NHL Teams Most Likely to Surprise in 2nd Half of Season

Rob Vollman@robvollmanNHLContributor IJanuary 6, 2014

NHL Teams Most Likely to Surprise in 2nd Half of Season

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    Bill Wippert/Getty Images

    Which struggling teams will catch fire in the second half of this season? The Oilers, the Islanders, the Rangers and the Blue Jackets are all among teams that were expected to be in the mix rather than the basement. These are just four of nine teams we've identified that should be much improved the rest of the way.

    Several analytic factors went into the system used to project the number of points each team would earn past the midway point. One way to find teams poised for a surprising second have, for example, is to look at a team's record in overtime/shootout games and/or regulation games decided by a single goal to find which teams are hanging in there but are currently coming up just a little bit short. 

    Looking at teams recovering from injuries, like the Blue Jackets and Rangers for instance, is another way to find teams with the potential for a second-half surge. So is looking at who is controlling the play but simply getting stung by poor shooting and/or save percentages.

    Just missing this list are the Carolina Hurricanes and the Ottawa Senators. Of the nine teams that bubbled to the top of the spreadsheet, all but two should come as absolutely no surprise. Let's begin!

    All advanced statistics are via writer's own original research unless otherwise noted.


9. New Jersey Devils

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    Bill Wippert/Getty Images

    First-Half Points: 42 points

    Projected Second-Half Points: 46 points

    Potential for Surprise: The New Jersey Devils started the first half 0-4-3 but ended it 5-1-2. If their 5-8 record in both overtime/shootout and one-goal games decided in regulation was reversed, they'd be on pace for over 100 points instead of the mid-80s.

    There's nothing fundamentally wrong with this team, which has the fourth-best possession numbers in the league, according to Extra Skater, except that it needs to find a way to score some goals in front of Cory Schneider.

    New Jersey averages 1.63 goals per game and has topped two goals only three times in Schneider's 19 starts. Scoring will hopefully be easier to do at home, where the Devils are playing 22 of their remaining 39 games. If so, they could be the ultimate playoff dark horse this April.

8. Columbus Blue Jackets

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    Norm Hall/Getty Images

    First-Half Points: 40 points

    Projected Second-Half Points: 44 points

    Potential for Surprise: A strong second half would be nothing new for Columbus. Last year, the Blue Jackets started off 5-12-4 before posting an amazing 19-5-3 record the rest of the way. It's already happening again, having opened the season at 5-10-0 before posting a 13-9-4 record for the balance of the half-season. According to Extra Skater, their possession numbers have been trending up, and fast, since early December.

    Last year, the key to their turnaround was Vezina winner Sergei Bobrovsky. This year, due to his groin injury, from which he has just returned, the Blue Jackets have been forced to turn to Curtis McElhinney or Mike McKenna for half of their games. A return to form by their star Russian goalie would be more than enough for another second-half surge.

    Columbus was also without its two top skaters in the first half as well, with Nathan Horton (shoulder surgery) and Marin Gaborik (knee injury, broken collarbone) combining for just 19 games.

    While Gaborik's status remains uncertain, Horton is back and could help the team take more than just seven games into overtime, where only the Rangers have taken fewer contests. Ultimately, Columbus hopes to improve on the 10 post-regulation points it's earned, which is better than only the Nashville Predators.  

7. New York Rangers

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    First-Half Points: 42 points

    Projected Second-Half Points: 47 points

    Potential for Surprise: Given their season-opening nine-game road trip, injuries that limited Rick Nash and Ryan Callahan to just over half the team's games and a new coach known for a very particular approach to player usage, it makes sense that the Rangers would get off to a slow start.

    Now the Blueshirts are healthy, have adjusted to Alain Vigneault and they have gone 6-3-1 in their last 10 games, despite just finishing a five-game road trip. Thanks to a perfect 4-0 record in single-game road trips, the Rangers actually have a winning record on the road.

    The Rangers are a top-10 team, other than a dip in early December, according to the possession numbers posted at Extra Skater. The key to a second-half turnaround is in nets.

    Due to Henrik Lundqvist's career-worst .905 save percentage, New York has a terrible shooting percentage differential of minus-1.6 percent. Only the top two teams on this list are lower.

    It makes sense to predict that a goalie as elite as King Henrik can turn things around and help the team close out this season with a stretch similar to last year's 13-6-2. The only question is whether or not it will be enough to make the playoffs.

6. Calgary Flames

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    Marianne Helm/Getty Images

    First-Half Points: 34 points

    Projected Second-Half Points: 40 points

    Potential for Surprise: I never know in advance what results my analytic systems will produce, and it was quite a surprise to see the Flames as one of the top-six candidates for a second half improvement.

    The Flames are among the worst teams in the league by almost any statistic. Their possession numbers, for instance, are trending down fast, according to Extra Skater. Other than a great coach and an improving Karri Ramo, no causes for optimism immediately come to mind.

    In fairness, Calgary has been hit with a relatively solid dose of injuries. In fact, it's hard to really find any Flame of significance who hasn't missed at least a half-dozen games, other than Jiri Hudler and T.J. Brodie.

    They've also been on the wrong side of a lot of close games. The Flames have allowed seven empty-net goals, one short of the league lead, while scoring none. Combined with their 5-7 record in one-goal regulation games, that means they've won only five of their 21 tight contests. If they continue to stay in games and get a few lucky bounces, that alone could propel them to a stronger second half.

