The 2015 NHL playoffs are underway now, and (predictably) interest in the regular season has passed quickly into the rearview. Still, the 2014-15 season remains notable for the team most surprisingly absent from the postseason: the defending champion Los Angeles Kings. Following a 3-1 loss in Calgary just before the season’s final weekend, the Kings were officially eliminated. (I’m a Sharks fan, and chose to note the occasion this way.) Yet even to seasoned hockey analysts, this was a difficult result to explain.
Aside from their pedigree as winners of two of the last three Stanley Cups, the Kings have been a popular favorite of the hockey analytics community due to their elite puck possession numbers over the past four seasons: LA has been one of the league’s top-five teams in Score-Adjusted Fenwick all four years, and have exceeded 55% SAF over the last three. Yet, interestingly, the typical explanations for good possession teams missing the playoffs don’t really apply to this season’s Kings. When the New Jersey Devils missed the playoffs in 2012-13 and 2013-14 despite superlative Fenwick numbers, it was straightforward to point to their terrible team shooting and even-worse goaltending as the culprits; those Devils stand alongside other solid possession clubs that have been undone by subpar play in net (the 2010-11 Flames come to mind). Yet this season’s Kings had a PDO a hair above 1.000, on the strength of solid 0.926 goaltending from Jonathan Quick and Martin Jones. So, what the hell happened in Los Angeles?
Unsurprisingly, analysts have had a tough time dissecting exactly what went wrong. Over at Hockey Analysis, David Johnson summarized many of the more common explanations I’ve seen rolling around the Twittersphere. The most popular analytic narrative for LA’s collapse is that, essentially, they had just enough terrible luck at the margins to knock them off the bubble: a 0.351 winning percentage in one-goal games and a 3-15 record in overtime/shootout games cost them just enough points that they finished two back of Calgary for the last playoff spot. Ben Wendorf also offered an interesting take over at Hockey Graphs, to the effect that lower scoring league-wide increased the impact of random bounces by creating more one-goal games, and tanking for the McDavid/Eichel lottery created more parity among the non-tanking teams.
I’m not convinced, though, that this is the whole story. First off, it’s not clear to me that lower scoring created an unusual number of one-goal games in 2014-15: in 82-game seasons since 2005-06, the NHL has tended to average between 570 and 590 such games, and this season’s 589 are on the high side, but not exceptionally so. As far as the impact of one-goal losses in 2014-15, playoff teams had a winning percentage of 56.3% in these games. This disparity is above average (normally playoff teams win roughly 54% of one-goal contents), but it’s not easy to interpret: aside from being somewhat trivial (i.e., more wins will tend to be associated with more standings points), it’s impossible to say from this number which teams lost because they were unlucky and who lost because they weren’t very good to begin with. Also worth noting is that the relationship between one-goal game win % and playoff probabilities is far from linear. Over the past 10 seasons we have plenty of examples of teams with poor one-goal-game records having strong seasons, and vice versa. To give some of the more dramatic examples:
- This season’s Blue Jackets missed the playoffs with a 1GG record of 23-8-5.
- Last season’s Maple Leafs had a 1GG record of 19-8-8. We know how their season turned out.
- Last season’s Blackhawks had one of the worst 1GG records in the NHL (17-8-15).
- In the shortened 2012-13 season, the Jets and Flyers had a combined 1GG record of 24-8-6. Both missed the playoffs.
- The Cup champion Kings of 2011-12 won just 37% of their one-goal games.
- The 2011-12 Lightning missed the postseason despite the best 1GG record in the NHL.
- In 2010-11, New Jersey missed the playoffs despite a 21-8-5 1GG record.
- Nashville missed the playoffs in 2008-09 despite a 22-8-8 record in one-goal contests.
- In the same season, a 12-7-12 record in these games did not prevent the Blackhawks from reaching the Conference Finals.
- In 2007-08, the Oilers and Islanders had a combined 1GG record of 48-16-15. Both missed the playoffs.
- Ottawa made it to the Finals in 2006-07 despite winning just 31.3% of one-goal games that season.
Clearly, then, it’s quite possible to be one of the league’s better teams despite poor performance in one-goal games. Those of you interested in the shootouts side of this can check out some work I did last year (basically, shootouts matter, but not a ton). So I’m not entirely satisfied with this explanation for the Kings’ poor results. Fortunately, a deeper dive into the Kings’ numbers identifies the problem. On the defensive side, only six teams allowed fewer goals than LA, and no team allowed fewer shot attempts at even strength (score-adjusted) than the Kings’ 45.9 per 60 minutes. On offense, though, the story is less positive. Los Angeles attempted 58 shots at even strength per 60 (again score-adjusted), one of the highest rates in the league, but this was coupled with a thoroughly mediocre 7.5% team shooting percentage at 5-on-5; thanks to poor finishing and middling power play, the Kings ranked just 18th in goals scored this season. As such, it appears there is a metric on which LA looked like the bubble team they were.
The real question, then, about this season’s Kings isn’t whether poor performance in OT and shootout situations knocked them out of the playoffs, but rather why they were on that bubble in the first place. I think the answer lies in a concept from baseball analytics known as a “run-scoring environment”; this is the notion the game is higher-scoring in some eras relative to others, and some strategies work better in higher-scoring environments than lower-scoring ones. I believe an analogous concept carries over to goal-scoring in the NHL. The important thing to remember about scoring environments is that it’s more important to be good at things others aren’t good at than exceptional at something everyone’s good at. No one questions the Kings’ defensive acumen; only the St. Louis Blues have allowed fewer goals over the last four seasons than LA’s 667, and in none of those seasons have the Kings averaged more than 50 even-strength Corsi attempts against per 60. Yet in a league that averages just 5.4 goals a game, great defending doesn’t differentiate you much from other teams. When goals are tough for everyone to come by, being able to score has a greater ability to set you apart from the pack, and some of the NHL’s best teams in the last four seasons are among the highest scoring: Pittsburgh tops that list with 894 goals, followed by Chicago (871), Tampa Bay (870), and Boston (854). (This may also provide a clue as to why Anaheim has been so successful in recent years, and why New Jersey hasn’t.) The Kings, in contrast, sit 23rd in goal-scoring over that time, and at this point, it’s hard to see their miserable 6.8% even-strength shooting as simple puck luck. And their regular-season results since 2011-12 have borne this out: they were a bubble team in 2012 and a mid-seeded playoff squad the last two years, and haven’t come within 15 points of a President’s Trophy* (even in the 48-game 2013 season) during that time. Given these results and what happened this year, one has to ask whether goal-scoring is a genuine flaw in the Kings that many analysts (myself included) have tended to overlook because of their playoff success and strong Fenwick differential.
* Critics will undoubtedly point to their Stanley Cups in 2012 and 2014. My usual response is that a goalie giving a team nearly 0.950 goaltending for two months isn’t necessarily an indication of their overall quality. Nor is two months of 8.9% shooting for a team that typically performs far below that.