16 Stats: Hurricanes as Cup favorites, Auston Matthews’ quest for 70, Penguins’ playoff hopes

The Carolina Hurricanes are the favorite to win the Stanley Cup right now. Some may think that’s always the case for every nerd’s favorite analytics darling, but this is actually a first for them in this era. According to my model, anyway.

Carolina is often up there with the other contenders … just not at the very top. Last season, the Hurricanes peaked at 14 percent, but were still second to Boston at the time. That was their first time above double digits since the shortened 2021 season, but even then they were behind Colorado, Tampa Bay and Boston.

This year is different and there’s one major reason for that: Jake Guentzel. He’s the savvy star sniper this team has desperately craved over the past half-decade and he completely changes the complexion of Carolina’s attack.

That was true on paper the minute the team acquired him and it’s only become more true with each game he plays. In 11 games he’s scored 16 points and earned 67 percent of the expected goals and Carolina has outscored opponents 11-0 with him on the ice. He’s been everything this team could’ve asked for and more, leading to a league-high plus-17 goal differential since his first game.

Some questioned whether Guentzel was just a byproduct of his more famous Pittsburgh teammate, but he’s proving once and for all he’s got game in his own right — the exact kind of offensive game Carolina needed. He may have some defensive deficiencies, but that’s more than covered for in Carolina allowing him to focus primarily on offense. There, he’s legitimately one of the league’s best wingers with a projected Offensive Rating of plus-12. That’s in the top 15 among wingers. Pair that with Sebastian Aho at the top of the lineup and Carolina has the star power duo it’s severely lacked in every previous postseason. Add the emerging Seth Jarvis on the other side and the team may have one of the league’s best lines, period. 

That’s terrifying for a team that has depth everywhere else. But Guentzel’s arrival isn’t the only reason for optimism. The Hurricanes also look like they’ve solved their goaltending woes, too.

The narrative around Carolina all season was that the team’s goaltending was a major weakness. That may have been true to start the season, but it hasn’t been true for a while now. Through the first two months of the season, it was indeed a major problem as the team allowed 12.6 goals above expected in 24 games, but the Hurricanes haven’t had a month of negative goaltending since. December and January were average and over the last two months, it’s been a legitimate strength. Since February, Carolina’s goaltenders have collectively saved 26.8 goals above expected in 27 games — just about one per game.

While Pyotr Kochetkov has found his stride since a rough start (11.1 goals saved in 36 games since November), the big reason for strength has been the triumphant return of Frederik Andersen. At his best, he looks like one of the league’s top goalies and he sure looked the part in March. In his seven games since returning he’s allowed just eight goals, has a .957 save percentage and has saved 13.2 goals above expected. He’s been scary good and when that’s combined with Carolina’s defensive structure, it sometimes feels impossible to score.

Andersen has a tendency to run hot and cold, like most goalies, and it’s unlikely he will keep up this torrid pace. But what his return shows is that his baseline is an above-average starter — more than enough to get Carolina where it needs to go.

Everyone knows the Hurricanes’ team structure is second to none, they’ve just lacked the finishing and goaltending talent beyond that. With Guentzel in town and Andersen back at his best, that’s looking like it can change this season.

This Hurricanes team is a different beast, one that finally has the oomph to go all the way. They’re the team to beat for a reason.

16 Stats

1. One thing to note with Carolina’s elevated Cup odds: The path to the Stanley Cup Final plays a huge role. There’s an extremely good chance the Hurricanes face one of Washington or Philadelphia in the first round which will likely end up as one of the most lopsided series in recent memory. The Hurricanes will start with a higher than 80 percent chance of advancing to the second round, a massive head start that helps explain why their current odds are so high.

2. Jacob Trouba has had a rough season and his play since returning from injury hasn’t inspired much confidence. But there’s a tendency to sometimes unfairly malign the guy with the toughest assignments while simultaneously assuming the guy crushing sheltered minutes could step in and be an immediate improvement. Though there are exceptions, usually those guys are in their role for a reason.

We got some proof of that when Trouba went down with injury in March. Before that, the New York Rangers were earning an unremarkable 46 percent of the expected goals with Trouba on the ice while Braden Schneider was at the top at 51 percent. It’s not hard to guess what happened next. In Trouba’s 11-game absence, Schenider was paired with K’Andre Miller in a shutdown role and struggled to replicate Trouba’s numbers. Schneider earned just 41 percent of the expected goals during that stretch.

