It’s time to wrap up my look back at the seasons of all 30 NHL teams. If you missed them, check out my reviews of the Metropolitan (playoff and non-playoff teams), Atlantic (playoff and non-playoff teams), and Central (playoff and non-playoff teams) Divisions, as well as my look at the non-playoff Pacific squads. Today, we finish with the Pacific playoff teams.
For those of us interested in using numbers to try to figure out the NHL, no team is honestly more interesting than the Ducks. The conventional wisdom about winning squads in the analytics community goes something like this: shooting and save percentages tend to regress to the mean over time, so any success that doesn’t derive from effectively driving puck possession will tend to be fleeting. Of course, though the conventional wisdom is in general true, it doesn’t follow that it should be necessarily true for every team in every season. And after winning their third straight Pacific crown, pacing the Western Conference in the regular season, and advancing to Game 7 of the Conference Finals, all with fairly mediocre possession numbers, it’s safe to say that Anaheim is a pretty dramatic exception to the rule.
I think the explanation for how the Ducks have been so successful in the three full seasons under Bruce Boudreau is some combination of the following:
- Luck: I can concede that the Ducks may have been fortunate to win the Pacific in the 48-game 2012-13 season. They were a poor shot-creation team that benefitted hugely from 8.6% shooting at even strength, and tremendous 0.930 goaltending from Jonas Hiller and Viktor Fasth helped them to finish ninth-best in goals against. More generally, given what we know about the respective roles of luck and talent in the NHL regular season, 48 games is just too small a sample for us to know if Anaheim was the best team in the Pacific that year. I can also concede the utter strangeness of the Ducks’ 2014-15 season, in which they finished with a goal differential of just +10 (worst among all 16 playoff teams), yet reached 109 points due to an absurd 33-1-7 record in one-goal games. What’s harder to concede is their division title in 2013-14, and the fact that they’ve strung together three such successful years. Following 2012-13 with another title suggests that their result in the short season wasn’t a fluke, and at some point, warnings that the Ducks’ shooting percentage would regress to average have sounded increasingly silly: over the past three seasons, Anaheim has shot 9% at 5-on-5 as a team, and if that’s puck luck, 212 games worth is an awfully improbable amount of good bounces. While I’ll agree that the one-goal game performance this past season was insane, if you believe the Ducks have been successful because they’ve done a lot of things right, you can even make the argument that Anaheim in 2014-15 was an essentially solid team whose luck in close games offset their struggles in goal (0.919 5-on-5 Sv%) following Hiller’s offseason departure.
- They Know What They’re Doing: The luck-vs-talent work referenced above strongly suggests that it’s incredibly unlikely for a team to lead its conference in standings points over a 212-game span on luck alone. Another set of data worth considering: in the full seasons in which he’s stood behind an NHL bench, Boudreau’s results are as follows: 1st in the Southeast, 1st in the Southeast, 1st in the NHL, 1st in the Eastern Conference, 1st in the Pacific, 1st in the Western Conference, 1st in the Western Conference. So, you know, it’s possible that he knows what he’s doing. There’s a case to be made that Anaheim wins by having elite talents who can drive above-average on-ice percentages, while having passable (if not dominant) underlying numbers. Some analysts have tended to lump the Ducks in with teams like the Maple Leafs, Avalanche, and Flames (i.e., teams that have won despite awful fundamental play), but this is unfairly negative. Over the past three seasons, the Ducks’ score-adjusted Fenwick is 50.8%; not a dominant number, but far from a terrible one. Over the same period, the Ducks sit squarely in the middle of the league in both shot-creation and shot-suppression: again, not great, but not poor enough to suggest a problem. The organization’s talent for finding good young goaltenders has consistently given them an above-average team Sv%, and it’s probably safe to assume that any team with a healthy Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry will score on an above-average percentage of their shots. As such, rather than follow the blueprint for success that analytics often lays out (i.e., assume league-average percentages and try to drive a good goal differential through possession), the Ducks appear to assume that they’ll come out ahead in the percentages, and that “good enough” in the fundamentals is enough. And thus far, they’ve been right.
- My Comparative Advantage Theory is Awesome: Recently, I posited that higher-scoring teams tend to have greater success in low-scoring NHL seasons, and vice versa. The idea being that offensive ability is hard to come by in low-scoring eras, and as such will set a small number of teams apart from the pack. Data throughout the league’s history are generally supportive of my theory, and in the past three seasons, only two teams have scored more goals than Anaheim (if you’re intrigued, those two teams were this season’s Cup Finalists). If my idea is right, you have to give Boudreau credit for choosing his jobs wisely: the top-scoring team from 2007-08 through 2010-11 was his Capitals. This would suggest that, as long as their two offensive stars stay healthy, and assuming a bounceback year from their goalies, the Ducks can be expected to keep on winning.
