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October 21, 2011
Stats and Fury
Early Season Mirages

by Kent Wilson

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A lot of seemingly whacky things can happen in small samples in the NHL. Bad clubs can win a few games in a row. Good clubs can lose three out of four. A player can see his shooting percentage climb to three times higher than his career average while a star goalie can watch his All-Star save percentage plummet like a stone.

In the middle of the season, short, aberrant results are usually easier to put into context because there is already a body of existing information to compare them to. The start of the season is a different story, however: because each team begins from scratch, the first 5-10 game segment is privileged over almost any other one-eighth portion of the regular season because it's much easier to project those outcomes forward.

As a result, October records and scoring paces can be very deceiving in the long run. Here are a few of 2011-12 season's early mirages that are bound to dissipate down the road.

Dallas Stars: 5-1-0, 10 points, first in Western Conference

Similar to last year, before the wheels fell off midseason, the Stars are relying heavily on the incredible work of Kari Lehtonen to get things done. The former Atlanta Thrasher has managed an eye-popping .953 save percentage through five games so far, the best rate of any goalie who has played 300 minutes or more.

More impressive is the fact that Lehtonen has saved 95.8% of the even strength shots he has faced as well as 93.5% of those he's seen short-handed. That latter save rate is superior to what most puck stoppers manage five-on-five and well clear of the league average on the PK.

Lehtonen's heroics have allowed the Stars to thrive despite the fact the club has been grossly outshot in almost every match. Dallas has averaged just 25.2 shots per game so far (25th in the league) but allowed 33.8 shots against (29th in the league) and only a handful of their skaters are in the black in terms of possession.

Don't expect Lehtonen's eye-popping save rates to persist forever—even though he has proven to be a quality goaltender when healthy, both his ESSV% and SHSV% are completely unsustainable. When those regress to the mean, so will Dallas.

San Jose Sharks: 1-3-0, 2 points, 14th in Western Conference

At the other end of the spectrum are the San Jose Sharks, thought by many to be the class of the Western Conference heading into the season. Unfortunately, the first four games haven't gone to plan, with the Sharks garnering just one win and two points despite averaging more than 40 shots per game while surrendering just 23.5 shots against.

How does a team lose so many games while sporting the best shot differential in the league? Bad luck. San Jose has just 10 GF on 162 shots so far, good for an overall shooting percentage of 6.2%. Five of the Sharks tallies have come on the power play, so it's at even strength where the pucks aren't going in currently; Logan Couture, Dan Boyle, Patrick Marleau, Brent Burns, Joe Thornton, and Joe Pavelski all have on-ice shooting percentages below 4.0% at ES through four games. In fact, Thornton and Pavelski have not been on the ice for a single Sharks goal at five-on-five thus far. Keep in mind, this is despite some of the highest possession numbers in the league.

The Sharks' stars are spending an inordinate amount of time in the offensive zone right now, but pucks aren't going in for whatever reason. It's only a matter of time before their dry spell ends, however.

Toronto Maple Leafs: 4-0-1, 9 points, 3rd in the Eastern Conference

Bad news, long-suffering Leafs fans – the Phil Kessel show isn't likely to last. The erstwhile Bruin has been on fire to start the season, scoring a mind-boggling seven goals and 12 points in just five contests. That outburst has skyrocketed him to the top of the scoring charts and paced the Leafs to their impressive record so far.

Unfortunately, it's not going to last indefinitely. Beyond Kessel's personal shooting percentage (33.3%) which is about three times higher than his career average, there is the uncanny fact that 20% of the shots the Leafs have taken with Kessel's line on the ice have gone in at even strength. In addition, James Reimer has managed a .980 (wow!) save percentage behind Kessel at five-on-five. Put together, Kessel, Lupul, and Bozak have PDOs north of 117—this in a league where 105 is considered unsustainably high in the long term.

As such, even if Kessel and company were roundly outshooting the bad guys while they were on the ice (they aren't), their current pace would be a bad bet to continue. Since they have completely mediocre possession rates to boot, there's no question the Phil Kessel show is bound to be canceled before the new year rolls around.

Vancouver Canucks: 2-3-1, 5 points, 11th in Western Conference

While no doubt many people are enjoying the struggles of the Canucks outside of Vancouver, it's unlikely the Western Conference's reigning champs will be spending much time in the basement.

Aside from missing two-thirds of their second line in Ryan Kesler and Mason Raymond through the early going, their primary weakness has ironically been goaltending. Roberto Luongo sports a ghastly .856 save rate through four appearances, a number that is below what most 'tenders will manage a man down this year. His even strength save percentage is way below average for him (.905), but it's on the PK where the former Vezina finalist has really struggled, allowing six goals on just 18 shots against for a .667 save percentage.

Vancouver fans are likely nervous about Luongo after his lackluster Finals performance, but there's almost no chance he continues to struggle to this degree. His lowest single season save percentage in the last seven years is .913 (2009-10) and his career average is .919.

So put the pitchforks and effigies away, Canucks fans. Unless Roberto has magically turned into a pale imitation of Vesa Toskala over the space of a single summer, there's no chance he's actually this bad.

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