Which division is the NHL’s best?
Here is an interesting question to consider: Which division in the National Hockey League is the best?
Some years that answer is quite obvious; seasons like this, perhaps less so. But let’s chew on a few points first:
- The best performers at the midpoint of the regular season are the Boston Bruins (representing the Atlantic), and the Vancouver Canucks (representing the Pacific). Both Boston and Vancouver are playing at a 119-point pace this year.
- The two hottest teams in hockey? That would be the Tampa Bay Lightning (representing the Atlantic), and the seemingly unbeatable Edmonton Oilers (representing the Pacific). Tampa Bay has won eight of 10 games; Edmonton hasn’t lost since Dec. 19.
- And then, of course, you have the defending conference representatives – the Florida Panthers (representing the Atlantic) won the East last season, and the Vegas Golden Knights (representing the Pacific) won the West and eventually the Stanley Cup. Both are well-positioned to qualify for the postseason once more.
Are you detecting a pattern here?
It’s not to say there aren’t quality teams to be found in other divisions, but as the playoff picture starts to take shape, we are increasingly confident about the relative strength of the teams inside of the Atlantic and Pacific divisions. That’s true whether you are isolating an analysis to the quality of the potential playoff teams, or looking at the entirety of the division to include the minnows.
How do we test divisional strength? One thing I like to do is to compare the results of each division in out-of-division play, isolating the effects of intra-division competition entirely. Let’s look at how each division has fared when playing outside of the division, and in this case, we will include all 32 teams:
There is no debating the Atlantic Division has been the most competitive top to bottom, outplaying every other division on aggregate over the first four months of the season.
That makes sense intuitively, because you are only as good as your weakest link. In the Atlantic, the teams that have struggled have largely been competitive. The Buffalo Sabres are in sixth place and unlikely to reach the playoffs despite an unremarkable -9 goal differential. The Ottawa Senators are in last with a -14 goal differential; when compared to other league minnows like the Chicago Blackhawks (-72) and San Jose Sharks (-93), the Sens feel markedly better.
If we look at all eight Atlantic teams as a function of how they have performed out of division, it’s a lot of relative dominance. Ironically, the aforementioned Sabres and Senators have actually been more competitive inside of their division – the other six clubs have built lofty goal differentials off of pummeling the rest of the league, especially Tampa Bay and Toronto:
At this point, you would be confident wagering the Atlantic carries the most strength of the four divisions. But the discussion changes a bit if you subset to only consider playoff-calibre clubs.
For example, should the strongest Pacific Division teams be penalized for the disproportionate impact laggards in Anaheim and San Jose have on the totality of their play? If we isolate to just the premier teams, does our analysis change?
Let’s look at the same exact in-division and out-of-division play, but limiting the scope to the top four teams in each group. As of Sunday, that group of 16 includes:
- Atlantic: Boston, Florida, Tampa Bay, and Toronto
- Metro: New York, Carolina, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh
- Central: Winnipeg, Colorado, Dallas, and St. Louis
- Pacific: Vancouver, Vegas, Edmonton, and Los Angeles
The Atlantic still stands at the top, but the gap isn’t as significant. That’s largely because neither the Metro nor Central playoff-bound teams have been competitive outside of the division.
Lastly, I was curious what the results looked like in division and out of division for playoff teams head-to-head with other playoff teams.
Again, in a bout of irony, the two teams that have been most successful against high-calibre competition outside of the division are last year’s conference winners in Vegas and Florida.
On the other side of the coin, the Carolina Hurricanes have made ground in the standings largely by beating up on what looks like a weaker Metro. Carolina has been one of the best teams in hockey for many years, but I do find the splits here notable, especially if you buy the Metro as being perhaps the weakest group of the four. And I do.
All this to say: I think the Atlantic has the strongest argument as the best division in hockey, but I’ll be curious to follow this as we get deep into the playoff race. The top of the Pacific looks just as competitive, and that’s with about half of the Golden Knights roster on injured reserve, and the Oilers not even starting their season until about December.
Data via Natural Stat Trick, NHL.com, Evolving Hockey, Hockey Reference