In those 11 games, Schneider’s average opponent had an Offensive Rating of plus-3.2, well above his plus-0.8 prior. To Schneider’s credit, those minutes were harder than what Trouba has faced this season (plus-2.1), which could explain the difference between the two. But the main point is that Trouba’s and Schneider’s on-ice numbers before this experiment weren’t an apples-to-apples comparison.

Trouba may not be able to handle tough minutes himself anymore, but the Rangers simply may not have a better option for that role.

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Connor McDavid is closing in on a major career milestone. (Lawrence Scott / Getty Images)

3. Connor McDavid needs 24 points in his final nine games this season to hit 1,000 career points. Can he hit 150 points for the second straight year to get there?

The feat seemed impossible at the beginning of the season when he struggled through an injury, but it looks anything but with how he’s played since. Going into Wednesday’s game, McDavid had 110 points in his last 55 games, an incredible two-points per-game average — what’s a few more down the stretch?

It may not be likely, but with McDavid, anything is possible. I went through his game logs to see how often he’s scored 24 points or more in nine games since the 2020-21 season, the year he leveled up to be a near-consistent 150-point-pace producer. In 257 distinct nine-game stretches, McDavid has only done it six times. So 40-to-1 odds, give or take. Take out his “down” year in 2021-22 and that increases to 30-to-1 odds.

Not impossible, but not very likely. Then again, this is McDavid we’re talking about; his personal drive is a big factor. The best example is that four of those six instances happened at the end of the 2021 season when he needed a ridiculous number to hit 100 points — and he did it. Can he repeat that magic with the 1,000-point milestone this season?

4. Same idea for Auston Matthews and his quest for 70 goals. He needs seven in his final seven games; how often has he done that?

Since 2020-21, the year he became a near-consistent 65-goal-pace scorer, Matthews has had 244 distinct eight-game stretches. In that time, he’s scored eight goals or more 64 times, or 26 percent of the time. His odds look a lot better — and they improve further if we exclude Matthews’ down season in which he didn’t accomplish that feat once. That pushes his odds up to 36 percent.

Regardless of whether either player hits the mark, it’s been a treat to watch two legendary players in their prime put up two very special seasons.

5. The battle for Atlantic supremacy is once again looking like it’ll be a doozy with the gap between the top and bottom shrinking as we get closer to the playoffs. For most of the season, it felt like Florida and Boston were miles ahead of Toronto and Tampa Bay, but the tides have shifted post-deadline.

The Leafs, despite battling a glut of key injuries, are rounding into form nicely and are playing some of their best hockey of the year at even strength. Since the deadline, they lead all teams with 70 percent of the goals and are top five in expected goals thanks entirely to an explosive offense that has fully awakened. At five-on-five, the team has scored 4.9 goals per 60, 1.5 more than the next-best team — all without Mitch Marner.

As for the Lightning, their success is coming on the opposite end. The defensive zone has been a major problem all year, one they’ve done well to clean up lately, allowing just 2.1 expected goals against per 60 at five-on-five. That’s the third-best mark in the league. Couple that with a penalty kill that has outscored teams 2-1 since the deadline and the Lightning are looking like a potential defensive force again.

At many points this season, the Atlantic has looked like a two-team race. That doesn’t seem to be the case anymore — the Leafs and Lightning look poised to make noise. Since the deadline, the Lightning have a plus-20 goal differential while the Leafs are at plus-16.

6. It’s not just those two teams rising, it’s also the Boston Bruins and Florida Panthers falling. 

Boston hasn’t been bad by any stretch, but it also doesn’t look like the team that flexed a 14-1-3 start right out of the gate. Since the deadline, the team is just barely above average in all-situations goals and expected goals percentage. That’s a trend that goes all the way back to the All-Star break: The Bruins have had a minus-1 goal differential since — exactly what’s been expected of them. They’re winning games, but the way they’ve done so going into the playoffs hasn’t exactly been inspiring.

Florida’s play, though, is much more worrying. The Panthers once looked like the class of the East, but have had a severe market correction, losing eight of their last 10 games. It’s not uncommon for an elite team to go through stretches like that, but it is rare to see them struggle the way the Panthers have. 

Florida has been one of the league’s best five-on-five teams over the last few years, but over those 10 games, their expected goals percentage sits at just 46 percent — 25th in the league. Before that the Panthers were third at 54 percent, a complete role reversal.

