NHL’s Return to Old Divisions Shows Metropolitan is the Strongest

A major storyline in last year’s COVID-shortened 2020-21 NHL season was the realignment that saw teams face only their divisional counterparts during the regular season. It was therefore more difficult to assess the relative strength and weaknesses of each franchise when there was a smaller sample of games. Presumed Stanley Cup contenders such as the Colorado Avalanche and Vegas Golden Knights were disregarded for beating up on “weaker” opposition. At the same time, the members of the all-Canadian North Division were derided as the league’s pitiful castaways. Yet, the Montreal Canadiens surprisingly grabbed the North’s ticket into the postseason’s final four, directly challenging the feeble identity collectively assigned to the northern contingent.

In 2021-22 the NHL returned to the pre-COVID layout. The schedules now list interdivisional (outside of division) foes. The 82-game schedule has seen at least one third of all teams play, so there is a reliable sample. Let’s see where each division stands on inter- and intra-divisional, within the division, play. A nod to Jeff Veillette’s Tweet for the inspiration, let’s dig into which division is the NHL’s strongest thus far and which team’s are benefitting the most, and least, from their divisional placement. My ill-advised aesthetic choices are my apologies.

The Metropolitan Division is the NHL’s Toughest

The Metropolitan, led By the Carolina Hurricanes is first in NHL point percentage (PTS%). New York Rangers (6th), Washington Capitals (ninth) and Pittsburgh Penguins (10th), have the lowest number of top-10 teams. Surprisingly, the bottom-placed teams in the Philadelphia Flyers (24th), New York Islanders (25th), and New Jersey Devils (26th) land outside the bottom five, despite playing in the NHL’s toughest division.

Frederik Andersen Carolina Hurricanes (Gregg Forwerck /NHLI via Getty Images)

The Metropolitan Division is first in overall PTS% (58.4%), however they are second in intra-divisional matchesups with 53.8 percent. The difference is a tell-tale sign of the division’s actual strength, as the Metropolitan franchises rank first in the percentage of points collected outside of their division (59.9%).

For now, the Hurricanes are leading the Metropolitan but they have only played six of their fellows in intra-divisional matches. They’ve dominated against the more vulnerable offerings from other divisions, but they could be an underrated beneficiary of unbalanced scheduling.

Carolina Hurricanes, New York Rangers, Washington Capitals, Pittsburgh Penguins, Columbus Blue Jackets, Philadelphia Flyers, New Jersey Devils, New York Islanders
The 2021-22 Metropolitan Division Standings are separated by inter- and intra-divisional plays (Data from ESPN).

The Metropolitan is home to three of the most important Stanley Cup contenders: the Penguins, Capitals, Rangers and Capitals. This remarkable feat is especially impressive given the number of elite squads that reside within this area. So, that’s one half of the Eastern Conference looked at, how does the other half fare?

Overall, the Atlantic Division ranks last

In terms of the overall standings, the team’s within the NHL’s Atlantic Division sit dead-last in terms of PTS%, only collecting a point in 53.5% of possible games. They owe that miserable honor to the woeful triumvirate of the Buffalo Sabres (38.2%), the Ottawa Senators (34.5%), and the Montreal Canadiens (26.5%), three of the NHL’s bottom five teams by PTS%.

Florida Panthers, Tampa Bay Lightning, Toronto Maple Leafs, Boston Bruins, Detroit Red Wings, Buffalo Sabres, Ottawa Senators, Montreal Canadiens
The 2021-22 Atlantic Division Standings, separated by intra- and inter-divisional play. Data from ESPN

However, the presence of the Florida Panthers (72.9%), the Toronto Maple Leafs (71.2%), and the Tampa Bay Lightning (68.9%) – three of the top five by PTS% – demonstrates the Atlantic’s extremely stratified composition. There is no other division with such wide results. The race for the division crown could decide whether an Atlantic heavyweight makes it to the playoffs before the rest or if he gets a more comfortable matchup in the first round against one of the wildcard teams.

The argument that the division’s heavyweights get to beat up on the NHL’s minnows more often than other contenders holds some water. The Atlantic Division has the largest discrepancy between the share of points earned within its division (56.5%) and outside (52.2%). This is a difference of -4.3% in performance. The Pacific Division has a similar discrepancy with 1.1% less points earned in inter-divisional play.

PTS% in Division PTS% Outside Division There are differences
Metropolitan 53.8% 59.9% -6.1%
Central 55.1% 56.9% -1.8%
Pacific 55.4% 54.3% -1.1%
Atlantic 56.5% 52.2% 4.3%
The NHL’s four divisions, ranked by % of points collected by teams within the division versus outside

It’s important to keep these results in mind when handicapping the playoff race and eventual playoff matchups. A higher level of competition could cause some teams to see their numbers drop. Lower seeds might be tougher challengersPrepare for the grind of the playoffs.

