Looking at the National Hockey League standings, the first thing you notice is the Toronto Maple Leafs sitting in pole position. But is it real?

The answer is yes. In my seven years at TSN, that was the easiest piece I’ve written to date!

Now for a more interesting question along those same lines. Some recent discussion has centered on whether the Maple Leafs have merely been reaping the benefits of forced temporary realignment and an apparently weaker division, or are a genuinely improved team that is putting daylight between themselves and other playoff contenders.

One roadblock in answering that question is the fact that the divisions are locked, meaning no interdivisional play this season. Stare at the standings long enough, and you could convince yourself that both answers are correct.

But we can try to quantify what impact the divisional restructuring has had on performance, mostly because the intervening off-season was unlike any other.

Normal off-seasons generally involve significant player movement and organizational changes, so year-to-year changes in performance are anticipated. But this off-season was eerily quiet, in large part due to an unexpectedly flat salary cap. Outside of a couple of teams (the Montreal Canadiens for example) who had the luxury to spend, most were forced to tweak their rosters at the margins and run it back.