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Which Of The NHL’s Best Teams So Far Are For Real?

It’s been about three weeks since the puck dropped on the NHL’s abbreviated 2021 regular season, which somehow means nearly 20 percent of the schedule is now complete. The league still has a lot of work cut out for it with a large number of COVID-19 schedule adjustments — something plenty of sports have had to grapple with over the past year. But the on-ice product has been plenty exciting, with rivalries already beginning to form between teams thrust into new divisions by realignment. Here are some of the elements that have stood out most in the early season data, with an assist from my Elo ratings (and season simulations based on them):1


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The Lightning — and Stars! — haven’t missed a beat

In our season preview, my colleague Terrence Doyle and I noted how both Stanley Cup finalists from a year ago — the Tampa Bay Lightning and Dallas Stars — were potentially weakened for 2021. The Lightning lost high-scoring right wing Nikita Kucherov for at least the regular season with a hip injury, along with defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk (who signed with Anaheim), while the Stars were down goalie Ben Bishop and center Tyler Seguin with injuries of their own. Dallas was also staring at the prospect of regression to the mean after riding three series upsets to a surprising finals appearance. And yet, both teams have come out strong in 2021 so far.

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After sliding just under the salary cap in its offseason signings, Tampa Bay (6-1-1) has gotten phenomenal goaltending from Andrei Vasilevskiy, who ranks fourth in goals saved above average in the early going. And it’s covering for the loss of Kucherov offensively with captain Steven Stamkos bouncing back from injury to produce 10 points in eight games, while center Anthony Cirelli (8 points in eight games) continues to improve, and Yanni Gourde (three goals, two assists) is playing his best hockey in years. With holdovers like D-man Victor Hedman and Brayden Point also performing as well as ever, there’s nothing to indicate the Bolts shouldn’t at least be Cup co-favorites yet again.

The Lightning, Bruins and Avs are looking strong

2021 NHL Elo rankings and Stanley Cup odds based on 1,000 simulations of the remaining regular-season schedule and playoffs, through Feb. 3

Team Elo 1-wk chg Cup % Team Elo 1-wk chg Cup %
1 Lightning 1591 +6 19% 17 Penguins 1504 -1 1%
2 Bruins 1568 +4 15 18 Canucks 1500 -2 1
3 Avalanche 1556 +4 12 19 Wild 1498 -4 1
4 G. Knights 1543 6 20 Predators 1495 -4 1
5 Flyers 1539 +1 6 21 Oilers 1489 +8 1
6 Hurricanes 1537 +4 6 22 Rangers 1487 +1 <1
7 Stars 1537 +1 4 23 Blackhawks 1486 +1 <1
8 Blues 1536 +11 7 24 Coyotes 1486 -2 <1
9 Capitals 1527 -2 3 25 Devils 1472 +5 <1
10 Islanders 1526 -4 2 26 Sharks 1469 <1
11 Maple Leafs 1524 -2 5 27 Kings 1467 -5 <1
12 Canadiens 1523 +3 4 28 Ducks 1455 -5 <1
13 Jets 1512 -4 3 29 Sabres 1454 -5 <1
14 Flames 1511 +3 3 30 Senators 1422 -6 <1
15 Panthers 1507 +4 1 31 Red Wings 1385 -6 <1
16 Blue Jackets 1505 -6 1

Source: Hockey-Reference.com

Meanwhile, once it was finally able to start the season after a COVID-19 delay, Dallas (5-1-1) has been unfazed by any notion of backsliding. Netminder Anton Khudobin (.922 save percentage) has picked up the slack for Bishop, the other half of last year’s strong goaltending committee, and the Stars’ D has remained plenty stingy with shots allowed. But the big development from last year — when Dallas mostly profiled as a defensive-minded team that struggled to score — is that it now ranks second in goals scored per game despite the absence of Seguin, last season’s points leader. How? Veteran center Joe Pavelski is currently averaging a Gretzky-like 2.0 points per game, while defenseman John Klingberg (two goals, eight assists) isn’t too far off that pace either. Forwards Alexander Radulov, Denis Gurianov, Jamie Benn and Roope Hintz are all above a point-per-game average of 1. The power play is scoring at a 41 percent clip. If that all seems unsustainable … well, it probably is. At best, Klingberg might have a John Carlson-esque career season; Gurianov and Hintz are also young enough to break through to another level. It’s tough to see Pavelski continuing to do his Mario Lemieux impression all season at age 36, though.

