NHL teams due to rise up, fall down standings

Vancouver Canucks forward Alex Burrows underwent surgery to repair a broken jaw and hopes to be back in action by Christmas. (Jeff Vinnick/NHL/Getty)
November 21, 2013, 3:36 PM

With Colorado’s 5-1 destruction of Chicago Tuesday night, every team in the NHL has 20 games in the books for the 2013-14 season. By the time a team has played 20 games, some stats have enough sample size that we can start to have confidence in what we’re seeing. This isn’t true of all statistics—save percentage and shooting percentage are notoriously volatile—but a team’s Corsi% after 20 games is a reasonably good predictor of its Corsi% at the end of the season.

If you look at the five seasons between 2007-08 through ’11-12 (20 contests in the 48-game ’12-13 is not the quarter pole) campaign, you can see that a team’s record after 20 games offers a reasonably good idea about its playoff chances.

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As is set out below, incorporating Corsi% into a review of the standings after 20 games produces a much clearer idea of which teams are doing it with smoke and mirrors and which teams are better than the standings suggest.

29 points or more

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The vast majority of teams with at least 29 points after 20 games also happened to be teams that posted a Corsi% above 50 percent. This isn’t surprising—really good teams are more likely to get lots of points and really good teams are more likely to be teams that post a great Corsi%.

What about this year’s teams with 29 or more points through 20 games?

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Chicago, St. Louis and San Jose look to be what everyone figured they’d be before the season began: dominant. Anaheim looks to be an average team that’s off to a great start.

Colorado and Phoenix are something altogether different. Both are posting a poor Corsi% but still putting up points. We haven’t seen a team start as well as they’ve started with a Corsi% anywhere near that bad going back to 2007-08, when the data was first kept. If they were in the Eastern Conference, they might well have done enough already but the Western Conference is much more difficult. Don’t be surprised when the playoff spots are settled, if one or both of these teams miss the post-season despite the hot start.

24-28 points

Teams putting up 24 to 28 points had a 75 percent chance of making the playoffs from 2007-08 through ’11-12. However, the introduction of Corsi% into the analysis shows two different groups, with very different chances of playing in the spring.

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In essence, what we see is that a team off to a pretty good start that’s getting outshot over those 20 games is a lot more susceptible to falling off the pace. The table below shows what the group looks like this year.

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Three teams jump out: Dallas, Vancouver and Toronto. Colorado and Phoenix both have a really poor Corsi% for teams that are off to such a great start, while the Stars and Canucks both have a much better Corsi%. That suggests more shots for and fewer shots against as the season progresses, which, in turn, suggests more goals for and fewer against, which further suggests more wins. If you’re looking for teams that might fade and who might reel them in, those four are a pretty good guess.

There’s not much that can be added to the volume of words that’s been spilled about the Maple Leafs so far. It’s well known that they made the playoffs last year despite being badly outshot. They’re doing it again, although differently—last year the Leafs were exceptionally good at scoring 5v5 goals and this year they’re relying on special teams and goaltending. That type of success tends not to last forever.

20-23 points

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Teams that posted a better Corsi% than the opposition through 20 games did just fine in terms of making the playoffs, despite a relatively weak start to the seasons. In fact, they did much better than teams with 24 to 28 points through 20 games that had a Corsi% below 50 percent in terms of making the playoffs.

Here’s who’s in this group for the 2013-14 season.

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You get a sense as to the disparity between conferences when you go through things this way. The West had 10 teams with 24 or more points through 20 contests; the East just five. It says good things about the Jets that they’re posting a nice Corsi%; unfortunately, the Western Conference will be a lot less forgiving of a mediocre start or a weakness in goal.

In the East, there are good signs for the Rangers. The other five Eastern teams in this table are lucky that there are going to be East teams that did not start well and had a poor Corsi% through 20 games that make the playoffs. Playing in the 16-team conference isn’t so bad when it only contains three or four good hockey teams.

17 to 19 points

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This is the group of teams that’s off to a poor start but not so bad as to end the season before it begins. The pattern holds—teams with a good Corsi% are much more likely to be the ones that recover to make the playoffs.

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New Jersey’s superior Corsi% suggests that it’s the team that emerges from this pack to compete for a playoff spot. But the Devils have been perhaps the most persistent outlier in hockey analytics—they perpetually have a great Corsi%, but have a very difficult time scoring goals. The acquisition of Cory Schneider means that their goaltending might be good enough to wheeze over the line. It’s hard to find much hope for the Islanders, Flyers and Blue Jackets other than the fact that they’re playing in the Metropolitan Division.

Fewer than 17 points

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Only once between 2007-08 and ’11-12 did a team pick up fewer than 17 points in its first 20 games and make the playoffs: the 2007-08 Washington Capitals, who managed just 13 points in their first 20 games. The Caps had a 55 percent Corsi% though and, once the pucks started going in at one end and staying out at the other, managed to overcome an abysmal start. None of this year’s stragglers have that going for them.

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Realistically, it’s time for these teams to start thinking about next year. For Buffalo and Calgary, this was probably expected and at least nobody will notice in south Florida. But it’s probably a very bitter pill in Edmonton, the biggest disappointment in the NHL.

What does it all tell us? In the West, Colorado and Phoenix are probably more vulnerable than their starts suggest, with Vancouver and Dallas looking like strong candidates to catch them. In the East, Boston, Pittsburgh and Detroit look very solid. Tampa Bay is also well positioned in terms of its record and ability to post a strong Corsi%, although it remains to be seen how badly they’ll be hurt by the loss of Steven Stamkos.

Toronto’s start looks awfully suspect, but the Leafs have built themselves a very good cushion through 20 games that they have since extended. Ottawa and Montreal both have a track record of putting up a strong Corsi%, but that hasn’t been the case this year. If either is to challenge the Maple Leafs, they’ll likely need to be much better at 5v5 as the year goes along.

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