The Toronto Maple Leafs have been 8-0-2 in their last 10 games, and that win-loss record matches the dominance the country enjoys on the ice.
Toronto regularly looks like the fastest and heavyweight team of the moment, getting swept up against opposition every night. Whenever a talented team in a large market like Toronto catches fire, the next question is: Are they the best team in hockey?
Calgary Flames coach Daryl Sutter made this point before their Saturday night game, pointing out that Toronto has — at least in recent weeks — outperformed every other team in the standings.
One of the great parts of the 82-game regular season is that it forces us to reset how we feel about players and teams many times over the course of six months. Sutter is right that Toronto has racked up the most points in the standings over the past few weeks, but does that make the Leafs better than the Boston Bruins who beat them all season?
When trying to measure teams’ performance in the season so far against the way they’re playing now, I like to look at margin of victory over a sample of the 10 matches assessed. It allows you to gauge how recent a team’s playing quality is by taking into account impactful short-term changes, such as roster changes resulting from injuries or player trades.
When you combine that with a full season of data that’s less sensitive to fluctuations than we know in hockey, you can get a really good idea of how the team is doing.
In Sutter’s view, there’s a good argument that the Maple Leafs are playing better hockey now. The graph below shows, by conference, the teams that led (and trailed) on net goal difference across the 10 sampled games.
In the Eastern Conference, I’ve seen three clear leaders and two clear laggards.
The Boston Bruins came through the door grumbling, handing the club president’s baton to the New Jersey Devils for an extended run through November. But in recent weeks, the Maple Leafs have outpaced the Devils control factor, though those numbers are still pretty close. Toronto has definitely turned up the heat. During this 10-game run, the Maple Leafs are ahead of their opponents 36-19 (+17).
For the cellar dwellers, it was a two-horse race, with the Columbus Blue Jackets being eliminated early and often, clearing the way for the Philadelphia Flyers.
What about the West? How many teams have been able to prove that they played the best hockey at some point in the season – similarly, how many are competing for the worst in the conference?
Take your pick or not, but the Western Conference has seen a lot more maneuvering, relatively speaking, than the Eastern Conference.
The Vegas Golden Knights are out and still hold the top seed, but they’ve been playing mediocre hockey (5-5-0 over the last 10 games) recently. A little lull in Vegas paved the way for a handful of other teams — the Seattle Kraken, Winnipeg Jets and Dallas Stars — to chase leadership in the conference.
When you care about hurling racquets, keep an eye out for the Chicago Blackhawks. We expected the Blackhawks to struggle this season, a year that saw them push for a deep rebuild, and more offers could come. The Chicagoans, led by head coach Luke Richardson, put up some fights in October, but the past two months have seen the Blackhawks come off the ice steadily. At one point in November, Chicago’s average winning margin was -2.4 goals per game.
Let’s bring that back to Toronto for a moment. Yes, Sutter might be right – Toronto really does dominate games like an elite team tends to do now. But Toronto’s assertion is that a handful of other teams in the league could have been successful at various points in the season.
Achieving this level of short-term dominance makes you a good team. To be able to maintain this level of play throughout the season? It’s a Stanley Cup game. In March, we’ll get a better understanding of the small group of teams that can win it all.
Data via Natural Stat Trick, Evolution Hockey, NHL.com