Few sports involve more random variation than hockey. Over the course of an 82-game season, a handful of bounces will affect players and teams one way or another, but eventually statistical regression will take its toll.
Take the 2022-23 Boston Bruins as an example. They simply could not miss last year. They hung crooked numbers on opposing teams while Linus Ullmark turned the best season of his career into a Vezina Trophy. I would bet against the Bruins waltzing through the Atlantic Division this year, and not just because of personnel turnover.
Of course, regression isn't always bad. In fact, it presents hope for a team like the Calgary Flames. They did a lot of things right in 2022-23, but they wound up missing the playoffs because the results on the scoreboard didn't always match the underlying process. That's why I think they might be a little underrated coming into the season.
With the 2023-24 season right around the corner, let's take a look at the teams and players most likely to experience some regression.
The Bruins could do no wrong last year, especially at five-on-five. With both teams at full strength, they led the league in save percentage (93.87%) and ranked second in shooting percentage (9.68%), according to Natural Stat Trick. On top of that, Boston outperformed its expected five-on-five goal differential of plus-21 by a whopping 64 goals for an actual differential of plus-85
David Pastrnak exploded for 61 goals last season. That was 13 more goals than his previous career high, and while he is certainly one of the best wingers in the league, it's fair to wonder whether he can replicate that effort. Additionally, goaltender Linus Ullmark won the Vezina Trophy with some jaw-dropping numbers. Ullmark has always been a solid netminder, but he was head and shoulders above his peers in 2022-23. I'm a little skeptical he can string together back-to-back seasons like that.
Part of Ullmark's success stemmed from playing behind one of the best defensive teams in the league, but the retirement of Patrice Bergeron will be especially costly in that area. The six-time Selke Trophy winner might be the best defensive forward ever to play the game, and it's hard to imagine the Bruins being as strong at that end of the ice without him.
On top of Bergeron, the Bruins also lost David Krejci and Taylor Hall this offseason. Those three combined for 59 goals in 2022-23, which means Boston will need others to step up on offense. At the moment, Charlie Coyle and Pavel Zacha are the team's top two centers, which raises some questions about the Bruins' ability to light the lamp.
I think anyone expecting the Bruins to completely fall off a cliff this year will be disappointed. There is still a lot to like about this roster, but Boston won't be cruising to the Presidents' Trophy. The 2023-24 season will be much more of a slugfest at the top of the Atlantic Division.
The Bruins did everything right last year, and they were rewarded for it in spades. They kept nailing 21s at the blackjack table, and their heater lasted for 82 games. The Flames, on the other hand, did a lot of things right and left the table penniless while looking up the lowest Greyhound fares back to Alberta. I expect Calgary to bounce back in 2023-24.
Much like Boston, Calgary's underlying numbers at five-on-five were pretty impressive. The Flames were third in expected goals share at 55.41%, but they were 14th in actual goals share at 51.85%, per Natural Stat Trick. In all situations, the Flames were dead last in team shooting percentage (8.75%) and 24th in save percentage (88.99%). Calgary had atrocious puck luck at both ends of the ice.
One of the biggest reasons the Flames missed the 2023 postseason was goaltender Jacob Markstrom's disastrous season. He allowed 18.32 goals above average and posted a .892 save percentage. Those are the easily worst numbers of Markstrom's career, and while he is now 33, I don't believe Markstrom is one of the worst netminders in the NHL. If he can rebound and have an average year, Calgary could very well be back in the playoffs next spring.
Jonathan Huberdeau, Nazem Kadri and MacKenzie Weegar all took a step back statistically in their first season with the Flames. That also contributed to Calgary's disappointing season, but how much of that was on them and how much of it was on the catastrophic vibes curated by former head coach Darryl Sutter? That type of thing can't be captured on a spreadsheet, but something was very off with the Flames last year. Perhaps new head coach Ryan Huska can get things back on track.
