Monday, October 30, 2006

Is Buffalo The Best Team In The NHL?

The Buffalo Sabres came very close to knocking off the eventual Stanley Cup champion Carolina Hurricanes in the semi-finals last season. They probably would have were it not for a very injured defence. They started off this season with a winning streak that tied the record for consecutive wins at the beginning of a season (with 10). Therefore many people are rating them the best tream in the NHL (for example the TSN power rankings). These kinds of rankings cannot be taken too seriously, because it is fairly routine that a team goes on a three game losing streak and suddenly drops 10-15 points. Isn't that a huge overreaction to a minor speedbump?

In an effort to better quantify the power ranking process, David Johnson's Hockey Analysis has a system that uses the record to date (adjusted to call any game that goes to a shootout a tie and subtracts any overtime loss points) and adjusts it for the strength of schedule that teams have played against (which in the days of the unbalanced schedule can vary widely).

The first thing that David noticed is that three of buffalo's wins came in shootouts. Prior to the lockout, their record would have been 7-0-3 in their first 10 games and not 10-0. Its not accurate to say that the "record" they tied is as big as achievement as that of the 1993 Toronto Maple Leafs who went 10-0 without shootouts (but did not win the Stanley Cup). The shootout makes Buffalo's record look better than it is. When we look even deeper, we see that Buffalo faced a pretty low level of competition. They played teams off to very weak starts like Philadelphia, Boston and the NY Islanders and Rangers. In fact Buffalo faced the fourth worst quality of opposition by Johnson's rankings (as of October 25th). Once again, I will conclude that some pundits are overrating Buffalo. They are not as good as a first glance at their record might indicate.

Buffalo is not the best team in the NHL. In fact, Johnson rates them 12th. His rankings have San Jose as the best team in the NHL. However, in the era of enforced parity it is probably most correct to say that no one team is the best in the NHL. The difference between the 1st and 12th place teams is small. A slump or an injury could change their order. A couple slumps and injuries and the best teams are missing the playoffs. Is this a good thing? Most of the league has a chance at being in first place and winning the cup, but nobody is truly great. As a fan we lose out on the chance to see truly great teams because all the teams are not too far removed from average.

I totally agree and blogged about something similar when the Wild were on their winning streak and then again when Buffalo was on theirs.

I think it definitely has a lot to do with the schedule and caliber of teams you're playing. Not that Buffalo isn't a strong team, I just don't think they're unbeatable.
It's interesting you use my power rankings as evidence Buffalo is over rated because I do think that Buffalo is one of the best teams in the NHL and feel my power rankings probably drag them down too much. They may not have any superstars but they can put out 3 lines that can score and have a very solid and deep defense and Ryan Miller is the real deal in goal. Though they don't have the experience that the Hurricanes did last year they are a fairly similar team. Few stars but lots of good to very good players and top tier goaltending. I picked them to win the Stanley Cup and I think they still have as good a chance as anyone.
I picked them to win the Stanley Cup and I think they still have as good a chance as anyone.

I think its reasonable to say that about 20 teams in the NHL have as good a chance as anyone of winning the Stanley Cup. If a team was any more than slightly above average, the salary cap would see them broken up. That makes all the teams that come in around average as teams with legitimate cup chances.

None of these teams are great. Great teams wont exist in this formation of the NHL. Fans will not see another great team for a long time. Fans will see a bunch of average teams which sometimes get hot and sometimes run off a streak of wins (especially when they are playing weaker teams like Buffalo has) and thats the best they will get. One of these average teams wilol win the Stanley Cup - because somebody has to win it. The media may declare them a great team since they won the cup, but like the 2006 Hurricanes, they wont seriously be considered an all time great club.

David, I think your power rankings are great. At some point I want to write more abvout them.
I mostly agree about there not likely to be many if any great teams left. Pittsburgh has the potential to be a great team a couple of years from now before Malkin and Staal come off their rookie contracts if they play their cards right. Crosby will be a superstar. Malkin will be a superstar. Staal should be a great player. Fleury's goaltending looks to be finally on track. Whitney is looking to be developing into a solid defenseman. Gonchar should still be a good offensive D-man 2 years from now. Armstrong will provide some grit and energy. That is a pretty good core group of players which won't all be making huge gobs of salary. Add a few good free agent signings and it could be a scary good team. But yeah, maybe only for a year or two when they will have to be dismantled.
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