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Standings don’t tell the whole story this early in NHL season

Ottawa Senators Celebrate Ottawa Senators Celebrate - The Canadian Press

“You are what your record says you are.”

Spend a moment in sports circles, and you likely have heard this famous quote  from Hall of Fame football coach Bill Parcells, one that now resonates across every major league. Parcells’ point, of course, was that results speak for themselves, and the gap between what was accomplished and what should have been accomplished is ultimately moot.

At the end of the day, the NHL is no different than the NFL – teams are measured on wins and losses. We can talk until we are blue in the face about things like puck luck, volatility in low-scoring sports like hockey, injury misfortune, and seemingly countless other contextual factors. Even as someone who has spent 10 years – yes, I am dating myself here – at TSN emphasizing how crucial it is to look beneath the surface when conducting meaningful analysis, this is a results-oriented business. Period, end of discussion.

But that is also exclusively backwards-looking. This early in the NHL regular season, I remain steadfast that if you want to understand a team’s true talent level and how they may perform over the course of the rest of the season, you need to look away from the standings and towards more sensitive measures – even at something as simplistic as goal differential.

Why is goal differential more indicative than team record at this point of the season? For starters, wins and losses are binary, and there is no credit – in either of direction – for margin of victory.

One of the best cases of this early in the season is the Ottawa Senators, off to a sleepy 8-8-0 to start the year, with a fired general manager and sitting in last place in the Atlantic Division.

Also of note? The team is six goals better than the competition over those 16 games. That’s not Stanley Cup contender quality, but it’s a far cry from what the standings would suggest as well. Some of that goodness was built on this three-game stretch of dominance in mid-October:

Here, the Senators played three different calibre of opponents in this mid-October stretch, earning six points in the process. Great! They also won those games by a combined 11 goals, which is much more dominant than winning three of three games would indicate.

In most cases, a team’s record and goal differential correlate very tightly – after all, you can only win games by carrying a positive goal differential, and vice versa. But teams that play in a disproportionate number of blowouts, or a disproportionate number of one-score games, may see real divergence between their goal differentials and win-loss record.

The Senators have played just 16 games, markedly lower than the league average due to the team’s trip to Sweden. We see scheduling intricacies like this all of the time, and it’s why, if you’re looking at the standings, focus should be on point percentage, not points.

Below, consider a simple table showing each team’s rank by points accumulated at this point of the season versus their rank by way of margin of victory. The relationship is tight, but look how much different we perceive Ottawa here, using data through Saturday’s games:

Ottawa is the 21st team in the league by their record, having won precisely half of the games they have played. But their goal differential has them 11th best in the league, their average game seeing Ottawa triumph by +0.31 goals. Both are true statements.

The Senators are not alone. The Washington Capitals have a flattering record considering how poorly they have played; the Pittsburgh Penguins have a very unflattering record to how well they have played, much like the Senators. And the Nashville Predators, despite being the 25th best team by way of points percentage, look more like a playoff team than not. 

All this to say that for most teams in most situations, the standings aren’t dishonest. But that’s not a golden rule. And if you want to have a real pulse for how teams around the league are performing, particularly after just a month or two of hockey, more sensitive measures like goal differential are not just more meaningful, they’re more predictive of future outcome.

It’s still incumbent on teams like Ottawa to win games going forward. But if you are looking to gauge how patient – or impatient – a front office or coaching staff should be with their team’s play, start with goal differentials, not records.

Data via Natural Stat Trick,, Evolving Hockey, Hockey Reference