2020 NHL Season

Stanley Cup Contenders – December Edition

Early-season Stanley Cup hopefuls holding steady in December
Steve Kournianos  |  12/18/2019 |  Nashville  |  [hupso]

NASHVILLE (The Draft Analyst) — The NHL playoffs are extremely unpredictable, and sites reviewed by My Top Sportsbooks are split on numerous teams, like the Oilers, Coyotes, and Sabres, who range from +1400 to +4000. But all oddsmakers seem to agree that the Bruins (+800), Capitals (+800), and Avalanche (+900) are the strongest contenders. All three have the inside track on a division title and have enjoyed, to varying degrees, a level of postseason success in recent years.

There’s a fine line between being a bad team and having a bad season. In the former, issues with player personnel, coaching decisions, and roster moves can have a lasting effect well beyond one or two seasons. With the latter, it simply can be a matter of injuries, or a profound underperformance from the collective that gets kickstarted by a poor opening month to the season. Although teams like to plan in advance to avoid hinging an entire season on one player or one portion of the schedule, the reality is that the even the midway point of the NHL season isn’t a strong enough indicator on which teams will compete for the Stanley Cup playoffs by the time April rolls around. How do we know this? Since 2005-06, 41 of the 56 teams (73 percent) who went on to the Stanley Cup conference finals were in third place or higher in their division by on December 20 of that season. Additionally, of the last 14 Stanley Cup winners, only three — the 2012 Kings, 2016 Pens, and last year’s Blues — were out of a playoff position on Christmas Day and still went on to win the championship later that spring.

History tells us that the introduction of the “loser’s point” via the shootout has done well for the league in terms of parity, but little to accurately analyze and predict Stanley Cup success based off the midseason’s standings. Of course, every team will say they would rather be leading the division (or close to leading) on December 25th than near the bottom. But holding that desired spot does not necessarily mean that the team is guaranteed to not only hold firm on home-ice advantage once the postseason begins, but parlay that privilege into a deep playoff run. Still, as the data suggests, the teams currently sitting in a more comfortable playoff spot have a far better shot at winning the Cup than those struggling to establish consistency.

Team Notes

Eastern Conference

Washington Capitals (24-6-5, 1st Place in Eastern Conference): The Capitals keep on chugging while distancing themselves from the wannabes. They own the league’s best record at 24-6-5; the top offense (125 goals) while operating the seventh-best power-play (22.6 percent) and fourth-best penalty kill (85.4 percent). Although they were shut out in their game against Columbus on Monday that snapped a five-game road winning streak, they still own a seven-point lead over the second-place Islanders and are four points up on the Bruins for the best record overall. They get an easy matchup with the Devils Thursday, but awaiting them are critical matchups at Boston (12/23) and a big one at home against the Islanders on New Year’s Eve. Additionally, that game is sandwiched between two road dates in Raleigh against the Hurricanes. Thirteen of Washington’s next 21 games are at the Verizon Center.

New York Islanders (22-8-2, 2nd Place in Metropolitan Division): The league’s stingiest defense was humbled by a cornered Nashville squad on Monday, as the Preds stormed into the New York area and lit up the Islanders in an 8-3 loss. It was the most goals allowed by the Isles since an 8-4 pasting at the hands of Carolina on March 13, 2017. Nonetheless, Barry Trotz’s boys still sit in second place in the Metropolitan Division with an impressive 22-8-2 mark and 46 points with two games in hand on both Pittsburgh and Carolina, which trail them for home ice with 44 points apiece. Even after the smackdown from Nashville, New York has yielded a league-low 80 goals and are tied with Boston for the highest save percentage in the conference (.921 percent). They’ll have their work cut out for them when they visit the Bruins on Thursday, but the immediate schedule thereafter offers favorable home matchups with Anaheim on Dec. 21 and Columbus on  Dec. 23, followed by visits to Chicago and Minnesota. If the Islanders want to win the division, they need to start making up ground before their chest-to-chest battle in Washington on Dec. 31 with the rival Capitals.