Everything that could go wrong for the Flames did last year. Despite that, they were two points out of a playoff spot. Even with the loss of winger Tyler Toffoli, I do think the law of averages will kick in, and Calgary will be in the 2024 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
The Kraken experienced quite the turnaround in 2022-23. They went from being one of the worst teams in the NHL to reaching the playoffs and defeating the defending champs in the first round. It was an encouraging season in Seattle, but the team might take a slight step back in 2023-24.
Last year, the Kraken led the NHL with a five-on-five shooting percentage of 10.34%. That is high, but it could be somewhat sustainable if Seattle was stacking high-danger scoring chances left and right. However, the team also ranked 25th in high-danger chances with 707, according to Natural Stat Trick. The Kraken were on a shooting bender for much of the season, and I'm not sure they can repeat that for their next 82-plus games.
Jared McCann was the most prominent member of the Kraken who broke out for a huge season in 2022-23. He scored 40 goals, 13 more than his previous career high. He also scored on 19.0% of his shots, good for 6.9% above his career high. McCann wasn't alone in his ascension. Eeli Tolvanen scored 16 goals in 48 games while shooting 16.5% after getting picked up by Seattle, and journeyman Daniel Sprong became a 21-goal scorer.
Beyond the questions about how much of their offense is built to last, the Kraken still have real concerns in goal. The trio of Joey Daccord, Philipp Grubauer and Martin Jones combined for -30.63 goals saved above average. I would say it has to improve in 2023-24, but this issue has plagued Seattle for two straight seasons now, so it seems to be a trend with this team. The offense bailed out the goaltending last year, but that may not be the case again this season.
There are reasons to believe the Kraken will make me look foolish. Matty Beniers is a superstar on the rise, and a healthy Andre Burakovsky will only help the offense. Having said that, there are still some real questions about this Seattle roster in a Pacific Division with some legit contenders at the top.
The Kings had a really strong season last year. They finished third in the Pacific Division, but they also got eliminated by the Edmonton Oilers in the first round of the playoffs for the second year in a row. I think this season could be different for Los Angeles -- both in the regular season and the postseason.
Despite posting some pretty strong five-on-five numbers, the Kings underperformed a bit on the actual scoreboard. Their expected five-on-five goal differential was right around plus-20, but their actual goal differential came out to just plus-10. Los Angeles probably deserved a better fate at times, as evidenced by their 8.14% shooting percentage, which was 22nd in the NHL.
While the offense lagged a little bit behind expectations last year, the goaltending is what really kept the Kings from hitting their ceiling. Jonathan Quick and Cal Petersen were dreadful between the pipes last year, and both of those players are now gone. Phoenix Copley came in and provided something resembling league average goaltending, and he compiled a record of 24-6-3. Los Angeles also added Cam Talbot on a one-year deal this offseason, but expect the team to sniff around the trade market in hopes of getting a true difference-maker in the crease.
On top of some potential positive regression on the stat sheet, the Kings also made a splash this offseason when they dealt Gabriel Vilardi, Alexi Iafallo, Rasmus Kupari and a second-round pick to the Winnipeg Jets in exchange for Pierre-Luc Dubois. That trade gives Los Angeles a three-headed monster down the middle of the ice if it chooses to play Dubois at center. Anze Kopitar, Philip Danault and Dubois are as good a trio as you're going to find.
The Kings are set to build upon an already solid 2022-23 season. They have accumulated some strong veteran talent, and if young players like Quinton Byfield and Arthur Kaliyev can take the next step, Los Angeles will have a shot to dethrone the Vegas Golden Knights in the West.
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins | C | Edmonton Oilers
Prior to the 2022-23 season, Nugent-Hopkins had never tallied more than 28 goals or 69 points in a single season. Last year, he blew those away with a career year that featured 37 goals, 67 assists and 104 points. That will be a hard act for Nugent-Hopkins to follow in 2023-24.
The Oilers were an offensive juggernaut last year, scoring 325 goals, which was at least 20 more than any other team. Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, Hyman and Nugent-Hopkins all scored at least 30 goals. While McDavid and Draisaitl might be capable of reproducing their success, it will be tougher for Nugent-Hopkins, who scored on 18.4% of his shots. That shooting percentage is 6.2% higher than his career average.
