The first two rounds will feature intra-divisional play: The No. 1 seed faces the No. 4 seed, and the No. 2 and No. 3 seeds will battle each other. As a result, the Toronto Maple Leafs, who are set to win the North Division, will catch a huge break. By virtue of winning the division, they are likely to play the Montreal Canadiens, who wouldn’t even qualify for the postseason under the old format.
Just how much of an advantage will the Maple Leafs get? Based on their 2020-21 results, we would expect Toronto (34-13-6, 74 points, plus-41 goal differential) to beat Montreal (24-20-9, 57 points, minus-6 goal differential) 77 percent of the time in a seven-game series with home-ice advantage.
Toronto is one of the best scoring teams in the NHL and has a treasure trove of elite talent. Auston Matthews leads the league in goals (40), and Mitch Marner ranks third in points (66). That said, in a normal year, Toronto would be the third-best team in the Atlantic Division, behind the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Florida Panthers, and would play the division’s second-best team in the first round. There would be no home-ice advantage in that scenario for the Maple Leafs, and we would expect them to win just 45 percent of the time. If those win rates were held constant throughout the postseason, Toronto’s chances to win the Stanley Cup would sit at just 4 percent. With the format change, they’re at 35 percent.
The winner of the East Division, whether it is the Washington Capitals (73 points) or the Pittsburgh Penguins (75 points), also will catch a break, albeit a much smaller one. Under the normal format, neither Washington nor Pittsburgh would be the Metropolitan Division winner. That honor would go to the Carolina Hurricanes, this year who lead the Central Division (and all of the NHL) with 80 points in 54 games. As such, Washington and Pittsburgh would meet in the first round. However, as it stands heading into this weekend, the East winner is likely to host the fourth-place New York Islanders (68 points).
If the Islanders’ first-round opponents are the Capitals, we would expect Washington to win a seven-game series with home-ice advantage 72 percent of the time. If it’s the Penguins facing New York, we would expect Pittsburgh to win a seven-game series with home-ice advantage 69 percent of the time. If the Capitals and Penguins were to meet in the first round, Washington would have just a 55 percent chance to win.
But the Islanders are better on paper than their record reflects. New York has outscored opponents 111-91 at even strength, giving it the 10th-best even-strength goal differential. For comparison, Pittsburgh ranks fifth (plus-29) and Washington is seventh (plus-24). Yet after adjusting for shot quality and volume, the Islanders should have the fifth-best goal differential, significantly better than the Capitals (12th) and the Penguins (17th).
2020-21 at even strength
Actual goal differential
Expected goal differential
New York Islanders
New York also has one of the most productive lines in the NHL. The trio of Anthony Beauvillier, Brock Nelson and Josh Bailey has outscored opponents 18-7 at even strength, giving them the third-best goal differential among the 29 forward lines that have skated at least 200 minutes together.
Like the Canadiens, the St. Louis Blues are also fortunate as near-locks for the playoff field. They would be on the outside looking in under the traditional format but will get a taste of the postseason this year thanks to the new one. Conversely, the Arizona Coyotes won’t get a pass into the playoffs despite notching 50 points in 54 games. Their points percentage would have been good enough for fourth place in the Pacific Division under the old rules, but this year the Coyotes are fifth in the West Division, six points behind the Blues, pushing them out of the playoff picture.