We’re almost a month into the season, and while the standings are still in flux, teams are starting to settle into tiers. Some are overachieving, others are underperforming, and some are right where we thought they’d be. And if history is any guide, a whole lot of teams will end up somewhere very different by the end of the season.
But which teams? Which of the early-season trends have been real, and which are a mirage? We can’t know for sure. But we can get some important hints by looking at one number for each team: their PDO.
As with many of today’s “advanced” stats, PDO is pretty simple, and most fans are familiar with it by now. (If you’re not, you can find a good explainer here.) It’s just a team’s shooting percentage plus its save percentage, with an average team adding up to 100.
Most teams drift towards that 100 mark over time. That can take a while, but anyone who’s significantly above or below the mark is a good bet to see their fortunes turn around. The easiest way to think of PDO is to treat results outside a realistic range like a warning light on your dashboard. It doesn’t necessarily mean there’s anything wrong, but you’ll want to check into it to make sure.
So what is a realistic range? There are no firm numbers, but we can look at history for some guidelines. We can only calculate PDO dating back to the 2007-08 season, which gives us a total of 270 team seasons to work with. The highest and lowest seasons on that list can give us a sense of what’s realistically sustainable over a full season.
The highest PDO over that span belongs to the 2008-09 Bruins, who shot 10.9% as a team and had a .925 save percentage for a PDO of 103.3. Not surprisingly, they had a great year, posting 116 points. It wasn’t sustainable, as they dropped to a nearly dead-center 99.9 PDO the following season and fell to 91 points. But the Bruins of that era were an example of a team that generally could sustain an above-average PDO, largely thanks to spectacular goaltending by Tim Thomas and Tuukka Rask; they had two other seasons where they were over 102, including a 102.7 in 2013-14.
The next two best PDO years were by the Maple Leafs and the Penguins, both in 2012-13. Remember, that was a short season due to the lockout, so you’d expect to see more outliers. That Leafs season led to a furious debate over whether it was sustainable, with analytics fans insisting it couldn’t be while the Leafs front office vowed that it was. We know how that turned out.
Meanwhile, the worst PDO season ever recorded was by two teams from that same lockout-shortened season, the 2012-13 Panthers (96.3) and Devils (96.9). The worst mark over a full season belongs to the 2014-15 Oilers, who shot a reasonable 8.2 but got awful .888 goaltending to finish at 97.0. They’re one of 12 teams to finish a season under 98.0.
So that gives us a range to work with. Anything above 102 or below 98 is extreme, and anything above 103 or below 97 would be almost unheard of over a full season.
We’re still very early in the 2016-17 season, so we’d expect to see some teams well outside of those boundaries. And indeed we do. Let’s look at the league’s five best and five worst PDOs heading into action tonight, as well as a few other teams that are worth mentioning.
(All numbers are across all situations unless otherwise noted. PDO numbers can vary slightly depending on what site you’re looking at based on small differences in how the numbers are calculated; we’ll be using hockey-reference.com’s totals.)
New York Rangers
Well, you knew they were going to show up. And they do, right in the top spot, with a PDO of 105.2 across all situations. That’s miles above any kind of reasonable cutoff, so clearly what the Rangers are doing right now can’t continue.
What the Rangers are doing, of course, is scoring a ton of goals. They’d scored five or more in five straight games before Tuesday’s 5-3 loss to the Canucks, and they lead the league by a mile with an average of 4.14 goals-per-game. Not surprisingly, they’re doing all that scoring with a ridiculously high shooting percentage of 14.0%; for comparison, the best team shooting we’ve seen in the analytics era was 11.6% by the 2009-10 Capitals.
So the Rangers shooters have to cool off. Then again, that’s not telling us anything we didn’t already know – even the most diehard Rangers fan would have acknowledged that they weren’t going to keep scoring like the mid-80s Oilers.
What may be more interesting about the Rangers’ sky-high PDO is that it’s almost entirely shooting driven. Their save percentage clocks in at 91.2%, good for 14th in the league. If anything, that seems low for a team with Henrik Lundqvist. And it is – the Rangers have finished with a better save percentage four times in the past five seasons.
