With a wild 2023 NHL Trade Deadline firmly in the rear-view mirror and rosters set for the stretch run, the league’s collective attention has shifted to the hotly-contested playoff races in the Eastern and Western Conferences.
Apart from the daily reshuffling in the standings, several records are also in jeopardy of falling at both the individual and team levels, seemingly bringing in a new golden age of NHL hockey.
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No matter your rooting interest or allegiances, there are a host of attention-grabbing storylines to follow as the final day of the 2022-23 regular season (April 13) rapidly approaches. Without further ado, let’s dive into 10 of the biggest storylines to watch before the start of the 2023 Playoffs.
Can Connor McDavid Maintain Historic Scoring Pace?
With Connor McDavid all but locking up the third Hart Trophy of his career, the Edmonton Oilers’ superstar turns his eyes towards reaching two single-season benchmarks that haven’t been met in more than 20 years: 70 goals and 150 points.
No player has scored that many goals since Teemu Selanne and Alexander Mogilny both tallied 76 in the 1995-96 campaign, and Mario Lemieux remains the most recent skater to post 150 points with 161 over 69 games in 1995-96.
Alexander Ovechkin currently holds the salary cap era record (starting with the 2005-06 season) for goals in a season with 65 in 2007-08, while Nikita Kucherov owns the cap-era record for points with 128 in 2018-19.
McDavid’s 55 goals and 127 points on the season have him within striking distance of both benchmarks with 15 games remaining on the Oilers’ regular season schedule. If he maintains his current rate of goalscoring and point-producing and features in all of the Oilers’ remaining games, he is projected to finish the season with 67 goals and 155 points.
Despite the Oilers facing one of the easiest remaining schedules according to Tankathon, scoring the required 15 goals in 15 games to hit 70 seems slightly out of reach although not impossible. Kucherov’s points record could fall as soon as the Oilers’ next game (March 14 against the Ottawa Senators), and 150 points on the season is a much more realistic bar for McDavid to clear.
Even if McDavid falls short of 70 goals, he could still join Ovechkin, Steven Stamkos (60 in 2011-12), and Auston Matthews (60 in 2021-22) as the only skaters to score 60 or more times in a season since the salary cap was instituted. The Oilers’ captain is currently tied with Matthews for the highest goals-per-game pace (both with 0.82 per game), although he already owns the third-best goalscoring campaign of the 21st century using Hockey Reference’s era-adjusted metrics.
If you appreciate the magnitude of watching history in the making, keep an eye on McDavid and the Oilers for the rest of the regular season.
Who Emerges From Eastern Conference Wildcard Race?
Although the automatic playoff spots have virtually been locked up in the Eastern Conference’s Atlantic and Metropolitan Divisions, the East’s wildcard places are still up for grabs with as many as seven teams realistically vying for two spots.
In boasting the most points, the most games remaining, and a middle-of-the-pack schedule difficulty of the group of seven, the Pittsburgh Penguins are in pole position to grab the higher wildcard seed. The difference in points between them as the holders of the first wildcard spot and the Detroit Red Wings is seven points, with several matchups involving any combination of two of the seven teams still to take place.
|Team||Points||Games Left||Schedule Strength|
|New York Islanders||76||14||23rd|
|Detroit Red Wings||69||16||7th|
Despite having the fewest games remaining, the New York Islanders also have the easiest schedule of the seven contenders with five games coming against teams ranked 26th or lower in the league standings.
Though the Ottawa Senators have the league’s most difficult remaining schedule, they are slated to play the Penguins (once), Florida Panthers (twice), and Buffalo Sabres (once) four times collectively over their final 17 games. Win a majority of those games and their playoff outlook looks slightly brighter.
The Sabres and Red Wings, despite mounting a pair of inspired qualifying efforts as they look to shift out of rebuild mode, are among the teams facing a stronger-than-average schedule down the stretch. That’s without mentioning the lack of opportunities to directly take points off of the current wildcard holders, suggesting their unexpected campaigns are likely to be cut short in mid-April.