If fans of the other six teams in the Pacific needed any more bad news, Anaheim also has one of the deepest prospect pools in the league, and has tons of cap space heading into the offseason. After a strong playoff run, unrestricted free agent Matt Beleskey will likely be seeking big money; at just 26, and following a 22-goal season with solid two-way numbers (4.3% Corsi Rel), there’s a case to be made that he’s worth retaining, though probably not for the money he’ll sign for. The same probably can’t be said for 34-year-old free-agent blueliner Francois Beauchemin, who will almost certainly be offered more than he’s worth at this point. Jakob Silfverberg and Carl Hagelin (a superb draft-day acquisition from the Rangers) will both presumably get new deals as RFAs. The greater challenge for GM Bob Murray is likely to come in 2016, when Richard Rakell, Jiri Sekac, Simon Despres, Sami Vatanen, Hampus Lindholm, and goaltenders Frederik Andersen and John Gibson are due new deals, all as RFAs. At 30 years old, Ryan Kesler is a UFA a year from now; if he figures into Anaheim’s future plans, he could be offered an extension soon. The Ducks’ strange dissatisfaction with deadline acquisition James Wisniewski ended on draft day, as they shipped him to Carolina for additional goaltending depth in Anton Khudobin. Following the desultory finish to the Ducks’ season (two straight 5-2 losses to Chicago), there were briefly rumors that Boudreau may be sent packing. Since Anaheim wasn’t that stupid, though, it’s probably safe to pencil them in for another strong season in 2015-16.
Now we’re entering the “how the f— did this team make the playoffs?” section of this post. After a heartbreaking loss in Game 7 of the 2011 Finals and first-round losses in 2012 and 2013 (three division titles and two President’s Trophies in those seasons notwithstanding), ownership jettisoned long-time head coach Alain Vigneault and goaltender-of-the-future Cory Schneider in the 2013 offseason. And as Vancouver tumbled in the standings in the second half of 2013-14, months of uncertainty surrounding the status of franchise goalie Roberto Luongo came to an end, as he was dealt to Florida at the trade deadline. After seeing the Canucks miss the playoffs, fire GM Mike Gillis and head coach John Tortorella, and replace Torts with Willie Desjardins (a successful WHL and AHL coach), it appeared that a rebuild was underway in British Columbia. Yet these moves weren’t followed by further efforts to get younger or shed bad contracts, and after taking a look at their aging, declining roster, it was easy to write Vancouver off as a directionless squad with little chance in 2014-15.
And yet, here we are: for all the negatives, the Canucks racked up 101 points, good for fifth-best in the Western Conference, and began the playoffs on home ice while the last three teams to eliminate them from the postseason all watched from home. In their first season under Desjardins, Vancouver’s fundamentals were solid, if unspectacular: their 53.5 Corsi attempts for per 60 5-on-5 minutes were the ninth-lowest in the league, and their rate of shot prevention (54.5 Corsi against per 60) was mediocre. With a 50.5% score-adjusted Fenwick, their possession game was effective, but far from elite. And with lackluster 7.7% even-strength shooting and 0.917 goaltending, it wasn’t a surprise that Vancouver’s goal differential at 5-on-5 was negative. These numbers suggest a fairly mediocre team, and in a down year for the West, fifth in the conference was probably representative of the top of the playoff bubble. For anyone who followed the travails of the Kings and Ducks this season, it’s no surprise how the Canucks ended up on the right side of the bubble: their 22-4-5 record in one-goal games was second only to Anaheim’s.
Assuming that Los Angeles and San Jose work their way back into the playoff hunt next season, you can probably guess that I’m not bullish on the Canucks in 2015-16. Vancouver has some intriguing prospects working their way into regular NHL duty, including Hunter Shinkaruk, Bo Horvat, and Linden Vey, but many key contributors from 2014-15 are near or over the wrong side of 30, and the team’s cap space is extremely limited. Offseason signing Radim Vrbata led the Canucks with 31 goals, but the team may be content to watch his contract year play out rather than offer an extension, as Vrbata will be 34 at the start of next season. Dan Hamhuis, on the other hand, is entering the final year of his deal, and with a 1.4% Corsi Rel, was one of Vancouver’s better defensemen last season. Given the financial constraints the team is facing, the new deals for Derek Dorsett (7 goals and an ugly -7.8% Corsi Rel) and Luca Sbisa (-3.1% Corsi Rel) greatly complicate the picture. Finally, the team’s goaltending situation is (once again) a bit of a mess. After wading through an unpleasant goalie controversy for two seasons (and losing two excellent netminders in the process), Vancouver immediately took on another one: after young Eddie Lack delivered a solid 0.925 in 41 games in 2013-14, the Canucks supplanted him as the team’s future by signing free agent Ryan Miller to a lucrative three-year deal. Aside from the problematic implications of his $6M cap hit, Miller’s career 0.922 Sv% also suggests that he’s, you know, nowhere near good enough to backstop a team with neutral possession numbers to contention. Miller’s 0.913 work in 45 games was a big reason why Vancouver ranked 19th in goals against this season, and the team entered the postseason without a clear starter in net. Yet when presented with a chance to deal one of their goalies at the draft, they traded Lack to Carolina for picks. This will leave them entering 2015-16 with an unappealing tandem of Miller and RFA Jacob Markstrom (an intriguing young goalie who’s struggled badly at the NHL level). So, while the Canucks exceeded my expectations this past season, they still look to me like a team in decline, and I’m not sure their management is capable of guiding them through what has already been a difficult transition.