So overall, we know the Rangers’ shooters will cool off significantly, although we probably didn’t need PDO to tell us that. But we might see the other half of the equation trend up, meaning the Rangers are a team that could realistically come in close to that 102-or-so range by the end of the season.
Columbus Blue Jackets
This early in the season, it’s unusual to see a team with a very high PDO that isn’t doing well in the standings. Unusual, but not impossible, as the Blue Jackets demonstrate. Despite tying the Rangers with a PDO of 105.2, they’ve only won a middling six of 11 games and are sitting just outside of a wildcard spot.
So what’s up? The Blue Jackets’ numbers are driven by good shooting and excellent goaltending. We’ll leave it to you to decide if you think Sergei Bobrovsky can maintain his early season pace. But on the shooting side, there’s no great mystery here: That 10-0 win over the Canadiens last week is throwing everything off. Take away that one game, and their 11.2% shooting drops to an 8.9%, or slightly below league average. You don’t want to get too clever with cherry-picking games, but unless you think the Blue Jackets will mix in a double-digit blowout every month or so, it’s not hard to see where this number will go.
Speaking of the Canadiens, they slip in right behind the Rangers and Blue Jackets with a PDO of 105.1. Like Columbus, they’re shooting well, scoring at an 11.6% clip, but it’s their .935% goaltending that’s really driving their number.
If you’re a Montreal fan, that’s good news, since league-leading goaltending from Carey Price seems like something that could be sustainable in the long run. He’s putting up a .953 save percentage right now, which has to come down – nobody’s ever been better than .940 over a full season – but isn’t ridiculously better than the .930 or so he’s put up over the last three years. Like Lundqvist or those Bruins goalies from years past, he’s the kind of goalie who gives his team a shot at getting well beyond that average PDO of 100.
As for the skaters, guys like Alexander Galchenyuk and (especially) Shea Weber will see some regression, and on paper the Canadiens don’t seem like a team that’s likely to shoot anywhere near 11% over a full season. So yes, some of Montreal’s success this year is fueled by percentages that are unlikely to last. On the other hand, at least they’re banking points while they’re hot.
The Blackhawks slot in at 104.7, trailing only the Rangers with 12.1% shooting, and a very strong season from Corey Crawford has them at 92.7% goaltending.
What’s interesting here is that while the Blackhawks are posting a very high PDO overall, they’re downright ridiculous at even strength, where they’re leading the league at 107.8. Their disappointing special teams, especially those well-documented struggles on the penalty kill, are actually dragging down their across-all-situations totals. You’d expect those special teams numbers to improve, and they have been lately, but most of the game is still played at even-strength. Betting against the Blackhawks has been a bad strategy in recent years, but be wary of Chicago’s early season totals.
The Wild close out our top five; they’re shooting 11.3% and getting 93.3% goaltending, good for a PDO of 104.5. Much of that goaltending number is driven by Devan Dubnyk’s three-game shutout streak earlier in the year. Like with the Blue Jackets, we can’t fudge the results by wiping games off of the books, but the Wild are a good example of how an already tiny sample size can be thrown off by a handful of games. As for the shooting, it’s worth noting that each of the Wild’s top five scorers are shooting well over their career average, as is just about every other key player on the team apart from Zach Parise.
That wraps up our top five. In case you’re wondering, there’s a fairly big gap between the Wild and the sixth-place Penguins, who come in at 102.3. Only two other teams are over 101, so even this early in the season, the five teams above really do look like outliers.
Meanwhile, at the other end of the spectrum, there isn’t anywhere near as much separation. The bottom five teams all come in under 97.0, without much of a gap between them. Let’s do a quick run through those five.
They’re getting .895% goaltending and shooting just 6.9% (and 5.7% at even strength). While it’s tempting to chalk that up as karmic payback for their legendary PDO-driven bender of a 2013-14 season, it’s worth pointing out that they’ve shot 9.0% or better in each of the last three seasons. They’ll be better, especially if Semyon Varlamov gets back on track.
Last year’s top Western seed clocks in at a PDO of 96.8, which goes a long way to explaining their slow start. After two straight seasons of shooting better than 10%, they’re down to 8.4% to start this year. You wouldn’t expect that number to last, although obviously injuries are a major factor here.