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But in a short season, a strong start — or even simply fending off regression — gives the Stars an edge in their quest for a repeat finals appearance. And in part because the Stars and Lightning have each looked so good, 2021’s incarnation of the Central Division is shaping up to be maybe the league’s strongest. The Carolina Hurricanes (6-1-0) and Florida Panthers (5-0-1) are also off to sizzling starts,2 and while we won’t really know anything about the relative quality of divisions until the third round of the playoffs, the Central has the best combined odds of any division at producing the eventual Stanley Cup winner, according to my simulations:

The Central has a strong Stanley Cup chance

2021 NHL divisions ranked by odds of producing the Stanley Cup champion, based on 1,000 season simulations using Elo ratings

Division Odds Top Contenders
Central 31.0% Lightning (18.5%), Hurricanes (5.5), Stars (3.9), Panthers (1.3)
East 26.6 Bruins (14.8%), Flyers (6.1), Capitals (2.7), Islanders (2.0)
West 25.9 Avalanche (11.6%), Blues (6.7), Golden Knights (6.1), Wild (0.6)
North 16.5 Maple Leafs (4.6%), Canadiens (4.0), Jets (3.2), Flames (3.0)

Through games of Feb. 3.

Source: Hockey-Reference.com

The Avs and Knights are legit — and so are the Bruins and Flyers

Nobody necessarily expected otherwise, but the Colorado Avalanche (7-3-1) and Vegas Golden Knights (5-1-1) are both living up to their lofty preseason expectations. After last year’s big breakout — with the league’s eighth-youngest roster (according to an average weighted by goals above replacement)3 — hopes were even higher in Denver this year with the Avs anointed as consensus Cup favorites. All they’ve done so far is post the league’s fourth-best goals-per-game differential (+1.27) with goalie Philipp Grubauer (.934 save percentage) and defenseman Cale Makar (12 points, +9 rating) joining reigning MVP runner-up Nathan MacKinnon (14 points in 10 games) among the league’s elite players in the early part of the season. MacKinnon was recently injured, a big absence they’ll have to adjust to in the short term, but the Avs have had the league’s fourth-best forward corps by GAR this season, so they have the depth to compensate for his loss. And the team won’t be playing again for a while anyway, after Thursday night’s news that positive COVID-19 tests would postpone Colorado games through at least Feb. 11.

Similarly, the Knights started the season on a hot streak, losing in regulation just once in seven games. It was all thanks to a sturdy defense and enough scoring to get by, led by right wing Mark Stone’s 11 points and left wing Max Pacioretty’s six goals in seven games. The biggest issue for Vegas has simply been getting on the ice — it hasn’t played since Jan. 26 because of COVID-19 protocols. But in their brief sampling of games so far, the Knights have looked every bit the part of a Cup front-runner. Along with the surging St. Louis Blues (who have won five of their past six), the Avalanche and Golden Knights have already separated themselves from the rest of the West; according to the Elo simulations, there’s only a 5 percent chance that a team other than Colorado, Vegas or St. Louis will win the division. (Sorry, Minnesota Wild.)

Again, that’s not especially surprising given all the preseason hype. But another team right near the top of the Elo rankings and odds are the Boston Bruins, who were less of a sure thing following a rough offseason. Just like the Lightning and Stars, the Bruins lost a couple of longtime key players — defensemen Torey Krug and Zdeno Chara — and were without right wing David Pastrňák, who tied for the most goals in the league last year, to start the season. But the man they call “Pasta” returned earlier than expected, making his presence felt quickly with 7 points in his first three games (including a hat trick in Wednesday’s impressive comeback win over Philly). And the B’s haven’t felt the effects of those blueline departures much either, ranking eighth in GAR from defensemen this season behind the outstanding young combo of Charlie McAvoy and Brandon Carlo. We’ve seen enough from the Bruins so far to know they still belong among the upper echelon of Cup contenders.


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The same can be said of the Philadelphia Flyers (7-2-2), who rank fifth in both Elo and Cup odds. Philly was one of the league’s best breakout stories last year, rebounding from a weak 2019 campaign to make the second round of the playoffs for the first time in eight years. Teams that make huge strides in one season have a tendency to give some of them back in the following season, but the Flyers have avoided that so far thanks to the scoring of James van Riemsdyk, Kevin Hayes and Jakub Voracek — all of whom are above 1 point per game — and a solid-enough goaltending tandem of Carter Hart and Brian Elliott. Hart was a revelation last year but hasn’t been quite as sharp this season, though in the topsy-turvy world of goalie randomness, it might actually be a good omen for the Flyers that they’ve gotten out to such a solid start despite Hart’s uneven play, since he is too talented to struggle for long.