Okay, now we’re really there: seriously, how the f— did this team make the playoffs?
Before we dive into any of the numbers, it’s probably worth noting a few points for context. First off, the 2014-15 Flames weren’t really comparable to teams like the 2007-08 Canadiens or the 2013-14 Avalanche, who legitimately crushed their regular seasons despite weak fundamentals. Calgary finished last season 16th in the NHL, and only clinched a playoff berth in the campaign’s final week. And though they surprised many (but not all) observers by triumphing over Vancouver in six first-round games, if you’ve read the rest of this post, you understand that the Canucks were far from a strong opponent. So, while it’s fair to say that Calgary defied everyone’s expectations in 2014-15, their season is hardly a death knell for possession-based analytics. Even when having what many considered to be a miraculously lucky campaign, the Flames were at best a bubble team, and could easily have found themselves on the outside of the playoff picture.
The reality for this team is that it’s still working to rebuild after failing to deliver a Stanley Cup champion around Jarome Iginla and Miikka Kiprusoff, and waiting too long before beginning that rebuild. After Iginla and Jay Bouwmeester were dealt at the 2013 trade deadline, Calgary cratered to 13th in the West in both 2012-13 and 2013-14. But the returns on those painful seasons are already in evidence. Forwards Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan, just 21 and 20 years old (respectively), combined for 56 goals and 126 points last season. At the back, 24-year-old T.J. Brodie (41 points, 1.8% Corsi Rel) has joined Norris-quality veteran Mark Giordano (5.7% Corsi Rel) to form a very solid anchor D pairing. At this year’s draft, the Flames set the league abuzz by snatching coveted RFA Dougie Hamilton away from Boston. And many more promising youngsters, including Sam Bennett (who missed much of last season with shoulder surgery, but took part in their playoff run), Josh Jooris, and Markus Granlund, are on the way to the NHL roster.
The danger, of course, is that Calgary looks past their wretched underlying numbers and assumes that the rebuild is further along than it actually is. And make no mistake, the underlying numbers suggest a team that’s very much a work in progress. For context, the Flames’ 45.6% score-adjusted Fenwick is the 23rd-worst possession season in the last 10 years; only the 2012-13 Maple Leafs and the 2010-11 Ducks (is there a connection between those teams?) made the playoffs with poorer numbers. Calgary’s rate of shot creation (just 49.9 Corsi for per 60 5-on-5 minutes) was fourth-worst in the league, and only Buffalo allowed shots against at a higher rate than the Flames’ 62.4 Corsi per 60. What’s worse, the goaltending they got from Jonas Hiller (0.927 5-on-5 Sv%) and Kari Rammo (0.917) wasn’t especially good; Calgary finished a dismal 17th in goals allowed, and without one of the league’s better penalty kills, it would’ve been worse. What saved the Flames’ bacon was 8.9% shooting at even strength; despite their lousy shot creation, they finished 6th in the league in scoring. It’s difficult to say how sustainable that Sh% is – given the dramatic turnover in their roster in recent years, it’s tough to tell what their baseline should look like – but it’s probably a safe bet to guess that 31-year-old Jiri Hudler won’t hit 31 goals or 76 points again next season.
The smart play for Brian Burke and GM Brad Treliving, then, is to use the team’s oceans of cap space to resign young prospects and important veterans, while resisting the temptation of more aggressive moves that set back the development of the Flames’ promising core. This may, of course, be a lot to ask of the current management group, which burned a year of Bennett’s entry-level contract for three playoff games in a series they were losing 0-2, and that inexplicably signed Brandon Bollig and Deryk Engelland to multi-year free-agent deals last year. New RFA contracts are due to Hamilton, Jooris, Mikael Backlund, and Michael Ferland, with Monahan, Gaudreau, Granlund, and D prospect Tyler Wotherspoon up next year. It wouldn’t be at all surprising to see a lengthy extension for Giordano this offseason, and if Hudler figures into Calgary’s plans after next season, now would be the time to get a deal done. With Ramo an unrestricted free agent, the goaltending situation is a bit uncertain; while he played reasonably well in the second round against Anaheim, Ramo’s age (28) and career 0.915 Sv% in the NHL suggest that the team should probably move on. Still, with Hiller only under contract for one more season (and having lost the team’s confidence during the playoffs), and few top netminding prospects in the system (Joni Ortio is probably the most NHL-ready, but that’s not saying much), the Flames would probably like to have another experienced goalie in the wings. If Calgary plays it safe and conservative next year, it might well mean a 2015-16 without playoff hockey, but in the bigger picture, that might not be a bad thing.