AT THE QUARTER: PT I
It seems like both ages ago, and just yesterday, the 2015-2016 WHL season got under way. Lethbridge, once again, started the season amidst a sea of questions. There was a new GM, a new head coach, a new Board of Directors, a new crop of 20-year-olds, and two new European imports. One thing was clear, regardless of their level of play, no-one could accuse the Hurricanes of maintaining the status quo. As I write this, we sit on the verge of the 18th game of the season – a season that has gone the way few predicted it would. It’s not that there was an overwhelming sense of negativity surrounding the team, it’s just that history had shown there wasn’t much of a reason to be excited either. Most people had taken the wait and see approach. A logical one considering the ineptitude of the franchise in recent years. There was a hint of optimism, but people both within and outside of the organization were afraid to admit it. There seemed to be a quiet hope that things could get better before they got worse.
As it turns out, things did get better. Much better. So much better that the Hurricanes were just ranked 10th in the nation on the BMO CHL weekly top ten. Lethbridge hasn’t just been good, they’ve been really good. So as we prepare to launch into the second quarter of the season, I wanted to take a moment to look back at the first. What do the underlying numbers say about the Hurricanes? Are they really as good as their record indicates? Perhaps more importantly, is it sustainable?
Today we take a look at Part I of a two part examination of the Hurricanes first quarter. Part 1 will focus on the underlying numbers within the Eastern Conference and attempt to paint a picture of the Canes’ success. Part II will drop sometime in the next day or two and will wrap up with a full organizational report card and an all-encompassing answer to the question – is it sustainable?
In order to draw conclusions on the sustainability of the Canes’ early season success, we need to look at the numbers.
Before I go further, I want to clarify a few things.
Firstly, while I believe numbers are vital, I do not subscribe to the recent analytics trend sweeping the hockey world. Analytics, in my opinion, are a big piece of an even bigger puzzle. They do not account for subjective or intangible forces. For instance, shots on goal can be deceiving. A team could generate 45 shots in a game, but if they only generated 1 or 2 scoring chances, than those shots never actually had a great chance of becoming goals. There are, of course, a plethora of stats that account for the holes in others. No ONE stat paints a complete picture of a team’s performance. With that in mind, I caution readers to take the ensuing graphs and analysis lightly. I am not using advanced metrics. This is a peripheral statistical comparison between the Hurricanes and the remaining 11 teams that make up the conference in which they play.
Secondly, the numbers I have included are not a perfect sample size. I used this past Sunday as the data-pooling date because it was a natural break in the schedule for the Hurricanes (and league in general). If follows then, that some teams have played more games than others. The Tigers, for instance, had only played 14 games when I pulled the numbers. I wish we lived in a perfect world where hockey was put on pause at the quarter mark and I could have a week to analyze an identical sample size for all twelve teams. Unfortunately we don’t, so this is the best you’re going to get. I have tried to do my best to only use numbers that aren’t indicative of how many games a team has played. Averages are great for this, but considering the small sample size (14-18 games for most teams), the numbers are probably far from reaching equilibrium. This beast is still evolving.
Despite ALL the issues mentioned above, I still believe in the general picture the data paints. The Eastern Conference teams have played enough games for us to see the broad strokes of how the 2015-2016 regular season will be remembered. Remember our goal is to determine if the Hurricanes early season success is sustainable for the long term (remainder of the season).
Lets begin with a quick refresher on where the Hurricanes currently sit. Lethbridge has a record of 12-5-0-0, good for 24 points and 3rd place in the Conference. The Hurricanes have a game(s) in-hand on every team in the conference but Medicine Hat. They currently possess the highest winning percentage (.706) in the conference, the top ranked PP in the league, and have only lost a single game at home (vs. Kelowna). That’s right Hurricanes fans, Lethbridge is 7-1 on home ice.
Impressive stuff. But does it hold up when we dig deeper?
Let’s begin by taking a look at conference-wide differentials. The GDSD graphic is useful in helping us identify statistical anomalies. For those not familiar, I will break it down. Shot differential is calculated by subtracting the total of shots-against a team has allowed throughout the season from their total shots-for. If it’s a positive number, the team has generated more shots than it has surrendered. All the same holds true for goals. What the stat does NOT account for is the consistency a team plays with.
