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A curious standings bubble for the Islanders

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" the lower regions of the Eastern Conference, the bottom eight teams – including the Leafs – are on pace for only 82 points or less."

>>James Mirtle, Globe and Mail

The Islanders are one of five teams with 31 points in 31 or more games in the Eastern Conference. Above that group are two more teams, Montreal and Florida (you're welcome, Cats), with 33 points after 34 games. Holy flawed teams, Batman.

There was lots of talk in yesterday's threads about the difference between the Islanders staying in the playoff bubble or staying in the top-five-pick lottery region. A big reason those two groups overlap so much is because the bottom of the East is, by league standards, something awful: As of today, eight of the league's 10 worst teams are in the East. According to Mirtle, that's because the West (per tradition) is whaling on Eastern teams.

Granted, the standings are so tight this stuff can change with one streaky week. But nearly half way through the season, I'm not expecting any of those bottom eight teams -- aside from Philadelphia, perhaps -- to go on an epic run that alters their flawed identity. Contrast today's standings with how things looked a season ago, on Dec. 20, after most teams had played between 31-34 games:

Dec. 20, 2008 Record Pts GF GA
Bos 23-5-4 50 118 74
NYR 22-12-2 46 96 94
Was 20-11-3 43 108 102
Phi 18-8-6 42 114 97
Mon 18-9-5 41 96 83
NJ 18-9-3 39 96 80
Pit 17-11-4 38 109 97
Buf 16-13-4 36 94 94
Car 15-13-5 35 85 99
Fla 14-13-4 32 76 85
Tor 13-13-6 32 101 112
Ott 12-14-5 29 73 83
Atl 11-17-4 26 95 117
NYI 10-20-3 23 81 120
TB 7-16-9 23 72 101


Whereas today in 2009, 8th to 14th place (the Isles) is a spread of 33 to 31 points, in 2008 at this time the difference between 8th and 14th (also the Isles) was a difference of 36 to 23 points. We can say that the Islanders are in top-5 lottery territory today, and we'd be right. But the difference is this year they have a whole lot of company.

Who will end up in the bottom when all is said and done? Well Carolina of course looks a certainty, but what about all these teams in the 31-33 range?

One indicator might be goal differential: Teams that compile an awful goal differential are usually worse (duh!) and more prone to having wheels-fall-off games like the Islanders had yesterday, where one mistake becomes two becomes game, set, match. A look at last year's goal differential (above) at this time gives you some clues of what was to come: The Rangers were living on a Lundqvist kinfe's edge near the top, while the Sens were not nearly as bad as the three teams immediately below them. Carolina was another story entirely, and I must confess I always thought last year's second-half sprint and playoff run masked a bad team.

So at this year's bottom cluster, we have:

Today Record GP Pts. GF GA Dif
Mon 15-16-3 34 33 88 99 -11
Fla 13-14-7 34 33 95 112 -17
Phi 15-15-1 31 31 90 88 +2
NYR 14-15-3 32 31 88 96 -8
TB 11-12-9 32 31 77 94 -17
Tor 12-14-7 33 31 97 116 -19
NYI 12-14-7 33 31 84 107 -23
Car 7-19-6 32 20 77 117 -40


Philadelphia stands out there, having played the fewest games with by far the best goal differential of the group -- and that's including Ray Emery's injury-hindered collapse. If they settle down under Peter Laviolette and continue to get good work out of Brian Boucher, I for one wouldn't be surprised.

Meanwhile, last night's blowout "improved" Florida's goal differential from minus-23 to minus-17, while it dropped the Islanders from minus-17 to minus-23. Florida, Tampa Bay, the Isles and Toronto all appear in similar company -- although the Leafs are a little harder to figure since they started so miserably and have been on a good run lately, with a significant addition in Phil Kessel contributing to that.

All season long, I've viewed the Islanders' hanging in bubble territory as a bonus -- a nice, entertaining run that soothes the misery of last year and temporarily covers their flaws on the blueline. If we're destined to see another top-six pick next June, it's nice that the journey there at least feels less pre-destined than it was last year.

But is the Islanders' run in playoff contention more to do with them improving (Goaltending + Tavares + Moulson), or the teams around them getting worse? It's probably a little of both.