Boston Bruins (21-7-7, 1st Place in Atlantic Division): The Beantown B’s are fading from their ridiculous start thanks to a 1-4-2 skid right off the heels of an eight-game winning streak. Compounding matters is the fact that Boston was in the midst of a soft part of their schedule — three of their recent losses were to lowly teams like Chicago, Ottawa, and Los Angeles. Not only did their lead in the Atlantic Division shrink slightly from 14 points on Dec. 3 to 10 points as of Wednesday, but they are about to embark on a very difficult stretch of games that includes home dates with the Islanders, Nashville, and Washington – games that precede a home-and-home series with the surging second-place Buffalo Sabres. It’s not all doom and gloom on Causeway Street, however, as the Bruins still own the league’s third-best power play (26.4 percent) and have been outshout by opponents in only 14 of their 35 games.

Carolina Hurricanes (21-11-2, 3rd Place in Metropolitan Division): A brief 10-game stretch of mediocrity that saw the Canes slip out of a playoff spot appears to be fading from their rearview mirror. Since November 11, Carolina is 12-4-1 and have outscored opponents by an impressive 60-39 margin. They were shutout in three of those five losses, but the Canes have won three of their first four on a Western Canadian swing, with a highly-anticipated matchup in Colorado on Thursday with the high-octane attack of the Avalanche. Carolina is the last team in the league to be intimidated by an equally potent offense –they’re an impressive 12-2 against current playoff teams, with wins over the likes of Washington, Winnipeg, Edmonton, Calgary, and Buffalo. We all know about their high-volume shooters and goal-scoring proclivity, but the Canes are +24 in goal differential and are second in the NHL in penalty killing with an 85.6 percent success rate. After returning from their road trip, Carolina plays 13 of the next 17 in Raleigh, where they own a 10-5-0 mark.

Pittsburgh Penguins (20-10-4, 4th Place in Metropolitan Division): Sidney who? It’s time to give credit where credit is due, as the Penguins have more than survived the body blow they sustained when captain Sidney Crosby landed on injured reserved on Nov. 10 with a lower-body injury. Since then, Pittsburgh has righted the ship with a 10-4-3 mark, including wins in six of their last seven. Most of these games have been on home ice, where the Pens are one of the league’s best at 14-4-2. They began a west coast swing with a bang on Tuesday by beating the host Calgary Flames 4-1, upping their impressive goal differential to +24. They’ll visit Edmonton and Vancouver before turning east for a home and home with Nashville that begins in Music City on Dec. 27.

Western Conference

St. Louis Blues (22-8-6, 1st Place in Western Conference): It appears as if the recent three-game losing streak in which they were outscored 13-4 was simply a blip on an otherwise uninterrupted upward trajectory for the defending champions, who opened action on Wednesday with the best record in the Western Conference. You can never count the Blues out, and they proved their mettle with home wins over Vegas and Colorado on Dec. 12 and Dec. 16, respectively, and Wednesday’s 2-1 win over Edmonton. Fears that they would struggle after the season-ending injury suffered by star winger Vladimir Tarasenko on Oct. 24 have been silenced for sure, as St. Louis has gone 18-6-2 since he went down. Special teams have been a big part of the Blues’ success, as they own the sixth-best power play (22.9 percent) and seventh-best penalty kill (84.0 percent). If the Blues want to create some separation from conference foes, they better prepare for the next three weeks — their next eight games after the win over the Oilers are against Western opponents, including a home-and-home with Winnipeg and a road trip that takes them to Arizona, Vegas and Colorado. The good news? The Blues are a mind-numbing 15-2-3 against the West this season.

