The Dallas Stars continue to roll merrily along at the top of the Western Conference. Through 18 games, they are a franchise best 14-4-0 with possession numbers to back up the record and confidence practically oozing out their ears.
A little bit of lingering uncertainty remains, however, as to whether or not the record needs to be qualified. Some of that is probably an emotional twitch inherited from missing the playoffs six of the last seven seasons; like Pavlov's dogs, we've been trained to react as if the other shoe is always about to drop.
But there is a legitimate question to ask about the team's strength of schedule and what, if any, impact it might be playing this early in the season. After all, the Stars have spent more than half of their season thus far playing Eastern Conference teams, and they haven't run into the meat of their Central Division games just yet.
So the first question to answer is has the Stars schedule been that much easier than other team's so far?
According to the fine folks at Hockey Reference, the answer is yes. In their strength of schedule (SOS) rankings, the Stars have had the second easiest schedule so far this season to the Washington Capitals, or -0.22 "goals" below the league average.
It's worth noting that only three of the seven Central Division teams have "above average" difficulty this point, likely because the teams haven't spent all that much time playing each other. The Winnipeg Jets (fifth at 0.14) , St. Louis Blues (11th, 0.08) and Chicago Blackhawks (13th, 0.06) are on the top half of the league while the Colorado Avalanche (19th, -0.04), Minnesota Wild (21st, -0.11), Nashville Predators (24th, -0.14) and Stars are in the bottom half.
(Those numbers had not been updated after the Hawks game on Sunday against the Flames. Given the Flames are dead last in SRS, defined below, Chicago may very well have dropped below 15th.)
It's also notable that a part of Hockey Reference's Simple Rating System, which is used to help rank the strength of schedule, is partially based on goal differential. As the Stars score a lot of goals and have re-found their ability to score into the empty net, they are likely responsible for knocking their own strength of schedule down.
In other words, beating a team 6-3 (with, say, two empty net goals) knocks that team's SRS down more than beating them by one goal, so high-offense/goal-differential teams will make their opponents slide further down the rankings, regardless of the quality of the teams they're facing.
This will even out over the course of the season as schedules get more data points in them, but it's absolutely something that has to be considered looking at just the first 16-19 games. It's no surprise that bad teams like the Maple Leafs, Ducks and Blue Jackets are in the top five of schedule difficulty while the Canadiens, Rangers, Predators, Stars and Captials are all in the bottom third.
Using those SRS rankings, the Stars (who currently sit third behind the Canadiens and Rangers) have played five of the top 15 teams so far - the Canucks, Wild, Avalanche (insert quip about reliability of rankings here), Sharks, and Bruins. They'll see another - the Capitals - this week, and they'll have plenty of the Predators and Blues as the season goes along. The Penguins and Panthers are 16th and 17th, respectively.
We took at look at the strength of schedule this time last season and ran into the same problem, notably the unbalanced nature of the schedule makes it difficult to tell who is good in their own right and making their opponents look worse than they are. For another comparison, we made a table of how the schedule compared in terms of games against playoff teams from last season.
Here's how this season's version of that chart looks,with green highlights indicating the easiest paths so far and red numbers indicating the most difficult:
Of note, just like the Hockey Reference ranking has issues, this one does as well. Western Conference playoff teams from last season include the woebegone Anaheim Ducks and Calgary Flames, while frightening teams like the Los Angeles Kings and the Stars didn't make the playoffs.
The Eastern Conference flip isn't quite as dramatic, but the Bruins are a notably solid team this season that missed the playoffs last time around while Pittsburgh has had its ups and downs.
Even so, while the Stars have had a chance to feast on Eastern Conference non-playoff teams and thus hasn't really gotten into the meat of the Western Conference schedule, their schedule has been relatively average in terms of distribution. The average number of playoff teams from last season faced is nine, and the Stars have played eight, the same as Nashville, Anaheim, and Vancouver.
On the other hand, the Blues have done extremely well despite a tough schedule in both metrics, and the Kings have taken advantage of a much lighter than average schedule (partially due to the fact that they have played a lot of games in the Pacific Division). The Avalanche are struggling despite easy schedules on both measurements, and the Oilers have struggled with a difficult one. And overall, you can say the Stars schedule has been slightly easier than normal (and will remain so until late December when the Central Division really comes calling).
To be fair, the schedule-makers owed the Stars one after the murderer's row they had to start the 2014-15 season. When we took a look at the schedule this time last year (coincidentally, after the first 18 games of the season), the Stars had played against 11 eventual playoff teams, most of those from the Western Conference. Nine of their first 12 Western Conference games came against eventual playoff teams, seven of those from their own conference. Ouch.
So you can argue the relatively generous schedule this time around is year-over-year regression to a mean, or you can forget last season and say the Stars have had a gift this time around.
However you view it, the Stars have taken advantage of what they've been given and more. They haven't yet lost to a playoff team from last season, after all, and they've demonstrated they can win in most every circumstance (unless those circumstances involve playing the Maple Leafs).
And perhaps most importantly, they are stockpiling both points and confidence in this stretch where the schedule works in their favor. Every team will go through stretches where they have things working for them on paper - the Avalanche have been there this season as well - but the trick is to make it work for you.
Good teams will take advantage of those times to set themselves up for success and give themselves a cushion when things get hairy. That's exactly what Dallas has done thus far.