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The Best NHL Teams Are Better Than Usual. So Are The Teams That Might Upset Them In The Playoffs.

Four of hockey’s elite contenders were in action against one another on Wednesday night, when the Carolina Hurricanes (No. 2 in our Elo ratings) hosted the Florida Panthers (No. 4) and the Colorado Avalanche (No. 1) visited the Vegas Golden Knights (No. 7) in a national-TV doubleheader. Together, that star-laden quartet carries a combined 48 percent of winning the Stanley Cup according to our forecast model; it’s easy to envision those teams eventually being the NHL’s version of a Final Four this season.1 But no matter how dominant the teams at the top appear right now, hockey history says we always must expand our conception of who might still be skating come the end of the playoffs in June.

Right now, the Avalanche look unstoppable, with the league’s second-best offense, its best goal differential and the top Elo rating by a margin of 23 points over Carolina. That’s the second-biggest Elo cushion any top-ranked team held over the No. 2 team at this stage of the season since the 2005 lockout, trailing only the 2007-08 Detroit Red Wings,2 and Colorado’s Elo rating of 1605 is the highest any team has had at this point of the season over that same span. 

The Avs look like the NHL’s best post-lockout squad

Highest Elo ratings for NHL teams through the first 48 games of a season (or current ratings for 2021-22 teams), since 2005-06

Season Team League Rank Elo Rating
2021-22 Colorado Avalanche 1 1605
2005-06 Ottawa Senators 1 1604
2007-08 Detroit Red Wings 1 1601
2008-09 Detroit Red Wings 1 1596
2018-19 Tampa Bay Lightning 1 1595
2013-14 Pittsburgh Penguins 1 1592
2008-09 San Jose Sharks 2 1592
2016-17 Washington Capitals 1 1589
2011-12 Boston Bruins 1 1588
2012-13 Pittsburgh Penguins 1 1587

Source: Hockey-Reference.com

Even on nights like Wednesday, when Colorado was actually not as sharp as its 2-0 scoreline over Vegas would indicate, the Avs have found ways to win. (Vegas actually had more expected goals in the game; Colorado was propped up by the stellar goaltending of Darcy Kuemper and some missed nets by Golden Knights shooters.) The Avalanche are deep and talented, and they are Stanley Cup favorites for a reason.

Similar superlatives can describe many of this year’s other top teams. The Hurricanes’ all-around excellence makes them a major force to be reckoned with, while it’s impossible to discount the Tampa Bay Lightning in their quest for a third-straight Cup – something that hasn’t been done since the New York Islanders claimed four consecutive titles from 1980 to 1983. The Panthers are tracking for the 16th-best offensive season relative to the league (+1.05 goals per game above average) in NHL history. The Toronto Maple Leafs are, yet again, making a persuasive Stanley Cup case in spite of their extensive history of postseason disappointment. The Knights just debuted Jack Eichel, who finished eighth in MVP voting his last healthy season, and the Pittsburgh Penguins, Minnesota Wild, New York Rangers and Calgary Flames are looking plenty dangerous — to say nothing of the perennially contending Boston Bruins, Washington Capitals and St. Louis Blues.

But even though this year’s crop of best teams is unusually strong for this phase of the season, it’s also just an unusually top-heavy year overall. Each of the top 18 teams in this season’s Elo rankings carries a rating better than the average post-lockout rating has been for its ranking slot. While some of that is due to the introduction of the expansion Seattle Kraken, which raised the average rating for teams No. 1 through 31 (i.e., everyone above the hapless Montreal Canadiens, who sit in 32nd place — a spot that didn’t even exist before this season), there is also an abnormally large divide between the NHL’s haves and have-nots this year.

In a sport known for its parity, a team that enters a given game as a favorite (according to Elo) is winning games at a rate of 61.9 percent this season, which is on pace to be the 12th-best season in league history — and the best year since 1972-73. And on what is perhaps a related note, the spike in scoring we saw in conjunction with the league’s struggles against the omicron variant of COVID-19 has mostly continued into the second month of 2022. Goals per game in February are significantly higher than they usually are during the month, compared to monthly scoring averages since the lockout:

How this all affects the Stanley Cup race is still up for debate. In a normal season, teams ranked as low as No. 16 in the Elo rankings through 48 games have gone on to make the Final and even win the Cup; the Pittsburgh Penguins were sitting that low at midseason in 2016 before mounting a late-season charge to win the first of two consecutive Cups.3 But outliers aside, more than half of eventual Cup winners (62 percent) ranked among the top seven teams in Elo at the 48-game mark, and more than half of all finalists have come from the top nine.4

A stronger-than-usual crop of teams at the top might be able to even improve on those numbers, holding off would-be challengers more successfully. But the depth of this year’s field of contenders could also be the recipe for more upsets come playoff time. Because, whether you look at Elo or just the eye test, the number of teams who would scare an opponent in a best-of-seven series may be as large as it’s been at any point in recent memory.

Check out our latest NHL predictions.

Footnotes

  1. Or would it be the Frozen Four?

  2. Who had a 37-point lead over the Ottawa Senators after 48 games.

  3. The 2019 St. Louis Blues, another historically notable team that raised themselves from the dead at midseason, had already started making their turnaround at the 48-game mark but still ranked just 15th, as did the Cinderella 2006 Hurricanes.

  4. Since 2006, but excluding the Cup finalists from the shortened 2012-13 (lockout), 2019-20 (pandemic) and 2020-21 (again, pandemic) seasons.

Neil Paine is a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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