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Before games were played on March 12, MoneyPuck’s model for playoff odds gave the Penguins (92%), Islanders (47%), and Panthers (39%) the highest odds to qualify for the postseason out of the group of seven.
In comparison, the Senators (16%), Capitals (7%), Sabres (3%), and Red Wings (0.5%) all came in significantly lower due to a combination of factors including games in hand, strength-of-schedule, and overall team quality.
Although the odds don’t appear to be in that quartet’s favour, crazier things have happened, and playoff seeding is often not mathematically settled until the last day of the season. Considering how inconsistent all of those seven clubs have been this season, it’s anyone’s guess as to which two will emerge victorious in the chase for the wildcard slots.
Which Team Wins the Best Odds for the Connor Bedard Lottery?
On the opposite side of the competitive spectrum, a handful of teams are still jostling to ensure they earn the best odds to win the first-overall pick in the 2023 NHL Draft via the draft lottery (date yet to be determined).
Judging by a consolidated view of the scouting industry’s prospect rankings and mock drafts, center Connor Bedard is the overwhelming favourite to be the first name called on June 28. The phenom is viewed as a franchise-changing talent on par with the likes of Auston Matthews, Connor McDavid, Sidney Crosby, and Ovechkin (to name a few) and acquiring him would immediately jumpstart the rebuild of any club fortunate enough to welcome him into their organization.
The current draft lottery rules stipulate that the first two picks of the draft will be awarded via lottery, with the winning teams only able to jump a maximum of 10 places in the draft order. As a result, only teams ranked 22nd or lower at the conclusion of the regular season will be in contention for the coveted first-overall selection.
The second lottery for the second-overall pick takes place after the first overall has been awarded. If a team outside of the bottom-11 wins the first drawing, the first pick is awarded to the worst team and they will be excluded from the second drawing.
By virtue of sitting last in the standings as of this writing, the Columbus Blue Jackets currently own the best odds to land the first-overall pick at 25.5%, which includes the likelihood that a team outside the bottom-11 wins the first lottery.
Other than the Blue Jackets, the San Jose Sharks (13.5%) and the Chicago Blackhawks (11.5%) are the only other teams with a greater than 10% chance of winning the first-overall pick. It’s important to remember that Columbus also carries a 75% chance of not winning the first lottery and that six teams have a 5% chance or better of winning the first pick.
In fact, the Montreal Canadiens could potentially have two kicks at the can since they own the Panthers’ 2023 first-round pick as a result of last year’s Ben Chiarot trade. The Panthers currently sit outside the Bedard range, however, so they may not fall far enough to be in contention for the first-overall selection.
Of the teams currently within the Bedard threshold, the Canadiens (sixth-hardest), Blackhawks (10th-hardest), and Blue Jackets (12th-hardest) are the only ones with an above-average remaining schedule by opponent difficulty.
The difference between the last-place Blue Jackets (47 points) and the Anaheim Ducks (53 points) in fourth-last is six points, with each of the teams in the bottom four playing one another at least once before the season is up.
So, the lottery odds are anything but settled and if the NHL thought that the McDavid-Eichel tank wars were an affront to humanity, they may not be ready for what havoc the Bedard sweepstakes will bring over the last month of the season.
Can the Bruins Set NHL Single-Season Points Record?
The Boston Bruins recently became the fastest team in NHL history to 50 wins in a season by doing so in 64 games compared to the 66 games it took the 1995-96 Red Wings and 2018-19 Tampa Bay Lightning to accomplish the feat.
Although quite a remarkable milestone and one to be celebrated, the Bruins have their sights set on the NHL record for standings points in a season, set by the 1976-77 Canadiens with 132 points in 80 games. The Canadiens didn’t have the benefit of the shootout (the Bruins count two shootout wins on the season) and likely gave up points (and wins) through the yet-to-be-eliminated tie game, as they played to a draw on 12 occasions.
Even so, the Bruins’ accomplishments to date are a marvel to behold in the cap era, with salary restrictions and a slowly-growing cap doing their best to demolish well-built rosters each and every offseason.
With a 50-10-5 record through 65 games, the Bruins currently own the second-best points percentage (PTS%) in modern NHL history (since 1967-68), and the fourth-highest all-time clip.