While the top guys aren’t playing up to their usual standards, it’s the bottom of the lineup that’s really hurting Florida. Between Steven Lorentz, Kyle Okposo, Kevin Stenlund, Ryan Lomberg and Jonah Gadjovich, the Panthers have five guys cycling through the fourth line who are all under 30 percent in expected goals percentage. 

Add a struggling Sergei Bobrovsky allowing 5.7 goals above expected over his last nine starts and it’s a recipe for short-term disaster. Florida better hope it can get back on track quickly because it won’t beat any team playing like this.

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Noah Dobson and the Islanders’ power play has gone stagnant. (Tom Horak / USA Today)

7. The New York Islanders are still in the thick of the playoff race, but they’d be on much more solid ground if their power play hadn’t gone ice-cold. Their power-play goal against Chicago was their first in six games and their second in 12. Since the trade deadline, the team has scored only 2.6 goals per 60 with the man advantage, the worst mark in the league. It doesn’t seem to be bad luck either, with the team earning only 4.8 expected goals per 60 — also the worst mark in the league.

Some might say, “It’s the Islanders, what did you expect?” But before this recent lull, the team was top 10 in goals per 60 at 8.8 and 13th in expected goals per 60. For once it was a strength of this team and it’s abandoned them at the worst possible time. If the Islanders are going to make the playoffs, figuring out what went wrong with the man advantage is crucial. It probably doesn’t help that breakout star Noah Dobson has been cold with just two points in his last 13 games.

8. It always sucks to see any player look like a shade of himself and it’s unfortunately more obvious when it happens to a star. Timo Meier’s start to the season was a big reason why the New Jersey Devils struggled to live up to their lofty expectations. Through the first half, he was scoring at a 19-goal and 42-point pace. Rough stuff made even worse by some awful underlying numbers. The Devils only managed 48 percent of the expected goals with Meier on the ice and were outscored 39-19.

You always hope for a turnaround in those situations and that’s exactly what we’ve received from Meier over his last 20 games. It’s too late to save this Devils season, but at the very least, it gives hope that Meier will return to his usual self for next year.

Over the last 20 games, Meier has 15 goals, 25 points, 58 percent of the expected goals and has outscored teams 21-14 in his minutes. The real telling sign is he’s shooting more and creating more chances. That’s Meier’s bread and butter, it’s how he creates value. Over the last 20 games, he’s upped his shot pace to 3.6 per game — nearly one shot more than his first half. All of that is good for an average Game Score of 1.62 over the stretch, a top-20 mark in the league.

9. All of a sudden, the Pittsburgh Penguins are back in the playoff picture. After beating the Rangers and Devils to start the week, Pittsburgh’s odds jumped to 12 percent. It helps that every East team ahead of them has left the door wide open for them to somehow crawl back into the picture. But the bigger thing is that the Penguins still have dates with Washington, Detroit and the Islanders remaining on the schedule.

The Penguins do control their own destiny to an extent in that regard, but there’s a reason their odds are so low. For starters, those three games are close to coin flips and while the Penguins are favoured in two of them, the odds of sweeping aren’t high. The bigger problem is that even if Pittsburgh does sweep, its points percentage would only grow to where Detroit and Washington currently are — there would still be a lot of work to do.

Pittsburgh wouldn’t be home free yet and a lot would still depend on what it does in the other four games (and what the other teams do). If the Penguins sweep, they would have the eighth-best odds of making the playoffs, but those odds would still be only 46 percent due to the competition that would remain around them.

The path is there for the Penguins, but it remains a difficult one thanks to the hole they dug themselves through the first 70 or so games.

10. By points percentage, the St. Louis Blues would rank seventh in the East at .560, a 92-point pace. Their reward for that is a 3 percent shot at making the playoffs. Washington, Detroit, Philadelphia, the Islanders and Pittsburgh all have a better shot of making the postseason despite what will likely be a much worse record than their Western Conference counterpart. It’s hard not to feel bad for Blues fans in this situation — the imbalance there feels a lot more unjust than usual.

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Robert Thomas has been a force for the Blues this season. (Michael Reaves / Getty Images)

11. This piece from Harman Dayal on the league’s most underrated centers was a good one and I especially liked that it highlighted Robert Thomas front and center — specifically his usage, something worth echoing here. 

Minute difficulty is something I’ve been looking into a lot recently and Thomas really stands out. No forward has faced tougher opponents offensively and defensively this season, meaning Thomas sees the most competitive pressure on both sides of the puck.