5. Edmonton Oilers

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    Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    First-Half Points: 30 points

    Projected Second-Half Points: 39 points

    Potential for Surprise: Edmonton is a tough team to figure out. Though a lot of eyebrows were raised by projecting them to finish 27th overall, even I didn't see the Oilers being this awful.

    They started the season going 4-15-2 and then appeared to get their game in order by going on a 7-3-1 stretch. Since then, they've gone 2-8-2, including only a single point in the three-game road trip that kicked off their second half.

    Don't the Oilers have too much talent to remain 29th overall? They're on pace for 60 points, their worst result in a 34-season franchise history and two less than their awful back-to-back 2009-10 and 2010-11 seasons.

    Like the Flamers, the Oilers have been on the wrong side of a lot of close games. They're 1-6 in one-goal games and have given up eight empty-net goals, the most in the league. With 22 of their remaining 38 games at home, the Oilers can potentially find a way to win those close games and play at least as well as their provincial rivals the rest of the season.

4. Winnipeg Jets

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    Eliot J. Schechter/Getty Images

    First-Half Points: 41 points

    Projected Second-Half Points: 50 points

    Potential for Surprise: The Phoenix Coyotes and the Nashville Predators are without a regulation-time single-goal loss, while Winnipeg is one of only two teams with 10 (the other is sitting atop this list).

    Yes, the Jets are 3-10 in one-goal regulation-time games. With just a few critically timed bounces, it could have been Winnipeg holding onto the final Western Conference playoff position instead of Phoenix.

    The Jets will have to act fast if they're going to keep their fleeting postseason hopes alive. One suggestion is to make the gutsy decision to ride the hot Al Montoya as their starting goalie in lieu of the struggling Ondrej Pavelec. Their playoff odds are currently only between 1.6 percent, per Sports Club Stats, to 3.5 percent, per Hockey Reference, so what is there to lose?

    Winnipeg has the tools. Dustin Byfuglien is a force of nature, and Bryan Little has been a breakout star. General Manager Kevin Cheveldayoff has quietly assembled a playoff-worthy lineup. Well, if it were in the Eastern Conference, that is.

3. Buffalo Sabres

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    Bill Wippert/Getty Images

    First-Half Points: 26 points

    Projected Second-Half Points: 36 points

    Potential for Surprise: Why are the Sabres an improved 8-11-3 under Ted Nolan? According to Matthew Coller of WGR 500, they've been facing easier opponents, have improved defensively by replacing youngsters who weren't ready with reliable veterans and have enjoyed lights-out goaltending from Ryan Miller.

    There are several other reasons for optimism in Buffalo. Since Miller is likely the only Sabre going to Sochi, there's no risk of Olympics-related injury or fatigue. 

    Though the Sabres aren't improved offensively under Nolan, blind luck alone ought to improve their incomprehensibly bad team shooting percentage of 6.3 percent. That, in turn, ought to start to reverse their league-worst 1-8 record in one-goal regulation-time games.

    Fundamentally, the Sabres ought to do better in the second half for no other reason that no team can remain this bad. A 52-point season? No team has finished with fewer since the 1999 Atlanta Thrashers expansion team.

2. Florida Panthers

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    Joel Auerbach/Getty Images

    First-Half Points: 36 points

    Projected Second-Half Points: 48 points

    Potential for Surprise: Florida is a quality team. Tim Thomas is a quality goalie, Brian Campbell is a quality top defenseman, Brad Boyes and Tom Gilbert are quality free-agent bargains and Aleksander Barkov and Nick Bjugstad are quality rookies.

    The Panthers are actually a quality puck-possession team, too, with numbers better than teams like the Anaheim Ducks and consistently trending up, according to Extra Skater. That's why the Panthers are 13-11-2 under new coach Peter Horachek.

    If they're such a quality team, what went wrong in the first half? First of all, they have the worst shooting percentage differential in the league, scoring on just 7.9 percent of their shots while their opponents have converted on 10.1 percent.

    They also have the worst special teams differential in the league, converting on just 10.7 percent of their power-play opportunities while allowing their opponents to score on 25.4 percent.

    Obviously, they have to take some (or most) of the responsibility for that, but some of it is just bad luck. The Panthers are a team that has gradually started turning things around and could really catch fire in the second half.

1. New York Islanders

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    First-Half Points: 33 points

    Projected Second-Half Points: 47 points

    Potential for Surprise: Islanders GM Garth Snow took a bit of a gamble this offseason, perhaps out of necessity. He significantly improved the team's depth and strength up front, but he didn't shore up the thin blue line, nor did he address the concerns in nets. The first half of the season saw perhaps the worst-case consequences of those decisions.

    The Islanders had some bad breaks in the first half, that's for sure. They had 10 one-goal regulation-time losses, the most in the league. There were two teams, Phoenix and Nashville, without any such losses at all.

    Don't forget how good a team the Islanders really are. John Tavares and Thomas Vanek are two of the game's best offensive forwards and a big reason why the club closed out the first half with a 5-3 win over Boston and started the second half with an overtime win over Chicago.

    Rob Vollman is author of Rob Vollman's Hockey Abstract, co-author of the annual Hockey Prospectus guides and a featured ESPN Insider writer. @robvollmanNHL.


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