To eclipse the 1976-77 Canadiens, the Bruins need to collect 28 out of a possible 34 points over their final 17 games of the season. Doing so would mean playing at a .824 PTS% rate over the final month of the season which they had done from the start of this season up to Jan. 28, with a .827 PTS% over their first 49 games.
To set the all-time single-season wins record (currently 62 by the 1995-96 Red Wings and 2018-19 Lightning), the Bruins would need to win 13 of the 17 remaining games which represents the same win percentage they’ve managed all season.
Though the Bruins may be hampered by the desire to manage their stars’ workloads in anticipation of a deep playoff run, their remaining schedule is very favourable. Per Tankathon, they own the ninth-easiest remaining schedule with six games coming against teams ranked 24th or lower in the overall standings.
The Bruins may need to reassess their priorities with the playoffs looming, but etching their names in the record books could prove to be too tantalizing to pass up with history agonizingly within reach.
Are Lightning Finally Running Out of Gas?
Although the Lightning have somewhat righted the course with two wins and five points in their last three games, the 2020 and 2021 Stanley Cup champions have sputtered as of late.
Since the start of 2023, the Lightning have a record of 16-10-5 and their corresponding .597 PTS% ranks 15th in that time. Since February, their record stands at 7-6-5, their PTS% ranks 20th in the league, and they’ve been outscored 61-55 in all situations.
More recently, the Lightning only count three wins over their last 10 games (3-4-3) while being outscored 40-30, including a 6-0 beatdown at the hands of the Carolina Hurricanes. More worrying was that the blowout came after head coach Jon Cooper benched several of his star players in the third period of the previous game and later called them out for their lack of effort.
Goaltenders Andrei Vasilevskiy and Brian Elliott have also struggled recently. Since the beginning of February, Vasilevskiy has posted a save percentage (SV%) of .904 over 13 appearances, with Elliott’s .879 SV% in five games doing little to save face.
Adding to the misery is that Tankathon estimates that the Lightning have the second-most difficult remaining schedule in the NHL. Seven of their final 16 games come against teams ranked seventh or higher in the league standings by PTS%, and six of 16 are against teams ranked fourth or higher.
Notably, they face the upstart New Jersey Devils three more times before the regular season is up, suggesting that this current cold streak could continue for longer than the Lightning would prefer.
The common refrain from defenders of the Lightning has been that they are simply conserving energy, especially when they’ve been locked into a first-round showdown with the Toronto Maple Leafs for months. At this rate, all that’s left to play for is home-ice advantage with the Lightning likely believing their experience and guile can make up for any perceived disadvantage.
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Seeing as they’ve won 48 playoff games since being upset by the Blue Jackets in 2019 (the most in the NHL over that span), it’s hard to argue that they shouldn’t bet on themselves when the going gets tough.
Still, it’ll be difficult to quickly shift into gear against a Maple Leafs squad that loaded up at the trade deadline and looks much improved over the group that took the Lightning to the limit in last year’s first-round series. They deserve some leeway, but time is running out.
NHL Set for Exciting Finish to 2022-23 Regular Season
While the aforementioned storylines will grab most of the headlines, here are five other narratives to follow that should pique your attention before the playoffs kick off in April:
- Can the Seattle Kraken clinch the first-ever playoff spot in franchise history?
- Which team claims the top seed in the Western Conference playoff bracket?
- Can Erik Karlsson become the first defenseman to score 100 points in a season since Brian Leetch did so during the 1991-92 season?
- Will the NHL have six or more 50-goal scorers in a season for the first time since the 1995-96 season?
- Will the NHL have 10 or more 100-point scorers in a season for the first time since the 1990-91 season?
Despite a postseason qualification format that has gotten increasingly stale in recent years, there is still a great deal to play for over the final month of the 2022-23 regular season. Whether your interest lies in watching tight playoff races or the chase for individual scoring records, the NHL has the storyline you seek – stay tuned.
Data courtesy of Hockey Reference, Natural Stat Trick, and the NHL. Statistics are accurate as of March 12.