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Which breakout NHL teams are legitimately imposing and who’s simply masquerading as a playoff contender?

The timing is excellent for that question as we approach the December 19 holiday roster freeze. We’re deep enough into the 2022-23 campaign that the skeleton of the NHL standings is starting to form, yet with more than half the season remaining, there’s more than enough time for pretenders to fall off the map.

Last year, for example, the Anaheim Ducks held the Pacific Division crown with a 17-9-5 record going into the Christmas break. They weren’t even close to the playoff mix by the end. The rival Kings, on the other hand, turned out to be legit. The Kings arrived on the playoff scene a year ahead of schedule which has accelerated their rebuild.

Let’s dig into the NHL’s five most surprising playoff contenders (we’re only talking playoffs for now, the Cup contention debates can be saved for later) this season, presented in no particular order, and analyze whether they can realistically keep it up.

All stats collected prior to Dec 16.


Record: 18-9-1

Why they’re excelling: Rick Bowness’ biggest impact on the Jets has arguably happened behind the scenes.

Bowness inherited a roster with a ton of drama, distractions, and questionable team dynamics. Pierre-Luc Dubois reportedly informed the Jets that he plans to test free agency in 2024. Mark Scheifele openly questioned his long-term future in Winnipeg and the club’s direction, while Paul Stastny had blunt comments about the players’ lack of accountability and care for each other at the end of last season. Bowness has helped the group block out all those distractions, re-establish a healthy culture (which started with the difficult decision to strip Blake Wheeler of the captaincy to more evenly distribute the leadership responsibilities), and created complete buy-in.

The Jets’ penalty kill has catapulted from 29th in the league last season all the way to No. 5 this year. That improvement is a reflection of the club’s improved team defense, not just a stretch of unsustainably hot goaltending.

Winnipeg’s Improved PK metrics

Season

  

Unblocked Shot Attempts Against Per 60

  

Shots On Goal Against/60

  

2022-23

74.9 (9th)

54.2 (9th)

2021-22

85 (30th)

63.1 (29th)

Winnipeg’s forwards and defenders are also much more connected in their even-strength responsibilities. Forwards are coming back harder defensively to support the defencemen and the defenders are more active jumping up in the rush as a second wave of attack to help the forwards — neither of which was happening last season.

Connor Hellebuyck’s return to Vezina-caliber play has been a major catalyst. Josh Morrissey has contributed 33 points in 29 games from the back end, continuing a resurgence that started last season. Scheifele and Dubois have combined for 32 goals, giving the Jets a potent one-two punch down the middle.

It’s very impressive that the Jets have authored this start considering Nikolaj Ehlers has missed all but three games. Cole Perfetti’s instant fit in the top six has been essential for that and so has Wheeler’s professionalism to ignore the outside noise and continue producing. Wheeler’s scored 26 points in 29 games on top of driving better two-way results.

Adam Lowry’s been a crucial cog further down the lineup. He’s anchored the third line with 19 points in 29 games on top of driving play and helping the Jets outscore opponents 14-9 in his five-on-five ice time.

Biggest question mark(s) and outlook: Winnipeg’s blue line is probably short of at least one more high-end difference-maker beyond Morrissey. It’s also fair to wonder how the club might fare if Hellebuyck’s elite form ever slipped. The Jets are improved but still not stellar at controlling even-strength play, owning very averaging underlying metrics.

There aren’t any glaring red flags though, many things are going right and they’ve built a nice standings cushion. The Jets should make the playoffs, especially considering the weak state of the Western Conference.

Making the playoffs confidence meter: 4/5


(Christopher Mast / NHLI via Getty Images)

Record: 16-10-3

Why they’re excelling: The Kraken have scored a ton of goals. They’re one of the league’s deepest offensive attacks, with all four lines presenting a legitimate scoring threat. How many teams can boast having someone like Daniel Sprong, who has seven goals and 16 points in 22 games while averaging 10 and a half minutes per game, on the fourth line?