The North is coming into focus, with a surprising favorite

We knew going into the season that the NHL’s all-Canadian North Division would be very fun and very competitive, and in that regard it has not disappointed. But it is surprising which team from north of the border has emerged as the division front-runner in the early going: the Montreal Canadiens.

With a 7-1-2 record thus far, the Habs have been one of the most impressive teams of the 2021 season. They currently lead the NHL in goals per game (4.40) and rank second in goal differential (+1.70) behind the Stars, despite playing the league’s ninth-hardest slate of opponents according to Elo. Jeff Petry (13 points in 10 games, +12 rating) has been the league’s best defenseman so far according to GAR, while center Tyler Toffoli leads the NHL in goals with nine scores in 10 games. (Fellow forwards Nick Suzuki and Josh Anderson aren’t doing too badly either, with 19 combined points in their first 10 games together as Canadiens teammates.)

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Like with Dallas, it’s fair to question how much of this is truly sustainable — Petry and Toffoli are veterans with good track records, for instance, but they’re not supposed to be MVP candidates. Still, Montreal’s hot start has it looking like an early favorite to win the North, based on Elo’s simulations:

What’s happening in the North Division?

Elo rating and division win probabilities for NHL North Division teams before the season and now

How It Started How It’s Going
Team Elo Rtg. Division % Team Elo Rtg. Division %
Maple Leafs 1517 23% Canadiens 1523 42%
Canucks 1510 19 Maple Leafs 1524 32
Flames 1511 19 Jets 1512 14
Jets 1507 17 Flames 1511 7
Canadiens 1498 12 Oilers 1489 2
Oilers 1491 10 Canucks 1500 2
Senators 1447 2 Senators 1422 <1

Division odds are based on 1,000 simulations of the rest of the regular season, through games of Feb. 3.

Source: Hockey-Reference.com

The long-suffering Toronto Maple Leafs were favorites going into the season — and while they’ve ceded that status to the Habs for now, they are still one of the league’s better teams, possessing a very good chance (87 percent) of making the playoffs and a solid 5 percent shot at winning the Cup. With the star forward trio of Mitch Marner, Auston Matthews and John Tavares all averaging at least 1 point per game to start the season, the Leafs look fine so far. The same can even be said for the Winnipeg Jets, who are holding their own in the division odds despite trading uber-talented right wing Patrik Laine to the Columbus Blue Jackets a week and a half ago.

The biggest disappointments in the North have been the rest of the would-be contenders, including the Calgary Flames and (especially) the Vancouver Canucks and Edmonton Oilers. All three rank among the five teams that have shed the most division win probability since opening night — joining the Blue Jackets and New York Islanders in that department — and none has even a double-digit percentage chance to win the North anymore. And although the Flames still have a glimmer of hope to win the Cup (3 percent), the Canucks and Oilers are both at or below 1 percent. For the Oilers, it’s especially frustrating because it’s been the same old story as always for them: The dynamic duo of Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid continues to score at a ridiculous pace (they’re currently Nos. 1-2 in the league in scoring, 7 points clear of anyone else in the game), yet a combination of poor defense and goaltending has dragged the team back down to .500. After failing to make the playoffs in 2018 and 2019, and being ousted quickly in last year’s expanded qualifying round, Edmonton is once again more likely to miss the playoffs than make them in 2021.

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And that plays a role in the North’s comparatively low total odds of producing the Stanley Cup winner. On the one hand, a 17 percent chance at bringing Lord Stanley’s prize back to the country where it belongs is not terrible by recent Canadian team standards. But in a season when all of Canada’s teams are celebrating hockey in the same division, with a guaranteed chance of making the third round of the playoffs, we might have expected more in their bid to win the country’s first championship since 1993.


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Footnotes

  1. Through games of Feb. 3.

  2. Though the Canes will be without the services of goalie Petr Mrazek, who currently leads the NHL in save percentage, for the foreseeable future with a thumb injury.

  3. Our spin on Tom Awad’s Goals Versus Threshold (GVT), which we calculate by running a regression and properly rescaling Hockey-Reference.com’s Point Shares to better distribute of value between forwards, defensemen and goalies. (We assign forwards 60 percent of leaguewide value, while defensemen get 30 percent and goalies get 10 percent; the metric also creates more separation between league goaltending performances and balances total league offensive value against the value of defense plus goaltending.)

Neil Paine is a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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