By Dom Luszczyszyn
Mar 5, 2020
Uploaded by: Martin Arnold
Last year the Blues seemingly came out of nowhere as a serious Stanley Cup contender after languishing near the basement, but there was something in their play that signaled that if they made it, they would be a force to be reckoned with. For the entire second half, the team’s expected goals share was elite and it’s why MoneyPuck, another popular NHL playoff modeler, had St. Louis as a Cup favorite long before it was conventional opinion.
There’s something to be said about teams peaking at the right time and going into the playoffs hot, and MoneyPuck’s model does a good job accounting for that. A lot of people ask what the biggest difference between our two models is and the main one is that mine does everything at the player level, while MoneyPuck does things at the team level, weighting the most recent game as the most important and so forth. Essentially, one is looking at a team’s true talent level and one is looking at how well the team is playing right now. Both have merits and both will be strong predictors – it’s in the differences where there are interesting questions to be asked. Is the team really this good or bad? Are they over-performing or under-performing? Can this continue?
The answers are usually a strong teaching tool and that’s generally the biggest takeaway from any model. You can always disagree with the information, but it’s best to ask why rather than dismiss all of it completely, especially if it generally has a history of being predictive. The differences inform how we learn.
That brings us to MoneyPuck’s current Stanley Cup favourite: the Philadelphia Flyers. It’s bold, but if you know how the model works, it makes sense. The model depends on recent trends, and few teams have been stronger than the Flyers of late. Since February, the team has a 56.6 percent expected goals rate at 5-on-5 (fourth), earns 7.7 expected goals per 60 on the power play (seventh) and allows just 5.3 expected goals against per 60 (second). It’s why the Flyers have a 12-3-0 record since and have surged up the Metropolitan standings, sitting just one point back of the division lead. This team looks legit with star-power and depth at every position.
My own model has noticed too, and while it can’t ignore how much stronger and deeper other contenders look to make the Flyers the Cup favorites, the team has certainly entered the conversation. Their Cup odds have spiked considerably over the last month as a result of their strong play, going from 1.2 percent on Feb. 1 to 4.4 percent today. Only Vegas has seen its underlying strength climb more in that time span than Philadelphia, a big reason the team’s Cup chances have increased so much. The Flyers have gone from likely being big underdogs as a wild card team, to being a formidable foe in the Metropolitan bracket, one that I can imagine few teams want to go up against.
While I don’t agree with MoneyPuck that they’re the favorite, I can see why the team deserves some hype going down the stretch. If they can keep up this play the Flyers have a very real shot and are looking like a legitimate dark horse team right now. They showed it last night in a big win over the division-leading Washington Capitals.
16 Stats1. It’s no coincidence that the Flyers really kicked things into gear when they made a change following a 5-0 drubbing at the hands of the Devils — reuniting its two best players, Sean Couturier and Claude Giroux, on the same line. Since then, Giroux has 15 points, Couturier has 12 and Jakub Voracek on the other side also has 13. Their expected goals percentage in that time frame is hovering near 60 percent.
)For the Flyers to be a legitimate contender they need Giroux back at his best and his last month suggests that’s indeed happened – it’s a big reason they’ve looked so dominant. Giroux has had a bit of an up-and-down season with a mixed bag of linemates, but next to Couturier and Voracek is home and it’s no wonder he’s looked much better since. Aside from that, the big difference is that Giroux has been on the wing rather than at center, and that’s where he really excels at this stage of his career. This season Giroux has an average Game Score of 0.70 when playing center scoring at a 49-point pace with a 50.7 percent expected goals rate. At wing, his average Game Score improves to 0.91 thanks to a 67-point pace and a 55.8 percent expected goals rate.
2. With the Flyers’ surge it’s looking increasingly likely that we’ll be treated to a battle of Pennsylvania in the opening round, with the hope that it matches the utterly insane 2011-12 matchup that featured about 6,000 goals. Start getting excited.
