Nobody’s oblivious to the fact that it’s a strange time for the NHL, and given the owner-led money squabbles right now, I admit to being a little frustrated by said “strange time.”
This limbo fans are in is undeserved given what they’ve been through and the support they’ve maintained for their teams. But by all credible accounts the goal of returning to action in January remains a thing, so I’m going to go ahead and assume that to be true, and happily turn my focus back to the ice.
There’s really never a bad time for bite-sized barstool-worthy hockey tidbits, as evidenced by the interest in the last piece I did on this, which focused on statistical oddities from the 2019-20 season.
This one does that too, but in a different light: it looks at stats that are so far from normal you expect them to be different next season just by common regression, and thus change the fortunes of the attached team.
We’ll move away from it as our sole focus as we move on, but you’ll come across one main theme from the early group of numbers: goaltending is important. Stunning, I know. But it’s revelations like this that landed me the gig here at Sportsnet, so I’m just going to keep on bring them truths.
Let’s dive in.
What if the Minnesota Wild actually get goaltending next season?
The 2019-20 Wild were 29th in the NHL in team save percentage last season, with a combined number of .897. More analysis here, that’s bad.
But even with that, they finished with a 35-27-7 record, good for a .558 winning percentage. Inside their division that barely trailed Winnipeg’s .563, Nashville’s .565, and was within shouting distance of Dallas’s .594.
Minnesota signed Cam Talbot who pitched a .919 save percentage for the Flames last season. If they can get an extra puck stopped every other game, might they be on to something?
What if Sergei Bobrovsky didn’t get cursed by an evil sorcerer to lose all his power, and instead just had a bad season? What are the Panthers then?
Florida’s team save percentage was way better than the Wild’s, by … yeah, .002 (it was .899). That was largely on the back of Bobrovsky’s .900 in his first year making huge money to solidify the Panthers’ crease. Whoops.
But let’s say he’s at least average next year, which I’d happily bet on him being. The Panthers were 35-26-8, a breath behind the Leafs while getting no saves. They brought in some grit to surround their skill. What are they if they get a .913 or so in net next year?
What if the evil sorcerer who gave the Coyotes Bobrovsky’s true ability takes it away next season?
On the flip side the Coyotes had the third-best goaltending in the NHL at .919. Even with that and Taylor Hall for a chunk they finished fifth in the soft Pacific.
Also: you know who might be better next year? Vegas, Edmonton, Vancouver, and Calgary, who Arizona trailed. (If not better they certainly don’t look outwardly worse.) The California teams should be better. I think Darcy Kuemper is Real Deal Holyfield and all, but if he’s even average next season, the offensively starved Coyotes are in big trouble.
Can the Isles “system” keep the levees strong if the shot tsunami at their net continues to rage?
If you bring up the Islanders – my Islanders, if you will – all you hear about is defence and goaltending. People think they’re boring because they’re so reliable and structured in their Barry Trotz-led system, yada yada.
But they gave up just piles more shots than they took last season, finishing 29th in the NHL with a Corsi For percentage of 46.45. (That just means of all the total shots taken in their games, 53.55 per cent were directed at their net.)
In all, Isles goalies saw 447 more shot attempts than their opponents’ keepers. They balanced that out by having a combined save percentage of .911, eighth-best in the NHL. Fans will tell you that was partly because they kept shots to the outside and pressured them. And sure, likely it was to some extent.
But 447 is a lot of attempts, and last year the goalies held up their end of the bargain. Now they’ve lost Thomas Greiss and are rolling out 32-year-old Semyon Varlamov and rookie Ilya Sorokin next season. Which is fine, right? It’s fine. Yeah, it’s fine. (*Worries it’s not fine*)
Vegas was good, but also unlucky, and added Alex Pietrangelo … which seems like good news for them all around?
PDO is a terribly named stat (it’s not an acronym, but rather named after the lovely Oilers fan online who first kicked it around) that some call a measure of “luck” that isn’t really a measure of luck. But it kind of is? It just combines team save percentage with team shooting percentage. Generally those two numbers, particularly shooting percentage (given how many players skate for a team on a given night and in a given year), will find its way to roughly average, which is a combined total of 100. Good teams will consistently stay a bit above 100 and bad a bit below, but if a team’s PDO is wildly one way or the other, they’re likely to regress back to the pack.
The Golden Knights are a good team that finished with the 28th-highest PDO last season, a total of 98.9. They’re likely going to get more from their combined shooting and save percentage next year and see better regular season outcomes as a result. Please note that they won the Pacific Division last time around.
What if the Leafs don’t leave so many points on the table in the regular season?
We’ve talked a lot about goaltending here, so just a brief mention of the Leafs, who finished third in their division: it was kinda bad. Freddy Andersen’s .909 was fine enough (though the worst of his career), but non-Andersen goalies won seven of their 21 games and brought the team total save percentage down to .901, 21st in the league.
Related or not, I don’t know, but Toronto had an abysmal record in one-goal games (an area stats people think has more luck involved than eye testers believe). They won just 40 per cent of those, worse than the likes of the Red Wings and Ducks, which is saying something for a team that finished with a plus-15 goal differential. Toronto also went 1-6 in shootouts, which probably shouldn’t happen when you pay four offensive players wads of money to score goals.
Also possibly related: they gave up the first goal of the game 39 times, which was fourth-most in the NHL. That’s not going to help you win many games, let alone those of the one-goal variety.
How differently would Taylor Hall have been valued this off-season if he was even OK at breakaways last year?
We had Steve Valiquette on Hockey Central Tuesday, where he shared this mind-blowing stat: In 2019-20 Taylor Hall had 17 clear breakaways, on which he scored … zero times.
In direct contrast, Chris Kreider had 10 breakaways and scored seven times.
If Hall scores at an average rate on those, and he’s at 20 goals instead of 16 in 65 games last season, does that improved perception make him more money? Does someone else seek him out more aggressively?
The Flames were the reverse-Leafs in close games and first goals, which seems like a concern heading into a new season?
The Flames were in the fight for the Pacific Division last season, and were all-but deadlocked with the Canucks for third spot there when the season hit the wall in March. But boy, remember those Leafs stats that you’d expect to improve, like going 1-6 in shootouts? The Flames were 6-1.
Maybe they can replicate that success, but banking on being close-game specialists seems dicey, and the Flames were the second-best team in the NHL there last season, going 19-5-7 in one-goal games. That could be partially attributed to their success after giving up the first goal – another strategy I’d want to avoid leaning on – winning 16 times after surrendering that first tally. That was the third-most in the NHL. What are the odds they can squeeze so many points from disadvantaged positions again next year?
What if the Jets' plan of “save us Connor Hellebuyck” falls through?
By “expected goals for percentage” the Jets were the worst team in the NHL last season. The worst! Now, most stats-centered people I know believe this to be a somewhat flawed metric, but if you sort the standings by it, you get a pretty decent look at what the league really is, at least by tiers of teams. So being below last year’s Red Wings says something, and it’s not something good about your team.
Now the Jets made up for it with a wad of other numbers that say “thank the lord for Hellebuyck,” so that was a plus. They were in the top 10 in 5-on-5 save percentage (ninth), 5-on-5 PDO (10th) wins in games when being outshot (t-7th), wins in games they trailed first (t-5th) and only being shorthanded 174 times (2nd).
But the above is no plan to enter a season. So, what if Hellebuyck is only just OK next year?
(For more information like this, I highly recommend following @SNStats, who I’d like to thank for their work in compiling the above.)