Additional Surprises in NHL’s Pre-COVID Divisional alignment

Despite playing in the NHL’s weakest division by PTS%, the Lightning fare better in games outside the lightweight division, earning 13.2% more points outside the Atlantic than their intra-divisional matchups (60.7%). The Detroit Red Wings have been more successful outside the division (52% vs. 45.5% within), which gives them a relative PTS% share that the Maple Leafs, Panthers, and Panthers.

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Obviously, they don’t share anywhere near the same breadth of skill and talent as the two Atlantic contenders, but they haven’t been troubled when traveling outside the otherwise cozy confines of their division. If nothing else, it bodes well for the Red Wings’ rebuild that their group of brash Calder Trophy hopefuls feels comfortable challenging the NHL’s best.

In the Central, the Nashville Predators are the dominant team in intra-divisional percentage transfer rate (77.3%), but they fall to 62% in other games. While the Winnipeg Jets managed to see a slight improvement (5.7%) in the Central, their performance elsewhere leaves much to be desired.

Nashville Predators, St. Louis Blues, Colorado Avalanche, Minnesota Wild, Winnipeg Jets, Dallas Stars, Chicago Blackhawks, Arizona Coyotes
The 2021-22 Central Division Standings, separated by intra- and inter-divisional play. Data from ESPN

The Minnesota Wild quickly stands out because they have dominated their division rivals but not with the same degree of control as their Central counterparts. The same is partially true of the Avalanche, but they’ve been without key stars for long stretches this season and have still won 66.7% of their intra-divisional fixtures.

Within the Pacific, Vegas’ stature is a slight mirage as the team has missed prized acquisition Jack Eichel and scoring winger Max Pacioretty for the majority of the season, obscuring their true strength when healthy. The Golden Knights’ eyes are clearly on the playoffs, and they’ve built up enough of a lead that Eichel’s return can propel them to the division’s top spot with ease.

Vegas Golden Knights, Anaheim Ducks, Los Angeles Kings, Calgary Flames, San Jose Sharks, Edmonton Oilers, Vancouver Canucks, Seattle Kraken
The 2021-22 Pacific Division Standings, separated by intra- and inter-divisional play. Data from ESPN

The Los Angeles Kings, riding a youth movement to third place in the Pacific, have been impressive in inter-divisional play despite losing five straight to Central Division opponents. They can they overcome the Pacific’s weaker side in the second half and surprise the West with a playoff spot?

Which NHL teams suffer the most from their divisional placement?

Considering the Metropolitan Division’s stature, it’s unsurprising to see two teams hailing from that same group make the list. Notable is the fact that two Pacific teams have performed much better than their counterparts in the second-weakest Division.

PTS% in Division PTS% Outside Division There are differences
Columbus Blue Jackets 30% 58.7% -28.7%
New York Islanders 25% 52.3% -27.3%
Seattle Kraken 18.2% 43.5% -25.3%
Calgary Flames 43.8% 66% -22.2%
Minnesota Wild 55.6% 70.8% -15.2%
The five bottom NHL teams are ranked according to the percentage of points they have collected within their division, as opposed to outside.

Over 82 games played outside of Metropolitan play, Columbus Blue Jackets are averaging 96 points per game. This rate is 49 points lower than their divisional counterparts. More fitting for an expansion teamInstead of an established NHL franchise, they are a new team. Overall they are about average in league play and hope to hand their promising crop, including Cole Sillinger and Yegor Chinekhov, a larger role in what is likely not to be a playoff season.

The Islanders’ season has been ravaged from COVID, so there’s not much to be gleaned from their abysmal 1-4-1 record within the division at this point. It will be a difficult task to get back in the playoff picture. Given the quality of the teams ahead, this season could easily be a write-off before midseason. Oliver Wahlstrom’s play has been a highlight for an offensively restricted team.

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While no one anticipated the Kraken to challenge for a playoff spot in the NHL, their position at the bottom of NHL standings is alarming. The team has lost nine of 10 games, and Philipp Grubauer’s poor play has hampered their otherwise solid defensive numbers. Still, it’s in the new franchise’s best interests to focus on building through the draft and turn an eye to the future.

Philipp Grubauer, Seattle Kraken
Philipp Grubauer Seattle Kraken (Amy Irvin/ The Hockey Writers

The eight games are a small sample but the Calgary Flames have done much better away from the Pacific. They lost three consecutive decisions, one each to the Lightning, Hurricanes and Panthers. Their defense was that they were just coming off a COVID layoff. It takes time for the rust to wear off. They should be able to see that their impressive play against non-divisional opposition transfers over to weaker competition within the Pacific, and should challenge the Golden Knights in the race for the top spot.

