Trending Topics: Making sense of the Pacific

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There’s no way Vegas and Vancouver can keep this up, right? (Rich Lam/Getty Images)
There’s no way Vegas and Vancouver can keep this up, right? (Rich Lam/Getty Images)

Let’s have a quick look at the standings in the various divisions through Thanksgiving.

Well, I don’t think anyone had the Red Wings and Bruins third and fourth in the Atlantic, but the surprising collapse of Montreal opened a lot of doors. Few probably had the Blues at the top of the Central, nor did they have a four-way tie at the bottom, but that’ll shake itself out because it has to.

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In the Metropolitan, everything is kind of upside down, but for reasons that are more or less understandable. Pittsburgh has a brutal schedule and Henrik Lundqvist’s career as an elite goaltender looks like it’s over, plus the Devils and Islanders are fifth and sixth in PDO at 5-on-5 right now.

But then you look at the Pacific, and nothing makes sense.

Vegas is first in the division. Doesn’t make sense except to say they’re ninth in PDO and a marginal possession team, but that’s with the team having spent most of the season sitting on ECHL goaltending and not having totally cratered.

The Kings have exceeded all early expectations thanks to great goaltending, especially on the penalty kill. Calgary is rolling right now after some early-season struggles and looks well-positioned to keep up the hot pace for some time to come. But then it gets well and truly bizarre. Vancouver isn’t in the toilet? The Sharks and Ducks are barely holding things together? The Oilers have 18 points from 22 games? The Coyotes, despite all their improvements this summer, are horrible again?

Did anyone see any of this coming at all?

What’s very weird is that right now, some of the teams in the Pacific are among the best in the league in 5-on-5 possession, which of course is still the best long-term predictor of success. Edmonton is second in the league, San Jose is fourth, Calgary is eighth. Only one of those teams is currently in a playoff spot, and it’s Calgary, which still has a minus-2 goal difference if you take empty netters and shootout winners out of the equation.

The Flames are the one team you really don’t have to explain too much. They started out poorly because they didn’t really have a lot of depth, especially up front, but once they figured out a place for Jaromir Jagr (crushing lower-end talent with Mark Jankowski and Sam Bennett) this team took off. Since the start of November, they’re 6-3-0 and dominant in possession. You have to wonder if Mike Smith holds up his .925 all year — probably not, right? — but he’s been very good so far, while both Eddie Lack and Jon Gillies have been putrid in their appearances. If this team could get competent backup goaltending, they’d be in a much more assured position going forward.

Now, with Anaheim for instance, you can look at the number of man games they’ve lost to injury and say that explains their issues pretty well. Their current top two centers are Derek Grant and Chris Wagner, Cam Fowler and Sami Vatanen have only played a combined 20 games, etc. Even though the Ducks have a high shooting and save percentage, they just get clobbered every night because they don’t have the personnel on hand.

As for San Jose, this is a team with a terrible shooting percentage. Pretty easy explanation there. Despite being fourth in the league in full-strength corsi percentage, and generating the ninth-most shots per 60 in all situations, they also have a shooting percentage that’s pretty close to the bottom of the league. The power play isn’t as good as it should be given the talent, and it’s tough to say whether that’s an “all these guys are getting up there” thing or a systems thing; it’s probably both. Brent Burns and Tim Heed are first and second on the team in power play shots (first and third in attempts), and that’s an awful long way to shoot from when you should be able to work it down low instead given the personnel advantage. That’s not the only reason San Jose, despite its territorial dominance, is only plus-1 in goal difference, but the Sharks draw a lot of penalties and that should be driving them to more success than they’ve had.

Vancouver is a little more difficult to explain. Not good process-wise, not good talent-wise, not particularly strong at special teams. And yet, technically fourth in the division, but tied with Calgary, a much better team. Having your backup goalie go .934 certainly helps. They’re 5-0-1 in Anders Nilsson’s starts, and eight of the 14 goals he’s allowed all season came in just two games, so he’s really delivering right now. That certainly seems like it should be the difference between this team being as bad as we all expected and barely holding on to a playoff spot a quarter of the way through the season. Meanwhile, this team has 61 goals so far this year, which is a perfectly decent number, but 34 of them have come from four guys, all of whom are shooting at least 15 percent, and three of whom are north of 20. One imagines neither Nilsson nor Brock Boeser, Sven Baertschi, Bo Horvat or Derek Dorsett keep up those percentages long-term.

The Oilers’ problems have been talked about at length, and are only surprising insofar as they’ve probably arrived ahead of schedule. Anyone could see they’d have trouble getting the puck up the ice and into the attacking zone when Connor McDavid was off, and that has certainly been the case. They’re still a good possession team when he’s off, but they can’t score and a lot of their better players are a little snakebit. I think this is a team that can pull out of its tailspin if it doesn’t devour itself in shame, but it might also be too late given how putrid the start has been.

Meanwhile, the Coyotes are just bad. Add in the fact that Antti Raanta missed a couple weeks — every other goalie was horrible in his stead, combining for an .879 save percentage — and it all starts to make sense. One also gets the feeling that maybe Rick Tocchet has no idea what he’s doing, because this is a much-improved roster that, bad goaltending aside, is still 26th in possession. Simply put, they might not be quite this bad, but they’re bad.

That brings us to the two division leaders: Los Angeles and Vegas.

How are the Kings doing it? That .929 team goaltending number is probably doing a lot of the heavy lifting, as is the fact that the team shooting percentage is something resembling “normal” after years of being depressed by the Darryl Sutter system. Because otherwise, this is a perfectly okay team, process-wise, maybe a little below average (to be expected given the roster). The long-term loss of Jeff Carter is a real problem for them, but hey, Dustin Brown’s gonna be close-to-point-a-game forever, right?

As for Vegas, the reason they’re winning is that they’re just good and everyone needs to accept it.

I’m only kidding. It’s PDO. They currently have the ninth-highest PDO in the league, as mentioned, but people point to their 8-1 home record a lot as a sign that this is somehow sustainable. The idea, I think, is that the “Vegas flu” is as real as the “Roxy flu” is for Vancouver. But this is a team that gets pretty heavily outshot at home, and I don’t think there’s enough on this roster to prop up the 66 percent goals-for number versus 48 percent shots-for at 5-on-5.

Their home PDO is 107 right now. Anyone who doesn’t think that comes down — by a lot — over their remaining 32 home games is selling you something; the highest single-season home PDO over the past decade is Vancouver’s 104.7 in 2009-10 and that team had the Sedins at the height of their powers, Ryan Kesler, Alex Burrows when he was still good, one of the best blue lines in the league, and Roberto Luongo in net. Also in the mix for “highest home PDO in the last decade?” Last year’s Caps. Also one of the more outwardly skilled in the cap era.

Vegas doesn’t have anything resembling that level of talent, and that’s reflected in their road PDO: 97. Doesn’t that feel closer to being right for a team like this? A 6.8 shooting percentage and a .900 save percentage at 5-on-5? It’s probably a little low, but again, when you’re playing AHL and ECHL goalies for big chunks of the year, maybe it’s not.

Full credit to Vegas for winning so many home games so far — the house always wins in Vegas ha ha ha — but it’s not going to last. If this team suddenly drops, like, eight of 12 will anyone really be surprised?

With the way this division has gone so far this season, maybe not.

Ryan Lambert is a Puck Daddy columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.

All statistics via Corsica unless otherwise noted.

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