Colorado Avalanche (22-9-3, 2nd Place in Central Division): The Av’s were red hot up until a sobering 5-2 defeat in St. Louis, but they bounced back on Wednesday with a win over the struggling Blackhawks. Not only were they on an 8-0-1 run, but they outscored opponents 38-22. They still lead the West in goals for (122), goal differential (+28), and goal differential at even strength (+28). If there’s one are concern for Colorado, its on special teams, where the Av’s rank 16th on the power play (16.1 percent) and 28th on the penalty kill (78.5 percent). Another thing to keep tabs on is the huge disparity in inter- and intra-conference success — Colorado has crushed the East to the tune of a 10-1-2 record. Against the West, however, they’re a pedestrian 11-8-1. They began to pad that mark with Wednesday’s triumph over Chicago, who they meet again on Saturday. But the tough matchups resume with road clashes at Vegas (Dec. 23) and Dallas (Dec. 28); home dates against Minnesota (Dec. 27), Winnipeg (Dec. 31),and a monster showdown with St. Louis on Jan. 2

Arizona Coyotes (20-12-4, 1st Place in Pacific Division): A sputtering offense necessitated a move from general manager John Chayka, and the young executive delivered by packaging a trio of prospects to New Jersey for pending free-agent winger Taylor Hall. The trade paid immediate dividends on Tuesday as Hall drew the primary assist on a hustle play that resulted in a game-winning goal in a 3-2 win at San Jose. The Yotes certainly needed the spark, as they alternated wins and losses without any consistency for nearly two months. The goaltending of Darcy Kuemper is the biggest reason why Arizona is tied for the league lead in save percentage (.927 percent) and are tops in the Western Conference in even-strength goals allowed (62). They’re been outshot by opponents in 23 of their 36 games and rank 26th in shots allowed (1152). If the Yotes want to create some space between themselves and the trio of Pacific Division rivals chasing them — Vegas, Edmonton, and Calgary — they should start winning at home. While their 12-4-3 road mark is the best in the conference, Arizona is only 8-8-1 in their own rink, and the 17 points they’ve accumulated is the lowest among any team in the West. They host Minnesota on Dec. 19 then hit the road with games at Detroit, at Vegas, and at Nashville.

Vegas Golden Knights (19-13-5, 2nd Place in Pacific Division): The Golden Knights finally are starting to percolate, winning eight of their last 11 and moving past Edmonton into second place in the Pacific Division. Through Tuesday, Vegas trails the first-place Coyotes by only one point, although Arizona has a game in hand. During their current hot streak, the Knights haven’t necessarily played a bunch of the league’s powerhouses — six of the eight wins were against non-playoff teams. They did however squeak out a 2-1 shootout win over Arizona on Nov. 29, but matchups against St. Louis and the Islanders resulted in losses. There are several soft matchups on their upcoming schedule, although the stretch between Dec. 23 and Jan. 7 features home matchups against Colorado, Arizona, St. Louis and Pittsburgh. Vegas continues to rely on its special teams to carry them, as the Knights are ranked eighth on the power play (22.3 percent) and ninth on the penalty kill (83.2 percent).

Edmonton Oilers (19-14-4, 3rd Place in Pacific Division): The halcyon days of the early season seem a distant memory for Edmonton, which fell from first place in the Pacific to third after a 7-9-2 stretch that began after an impressive 6-2 win at Anaheim on Nov. 10. They edged out Dallas 2-1 on Monday to snap a four-game winless streak, but fell to 10-9-3 against the Western Conference following Wednesday’s loss to St. Louis. Things are getting tight around the collar in Alberta, however, and the Oilers’ recent struggles have run concurrent with a surge by their arch rivals in Calgary. Since Nov. 24, the Flames have erased their deficit behind Edmonton from 10 points to only two. One thing that has kept the Oilers afloat has been their league-leading power play, which is operating at a 31.5 percent effectiveness rate. The downside has been even-strength production, which is 22nd overall, and they’ve lost their last four games to Eastern Conference teams after winning nine of the first 11. Schedule-wise, the Oilers have even bigger fish to fry in their two meetings with Arizona and four with the Flames between now and Feb. 1.