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November 15, 2011
Howe and Why
Count Your Lucky Starts

by Robert Vollman

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Instead of a fair coin toss where there's a 50/50 chance of getting heads or tails, what if you had a weighted coin that had a 55/45 chance of getting heads? If we only flipped that coin 18 times but you had a little bad luck, you might still wind up on the losing end. Just ask the Vancouver Canucks, who are essentially a 55/45 coin themselves, but who find themselves in the bottom third of the league nevertheless.

Using just simple box score statistics, early in the season it's difficult to tell which of the strong teams are legitimately strong and which ones are just lucky. To determine which is which it's helpful to look at how often teams are controlling the play. More and more, NHL hockey is about puck possession, and those who are consistently in control are the legitimately strong teams, who will almost doubtlessly wind up on top when all 82 games are said and done.

At the moment, nobody is recording puck possession time, or territorial advantage time, like they do in football and other sports. Fortunately, we have an excellent proxy at our disposal, the percentage of shots attempted—that includes goals, saves, goal posts, missed nets, and blocked shots. Studies have shown an understandably tight correlation between possession time and attempted shots, so a team that's attempting 55% of all on-ice shots probably has the puck 55% of the time, too.

The only trick is to ignore any data when the game isn't close. If a team is leading by a large margin in the first two periods, or leading at all in the final frame, they change their style. They sit back in a defensive game, happy to dump the puck in and let the opponents come to them, and are consequently outshot. To therefore determine how well a team is controlling the play, look only at data from when the game was within one goal in the first two periods, or tied in the third.

The Vancouver Canucks are certainly the most unfortunate team so far this year—having controlled the play a mighty 55.9% of the time in such situations, second only to the incredible Detroit Red Wings (60.1%)—but they find themselves 21st overall with a .528 winning percentage. They're one of four legitimate top-10 teams that find themselves hovering near or in the bottom 10.

Great Teams, Bad Luck

Team               Corsi% Rank  Win% Rank
Vancouver Canucks  55.9%  2nd   .528 21st
St. Louis Blues    54.5%  4th   .531 20th
Boston Bruins      54.4%  5th   .533 19th
Montreal Canadiens 52.2%  8th   .500 22nd

Last year's champions may appear to be going through a Stanley Cup hangover, but they're still controlling the play and their luck will change. Ken Hitchcock is lucky enough to step into an otherwise highly successful team, and will no doubt accept a lot of credit for the playoff berth when the Blues' fortunes inevitably changes. Montreal is another team that is going to be difficult to beat once Lady Luck returns to town.

Among the basement dwellers, there are another four teams that aren't nearly as bad as their record suggests. While not top-10 teams like the above, they are at least average teams that might possibly have fought for a playoff position if not for their horrible starts.

Not Terrible Teams

Team                  Corsi% Rank  Win%  Rank
Winnipeg Jets         50.1%  16th  .382  29th
Colorado Avalanche    51.4%  11th  .500  23rd
Ottawa Senators       51.3%  12th  .472  24th
Columbus Blue Jackets 48.8%  20th  .219  30th

Pessimism may be appropriate in the case of teams like the Carolina Hurricanes, New York Islanders, and Anaheim Ducks, but Winnipeg, Ottawa, and Colorado are fairly average teams. And while still a weak team, Columbus isn't nearly as bad as their record suggests (how could they be?). While each of these four teams have been hit with the diaper double-shot: unusually low shooting percentages and save percentages at the same time, the unluckiest is definitely Columbus: 7.4% shooting percentage and a .876 save percentage. Ouch!

At this point last season, Gabriel Desjardins famously predicted that the New Jersey Devils, who were in the same position as this year's Columbus Blue Jackets, would outscore the second-place Dallas Stars the rest of the way. Oh how he was insulted and ridiculed, but in the end, his prediction came true, and it wasn't even close. Using the same logic, can we expect Columbus to accomplish the same feat this year—if not against Dallas, against one of the other teams relying primarily on luck instead of puck possession for their hot starts?

The Lucky Bunch

Team                  Corsi% Rank  Win%  Rank
New York Rangers      44.8%  27th  .700   2nd 
Dallas Stars          44.8%  26th  .688   4th 
Minnesota Wild        43.5%  30th  .618  12th 
Edmonton Oilers       43.6%  29th  .588  15th 
Nashville Predators   44.3%  28th  .594  14th 
Philadelphia Flyers   49.2%  19th  .656   6th 
Toronto Maple Leafs   47.7%  22nd  .618  11th 

The first five teams are riding exceptional goaltending, ranging from save percentages of .927 (Nashville and Dallas) to .938 (NY Rangers), while the last two teams are riding lucky shooting—Philadelphia is scoring on 12.2% of shots as a team (up from 9.8% last year), including 10 players with at least three goals and a 10.0% shooting percentage. The Rangers, Stars, and Predators aren't far behind, with team shooting percentages between 10.4% and 10.9% (what's the opposite of a diaper double-shot?)

If you're looking for the league's truly dominant teams, this year's top teams that should continue to sit atop NHL standings, look past these six and focus instead on the Detroit Red Wings, Chicago Blackhawks, Pittsburgh Penguins, and Washington Capitals, all of whom are the proverbial 55/45 coins, who so far have been coming up heads as often as we'd expect.

Don't read too much into the first quarter of a season, because bad teams can easily get a few bounces and string some wins together—like the Rangers, Stars, Wild, Oilers, and Predators—while truly talented teams can control the play but temporarily wind up with the short end of the stick, like Vancouver, St. Louis, Boston, and Montreal. And don't be too hard on your buddies that root for Winnipeg, Colorado, Ottawa, and Columbus, because while they're unlikely to set any scoring records, they might play well enough to make you eat your words by season's end.

Robert Vollman is an author of Hockey Prospectus. You can contact Robert by clicking here or click here to see Robert's other articles.

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<< Previous Article
Premium Article Pucks From The Past (11/14)
<< Previous Column
Howe and Why (11/08)
Next Column >>
Howe and Why (11/22)
Next Article >>
In The Crease (11/16)

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