Two days ago, Hockey News published an article written by Steven Ellis titled AHL Contenders: Breaking Down the Top Six Hopefuls for the Calder Cup. The first team on his list, the Milwaukee Admirals, was no surprise. They’ve dominated in the Central all season. The other teams discussed were the Iowa Wild, the Belleville Senators, the Hershey Bears, the Providence Bruins, and the Hartford Wolf Pack.
Notice anything odd about that list?
How about the fact that the author snubbed an entire division?
That’s right. There’s a whole division over here in the west, and they’re playing some pretty darn good hockey. At least one Pacific Division team deserved a spot on this list at least as much as the Hartford Wolf Pack, if not more. Which team? Well, that’s where things get complicated. But before I get into that, let’s talk about how this might have happened.
Points versus point percentage
The quick and easy way to assess league leaders is to look at points. Here’s how the AHL looks as of March 1, 2020.
Notice the six teams with the most points are the exact teams on Ellis’ list. But assessing teams across the league based on points doesn’t work in the AHL. Why not? Because the Pacific Division plays fewer games than the other three divisions. Playing fewer games will obviously result in fewer points. This doesn’t come up often since the AHL doesn’t have Wild Cards, but when analyzing the entire league, one must resort to point percentage.
The problem with this method is that point percentages vary wildly. In the 24-hour period from February 29 through March 1st, Providence went from ninth place to fifth. Colorado went from fifth to eighth, and then back to sixth. And Stockton went from sixth to ninth.
That’s a lot of movement for a 24-hour period.
Obviously, basing a league-wide assessment on point percentage is also a flawed system. So how do we decide who gets to be on a list of Calder Cup contenders?
The simple answer would be to pick the top team in each division. But when discussing division standings in any league or any sport, one question will always come up: Does being way out front in a division definitely mean that team is amazing or is it only that they’re playing in a weak division? Depending on the league, the division, and the team in question, it could be either. For every example I could give of the former, somebody else could give you an example of the latter. Sometimes, like with this year’s Kansas City Chiefs, it can be both.
My point here is not to argue that the Admirals or Senators aren’t as good as they look. They very well might be. But so far this season, the Pacific Division is 25–14–5–3 against the Central, which is a pretty good indication that they’re a stronger division overall than the Central. (No team in the Pacific has played a team in the Eastern Conference, so there’s no point of comparison against the other divisions.)
Pacific Division Standings
No division in the league is as hotly contested as the Pacific.
In the Atlantic Division, the first place Hershey Bears have a 2-point lead on the second place Providence Bruins and a 14-point lead on the fifth place Springfield Thunderbirds.
In the North, the first place Belleville Senators are eight points ahead of the second-place Rochester American and 15 points ahead of the fifth place Binghamton Devils.
In the Central, the Milwaukee Admirals have a six-point lead on the second-place Iowa Wild and a jaw-dropping 25-point lead on the fifth-place Grand Rapids Griffins.
Some of these first-place teams could end up falling to second, or maybe even third in their divisions, but most of them are in no danger of falling out of the playoff race completely.
And in the Pacific?
At the time of this writing, only four points separate the first-place Tucson Roadrunners from the fifth-place San Diego Gulls.
Absolutely anything could happen in the coming weeks. And this is where we have to examine one big factor that hasn’t been discussed yet.
Any sports fans knows a season can turn on a dime. Look at the 2018–2019 St. Louis Blues. At mid-season, they were dead last in the NHL. Five months later, they were hoisting the Stanley Cup. So let’s talk about some trends in the Pacific Division.
The Roadrunners have been on top of the Pacific for the past few months. But what can’t be seen at a glance is that they’re trending downwards. In mid-December, the New Jersey Devils traded Taylor Hall to the Arizona Coyotes. Part of the return package included two Roadrunners, Nate Schnarr and Nick Merkley. Whether Tucson’s recent skid is only a matter of losing these players, or whether there’s more to it, I don’t know. But there is no denying the numbers. Tucson has been struggling since December. I think they’re likely to end the season third or fourth in the division. They may even end up falling out of the playoffs altogether.
Stockton has been hanging out around the second spot in the division for most of the season. Their only trend seems to be that they’re continuing to do what they’ve been doing all along – playing good, consistent hockey. But is that enough to get them through the playoffs? Only time will tell.
This is an opinion piece, so I can tell you that my husband predicted way back at the beginning of the season that the Pacific would come down to Ontario versus Colorado. The way things are looking right now, he could be right. Since December, each month has been better than the last, and their position in the division has been rising steadily.
San Diego Gulls
Yes, they’re currently in fifth place, but let’s not forget that’s only four points behind the first-place team. They’ve been nipping at Ontario’s heels for more than a month, and they’re on a roll. Like Ontario, each month since December has been better than the last. They went 9–2–2–0 in February. If they can maintain that momentum through March, they could very well leapfrog to the top of the division.
Like the Roadrunners, the Eagles’ season took a sharp turn in December, but in Colorado’s case, the turn was upwards. (You can read more about that here.) They’re getting stronger each week and battling hard for comebacks. (You can read about the most recent one here.) The Eagles are 6–4–0–0 against the top team in the Division, the Tucson Roadrunners. The Eagles also played the Milwaukee Admirals four times this season and went 3–1–0–0 against them. The Admirals have the top-ranked power play in the entire league, but in this weekend’s games, they went 0/7 on the power play against the Colorado Eagles.
Colorado’s numbers across the season look less impressive because of their mediocre start. But if you look at their stats since the first of December? The only Pacific Division team keeping pace with them are the San Diego Gulls. And the Hartford Wolf Pack isn’t even close.
Finally reaching my point
My entire point here is to prove that at least one of the Pacific Division teams deserves to be on Steven Ellis’ list at least as much as the Hartford Wolf Pack. I’m not saying the Wolf Pack are a bad team. They’re not. But like the Roadrunners, the Wolf Pack seem to be trending downwards.
Remember that we can’t go by points here because the Pacific Division plays fewer games. We have to go by point percentage. Based on that, two teams in the Pacific are ahead of them, and a third right on their heels.
As I mentioned above, rankings based on point percentage can change drastically from day-to-day. But since I’m talking about trends, here is Hartford’s point percentage since December against the top five teams in the Pacific:
San Diego: 0.66
The only team not doing better than them is Stockton.