Aside from his shooting percentage coming down to Earth, Nugent-Hopkins also faces the dreaded aging curve. The former No. 1 overall pick is now 30 years old, and it is unusual to see players put up career numbers at that age. Nugent-Hopkins is still more than capable of being a strong top-six forward, but I don't think he will hit the 100-point mark again.
If Nugent-Hopkins does find a way to prove me wrong, it's probably because his usage and production on the power play remains high. Edmonton's first power play unit rarely came off the ice last year, and Nugent-Hopkins did a lot of damage on the man advantage. He notched 15 goals and 38 assists on the best power play in the league.
In 2021-22, Gaudreau's final season with the Calgary Flames, Gaudreau went off for 40 goals and 115 points. That earned him a big contract from the Blue Jackets, and he was due for some regression last year. However, the hockey gods might have overcorrected a bit, and Gaudreau had a somewhat disappointing debut in Columbus.
The good news for Gaudreau is that a disappointing year involved 21 goals and 74 points. Having said that, his 0.8 goals/60 was tied for a career low and represented half of his 1.6 goals/60 in 2021-22. A lower than average shooting percentage probably had something to do with that. Gaudreau lit the lamp on 9.5% of his shots, which was 3.0% lower than his career average.
The other factor that might present some hope for Gaudreau is that the Blue Jackets have a couple of talented young forwards in their core. Kent Johnson and Cole Sillinger, both former first-round picks, have shown some promise at the NHL level. If they can take the next step, Gaudreau might be flanking a dynamic young center in 2023-24.
Columbus has already endured some drama this offseason,just over two months after he took the job. On top of that, the Blue Jackets are still a work in progress, so I don't expect Gaudreau to repeat his big 2021-22 numbers. Still, he should bounce back after an uneven first season with the Jackets.
Josh Morrissey | D | Winnipeg Jets
Last season, Morrissey went from being a somewhat unheralded and underrated defenseman to being an offensive juggernaut. Thanks to more involvement on the power play, Morrissey set new career highs in goals (16), assists (60) and points (76). That blew his previous career high of 37 points out of the water and somewhere into the outer layers of the atmosphere.
Morrissey shot 9.3% last year, which was 2.9% higher than his career high and relatively high in general for a defenseman who let 172 shots fly. Tony DeAngelo and Alex Pietrangelo were right around Morrissey in the shots on goal category, and they shot 6.3% and 6.5%, respectively. Aside from the goal-scoring, Morrisseey recorded 1.9 assists/60. That was nearly double his career high of 1.1 assists/60. It's just hard to see Morrissey producing at a rate on par with the best offensive defenseman in the league again in 2023-24.
Like Nugent-Hopkins, there is a path for Morrissey to potentially replicate his jaw-dropping numbers. Morrissey was a power play monster last season, and the Jets left him out there as much as possible. He was the power play quarterback and finished the year with 28 points on the man advantage.
MacKenzie Weegar | D | Calgary Flames
Following the blockbuster trade between the Flames and Florida Panthers in the summer of 2022, Calgary signed Weegar to an eight-year extension worth $50 million. That is a big contract for a player of Weegar's age, but he played to that level last season, even if it didn't show up on the scoresheet or in the standings.
In his first year with the Flames, Weegar scored four goals and notched 27 assists while the team missed the postseason. Those numbers were a step back from his final year with the Panthers, but not by too much. Plus, Weegar scored on a miserable 2.5% of his shots on goal. Between that and his strong underlying numbers, Weegar should be just fine in 2023-24.
The puck luck will have to fix itself, but Weegar is doing everything else right. Last year, the Flames controlled 58.23% of the expected goals share and 56.36% of the actual goals share with Weegar on the ice at five-on-five, per Natural Stat Trick. He was excellent. He just didn't always get rewarded for his efforts.
With Weegar's extension kicking in this year, he will be under the microscope in Calgary, and I think people will like what they see. Weegar has proven that he is a bona fide top-pairing defenseman, and I don't expect that to change in 2023-24.