Have you looked at the Pacific Division lately? If not, you might want to take a closer look at the NHL’s worst grouping of teams. If things continue the way they’ve started, this could be the worst showing from any division since the league switched to its current alignment for the 2013-14 season.
There’s a silver lining though: if you’re one of the few good teams in the Pacific, the road to the postseason is far less difficult than it would be in anywhere else. There’s reason to believe the Flames are one of those good teams, both on paper and with how they’ve played over the last month. As such, it’ll truly be a failure if Calgary misses the playoffs in this division. Conversely, though, the door is wide open for home ice in the playoffs and a favourable matchup or two once they’re there.
As of today, Nov. 27, that’s how the Pacific Division stacks up ordered by win percentage. Only the Flames and Sharks sit above .500, which also puts those two as the only teams in the league’s top 15. We’re only a quarter of the way through the season so there’s time for improvement, but very few teams in the Pacific are trending in the right direction. Let’s take a closer look at how the eight teams stack up with the rest of the league.
While underlying numbers are never iron clad, they’re the best way to evaluate, and thus predict, overall team success. While there are outliers every season, it’s generally never bad to have strong possession and scoring chance rates. In the Pacific, there’s a clear separation between three teams and the rest of the pack, as illustrated by looking at five-on-five outputs (scoring chance data courtesy Natural Stat Trick).
The Flames, Sharks, and Golden Knights are all top five teams in the possession department, which is a sizeable part of the battle. The other important indicator is scoring chances, which is an area both San Jose and Vegas are also thriving. Conspicuously further down the list is Calgary, which is somewhat of a red herring.
Despite strong possession metrics, the Flames were absolutely horrid defensively through their first 10 games, which brings their high danger percentage down significantly. However, since the team’s debacle 9-1 loss to Pittsburgh on Oct. 25, Calgary’s high danger scoring chance rate sits at 53.8%, which puts them sixth overall. The Flames have seemingly turned a corner defensively, which puts things far more in line with their impressive shot rate.
Across the board, though, the rest of the division is very average at best or, in the case of Anaheim and Vancouver, downright horrible. The correlation between underlying numbers and the standings is off through one quarter of the season, and a big reason for that comes down to the great equalizer…
For the most part, Pacific Division goaltending has been underwhelming, which is why teams like the Flames, Golden Knights, and Sharks aren’t competing further up the standings. The one outlier is in Anaheim, as their goalies are the sole reason they’re not hanging out with the Kings in the NHL’s cellar. The evidence is team save percentage numbers, both overall and at even strength.
Calgary’s numbers are buoyed by David Rittich’s 0.930 mark in 10 starts, which gives you an idea of how much Mike Smith has struggled to date. What’s encouraging is the team’s usage of Rittich of late, and if he continues to give them number one quality stuff, Calgary’s goaltending numbers will gradually improve. Smith’s Sunday start in Arizona was also encouraging, and the best case scenario sees him return to form while Rittich stays solid.
Elsewhere, though, San Jose is succeeding in spite of Martin Jones while Edmonton’s Cam Talbot and LA’s rotating door of average netminders have helped sewer average on-ice performance. On the other hand, Anaheim is getting league-best goaltending from John Gibson and Ryan Miller, which has kept them far more relevant than they should be.
SUMMING IT UP
It’s obviously impossible to predict the future, and injuries can drastically change these conversations, but we’re starting to get an idea of where the power lies in a very mediocre division. I put stock in how the Flames, Sharks, and Golden Knights have controlled play this season, and my money would be on those three to represent the Pacific come April, especially if they get even average goaltending the rest of the way.
Anaheim seems like the most likely party crasher thanks to Gibson’s work so far. It wouldn’t be the first time an otherworldly season from a goaltender got a team into the playoffs, and Gibson has solidified himself as one of the NHL’s elite.
For a team like Calgary, the door is wide open; at the very least, they look like a good enough team to make the playoffs in a bad division. The Flames can’t control where they play, so all they can do is make the most of favourable conditions. The way things are shaping up, the rest of the Pacific is rolling out the red carpet.