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The Tortoise and the Tortoises

The race for last place wasn't much of a race last season. At this time last season the Oilers had a seven-point "lead" on the Toronto Maple Leafs, and nine points on the Carolina Hurricanes. In other words, it was pretty well decided that they would finish dead last. This season, the race is much tighter with four teams within four points of last place, and the Oilers will really need to fail hard in order to become the first team since the 1997-99 Tampa Bay Lightning to finish at the bottom of the heap for two seasons in a row. The stretch drive is back!

The Devils, Senators, Islanders, and Oilers are the four teams vying for the prestigious role of league doormat, and the first thing that jumps out to me on that list is the presence of New Jersey - they don't belong there. Looking at even strength numbers with the score tied (through the first 692 games on the schedule), we can see that the Devils are pretty clearly the best club at generating puck possession (and this doesn't include their recent run of wins):


The reason they've been suffering is goaltending. That's not likely to fix itself this season, but that save percentage is bad enough that some improvement is likely unless you're being forced to start something less than an average AHL netminder, which brings me to the New York Islanders. Having traded Dwayne Roloson only to see goaltenders Rick DiPietro, Kevin Poulin, and Nathan Lawson go down with injury, and Evgeni Nabokov give them the finger, the team is now stuck with Mikko Koskinen (AHL save percentage this season: .882) in goal for at least a few games. Bryan Pitton wishes he was an Islander. They could use him.

As you might expect, another big problem for many of these clubs has been special teams:


The Devils are bad enough to be worse than most clubs by a significant margin, but the Edmonton Oilers are not most clubs. The Islanders come out surprisingly good, but some of that is no doubt the .883 team save percentage on the PK, which doesn't seem likely to continue (Koskinen's AHL save percentage: .882). The Senators have lost with impressive style over their last ten games, but they once again don't stand out as being truly abominable when compared to their peers. But maybe they have a particularly difficult schedule; let's take a look:


Starting on the left, we see immediately that all four teams play about the same amount of games against teams that are very good (i.e. teams with a goal differential of +15 or better) - in other words, no one is getting a bunch of "easy losses". In the next column, the Oilers' big (dis)advantage stands out: they hardly ever play the other teams on this list. Someone will need to get points in those games, and it ain't going to be the Oilers, which is nothing but good news for Oiler fans who want the tank job to continue in perpetuity (let's trade Hemsky and Penner!). The Oilers and Senators seem to have an advantage since they play fewer back-to-back games, but they also don't have many opponents coming to see them on the second half of back-to-back games so that advantage is mostly illusory. When you consider the fact that the Devils, Islanders, and Senators are playing several of their back-to-back games at home (the Devils have 6 of 8 at home; the Islanders 3 of 8; the Senators 3 of 5; and the Oilers just 1 of 4), what little advantage the Oilers have in this area seems to melt away. Finally, the Oilers have the most favourable ratio of home to away games remaining with three more games at home left than they have on the road, while the Senators have two extra road games. Is that a big deal? Given the paucity of points these teams procure, I can't see the home/road splits making a difference of more than a single standings point.

Prediction time! I think the Islanders win (or lose depending on how you want to look at it) this derby, followed by the Oilers in 29th and the Senators in 28th with the Devils off the podium altogether.