The bigger question is goaltending, which at .884% has been an even bigger weakness than it was last year. You’d have to think that something changes here eventually, even if that has to come via trade.
Just like we should expect teams with established goaltenders to outperform the 100 baseline somewhat, teams with questions in goal typically fall under it. That’s what happened to the Flames last year, when their goaltending-driven 98.9 PDO was among the league’s worst. And it’s happening to them again this year, despite the acquisition of Brian Elliott and Chad Johnson.
The question is whether it continues; both Elliott and Johnson are badly underperforming their career averages. That suggests they’ll rebound, as should their 8.8% team shooting (which is being held back by special teams and a slumping Johnny Gaudreau). It’s been a rough start in Calgary, but their overall 96.9 PDO points to at least some room for optimism.
They come in tied with the Flames at 96.9, but the overall outlook may be different. They’re shooting 8.6%, which would appear to leave room for improvement, but that’s actually higher than they’ve shot in any of the last five years. And while .883% goaltending isn’t likely to last, they haven’t finished over .910 since 2013-14. Bringing back the Cam Ward/Eddie Lack duo sure looks like a mistake right now.
Add it all up, and yes, the Hurricanes will improve – remember, we’ve never seen a team stay under 97.0 for an entire 82-game season. But while teams like the Flames and Avalanche can point to clear indicators that things should get significantly better as the year wears on, those signs are murkier for the Hurricanes.
They’re a mess right now, so in some sense seeing them sitting at a PDO of 96.9 could be read as a good sign – they might be a bad team, but they’re also having some bad luck. In particular, their league-low shooting percentage of 6.8% almost has to get better; it’s even worse than the lowest mark of the last decade, the 6.9% posted by the 2013-14 Sabres, who were one of the worst teams in modern hockey history.
So yes, the Canucks should start scoring more, and that’s good news for Vancouver fans. (Unless they’ve already thrown in the towel and started hoping for a last place finish, in which case forget we mentioned it.)
And while they narrowly miss out on the bottom five, it’s worth mentioning the Flyers, if only because their numbers are so odd. They’re sitting at 97.2 PDO, which you might expect from a team that’s largely underachieved. But they got there with some odd totals: They’re shooting an excellent 10.1%, tied with the Penguins for sixth-best in the NHL. But their goaltending is coming in at .871%, worst in the league by far. So that means your thoughts on the Flyers’ chances of getting back on track come down to whether Steve Mason and Michal Neuvirth can snap out of it before the shooters inevitably cool off.
So now we’ve covered the top five and the bottom five. In theory, at least, those are the 10 teams whose early season results we should be most willing to question. But that still leaves some early season surprises that we haven’t mentioned, and it’s worth checking on a few of those to see if PDO tells us anything.
The most obvious omission is probably the team that has to rank as the biggest disappointment of the young season: the Nashville Predators. On paper, they should be a great team, and they didn’t really change anything of consequence over the off-season beyond a single (admittedly huge) one-for-one trade. And yet they’re sitting outside the playoff race today. If there’s any team you’d expect to find as a bad-luck PDO outlier, it’s the Predators.
But they’re not. They’re shooting 8.4% and getting 91.1% goaltending for a PDO of 99.5, a little low but pretty much right in the middle of the pack. Whatever’s going on in Nashville, it’s not just a fluke of the percentages.
The same is true of other disappointing teams. The Islanders are sitting at a respectable 100.2, the Jets are at 99.7, and the Panthers are at 100.4. Those are all well within a reasonable range. That doesn’t mean that none of those teams have had any bad luck, or that they’re destined to continue underachieving. But if you were looking for an obvious sign that those teams’ struggles are just short-term blips, it’s not there.
And then there are the over-achievers. We saw most of those teams show up in our top five, but one was conspicuous by their absence. The Edmonton Oilers sitting at a PDO of 101.8, which is on the high side (they rank seventh overall). But they’re doing it with solid goaltending (.919%) and very good shooting (9.9%), and it doesn’t seem unreasonable to think they could at least stay in the ballpark of those numbers. We looked into the Oilers’ strong start in more depth two weeks ago, and the conclusion holds: They’re not just riding the percentages.