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A team’s goal differential, even this early, matters

Toronto Maple Leafs John Tavares and Ottawa Senators Shane Pinto John Tavares and Shane Pinto - The Canadian Press

What separates the Toronto Maple Leafs and Ottawa Senators so far in the 2022-23 NHL season?

In the standings, there is already an eight-point gap, but the Maple Leafs (+1) are just one goal better than the Senators (even) on the season. Meanwhile, the Winnipeg Jets (+10) are sitting tied for sixth place in the NHL. They are just two points ahead of the Montreal Canadiens (-1), despite already being 11 goals better.

What’s my point? The regular-season standings are frequently disorienting, especially in the early parts of the season. Racking up wins is just as essential in October as it is in March but understanding a team’s true talent level through the lens of a win-loss record can be a fool’s gambit.

If we consider just wins and losses, Toronto and Ottawa hardly look like the same calibre of team, whereas Winnipeg and Montreal look comparable. Turn your unit of measure from wins and losses towards goal differential, and you are left with the opposite conclusions.

The reason for this is relatively straightforward. Imagine two teams, both of which have an equitable number of wins and losses. One team only loses in regulation, the second in shootouts. The second team has likely amassed many more points in the standings despite having an identical goal differential.

There are other ways goal differentials and records can diverge – a .500 team that wins in blowouts and loses close tends to finish the year with a much better record than their counterpart, a .500 team that wins close games and loses in blowouts.

And a team’s goal differential, even this early in the season, matters quite a bit. Consider the relationship between a team’s goal differential at a given point in the season relative to where they finished the year:

What does this look like in practice? Consider teams who have had a near zero goal differential 15 games into the regular season, where four Canadian clubs – the Toronto Maple Leafs, Ottawa Senators, Montreal Canadiens, and Edmonton Oilers – sit right now.

In at least those four markets, the front offices are trying to get a sense of how capable their lineup is. We can lean on historical examples as a gauge – after all, we have had many teams similarly situated in years past and can study how their respective seasons ended. Here is what that data shows:

As expected, with more games played you see more differentiation in performance. But a team with an even goal differential at the 15-game marker tends to also have an even goal differential at future markers. You will have your outliers – the 2014 New York Rangers and 2018 Buffalo Sabres appeared to be average teams at the 15-game mark, only to significantly deviate as the rest of the season progresses – but it goes to show you how meaningful goal differential can be as a forecaster of future outcomes.

Compare that to teams who have amassed a double-digit goal differential or better after just 15 games – that would include the Jets and a number of other teams right now. You can see these teams tended to continue outperforming their peers, and near season’s end the average team was 35 goals better than break-even:

The math offers some interesting early-season questions for a number of the Canadian teams, especially considering the varying expectations each franchise is under.

- The Maple Leafs have put some daylight between themselves and their competitors, but should we really be encouraged by a Stanley Cup contender that is one goal better than the league over 15 games?

- The Senators should stay patient as their performance looks much better than the results early on. But for a team that’s in a deep playoff drought, just how patient can they be?

- The Vancouver Canucks may have amassed the same number of points as the Senators but are -13 goals underwater in just 16 games. It’s probably already time to panic.

Fifteen games is a small segment of the season, but it’s still quite meaningful. If you haven’t been using the first month of the season to calibrate your understanding of each team’s potential this season – well, it’s high time to do so.

Data via Natural Stat Trick,, Evolving Hockey