and Colorado. While that slump included dropping games to weaker teams like the Islanders and Flames, Chicago was a sparkling 3-0-1 on a much tougher road trip through Vancouver and California.
From that perspective, the consistent stretch of solid teams waiting for them, and the 10 players they sent to Sochi could actually come as a boost. The Blackhawks are in a heated race with St. Louis and Anaheim for a top seed, and those final points could determine who has to hammer their way past a team like Los Angeles in the first round.
Home/Road Split: 11-12
Key Stats: Average opponent winning percentage of .583 overall (seventh), and .584 when including home/road splits (eighth). Average opponent goal percentage of 50.9 percent (seventh), and possession percentage of 50.2 percent.
Net Impact: Statistically, Nashville's chances of returning to the post-season is somehwere between six and 13 percent, but a tough post-Olympic schedule isn't going to make that job any easier.
Nashville's record actually isn't that bad considering they've been outscored by 30 goals, and are actually only four points out of the final playoff spot.
The Predators start their final stretch with a five-game homestand, where it will be critical to build up the momentum they'll need when taking seven of the next eight games on the road. The Predators will be facing the Blackhawks three times down the stretch, including twice during that road trip.
Those Chicago matchups could very well prove to be make-or-break games for a team that won't be able to afford leaving even a single point on the ice the rest of the way.
Home/Road Split: 10-13
Key Stats: Average opponent winning percentage of .574 overall (ninth), and .600 when including home/road splits (second). Average opponent goal percentage of 50.3 percent, and possession percentage of 50.2 percent.
Net Impact: The Montreal Canadiens got off to a great start before the new year took them into a free fall. With a 7-8-3 record since late-December wins over Nashville and Tampa Bay, Montreal's playoff cushion has slowly eroded to just four points.
While Montreal's schedule isn't necessarily a disaster by most measurements, it's the second most difficult when taking home/road splits into account. Thirteen of Montreal's remaining 23 games will be on the road and against some teams who are excellent on home ice, including the dreaded tour through California.
Gone are the days that the Habs were pointed to as a potential Stanley Cup dark horse, replaced by a time where they're being pointed to as a team whose playoff spot could be vulnerable.
Home/Road Split: 12-10
Key Stats: Average opponent winning percentage of .590 overall (fourth), and .590 when including home/road splits (seventh). Average opponent goal percentage of 51.0 percent (sixth), and possession percentage of 50.6 percent (ninth).
Net Impact: Things are looking up for the Jets, whose playoff dreams were once considered over. Finding new life under coach Paul Maurice, Winnipeg has won nine of their last 11 and improved their chances of a postseason appearance to around 18-22 percent.
The post-Olympic path will not be an easy one. The good news is that the Jets begin by playing nine of their first 12 games at home. The bad news is that they're taking on some tough opponents and even making the dreaded tour through California.
The Winnipeg Jets aren't out of the playoffs yet, but if they want in, they'll have to earn their points against some awfully good teams.
Home/Road Split: 13-11
Key Stats: Average opponent winning percentage of .588 overall (fifth), and .597 when including home/road splits (fourth). Average opponent goal percentage of 51.0 percent (fifth), and possession percentage of 50.8 percent (seventh).
Net Impact: As expected, Pittsburgh is in first place and should remain atop the Eastern Conference and protect their home seed no matter how tough their schedule becomes. This has been no easy feat considering how dramatically stung with injuries the roster has been.
That's not to say that a few extra losses won't matter. For some teams the playoffs can be all about momentum. No team wants to enter the postseason without the confidence that comes from winning.
The Penguins start with a five-game road trip, including contests against Chicago, San Jose and Anaheim, but then play 13 of their remaining 19 games at the Consol Energy Center.
Obviously the key thing for Pittsburgh is simply to return to health and avoid any further injury. But the psychological impact that could come with some tough losses should never be underestimated.
Home/Road Split: 14-9
Key Stats: Average opponent winning percentage of .599 overall (third), and .591 when including home/road splits (fifth). Average opponent goal percentage of 52.1 percent (third), and possession percentage of 50.9 percent (third).
Net Impact: The challenge with Philadelphia's post-Olympic schedule is the sheer caliber of their opponents, which is arguably inferior to only the two following teams on this list.
Three games against the Penguins, two against the Bruins, and two against the Blues! With the exception of Florida and Buffalo contests in early April, there's no relief to be found in Philadelphia's schedule.
The good news for the Flyers is that 14 of their remaining 23 games will be at home, and that they already took the dreaded California tour before the Olympics.
Statistically, the Flyers are an almost even bet to make the postseason. With the difficulty of their schedule factored in, it might be safer to expect a ninth-place finish.
Home/Road Split: 12-12
Key Stats: Average opponent winning percentage of .610 overall (first), and .598 when including home/road splits (third). Average opponent goal percentage of 52.5 percent (first), and possession percentage of 51.3 percent (second).
Net Impact: It has been a roller coaster year for the Colorado Avalanche. Shocking the league with a 14-2-0 start, the Avalanche then reverted to 9-9-4 before their current 13-4-1 success resumed.
Even the grouchiest analysts who have closely studied their underlying analytics have to concede that they're at least a league-average team, and probably much better. Their playoff spot should be safe, and what they'll be gunning for down the stretch is a home seed in the first round.
Making the task more difficult is the second toughest post-Olympic schedule in the entire NHL. A single contest against Edmonton is their only soft game, the rest being against either playoff teams, or those who are conceivably in the hunt. It will include two games apiece against Anaheim, San Jose, St. Louis and Chicago. No team is facing a set of opponents with a higher winning percentage down the stretch than Colorado.
Any way you slice it, the issue of whether or not Colorado is the real deal could be one that's put to rest before the postseason even begins.
Home/Road Split: 10-13
Key Stats: Average opponent winning percentage of .602 overall (second), and .609 when including home/road splits (first). Average opponent goal percentage of 52.2 percent (second), and possession percentage of 51.6 percent (first).
Net Impact: Statistically, the Capitals have just a one in nine chance of making the postseason for the seventh straight time. Even those odds may be generous given their recent performance and the difficulty of their schedule.
The Capitals are 3-7-3 in their last 13 games and 6-10-6 in their last 22. They have a better winning percentage than only five teams (Florida, N.Y. Islanders, Calgary, Edmonton and Buffalo), against whom they are playing just two of their final 23 games. Instead they are facing Boston three times, Pittsburgh twice, and they are making the dreaded tour of California in mid-March.
The odds just couldn't be stacked higher against Washington, and it will truly take an Ovechkian miracle for them to be playing hockey in late April.