West: Tortoises and Hares (2016)

by Doran Libin on October 24, 2016

The tortoises and hares among Western Conference teams, two weeks into the season…

 

The Canucks and the Oilers are running away with the Pacific division, while Nashville, a preseason favorite, has struggled to get off the blocks. The Kings look to have had their season ruined by Jonathan Quick’s injury unless they can find the next Andrew Hammond-esque sensation. Below are teams that are largely, with one exception, off to starts that are surprising based on expectations coming in.

 

Hares

Vancouver – 4-1-1

In six games thus far this season Vancouver has lead for 13 minutes, been tied for 86 minutes and trailed for 130 minutes at even strength. That is not the distribution of minutes that one would expect from a team that has won four of its first six games and got nine of a possible 12 points. Given that it has been shown that teams tend to carry the run of play more when they are trailing the fact that the Canucks have thus far outshot their opponents is somewhat questionable. Even so, the Canucks are still averaging only 25 shots per minutes, which is very low. Only five teams in the last three years have averaged fewer than 26 shots per 60 minutes. While the Canucks are not generating a lot of shots they are generating lots of scoring chances, almost 10 per 60 minutes.

Only three teams in the last three years have been able to generate more than 10 scoring chances per 60 minutes over a full season, however there are 14 teams averaging more scoring chances per 60 minutes at even strength. The Canucks have not exceeded eight scoring chances per 60 minutes in any of the last three seasons. In short, for the Canucks to continue at this rate they would have to continue to generate an insanely, and unprecedentedly, high percentage of their shots as scoring chances while remaining an elite shot suppression team. Not to mention that the Canucks’ goalies would have to be able to maintain their nearly 95% save percentage at even strength. The Canucks’ goalies have not been able to post such high numbers in any of the last three years. Not much was expected of the Canucks at the beginning of the season and they have greatly over-achieved in a small early sample but just as Brandon Sutter is not the game changing forward he appears to be early in the season the Canucks are similarly unlikely to remain atop the Pacific division.

 

St Louis – 4-1-1

By even strength goal differential the Blues have no business being 4-1-1 as they allow 0.22 more goals per 60 minutes at even strength than they score. Their power play clicking at 26% has helped the Blues to hide their seeming even strength troubles. It would be easy to look at the Blues even strength goal differential and assume that they are struggling at even strength, but that is not the case at all. The Blues have started this season generating shots at a very similar rate as they have for the last three seasons, right around 30 shots per 60 minutes. While maintaining their high shot rate they have returned to their elite shot suppression ways as they currently allow less than 26 shots per 60 minutes. The reason they are getting outscored is because their goaltending has been horrendous. Blues’ goalies are stopping less than 90% of the shots they face, which is two percentage points below the league average, more at even strength. They are allowing more scoring chances than they have in the past but not to the extent that it explains their horribly low save percentage.

Given that Jake Allen has had an even strength save percentage over 92% the previous two seasons it is safe to say that the Blues goaltending will improve. There is room for Allen to have a great season, should he be able to avoid injury, if the Blues continue to play so well defensively. The Blues should be one of the best teams in the league this year, especially as their power play has clicked at a 20% or better rate in three of the last four seasons.  

 

Edmonton – 5-1-0

Edmonton’s shooting percentage is a little high and their save percentage is a little low but for the most part this is the team they are going to be. They still get outshot, and they really no business being 5-1, but they get three more scoring chances per 60 than they allow. The scoring chance differential helps to explain why they have a positive expected goal differential despite the aforementioned shot differential. A return to a normal shooting percentage of closer to eight percent could see the Oilers falter by as much as 0.6 goals per 60 minutes.

There is reason to believe that the uptick in the Oilers’ shot rate is for real as it fits with the trend of the last three as the Oilers are up from 26 shots per 60 minutes in 2013-14 to 28 shots per 60 minutes last year. Seeing them finish in the neighborhood of 29 or 30 shots per 60 would not as such be out of line. If the Oilers had a shot rate up near 30 shots per 60 minutes last year they would have been one of the top offensive teams at even strength. Thus even as their shooting percentage falls the Oilers should continue to be a top offensive at even strength. There is also room for a lot of improvement from the Oilers in net as Talbot is posting career low save percentages on low and high danger shots. That should give the Oilers the necessary cushion they need as their shooting percentage falls back to earth and allow them to keep winning, although at a slower rate.