For example, if a team went on a run of getting outshot by 10 shots per-game, for three games (-30), but then overwhelmed their next opponent and outshot them 60-30, they would sit at an even shot differential. An uneducated observer (someone who hadn’t actually seen the games) might think the team had been playing okay based on their differential, but the truth is they were likely badly outplayed for three of four games. It’s not a perfect indicator, but we know teams that outshoot their opponents with consistency, usually control the game, and usually win more games. I say usually because there always seem to be a few anomalies. Last year the Flames (and the year before Colorado) had less than amazing possession/shot numbers, yet had success thanks to clutch goal-scoring and stellar net minding. It IS possible to win with “bad” numbers, but it’s much harder to sustain.
Looking at the graphic, we can immediately see Kootenay has abysmal numbers, and Brandon is thriving. The Wheat Kings are blowing every other team out of the water in terms of shot generation. To this point in the year, the Wheaties have, in total, directed more pucks at the opposition net than any other team in the East. They have been rewarded for their efforts and also sit (along with Lethbridge, Moose Jaw, and Red Deer) near the top of the conference in goal differential. The Hurricanes have the highest goal differential in the conference. As someone who has watched most games this season, it’s not much of a surprise. The Hurricanes have scored with regularity and have received some solid goaltending performances. It’s great to sit among the conference’s best in terms of goal differential, but it isn’t without warning.
While the Hurricanes are generating goals, the shots differential paints a different story. Lethbridge, along with Prince Albert and Moose Jaw, is not generating as many shots as the Rebels or Wheat Kings. While it’s not a dire situation, Red Deer and Brandon, at least according to this graphic, appear to be the most legitimate contenders of the bunch. I have tried my best to condense the GDSD graphic…. into a SECOND graphic. It’s blatantly over generalized, but it still gives a rough idea as to which teams are the real deal, and which have work to do.
As you can see, I see the team’s existing in one of four GDSD quadrants. In the top left we have the Raiders, Hurricanes, and Warriors. All three have strong goal differential numbers, but also have surrendered more shots than they have generated to this point in the season. I call this the “opportunistic” quadrant. All three teams have played some great hockey, but they have also been outshot on several occasions. Moose Jaw is the most guilty, and none are too far from centre, but the numbers are the numbers…
The second quadrant is the “Full Credit” group of teams. These are the teams that have strong goal differentials AND shot differentials. On average, these are the teams that outscore and outshoot their opponents with consistency. They deserve full credit for their status as a legitimate contender. As you can see, the two teams in this category, Brandon and Red Deer, are deeply entrenched in the “full credit” quadrant. They aren’t perfect teams, but they have proven to be the best with consistency.
Next is the “No Credit” quadrant. These are teams that have struggled, and based on their numbers, deserve to struggle. To be fair, some of these teams have struggled more than others (ie. Kootenay), but overall, this group has been on the losing end of the goal and shot battles more often than not. If your favorite team sits here, hope is not lost, but it has to be a red flag. The Broncos, for instance, have a disproportionately high goal differential for a team that has been regularly outshot. What it means is the Broncos have gotten good-to-great goaltending and their scorers have been effective despite not generating as many shots as the top teams. It makes allot of sense. Players like Gawdin, DeBrusk, and Martin don’t require 30+ shots per game of their team to score goals. The problem for the Bronco’s will become sustainability. If the bottom drops out on their goaltending, or the scoring dries up, winning games will become much more difficult based on their underly numbers.
The final quadrant is reserved for the “tough luck”ers out there. These are the rare teams that actually outshoot their opponents by a respectable margin but either surrender too many goals, or lack the ability to finish. These teams are either better than they appear, or are a total mirage thanks to inflated shot numbers (ie. generating lots of perimeter/low percentage shots). In the case of both Edmonton and Medicine Hat, it’s been a combination of suspect goaltending and inconsistent scoring. The jury is out on which of these two teams will pull things together, but things got more complicated for the Tigers this week with the loss of Lotz. They have elected to bring Shields in from Prince George. Will it be enough?