Matty Beniers has been an offensive engine in the top six. Andre Burakovsky’s living up to his shiny new contract with 27 points in 29 games. Jared McCann is the club’s sharpest shooter with 13 goals in 26 games, providing stability on Beniers’ wing. It’s helped having Brandon Tanev and Jaden Schwartz healthy compared to last season too. The blue line’s also chipped in with 17 goals.

Martin Jones held his own when Phillipp Grubauer was out with injury, which definitely wasn’t a given considering his shaky track record going into this season.

Biggest question mark(s) and outlook: I’m not sold on Seattle as an offensive juggernaut. Seattle’s scored five-on-five goals for at the fourth-highest rate of all NHL teams and I don’t think that will last.

The Kraken are deep, yes, but they don’t have star power which is an essential ingredient to sustaining an elite offensive attack. Consider the other teams who are also top-five in the league for five-on-five scoring — New Jersey has Jack Hughes and Jesper Bratt, Florida boasts Matthew Tkachuk and Aleksander Barkov (the Panthers were also the most prolific offensive team in the NHL last year), the Sabres have Tage Thompson who’s third in the NHL in points and the Stars have arguably the best first line in all of hockey led by Jason Robertson.

Seattle ranks 19th in generating shots and 21st in expected goals at five-on-five which means they aren’t creating an elite volume of high-danger chances either.

NHL’s top 5v5 scoring teams

Team

  

Shots For/60

  

Expected Goals For/60

  

Goals For/60

  

36.6 (2nd)

3.25 (1st)

3.18

36.8 (1st)

3.14 (2nd)

3.09

30.7 (13th)

2.65 (13th)

3.02

29.5 (19th)

2.56 (21st)

2.98

30 (15th)

2.72 (10th)

2.91

Seattle’s the only team in the NHL shooting over 10 percent at five-on-five. Given the middling underlying numbers and lack of elite scoring talent, I expect that conversion rate will fall back down to Earth. We’re already starting to see the scoring dry up as they’ve been held to two or fewer goals scored in five of their seven games so far in December.

I like the roster enough to believe they’ll hang around the playoff race (and they’re entertaining as heck to watch so I’d love to see them get in), but I’m not convinced they can stave off a team like the Flames, who are within striking distance and currently below the playoff bar, for the entire season.

Making the playoffs confidence meter: 2/5


(Dave Reginek / NHLI via Getty Images)

Record: 13-10-6

Why they’re excelling: Dominik Kubalik, making just $2.5 million for this season and next, has been one of the NHL’s savviest offseason acquisitions. He’s second on the team with 25 points in 29 games and tied with Dylan Larkin for the goal-scoring lead. That boosted production has been needed because of Tyler Bertuzzi and Jakub Vrana’s top-six absences. Filip Hronek has been a surprise breakout player as well, contributing 24 points in 29 games from the back end on top of improved all-around play-driving numbers.

David Perron’s a tidy pickup with nine goals and 21 points through 29 games.

Ville Husso has been a rock between the pipes. Detroit bet on him despite a limited track record and he’s rewarded them with a .918 save percentage, saving 10.3 goals above expected according to Evolving-Hockey’s model. Derek Lalonde has the club defending with more structure which has been a welcome evolution from last season when the Wings looked like one of the NHL’s worst defensive teams.

Oh, and they’ve managed this success without requiring superstar breakout campaigns from Moritz Seider or Lucas Raymond. If those two start seriously rolling, it’d raise the team’s ceiling.

Biggest question mark(s) and outlook: Detroit, unfortunately, profiles like a team that should fade. They don’t have enough superstar, elite offensive pieces — Larkin’s been excellent this season but there isn’t a single player on pace to eclipse the point-per-game mark. That explains why the Red Wings are 24th in the league in goals for per game.

Detroit’s controlled just 45.1 percent of five-on-five shot attempts which ranks 28th in the NHL, ahead of only the lowly Blue Jackets, Ducks, Coyotes and Blackhawks. They rank 29th in controlling five-on-five scoring chances according to Natural Stattrick. Teams that get outshot and outchanced by wide margins at even strength can stay afloat if they have elite special teams but their power play (25th) and penalty kill (18th) both rank below league average.