 

Tortoises

Nashville – 2-3-0

While Shea Weber is not amongst the leagues better puck movers he is very good at limiting scoring chances. While it is not clear how much of this is because of the Weber-Subban trade the Predators are allowing 8.2 scoring chances per 60 minutes at even strength after allowing fewer than seven per 60 minutes for each of the last three seasons. Not only are the Predators allowing more scoring chances against they are also allowing a lot more shots. After three of allowing less than 28 shots per 60 minutes they are now allowing 32 shots per 60 minutes. Therefore it should not be surprising that they are allowing nearly three goals per 60 minutes especially since Pekka Rinne is no longer an elite upper-echelon, starter. While Juuse Saros impressed in his only game this year it seems unlikely that Rinne, and his seven million dollar salary, will get bumped from the starter’s job.

Unless Rinne rebounds significantly do not expect the Predators’ save percentage to bounce back this year. On offense the Peter Laviolette years are in full force as the Predators are playing high-event hockey. They are shooting more and generating more scoring chances, although a lesser increase than the increase in the number they allow. With the increased shot rate the Predators could legitimately score more than 2.6 goals per 60 minutes at even strength. The sub five shooting percentage will not last as the Predators have even more offensive talent up front than they have ever had before. The Predators will likely get better defensively but until their goaltending gets better they will not become an elite team.

 

Calgary – 1-4-1

So much for Brian Elliott redeeming the Flames’ goaltending, as the team currently sports a save percentage under 90% at even strength. It is too early to write off the Flames, and Elliott by extension, but there are significant problems. The Flames are allowing 31 shots per 60 minutes, which is basically two shots more per 60 minutes than they did in any of the last three years. Add in the fact that they are also allowing 13 scoring chances per 60 minutes. That is good for second highest in the league right now, and three more scoring chances per 60 minutes than the worst scoring chance suppression team last year. The massive spike in high danger chances that is represented by the 13 scoring chances per 60 minutes is the entire reason for Elliott’s struggles to start the season as his low and medium danger save percentages are where they have been for the last three years. Elliott is basically seeing twice as many high-danger chances this year as he did in the Blues’ worst defensive season.

Assuming Glen Gulutzan can clean up the Flames defensive system Elliott should rebound but there are worrisome signs and the Flames are a stay away until then if unless plus/minus is not a factor. While the Flames have thus far struggles defensively under Gulutzan they have thrived offensively. They are averaging 31 shots per 60 minutes, although there has not been a similar increase in scoring chances. Their expected goals rate is up by a quarter of a goal per 60 minutes and their 9% shooting percentage is high but not absurdly so. The Flames are a tough situation to get a read on because of the new coach. The defense should get better if only because there has not been a team that has given up scoring chances at this rate in the post lockout era. The offense staying good is a much better bet than the defense improving significantly, especially given some of the early defense pairings in Calgary.

 

Los Angeles – 2-3-0

The Kings are what they always were as basically every rate stat has remained constant for basically the last three years. The offense pretty much is what is, a bottom of the league designed more to keep the puck away from the other team than to score a lot of goals. The differences on the defensive side of the puck are the obvious, Quick’s injury, and the less obvious, giving up three more scoring chances per 60 minutes, That is deadly combination for the Kings given that neither Jeff Zatkoff or Jack Campbell has proven he is more than an AHL goalie, while Peter Budaj has not had to shoulder the burden of the starting role since 2010-11 when he had a save percentage of 89.3%. The last time he had a save percentage of 91% or higher was the year after that, basically he has been well below league average. Expect his save percentage to be one to two fewer percentage points what Quick routinely posted, which basically means an extra quarter to half goal per game over the course of the season. This is not ground breaking but this is going to be a rough year for the Kings.

 

The statistics in this column were drawn from Corsica.hockey and Frozen Pool