The Tampa Bay Lightning are having one of the best seasons in NHL history. By now, most hockey fans are aware of that. The Bolts are currently chasing the all-time wins record of 62 set by the Detroit Red Wings in 1995-1996. If they can win three of their final five games, they’ll tie the record. And they’ll break it if they win four.
The Lightning have Nikita Kucherov, who has scored 121 points to become the first player to break 120 points since Sidney Crosby in 2006-2007. Kucherov is chasing the salary cap era record for scoring at 125 points set by Joe Thornton in 2005-2006.
Dom Luszczyszyn of The Athletic wrote a good piece on how the Lightning are probably the best team of the salary cap era. That’s a reasonable premise because the salary cap changed hockey in a fundamental way in terms of roster construction. Comparing to previous eras is difficult.
But I wanted to dig back further anyway. For this article, I pulled data back to 1921-1922, which is the first season where we have goal differentials. All of the data comes from Hockey Reference without whom we would hardly be able to do historical comparisons like this.
This is going to be a chart-heavy article so get ready. First, we’re going to look at violin plots of standings points for every season in the data set. Violin plots are fun in this case because they show both the degree of parity in a given year and how far above the pack the best teams are.
Short fat violins are years with heavy parity. Tall skinny violins are years with a wide range of standings points. If you’re looking for unusual performances at the top or bottom of the standings, you’re looking for seasons where one or two teams are far from the main body of the violin.
The following two plots show every season from 1922 to 2019. You can see how the degree of parity changes over time as well as seasons with an exceptionally good or exceptionally bad team.
The 2019 season stands out from the pack in this view. The Lightning have the most standing points by a comfortable margin. That’s reflected in the shape of the violin. The 1996 season is another obvious one, which makes sense because that point at the top is the Red Wings team the Lightning are chasing for the wins record.
Looking back further, 1989 appears to have a team pulling away from the pack at the top. And even further than that, it gets harder to tell in the eras with less teams but 1930 looks like something interesting is happening.
To put a finer point on this idea and see which teams distanced themselves most from the rest of the league in a given season, we can use z-scores, which are the number of standard deviations an observation is from the mean of that measure. In this case, we’re looking at standings points.
Sure enough, the Lightning are the furthest from the pack in terms of standings points of any team since 1922. And not by a small margin. They have a decent lead on the 95-96 Wings. Looking down the list, we see the Flames and Canadiens are responsible for creating the fun shape in 1989. And the Bruins were the team running away from the rest of the league in 1930.
By this measure, we can reasonably say that the Lightning are the most dominant team in a single season in NHL history.
But standings points aren’t the only measure we can use. We obviously don’t have anything like expected goals or even shots going back to 1922 but we do have goals. And goal differential will give us a better metric to use than simple standings points. After all, two teams with the same standings points might get there different ways. A team that wins every game by three goals would be more dominant than a team that wins every game by one goal.
We’ll look at the same plots as we did for standings points.
This is some fun stuff. Before we get into specific teams, look at the overall trend. This plot does a great job of showing how expansion impacted the league through the 70s and 80s and how wide the talent gap was between the good teams and the bad teams. Compare that to the last 10 seasons where the violins look much more compressed.
Part of that is due to the salary cap but that’s not the only reason because the trend toward more parity started before it institution in 2005. The gap closing between the worst and best teams in terms of identifying and acquiring talent is also probably a primary driver.
Getting back to specific teams, this season again shows the Lightning a good bit ahead of the league. Across other seasons, we see some similarities to the points plot but lots of differences as well.
In terms of z-scores, the Lightning are barely edged out by the 2007-2008 Red Wings here. The 95-96 Wings team that was second in terms of points dominance, is fourth when looking at goal differential.
The Lightning are having the most dominant season in the NHL in terms of standings points since 1922, and the second most dominant in that time frame in terms of goal differential. That’s enough evidence for me to put them at the top of the list. If they can pull ahead of the ‘08 Wings in goal differential, it’ll be a no-brainer.
If you haven’t taken a step back to admire this team yet, this is a good time to do it. Only five regular season games remain. After that, the playoffs start, the stakes rise, and stopping to enjoy it will be more difficult. This is one of the best teams ever and who knows when we’ll see the Lightning or any other team put up regular season results like this next.