Which NHL teams have built around their stars the best (and worst)

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Let’s start with a stunning stat here: A member of the Edmonton Oilers’ current bottom-six (their third or fourth line) has not scored a goal (not a single goal) since November 23. That is not only a stretch of eight games, it is a stretch of nine games that has seen the Oilers go 3-5-0 and plummet down the standings after an incredibly fast start to the season.

It is a problem that has plagued the Oilers for years now and been the single biggest thing holding them back during the Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl era.

It has been so bad that when neither player is on the ice during 5-on-5 play the Oilers have been outscored by a 42-82 margin during 5-on-5 play since the start of the 2020-21 season.

That is bad. Awful. Horrific. Just terrible support for two generational talents that should be the foundation of a Stanley Cup contender right now.

But just how bad, awful, and horrific is it? How does that compare to the rest of the league when their two best players are not on the ice? Well, funny you should ask that (you did ask that, right?) because we have the answers for you and attempted to look at which teams are doing the best, and worst job at supporting their stars and why it matters.

First, here is the simple methodology I used:

  • I took each team’s top two forwards in terms of salary cap hit.
  • Looked at how those teams performed from a goals for and goals against perspective without them on the ice.
  • This only takes into account 5-on-5 scoring. While special teams are important, your best players are going to play the bulk of the power play time and impact it, while 5-on-5 play is generally a good barometer for what a team is really capable of.

Why I think this matters and is important:

  • Superstars are an essential part of a championship team. But they can not do it alone. Hockey does not allow for it because your best players are only going to play a third of the game, leaving two thirds of the game for the rest of the team to have to make an impact. Your superstars will not score every game, no matter how good they are, and when they do not somebody else has to pick up the slack. If nobody else can, your team is going to lose.
  • While simply looking at salary cap commitment does not necessarily give you the “best” player on a team, they are still significant players because A) the team thought highly of them to commit that much money to them, and B) every dollar that goes to them is a dollar that can not be spent elsewhere.
  • You better have players beyond your top-two that can contribute.

So with all of that said, here are the top-10 teams in goal differential so far this season when their top-two cap hit forwards are NOT on the ice.

Okay, the Kings are … interesting. The thing holding them back here is that one of those two top salary cap guys (Brown) is having a miserable season on his own, and spends the bulk of his time playing next to Kopitar. When the Kopitar-Brown duo is off the ice, the Kings’ goal differential drops down closer to 50% out of the top-10.

The rest of these teams, though, are generally pretty good and either in a playoff spot right now or very close to a playoff spot. Some of these teams are among the best teams in the league (Tampa Bay, Carolina, Florida, Toronto, Minnesota) or just outside of that group (Pittsburgh, St. Louis).

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Washington (52% goal share without Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom — who has yet to play this season) is the next team just outside the top-10. So again, an outstanding team.

Now, let’s look at the bottom of the list. The teams with the WORST goal differential when their top-two stars are off the ice.

Oh, hello.

This is a grim, grim picture for Edmonton because every other team on this list is absolutely awful. Among the worst teams in the league, and already teams with almost no chance of making the playoffs this season.

Then there is the one team even worse than all of them in Edmonton. It is a testament to McDavid and Draisaitl that this team is even remotely competitive because that bottom-six is, quite literally, the worst in the NHL, and not by a small margin either.

Just for laughs, let’s go back and look at the 2020-21 season and look at the top-10 and bottom-10 teams.

Here is the top-10 with the same metric.

Another interesting team at the top in the Jets, but keep in mind that Jets team made the playoffs and won a playoff series. So by no means a bad team, and everybody else in that list is really good, including the Presidents’ Trophy winners (Colorado), both Stanley Cup Final teams (Tampa Bay and Montreal) and all four final four teams (Tampa Bay, Montreal, New York Islanders, and Vegas). Most of these teams had top-tier talents, and great depth to support them. As a result, they won a lot of games and generally did very well in the playoffs. All of them were playoff teams, and seven of them won at least one playoff round. The three that did not (Pittsburgh, Nashville, and Minnesota) lost their first-round matchups to other teams in the top-10 on this list.

Washington, Florida, and Toronto were the next three teams outside of the top-10 on this ranking. Also playoff teams (and very good playoff teams).

Now, again, the bottom-10 teams.

Same story as above. Every team here was among the worst in the league with the lone exception of, again, Edmonton at the absolute bottom. Another testament to how good those top two players (McDavid and Draisaitl) are with so little help around them. Anaheim and New Jersey were the next two teams above this group.

Edmonton does share one thing in common with the other nine teams here: They won zero playoff games in this season.

The big takeaway from this should be this: If your team does not have balance throughout its lineup, and if it does not have players that can pick up the slack and remain competitive when your two best players are not on the ice, your chances of success disappear almost entirely.

As it relates to this season, it should give you at least some optimism if you are a fan of one of those top teams. And if you are an Edmonton fan, well, you better hope the front office has some magic moves ahead.

[Data in this post via Natural Stat Trick]