Earlier this week I (finally) updated the standings projections page to include likely playoff matchups and that Metropolitan battle between two fierce rivals isn’t yet probable, but it’s getting there. The current chances are 37 percent
Elsewhere, there’s another fierce battle within state, err, provincial-lines as the Battle of Alberta, which rekindled its flame earlier this season, might get a best-of-seven to settle the score. With everything still up in the air in the Pacific, that one is a bit less likely at 31 percent. Getting one of these series would be a treat. Getting both would be an absolute blessing.
3. Like the Flyers, the Oilers have also been seriously impressive over the last month and in a very weak Pacific are looking a bit dark horsey themselves. Tuesday’s third-period onslaught against what should be a strong Nashville team pushed the hype to a fever-pitch, and after a gusty win the next night, the Oilers’ playoff chances climbed all the way up to 98 percent. Folks, it’s happening: the best player in the world isn’t missing the playoffs this year. Not only that, there’s a decent chance the team wins a round too given the likely candidates to oppose them.
What a turnaround it’s been since late December where it was very difficult to envision the Oilers sitting here. The team deserves a lot of credit for battling back. The recall of Kailer Yamamoto might’ve just saved the season because after that everything just clicked – all this team needed was another weapon (one who scores at a rate of 3.3 points-per-60 at evens, wow). With the team adding two more forwards at the deadline in Tyler Ennis and Andreas Athanasiou, the Oilers are looking scary lately. When the top two lines are going as they have been lately, this team has been tough to stop. The Oilers have the fifth-best record in 2020 and it looks earned with a 51.3 percent expected goals rate combined with a power play (10.7 goals per 60 ranks third) and penalty kill (4.8 goals against per 60 ranks second) that has remained elite. I thought the latter might regress, but the fact Edmonton has maintained it is a great sign, especially now that the team’s 5-on-5 game has climbed above break even.
4. The last edition of 16 Stats featured a blurb about Leon Draisaitl’s Hart candidacy and how his defense may stifle his candidacy. Since then, Draisaitl has scored nine goals and added four assists in just seven games, out-scored other teams at 5-on-5 by a 9-2 margin and has a 59.7 percent expected goals rate – good for an average Game Score of 2.37. The highlight was a four-goal, five-point night against Nashville that carried the best Game Score all season. That two-week outburst has considerably closed the gap according to GSVA and now he ranks sixth behind David Pastrnak (4.0 wins), Artemi Panarin (4.0), Auston Matthews (3.9 wins), Brad Marchand (3.9) and Nathan MacKinnon (3.7). They’re all close enough to Draisaitl’s 3.5 win rate that I don’t think you can go wrong with anyone here as your first choice. Defense is still Draisaitl’s issue, but a strong stretch drive can completely erase the current divide. Points still aren’t everything, but Draisaitl’s lead there is so large, it may be too hard to ignore.
5. A guy who’s not getting any Norris hype whatsoever, but I think deserves some press for his season so far: Shea Theodore. My model is over the moon with him mostly due to his incredible expected goals rate. With him on the ice Vegas is at 59 percent this season, the highest mark in the entire league among regular defensemen. Relative to teammates, Theodore has the 18th best mark. It’s for those two reasons that Theodore is third in GSVA and fourth in xGAR this year among defensemen.
Theodore doesn’t play the toughest minutes so he’ll get docked for that, but his impact when he plays surpasses whatever usage adjustment he would get regardless. I don’t think Theodore should win, but these results suggest he’s entrenching himself as an upper-echelon defender, one who might start belonging in the conversation for years to come. He’s growing into the type of player Vegas has been missing for most of its existence, especially under new coach Pete DeBoer where he’s broken the 60 percent expected goal mark while adding 16 points in 19 games.
6. I was skeptical of DeBoer’s hiring and the first few games didn’t do anything to change that. But since then it’s been smooth sailing and the team is now 13-4-2 under their new coach. Part of that is a correction with the team’s percentages, but it goes beyond that as the team has greatly improved its already stellar grasp on possession hockey. With DeBoer, Vegas is earning 58.2 percent of the expected goals share, 3.5 percentage points better than under Gallant with a goals percentage that actually matches. Both special teams have performed worse, but the underlying numbers have improved as a whole. That should turn around. I was skeptical of the firing, but that’s looking like a big win. Vegas looks like it’s right up there with St. Louis and Colorado for Western Conference powers.
