Google News results for ‘Los Angeles Kings struggles’: 20,400.
Google News results for ‘St. Louis Blues struggles’: 11,300.
Google News results for ‘Los Angeles Kings PDO’: 5.
Google News results for ‘St. Louis Blues PDO’: 2.
I think it’s worth noting that both of the news results that look at ‘PDO’ for the St. Louis Blues, news items from Puck Daddy’s Harrison Mooney and Grantland’s Katie Baker show up as results for both of the latter two list items.
Once I think the whole hockey world and not just our corner of the blogosphere latch onto the concept of ‘PDO’, we can start to expand analysis to assume adjustments to tactical formations or personnel changes. I’m not good with Xs and Os, but I’m sure a few of them better at reading the game than your average beatwriter choking on a ham sandwich while waxing on topics like “adversity” or “complacency” would provide more insight into the causes of the struggles and possible solutions.
Somebody joked on Twitter a while ago that if they were a hockey player, they’d be able to answer about 90% of their questions with the single word “variance”.
Variance may not be the full answer to every single question about why the LA Kings are 4-5-2 and the St. Louis Blues are 7-5-1. The Blues are back in a playoff position even after losing five straight. In both cases, the extremely strong starting goaltenders from a year ago have taken steps backward: Per NHL.com, Jonathan Quick has an .890 even strength save percentage this season and Brian Elliott is just an .863. A year ago, the same goalies were .933 and .938.
With such little roster turnover for both clubs as well as the same coaches, you have to wonder how it could be conceivable that a team that was second place in the Conference last year, and a team that won the Stanley Cup, came out so flat to start the season.
Anybody can accept that the best team in a single game doesn’t always win. Once you reach that conclusion, you can also conclude that the best team in a single week, or a single month, won’t have the best record in the game. The losses on the part of the Blues and the Kings in a way present a challenge to the clubs: ‘We’re scoring not enough goals. We’re not getting good enough scoring chances. How can we rectify this without deviating far from the strategy that was successful for us last season?”
It’s true though. As much as a nerdling like me denies the existence of the mythical “shot quality” over a large stretch of games, the fact is that in a single game situation, scoring chances differ wildly from the traditional “Corsi” we use to measure shots and puck possession. The Toronto Maple Leafs, the team I track scoring chances for, generates far more chances than their puck-possession numbers would indicate. Not including last night’s game against Carolina, the Leafs had taken 52.6% of the scoring chances with the score tied in each of their games. According to BehindtheNet’s Fenwick Tied measure, which tracks all unblocked shots, they had earned just 43.0% of overall puck possession.
So there’s at least some explanation there for Toronto’s high, 104.0% PDO ranking going into last night’s game against Carolina. The Leafs, over a small stretch of games, have earned higher shooting percentages and higher save percentages. The problem with pointing to their defensive tendencies as a reason for their success is that their defensive tendencies are unsustainable. If rock-paper-scissors has given anything to Western culture, it’s the knowledge that every strength presents a weakness. The Leafs are competing against professional coaches and hockey players and video analysts who work full-time to break down aspects of the game that can expose the Leafs.
The important thing for them is that they aren’t a good enough team to have possession of the puck in the opponent’s end more than the opponent has possession in their end. By this time in the season, generally we know which teams are good at doing this. The Leafs’ “bend but don’t break” style of avoiding high quality shots while spending a majority of their time in their own end is not a viable way to play defence. It can’t work. We’ve seen it not work.
Los Angeles and St. Louis are No. 1 and No. 2 in the NHL in holding control of the puck with the score close. If they’re not winning games, it’s for different reasons than not doing the right things. I don’t know too much about the Kings, but I’m willing to bet that they aren’t doing poorly because they have yet to “rediscover the overflowing confidence [they] showed last spring.” The Blues, admittedly, aren’t doing as poorly as I think I described them above. They aren’t as interesting a case study as the current Kings, who were a consistently good possession team last spring before blossoming into an elite possession team with the acquisition of Jeff Carter at the trade deadline.
That said, their record isn’t a reflection of their play. Whatever factors led their teams’ even strength shooting percentage to be 7.1%, seventh worst in the league, and even strength goaltending save rate to be 87.6% second worst in the league, whether it’s luck or a few defensive zone breakdowns, those aren’t the plays that add up over the course of the season.
A team as good as the Blues with a PDO of 94.5% is absolutely scary, and even if they don’t regress all the way back up to 100, they are a club that ought to be competing for the Central Division crown even if Brian Elliott takes a much expected step back this season.
The Kings, who have the highest Fenwick close rate in the league, have a team shooting percentage of 7.1% and a team save percentage of 88.9%. Like Elliott, Quick was supposed to regress (his 2012 even strength save percentage was .933, but his career save percentage in his three previous years was .922) but he’s performing well below his talent-level. As much as I can accept that the Kings are giving up more scoring chances than expected and that’s leading to a few extra goals against, I think those extra scoring chances are thanks to a few uncharacteristic breakdowns, pucks off shin pads, and generally things an offence can’t prepare for. The Kings’ losing is not sustainable, and a quick glance at what happens to PDO after the quarter pole confirms that.
I think that whether Ken Hitchcock or Darryl Sutter introduce any tactical changes is more interesting than the story that will narrative that will surround either teams’ apparent turnaround and competition for their respective division crowns. I know it’s a shorter season than usual, but in 82-game terms, we’re not at “the quarter pole”. We’re effectively at the point where there are 35 or 36 games left in a teams’ season, which typically occurs around mid-January. At this time last season, the Maple Leafs were a point ahead of the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Phoenix Coyotes were eight points back in the Pacific Division—a division they ultimately won. Los Angeles are five back of the playoffs and nine in their division. There’s still a long ways to go.
Meanwhile, Chicago, who are third in league shooting (11.3%) and 11th in league save percentage (92.7%) are bound to come back to within striking distance of the Blues soon. These things happen every year.