The first two weeks of December presented a challenging schedule and the Red Wings have started to crumble. They’ve lost to all of the Golden Knights, Stars, Panthers, Hurricanes and Wild this month, with their only wins coming against the Lightning and Blue Jackets.

Despite their decent record, their goal differential is already minus six.

This has been an encouraging year of progress, but I wouldn’t bank on the Red Wings staying alive in the stacked Eastern Conference’s playoff mix.

Making the playoffs confidence meter: 1.5/5


(Rich Graessle / Getty Images)

New Jersey Devils

Record: 21-7-2

Why they’re excelling: It seems almost foolish to bring New Jersey into a conversation about playoff legitimacy because they’ve looked so convincing and dominant. The hockey world’s perception of the Devils has changed in the blink of an eye that we forget most people didn’t pick them to make the playoffs heading into this season.

We knew Jack Hughes would be elite but Nico Hischier’s dominant play behind him has created a nightmare for opponents. New Jersey’s blue line is excellent with Dougie Hamilton rebounding in a huge way, John Marino proving to be an excellent fit and the industry waking up to the fact that Jonas Siegenthaler is a shutdown ace.

New Jersey crushes teams on the shot clock, in the scoring chance battle and then finally on the score sheet.

The Devils are also finally getting saves after suffering from some of the league’s worst goaltending last season. Vitek Vanecek has been solid and Akira Schmid (he’s a real player, I promise) has posted a .939 save percentage in seven appearances.

Biggest question mark(s) and outlook: The Devils have quietly lost four straight. That’s not ideal entering a daunting six-game stretch where they play the Bruins twice, Hurricanes twice, Penguins and Panthers. Young, inexperienced teams can be prone to massive peaks and equally low valleys so it’s going to be crucial that the Devils don’t unravel during their first big test of adversity.

Overall, I wouldn’t be worried. New Jersey handily outplayed its opponent during most of the recent losses, scoring just two goals combined on more than 80 shots the last two games, the club just couldn’t get any bounces or luck with finishing. Those fortunes should reverse.

Making the playoffs confidence meter: 4.5/5


(John E. Sokolowski / USA Today)

Record: 17-13-1

Why they’re excelling: The Islanders boast arguably the best goaltending tandem in the NHL. Ilya Sorokin is taking a legitimate run at the Vezina Trophy and Semyon Varlamov has been solid behind him, pitching a .916 save percentage in 11 appearances. The spotlight has been shining bright on Sorokin but Varlamov’s impact can’t be overlooked. NHL starters can’t excel handling 65 starts like they once did so having a dependable No. 2 is vital. Lou Lamiorello made a gutsy decision to hang onto Varlamov instead of dealing him and reallocating that cap space to upgrading the forward group. Because of that, the Islanders have two starting-caliber goaltenders in a league where many teams can’t even find one.

The Islanders’ blue line has been more active offensively under Lane Lambert. They’ve combined for 21 goals from the back end, which is one of the highest marks in the NHL.

Mathew Barzal and Brock Nelson are both scoring at a point-per-game clip which gives the Islanders a critical offensive backbone down the middle.

Biggest question mark(s) and outlook: Honestly, the biggest concern regarding the Islanders’ playoff hopes has nothing to do with the team itself. It has everything to do with them being stuck in the Metropolitan, which is by far the deepest division in hockey. The competition is fierce and the Isles are going to be right on the bubble. Even in the wild-card race, they’ll have to contend with the Panthers, who won the Presidents’ Trophy last season, and the Capitals, who’ve heated up and will be getting healthy bodies back, right on their heels.

Scoring has long been the concern for the Islanders. They’re producing enough now but the roster could desperately use a top-line game-breaking winger. Until then the Islanders will have to work extra hard to manufacture goals.

Their underlying numbers are middling across the board, but they’re no stranger to making the playoffs despite that, plus it’s much less of a concern considering their elite goalie tandem.

This is going to come right down to the wire — the Isles are an accomplished, veteran team which undoubtedly helps but I think they’ll need to add an impact forward to cross the line.

Making the playoffs confidence meter: 2.5/5

(Top photo: James Carey Lauder / USA Today)

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