7. Another coaching change that looked downright puzzling to me that has also panned out is happening in Minnesota. Bruce Boudreau is one of the best coaches in the league and it’s likely he was getting sewered by goaltending for most of the past few years. The Wild were consistently near the top of the league in expected goals percentage, but the results didn’t match because of netminding. In nine games under Dean Evason, the team is finally getting goaltending with an average save percentage of .913 which had led to their surge into a playoff spot, but it’s not just that. The Wild are dominating games controlling 57 percent of the expected goals share – and that’s after dealing away Jason Zucker, one of the team’s best play-drivers. That’s a big step up from where the team was with Boudreau, and while it’s not enough to say Evason is better for the team, it might be enough to say that the team’s strong underlying numbers weren’t just because of Boudreau – there’s a decent roster here in Minnesota.
8. The biggest reason for Minnesota surging though is not coaching, but the emergence of Kevin Fiala as a true game-breaker. With his speed and ability with the puck the potential has always been there. Fiala has long had some incredible transition stats and he’s a wizard at entering and exiting the zone, but the true star potential only showed up in flashes. It frustrated coaches and kept his ice-time down, for better or worse. (Worse). Over the last month or so those flashes have turned into a blinding light as Fiala is realizing the potential he’s always shown, the potential that Paul Fenton traded for. That move looks like a pure genius now.
Fiala is on a five-game multi-point streak and since February started, he has 12 goals and 23 points in 16 games, behind only Draisaitl and Mika Zibanejad in both categories. Fiala has been electric and with 51 points in 61 games is now on a nice 69-point pace and at 5-on-5 his 2.71 points-per-60 ranks 14th in the league. At 23-years-old the best is yet to come for Fiala and Minnesota might have the star offensive forward it has long been looking for.
9. For the first time all season Nashville’s playoff chances have dipped below 50 percent after a loss to Fiala’s Wild and the Predators are probably kicking themselves for that trade now. They could sure use a player of his ilk – just kidding, they wouldn’t use him properly.
There’s been a lot of questions about what’s wrong with Nashville and what I keep coming back to is one simple question: how hard is it to just play your best players? There’s really no need to galaxy brain it.
I wrote about the topic from a Leafs perspective a few years ago when then-coach Mike Babcock was hesitant to play his best players in line with other elite players (an easy switch under new coach Sheldon Keefe that’s working out rather well), and what was noticeable was that the Predators were even worse, losing around one win of value from usage. This year they’re around minus-1.1 wins lost from usage. Great teams want balance through their forward lines thanks to depth, but that shouldn’t mean sacrificing ice-time for their best players.
Under new coach John Hynes, this issue has only become worse. Here’s how Nashville’s forwards rank by 5-on-5 ice-time under Hynes.
Predators forward ice-time under Hynes
Anytime you can use Forsberg as much Grimaldi, Bonino as much as Turris and Smith less than anyone you gotta do it … apparently. Now some of this is on the players, but they can’t be expected to perform at their best if every mistake leads to reduced usage.
10. Forsberg’s usage might be the most egregious here as he’s easily Nashville’s best forward and is only playing 16:27 per night. How does anyone justify that, especially when Forsberg is still one of the team’s most efficient scorers at 5-on-5? Oh, he’s minus-four at 5-on-5 under Hynes, that might explain things.
To be fair, Forsberg has struggled under Hynes relative to his usual ability. He’s generally a very strong play-driver, but for whatever reason has slumped to one of the worst marks on the team with his new coach. Perhaps the two don’t see eye-to-eye leading to some tension in play and usage as a result, but if Nashville is to get going, the team needs its best forward and coach on the same page. Personally, I think showing confidence in him by giving him the minutes he deserves as one of the game’s best players would go a long way.
11. Speaking of underused forwards in the Central division, Dallas’s Denis Gurianov currently ranks 12th on the team on 5-on-5 ice time per game and second behind only Tyler Seguin in points-per-60. On a team that can’t score with a mixed bag of depth outside its stars (no pun intended), it might be worth trying out the guy who scores goals at the most efficient rate on the team a little further up the lineup.
