You would assume that most people would know by now not to get overenthusiastic about an early season scoring streak, but then you read about how Kessel is “on pace to put up Gretzky-like numbers” and you are proven wrong. What were you thinking, hypothetical person?
But I’m not here to complain or poke holes in the dreams of Leafs’ fans. While Kessel isn’t going to keep up his “Gretzky-like” pace, that’s no reason to criticise him or Leafs fans who are excited about the team’s hot start. I just want to inject a little reality and some understanding of what a scoring streak really is. For that, I’m going to use a stat called PDO.
If you’re wondering what in the world PDO is, there are some great blogposts available about the stat, but here is a brief summary: to calculate PDO, you simply add together a team’s even-strength shooting percentage and even-strength save percentage, multiplied by 1000 to give us a nice looking number to work with. For the entire NHL, the PDO number must equal 1000, because every shot is either a goal or a save.
What was found is that over time, this number always regresses to 1000: a team with an unsustainably high shooting percentage and save percentage will see those numbers drop. The same is true for the opposite: unsustainably low shooting percentages and save percentages will go up over time. This is very useful for seeing what teams that are off to a hot start will be able to sustain this performance and which will fall in the standings. We saw it two seasons ago with the Colorado Avalanche and last season with the Dallas Stars, who even missed the playoffs despite their hot start.
What’s fun about PDO numbers is that they also work for individual players by adding together the team’s shooting percentage and save percentage when a player is on the ice. While the regression to 1000 is not as harsh – very good players will generally sustain a number a bit higher than 1000, while poor players will have one a bit lower – extremely high or low PDO numbers will still head back towards the mean over time. The highest PDO amongst players who played at least 60 games last season was 1062, while the lowest was 934.
Several of the players who have jumped out to a hot start, including Phil Kessel, have PDO numbers that are much, much higher than that. That’s not a criticism, by any means. It’s just a way of understanding how a scoring streak happens. The reasons for a high PDO are often attributed to luck, but they can also be a result of choices made on the ice, and these factors can play into each other. A player who faces some bad luck, for instance, and hits a couple posts or has a bad bounce go against him may start second-guessing his instincts and try to force shots from low percentage areas of the ice, causing his shooting percentage to further plummet. Or a player who sees almost every shot slip past the goaltender may start handling the puck with more confidence and head to the front of the net with more authority, trusting that the puck will find its way to the right spot on the ice.
Whatever the cause, those factors will even out over time. Let’s take a look at the early scoring leaders based on points per game and their PDO numbers to see whose performance is sustainable and who might be facing a scoring drought in the near future.
Point-per-game leaders – all stats from NHL.com and Behindthenet.ca
|#||Player||GP||G||A||P||ESP||P/G||On-Ice Sh%||On-Ice Sv%||PDO|
It’s important to keep in mind that this early in the season, with only 4 or 5 games played, these numbers will vary wildly and should be taken with a grain of salt. But we can see right away from the on-ice shooting percentage that the early success of Kessel, Tavares, Parenteau, Legwand, Vanek, and Lupul likely won’t continue. Right now, approximately 1 out of every 5 shots taken while they are on the ice is going in the net: that’s just not sustainable. It’s interesting to note that Legwand’s PDO isn’t unreasonably high as his goaltender hasn’t been particularly stellar while he’s been on the ice: while his offensive numbers won’t continue at the same pace, his defensive numbers should actually improve.
In order for these 6 players to continue scoring at their current pace, they will need to drastically out-chance their opposition so that their numbers are not affected by the inevitable drop in shooting percentage. Either that, or they’ll need to score like crazy on the powerplay: you’ll notice in the chart that a good chunk of Legwand’s points are on the powerplay and the same is the case for Versteeg, Campbell, and Doan. For Campbell and Doan in particular, their powerplay numbers won’t continue on the same pace, but they could both see an increase at even-strength.
On the other hand, the numbers from Kopitar, Versteeg, Giroux, Williams, and Gagne seem quite reasonable. They suggest that these players are not necessarily on a scoring streak, but are simply producing at a level equivalent to their abilities. This may not quite be the case for Versteeg, simply because most of his scoring has come on the powerplay, but for the rest, we can reasonably expect that their scoring pace will continue at a similar rate or slightly below.
There are also a number of players who are currently on a cold streak to start the year who can expect to see their numbers improve over time. Over at NucksMisconduct, Cam Charron identified the much-maligned Marco Sturm in Vancouver as one of those players. Sturm has no goals, no assists, and just 2 shots on net through 5 games, but has a PDO of just 853, one of the lowest in the NHL. Right next to him, surprisingly, is Jeff Skinner, with an identical PDO of 853, but with 6 points in 6 games. The difference is that Skinner’s lower PDO is due to a particularly brutal on-ice save percentage, leading to a minus-6 rating, fourth worst in the NHL.
Other players off to a rough start with a low PDO number are Daniel Alfredsson (minus-7, 750 PDO), Ryane Clowe (1 goal, minus-3, 830 PDO), Tomas Kopecky (minus-5, 848 PDO, 0% on-ice sh%), and Dustin Byfuglien (2 points, minus-4, 905 PDO). Yes, the Senators and Jets are not very good (and the jury’s still out on the Panthers at even-strength), but they’re not as unbelievably bad as their start indicates, and it’s making guys like Alfredsson and Byfuglien look particularly terrible.
You can see how PDO provides some context for both good and bad performances. By all means, revel in a player’s scoring streak, but don’t be surprised or angry when it’s followed by a cold streak where the puck just never seems to find the back of the net. While this may indeed be because of poor choices on the ice or a decrease in effort, it’s more likely a result of some bad luck and unfortunate bounces: right now Kessel is getting the bounces and is making good choices, but his luck will eventually swing in the opposite direction and his decision making might suffer as a result.
No, Kessel did not magically become Gretzky in the off-season, but he and Lupul continue to move the puck in the right direction. Additionally, the Toronto powerplay is currently under-performing and Kessel may be able to make up for the inevitable drop in even-strength production with some added production with the man advantage.
And the Leafs better hope that he can continue at least a semblance of his current torrid pace: he and Lupul have 11 of the Leafs’ 16 goals. While it’s too early to say that the Leafs’ strong 4-0-1 start isn’t a sign of the Leafs turning the corner and becoming a playoff team, it’s important to remember that they also started last season 4-0-1 before going 1-8-2 over their next 11 games. Most Leafs’ fans are tempering their expectations for this reason: hopefully the next 11 games aren’t as disastrous as they were last season.