Based on the GDSD graphic alone, what can we determine? Brandon and Red Deer are in a great place. I know Brandon hasn’t lived up to the expectations on some nights, but their differential numbers are excellent. They are generating an absurd amount of shots, and have a healthy goal differential as well. Both those two teams will be fine. It’s pretty evident the Ice are doing their best to replicate last seasons Hurricanes squad, things are bad and the numbers don’t suggest there is much hope for turnaround. As far as Lethbridge goes, they are (for now) securely in the upper deck with the Warriors, Raiders, Rebels and Wheat Kings. The exceptionally high goal differential and slightly sub-par shot differential is a little concerning, but considering how early it is in the season, I don’t think it’s enough to worry about…yet. Let’s see how things evolve by the halfway point.
Speaking of shots, I have compiled an admittedly flawed graphic of game-to-game shot differentials that pits Anholt, Kisio, and Berehowsky against one another. Kisio’s sample size is not yet complete (I had initially made this graphic months ago to compare Anholt’s coaching performance to the last games of DB) but it’s a fun graphic to look at regardless. The Berehowsky games are his FINAL 29 with the team. Anholt’s are taken from the moment he took over as coach. It goes without saying Anholt didn’t have much say in the composition of that team and while the numbers are abysmal, my point isn’t to illustrate that Anholt was a bad coach. I am sharing the graph as a declaration of optimism. Look how much better things are!
The graph clearly demonstrates what I (and fans around the rink) were saying around the ten-game mark. The Hurricanes game took a steep plunge. The dip in play coincided with a lengthy road trip. Lethbridge was badly outshot for that stretch, and despite a phenomenal early season push, their shot differential took a beating for a 7-9 game stretch. The good news was that Lethbridge won a number of the games in which they were quite badly outshot. The question becomes, which is the REAL Hurricanes team? The early team that was outshooting the opposition by a mile, or the road trip squad that got it handed to them? I’ll let you decide for yourself, but I know which way I am leaning…
We have now looked at goal differentials, shot differentials, and the game-to-game shot differential of this year’s Hurricanes. While those numbers are of value and interest, we next turn to PDO, what some believe to be the most powerful stat in the game. If you want a full breakdown, read THIS fantastic article by a guy named Hawerchuck over at Arctic Ice Hockey. Whether you agree with him or not, PDO is a fantastic metric and I am going to use it heavily as a tool to help us solve our mystery – can the early season success be sustained?
Looking at the PDO graphic, a few initial things jump out. First, Medicine Hat broke my graph. Thanks Tigers. Second, Lethbridge also broke my graph, but I support them so it’s cool with me. Third, PDO is all over the place in the Eastern Conference. To begin with, the Hurricanes have far and away the highest shooting percentage (percentage of total goals scored on total shots taken) in the Eastern Conference, and that’s not necessarily a good thing. To be clear, it’s a GREAT thing… in the present, but we are trying to figure out if the success is sustainable and a sky-high shooting percentage isn’t usually affiliated with long term sustainability.
Bear with me here, but I am going to jump to some semi-bold conclusions here.
I don’t believe the Hurricanes unsustainably high shooting percentage is a sure-sign that their early season success is a mirage. Here’s why. Lethbridge boasts the league’s BEST powerplay. The Hurricanes are currently operating at 28% effectiveness on the man advantage. The powerplay has been their bread and butter. It’s won them games when things just weren’t going their way at even strength. What it also means is their shooting percentage is benefiting from an effective powerplay. A good powerplay produces high percentage scoring chances, and in the case of the Hurricanes, they are scoring on most of those chances. To sustain a shooting percentage over 12% from even strength play alone is next to impossible. To maintain a strong shooting percentage on the back of a deadly powerplay… not as outlandish as you may think. Do I think Lethbridge will maintain a s% over 12 all year? Likely not. But I also don’t believe it’s reason to discredit them. Why? Because their team save percentage is also strong. The Canes are getting goaltending on par with Red Deer and Prince Albert, two teams that have a lower shooting percentage but are having a successful season. So while the Canes DO need to start generating more shots again, even if their shooting percentage takes a dip, their save percentage numbers are right in the sweet-spot between good and sustainable…