Contenders and pretenders for Lord Stanley’s Cup

Hockey can sometimes be forgotten this time of year with March Madness and the opening of Major League Baseball dominating headlines. Yet, as the hockey season grinds toward another finish, the playoff push is offering up some pretty compelling storylines this late season – the congested Eastern Conference to the battle for the President’s Trophy to name a couple.

But despite a considerable number of NHL teams vying for a playoff spot, how many of those teams have a legitimate chance at winning the Stanley Cup? And yes, while the Stanley Cup Playoffs embody the “anyone can win it” ethos we love so much about our sports and hockey in particular, its clear certain teams clearly look more capable of holding up the Cup at the conclusion of hockey’s second season.

The NHL regular season, and the Eastern Conference in particular, has shown a propensity to be very balanced in terms of teams competing for a spot in the playoffs. But are the standings lying? Should we consider those teams with considerable points gaps ahead of their rivals as serious Stanley Cup contenders? And is a darkhorse lurking in the middle of pack just waiting to break free and claim the top spot? A quick analysis says those points gaps are no secret. The top teams are clearly better than the rest.

Conducting a cluster analysis with a mix of standard and advanced NHL statistics (Corsi and Fenwick) demonstrates that the teams on top with points clearly have an advantage heading into the postseason. Clustering into four groups – Elite, Good, Poor, and Bad – seems to validate with advanced statistics what the standings are already telling us. Note: the presence of Toronto in the Bad grouping suggests the advanced statistics drove the clustering. Toronto notoriously performs poorly using advanced ratings such as Corsi and Fenwick despite seemingly reasonable a points tally.

On the whole, the NHL contains a considerable number of halfway decent clubs. 20 to be exact. Its entirely reasonable to debate the six Elite teams and fans of Colorado and Pittsburgh could probably make a case they’ve been place into the wrong group, but something in the underlying data suggests distance between the elite teams and these two overachieving Good clubs. Not surprisingly, the Bad and Poor clubs contain Buffalo, Edmonton, and Florida in addition to the notoriously complex Maple Leafs. With Boston the only club from the Eastern Conference categorized as an Elite team (reminder, these are my rank order labels for the clusters and not necessarily a description of the teams contained in the cluster), one has to think the Bruins have a pretty good shot at reaching the Finals and having a go against any number of potential Western Conference rivals.