Though Thomas does have some help due to who he plays with, it’s not enough to counter the difficulty of who he faces. What that means for Thomas’ overall value is that his expected Offensive Rating based on environment is minus-0.9 and his expected Defensive Rating is minus-2.0. That’s a half-win setback to start with and that he’s thriving in those minutes is seriously impressive. 

12. After throwing him to the wolves to start the season, the Chicago Blackhawks have done a much better job lately of shielding Connor Bedard from tougher assignments. Jason Dickinson proving himself as a viable shutdown center option helped with that and Chicago took it a step further on Tuesday by putting Bedard on Dickinson’s wing. 

The end result was Bedard’s strongest showing of the season based on expected goals. With Bedard on the ice, the Blackhawks won the expected goals battle 2.0-0.1, good for 94 percent of the expected goals which was a season high for Bedard. That’s more like it and the feat is all the more impressive given what the Blackhawks did otherwise. The rest of the team was outchanced by an expected goals margin of 1.9 to 0.9.

13. Noah Hanifin and Chris Tanev were the belle of the defensemen’s ball leading up to the trade deadline and that was for good reason. Both guys showed a strong knack for eating tough minutes on a bad team. Now that they’re on elite teams, they’re showing just how valuable they can be. Both players are at right around 60 percent of the expected goals with Hanifin driving play to a large degree at both ends of the ice and Tanev suppressing a lot of chances defensively. Both players are posting incredible on-ice numbers relative to teammates.

It did make me curious about how their usage has changed on their new teams. For Tanev, it’s a similar level of competition, but the average Defensive Rating of his teammates has jumped from plus-0.9 to plus-1.9. That makes things easier. As for Hanifin — his minutes actually got slightly harder with the quality of his teammates’ defense going down and the quality of his opponent’s offense going up. That makes his Vegas debut all the more impressive.

14. The top 10 in points per 60 at five-on-five is always loaded with the league’s best players and this year is no exception. McDavid, Nathan MacKinnon, Nikita Kucherov, Matthews, David Pastrnak and Artemi Panarin hold down the top six spots as one would expect. 

But there’s always one jump scare on the list that has you wondering how he got there. This year it’s Mark Jankowski in 10th, sandwiched between Sidney Crosby and Leon Draisaitl with 2.65 points per 60. 

It’s a small sample in sheltered minutes, but Jankowski still deserves a ton of credit for his sudden breakthrough this season into an impact player. To go with his wild point rate, he’s also sporting a 59 percent expected goal rate and 70 percent of the goals. Good for him.

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The Seattle Kraken have struggled without defenseman Vince Dunn. (Isaiah J. Downing / USA Today)

15. Vince Dunn missed almost the entire month of March with injury. During that stretch, the Seattle Kraken scored just 1.19 goals per 60 at five-on-five and only managed to generate 1.89 expected goals per 60. Only Anaheim was worse in both categories during his absence.

The Kraken have struggled mightily to generate offense all season, but not to this degree. That difference is not entirely because of Dunn, but it does speak volumes about how important he is to Seattle’s attack. Without him, the Kraken really don’t have any other offensive threat on the back end and he’s proving last season’s emergence as a top defenseman was no fluke.

16. In one of the first 16 Stats of the season, I wrote a lot about Vancouver’s PDO and how the Canucks’ goal difference above expected was unsustainable. Their goal differential was plus-34 — 33 above expected in just 16 games. Unsurprisingly, that regressed to where over the next 59 games their goal differential above expected was just plus-3.2. Above zero, as expected for a team with their shooting and goaltending talent, just not ridiculously so.

Despite that regression, the Canucks have maintained their hold on the Pacific Division all season. Why? Because the rest of their game leveled up. Vancouver has a contender on its hands and it’s not because of what happened in the first month — it’s what the Canucks have proven since. 

Since that point, the Canucks are eighth in expected goals percentage at five-on-five, sixth in chances created on the power play and seventh in chances allowed on the penalty kill. As a result, the Canucks managed a 34-18-7 record — a 104-point pace that’s 10th in the league. It’s a record they earned without question.

Even if we ignore their torrid start, the Canucks have shown they’re indeed a very strong team beyond their PDO. That they have the potential to turn that faucet on at a moment’s notice to score at will makes them even scarier.

Data via Evolving Hockey, Natural Stat Trick, Hockey Stat Cards

(Photos of Jake Guentzel, Auston Matthews and Sidney Crosby: James Guillory, Dan Hamilton and Danny Wild / USA Today)

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