The Wild, under the leadership of Kirill Kaprizov are becoming dark-horse Stanley Cup contenders. They currently sit second in the Western Conference in PTS%, just behind the Avalanche. Despite losing all three games against teams in their division, Minnesota has won five of six matches against teams below them. They’ll need to pull out results against the best if they hope to be considered legitimate postseason threats.

Which NHL Teams Are Most Benefitted by Their Divisional Placement?

Although it’s still early, a growing number of games allows us to see which teams have benefitted from occupying their given division. These five teams have garnered a much larger share of points during intra-divisional affairs, whether it’s due to an unsustainable run of form or weaker competition.

PTS% in Division PTS% Outside Division There are differences
Edmonton Oilers 80% 45.8% +34.2%
New York Rangers 83.3 64.5% +18.8%
Boston Bruins 73.1% 55.3% +17.8%
Anaheim Ducks 70.8% 53.8% +17.2%
Nashville Predators 77.3% 62% +15.3%
The rankings of the top five NHL teams by percentage of points earned within the division versus those outside

Edmonton Oilers saw a complete turnaround in fortunes while playing in their division. The Oilers amassed nearly 35% more points this season than any other team. They’ve gone 8-2-0 against their Pacific Division rivals but have only claimed 10 of 24 against the rest of the NHL. While the Oilers are 4-2-0 against the Pacific Division rivals, the Kraken and Arizona Coyotes account for four of those wins. However, they have lost five straight and 11 of their last thirteen games. Seven of those 11 losses were at the hands Atlantic and Metropolitan Division teams. The offensive exploits of Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl should be enough to keep the Oilers relevant within the divisional playoff bracket, but they’re in trouble.

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It’s difficult to parse out where the Rangers stand relative to the rest of the Metropolitan, given, like the Hurricanes, they’ve only played six intra-division games (5-1-0). Igor Shesterkin’s Vezina Trophy-caliber season and Chris Kreider’s hot-streak of finishing have propped them up, and New York sits pretty near the top of the NHL standings. The Capitals and Penguins have also experienced better fortunes against the rest of the division, although they’ve matched up against the Metropolitan’s bottom-feeders for the most part. Overall, the division’s strength and a larger sample of games should see the Rangers’ numbers drop, and their appearance on this table is eye-brow raising.

The Boston Bruins have been an incredibly confusing team to follow in the first year. Although the Bruins were widely praised for their free agency strategy to improve their forward depth, the new additions have not been as impressive and they are currently competing for a wildcard spot at the Eastern Conference. I’m not sure that’s a trend that turns around anytime soon either, as only five of Boston’s 13 intra-divisional games have come against the top three sides (2-2-1 record). After a slow start, David Pastrnak is heating up. But Don Sweeney, the general manager, might need to make a trade to increase their support cast.

David Pastrnak Boston Bruins
David Pastrnak (Maddie Meyer/Getty Images), Boston Bruins

The Anaheim Ducks have been one of the NHL’s biggest surprises this season, with Trevor Zegras, Troy Terry, and Jamie Drysdale spearheading a budding renaissance out of Orange County. They’re running a bit hot as a group, and their 4-0-1 record against the Canucks and Kraken could be propping up their sparkling record thus far. They’re tied for the division lead in games (38) and have played significantly more intra-divisional games than the Flames (four) and San Jose Sharks (eight). If they’re not careful, the Ducks could be swept aside by their quickly approaching rivals.

Nashville was last. It somehow managed to collect over 15% more points when faced with non-divisional rivals. Roman Josi’s presence Matt Duchene enjoys offensive resurgences and Ryan Johansen have steered them to the top of the division, ahead of the preseason Stanley Cup favorite Avalanche (although they’re ahead by PTS%). They own a 4-0-1 record against the hapless Chicago Blackhawks and Arizona Coyotes, suggesting that their stellar divisional performance could turn sour in a hurry once their schedule brings more of the division’s top teams to town.

Which Division is the Future Stanley Cup Winner

Given how full the Eastern Conference is at the moment, it seems like a good bet that the Stanley Cup winner will be from one of its two divisions. The East Coast is home to seven of the 10 top teams in PTS%. This represents a dramatic shift in the power balance that was so important in the NHL’s early 2010s.

The East’s crowded field makes it difficult for a winner to emerge. The Western Conference’s regular-season champion can set themselves up for a relatively timid playoff journey by avoiding what few true tests of merit exist out west. To our clairvoyant readers here at THW, let me know which division holds 2021-22’s future Stanley Cup champion; happy prognosticating!

Data courtesy ESPNThe, and NHL. Statistics as of January 11th.