Last season it was St. Louis, Minnesota, Columbus and Colorado: four teams that fell off a proverbial cliff in the latter three quarters of the National Hockey League season to miss the playoffs after an early pace that had them among the top 16 teams in the league.
Colorado’s record was especially intriguing—after the 22-game mark last season, the Avalanche had 12 wins, 25 points and a goal differential of +13. By rights, they should have finished the year with 45 wins, 93 points and a goal differential of 49. Instead, they finished with 30, 68 and minus-61 to finish second-to-last overall, perhaps taking #LoseForLandeskog a tad too seriously. So what happened?
It’s fun to sort of go back and look at these old records and see if we can spot warning signs for teams, or notice trends that would propel Nashville, Anaheim, Chicago and Buffalo, teams that weren’t in the top 16 at the quarter pole that ended up making the dance.
Take Colorado for example. After their first 22 games last season, which culminated on Grey Cup weekend (the end of which is the official start of hockey season. Did you know that Canada has its own football league with quirky rules and everything? Even weirder, this year’s champions were actually Vancouver!) the Colorado Avalanche had an even strength score-tied Fenwick percentage of just 47.1% and a PDO of 102.3%. Don’t be frightened by the fancy numbers—all this means is simply, with the score-tied, the Avalanche got just 47.1% of all the shots that got through to the net after 22 games. A high PDO, which adds up team save percentage and shooting percentage, in Colorado’s case, 92.6% and 9.7%, implies that a player or team got lucky. Hence Colorado’s turnaround was generally expected if you looked at the underlying factors.
But what of the Chicago Blackhawks from last year? What stimulated them? The reason I like to bring up these score-tied shot differential and PDO numbers is that yes, they can help us predict the future in ways that looking at point percentage or goal differential wouldn’t. The Blackhawks after 25 games last season were on pace for 39 wins and 85 points as defending champions, however, the underlying numbers showed us they were pretty unlucky, shooting the puck in the net just 5.9% of the time at even strength. Their turnaround appears to have been predicted by their very strong shot differential percentage of 53.6%.
Of the four teams who went from a top-16 bid to not having one (Colorado, Columbus, Minnesota and St. Louis) three of them had a PDO of over 100, which, after many games, is bound to drop. Colorado and Minnesota’s demise appear to have been predicted by their low Fenwick ratios (47.1% and 46.4%). Only St. Louis appears to not display any underlying signs of regression (although their goal differential was just +4 after 21 games).
At the same time, of the four teams who replaced those other ones in the top half of the standings, Chicago, Buffalo, Anaheim and Nashville, two of them exhibited signs of success (Nashville and Chicago) while all four of them began the season with PDO number of under 100, meaning that their record was not indicative of their play.
I’d say that shot differential rankings at this stage can probably predict two or three teams that will fall out of the hunt, as team’s percentages become more and more shaky as the games wear on. All that data can currently be found here at BehindTheNet.ca, and when we compare those rankings to the point-pace data on NHL.com, you have to think that fans of Minnesota and the New York Rangers are in for a bit of a shock, while the Montreal Canadiens and Columbus Blue Jackets may not be as bad as their record otherwise indicates.
If I’m a betting man, I’d say that Montreal comes back from their early season struggles and the scoreboard may start to soon show how that team has controlled play. On the flip side, the stilts that keep Minnesota atop the Northwest Division standings look crafted of rotted lumber: not only are their underlying numbers sketchy (45.3% shot differential with the score tied) but their goal differential of +2 is also the lowest among all division leaders. Handsome blog boss Justin Bourne may think that they’re for real, but I think that reality still needs another three quarters of a hockey season to properly gauge their progress.