12. There have been a lot of injuries this year, but it seemed like almost all of the big impact ones (aside from Jake Guentzel) had a timeline – if there was any – that would see the players return for the playoffs. The injury to Steven Stamkos is huge for the reason that the six-to-eight week timeline puts him in serious jeopardy of missing the opening round. Usually, that wouldn’t be so bad for a team of Tampa Bay’s ilk in an opening round, but there’s a high likelihood that the path to the second round will go through to a Toronto team that should be healthy come playoff time. With Stamkos, the Lightning would have a very high chance of advancing at 64 percent and while the team would still be favorites without him due to their incredible depth, the series would be significantly tighter if he ends up missing all of it. The Lightning would be 57.6 percent favorites. Even worse is if they do advance but Stamkos isn’t ready against Boston. We saw an early glimpse of that on Tuesday night and it wasn’t pretty for Lightning fans. However, the series would be much closer than that game entailed: it would be a near 50-50 split after accounting for Boston likely having home ice. The Lightning need Stamkos to be ready in time.
13. The average playoff team has been shutout in four percent of its games this season. The slumping New York Islanders have nearly doubled that, getting blanked in five of 65 games, or a 7.7 percent rate. Four of those though have occurred in 2020, tied for the most in the league with the Anaheim Ducks. At 14.8 percent in 2020, it’s nearly double the team’s full-season rate. The scoring issues are very real for this team who are now 19-19-6 since their 17-game point streak, dropping eight of their last 10. With the team sporting just a plus-one goal differential for the season, it’s becoming difficult to envision the Islanders as a real Stanley Cup threat and a dearth of offence is the main culprit for that. With the Rangers and Blue Jackets having a tougher schedule down the stretch and fading of late, the playoffs should still be safe for the Islanders, but unless they find a scoring touch in the postseason it could be a short trip.
14. Earlier this week I wrote a post on each team’s remaining strength of schedule and how it pertained to the playoff race. Though the playoffs were the goal, it was hard not to notice the poor Red Wings, who have the toughest collection of opponents coming up. The Red Wings only have 35 points in 68 games, have lost six straight, and to be honest, are looking like a very tough bet to earn many more points in their remaining 14 games. Detroit’s best win probability in those remaining games is 35 percent, with nine games coming in below 30 percent. That might be generous too as the team is expected to win 3.7 of its final 14 games, which is difficult to imagine given the gauntlet ahead of them. I’ll take the under on that. For those wondering, the probability that the team wins zero of its remaining 14 games is 1.4 percent, so it’s still quite the long shot, but with this team anything is possible.
15. A lot of people have asked if my projected Game Score Value Added would ever be available to look at and it always felt a bit weird to cite a number that was really only available to me. Transparency is important and I wanted to share the projections, but it needed to be done right and there wasn’t a great infrastructure in place to make it passable. I’ve been waiting patiently for our product team to finish up their new dynamic table feature which would make tables much more presentable as well as sortable. That day is finally here and you can find all the value for every skater in the league (well, the ones that have played 15 or more games this year) here – and then of course yell about which players I’ve over or underrated in the comments. My one request for this: don’t let perfect be the enemy of good. I know the values won’t be 100 percent on the money, but as a baseline, they should be more than good enough to start a conversation about player value.
16. It was back in 2018 when one of the smartest people in the hockey analytics community got her big break, and when 31 NHL teams made a big mistake. Imagine one of the best and brightest is sitting in your own backyard, and she gets scooped up by a team to work in an analytics department in an entirely different league. It’s a testament to how strong an analyst Namita Nandakumar was already at the age of 21 (this piece is a good example of that), and now two years later a 32nd NHL team isn’t going to make the same mistake. Last week, Seattle announced the hiring of Nandakumar, adding her to an already strong cast of analysts that could rival a majority of analytics departments in hockey. That’s going to be a huge advantage for an organization building itself from the ground up and Nandakumar should be an incredible asset to that. Congrats Namita – extremely well deserved.