The Pressures of Parity

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Two nights ago, when no one was looking, I tweeted out a telling statistic to understand how teams have reacted to the salary cap post-lockout.

Boulerice wasn’t the only one scraping the bottom of the barrel in 2005-06; Colton Orr was nearby with his 2:49 per game, and you didn’t have to look much further to see Andrew Peters (3:15) and Eric Godard (3:27). In fact, 19 skaters played over 20 games that season and recorded even-strength TOI/G lower than Peluso’s from this year. Teams have realized that, in a salary-capped league, even league-minimum dollars can’t justify players who cannot be trusted with regular minutes.

This was a fairly stark evolution of player usage, but it led me to wonder if there were any other things we could see by looking at finer-grained data from 2005-06 to the present. The salary cap was a game-changer because it pushed teams at the top and bottom closer together, and that compelled teams to stop employing players they couldn’t trust at evens; what are some other areas we see the pressure of parity?

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NHL Player Physical Peak Estimation

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Probably want to keep that middle guy out for the next shift. Photo by Conrad Poirier, via Wikimedia Commons

Determining NHL player peaks has frequently focused on production and, occasionally, wrinkles are added to account for the steeper fall-off for goal-scoring as opposed to playmaking. Generally, the peak appears to be around the ages 23-25, with some skills like shooting exhibiting fairly early peaks and others a bit later.

Poking around some spreadsheets, I came across data that I’ve always meant to get to: time per shift. The NHL has been keeping a measure of average time per shift for players going back to 1997-98, so I licked my chops over the robust data set. The “Why?” for looking at it, I think, takes us to an interesting place. To some degree, time per shift can allude to a player’s stamina and overall physical fitness; it can also allude to the coaching staff’s assessment of their performance — though there are plenty of shifts ended on the fly in a hockey game. What’s more, we simply haven’t had a lot of player peak estimations using time on-ice, and when done carefully, I think we can capture something like a total physical peak for players.

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The NHL Playoffs and Penalties

Image courtesy of WikiMedia

Not long ago, we researched hit and face off differentials and their relationship with playoff performance, in both the same statistic and in goal performance.

As a fan of the Winnipeg Jets, who lead the league for worst penalty differential for much of the season, I find it a very interesting topic to research. More power plays and less penalty kills means a better team goal differential over the course of a season, by a significant amount.

Let’s take a look after the jump.

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2015 NHL Stanley Cup 1st Round Predictions: Too Cool For School

Uploaded by "ali", via Wikimedia Commons; altered by author

Uploaded by “ali”, via Wikimedia Commons; altered by author

I don’t like to predict the playoffs, in part because it makes plenty of people look like geniuses that probably aren’t, and makes geniuses look pretty dumb. And really, that’s because the stakes are high but the influence of luck is pretty drastic — not surprising when a team can advance by only winning 4 of 7 (i.e. barely successful enough to make the playoffs in the first place). Lastly, given a flood of predictions and contests in the wake of the Summer of Analytics, nobody who “wins” their predictions is going to look a lot better than the other person who almost “won.” So I’m exercising my right to fart around.

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A Tank Battle in Pictures: Toronto Maple Leafs, Edmonton Oilers, Arizona Coyotes, & Buffalo Sabres in 2014-15

Having just added the 2014-15 season to our historical comparison charts, now was a good time to revisit (as I promised in my posts here and here on Pittsburgh’s 1983-84 tank battle) this season’s battle between Arizona, Toronto, Edmonton, and Buffalo. To do this, I tracked the progression of each teams shots-for percentage across two periods (or 2pS%), a possession proxy I developed for historical data that can help us compare teams back to 1952. As you can see above, the perception of the tank battle among these four teams wasn’t quite accurate to their results; Edmonton and Buffalo did not seem to have a marked drop-off in the final quarter-season.

Arizona and Toronto, on the other hand, did noticeably drop, and in Arizona’s case to a level below the hapless Sabres. Ultimately, the fight was more to maintain their improved odds, because Buffalo managed to hold at rock bottom. As I asked when I wrote about the topic with Pittsburgh in mind, it still gives rise to an interesting question: is it more wrong to tank than to maintain a low level all year? In some cases, a team that’s already laid low doesn’t need to tank deliberately…but on the flip side, I suppose that team also assumes risk in losing support and fans by not appearing competitive all season.

How did the Coyotes and Maple Leafs compare to what I’ve christened the “gold standard” for tanks, the 1983-84 Pittsburgh Penguins’ tank for Mario Lemieux? Well, the nice thing is that the plus- and minus-one standard deviations in 2pS% were virtually identical in 1983-84 and 2014-15, so I didn’t have to tinker with them:

While Pittsburgh had probably the starkest, earliest drop-off, both Arizona and Toronto were able to reach the same kinds of lows by the end of the season. To their credit, while the Coyotes and Leafs were, at best, in the lower half of the league in possession, they certainly did their best in the race to the bottom. You could question the wisdom of this kind of thing, since Pittsburgh was guaranteed the top pick if they reached the cellar, while this year’s tanks were struggling for a higher probability.

Why The Los Angeles Kings Missed the Playoffs: An Open Email

I’ve been asked by a couple of people how a team with a normal PDO and strong metrics could have missed the playoffs entirely. It’s an important question to address, particularly because the playoffs are so much more important than worrying about whether you’re lucky enough to win the Stanley Cup. I composed an email response, and felt good enough about it to open it up. While this doesn’t comprise the whole of the explanation (certainly, there’s some “blame” that goes to Calgary & Winnipeg), they’re points that I’m not seeing made elsewhere.

Hi XXXXX,

A couple of things really hurt the Kings. One is a cruel fact of a low-scoring league: if more games are going to be decided by one or two goals, it increases the likelihood that a fluky goal can impact a team in the standings. The Kings had the most overtime losses in the Western Conference; last year they were tied for the second least in the West. The second thing is the tank battle…the West had two teams with historically bad records – add in games against Buffalo, and we have three teams that will end the season with point totals that were typically reserved for the sole worst team in the league in other seasons. On the flip side, that creates a rising tide for all the other ships in the league, and raises the bar for getting into the playoffs. I mean, needing to get nearly 100 points to get in? Last year, the bottom team in the West, Dallas, had 91 points. A nearly identical record to this year got Los Angeles into the playoffs in the 8th seed in 2011-12.

Maybe the closest comparable circumstance was 2010-11, when the West again had two sad-sack teams (Colorado, Edmonton), and the East was noticeably weaker than the West. It took Chicago 97 points to get in. Also, look at 2006-07…Colorado didn’t make it with 95 points, having gone 44-31-7 during the season. If the West is considerably stronger than the East, as it was back then, you could also end up with a tougher path to making the playoffs. In ’06-07, every team in the Western Conference, save the 8th seed (Calgary, with 96 points), had 104 points or more!

Anyway, this year’s league created a scenario where a good team, by any measure, might not get in. The Kings went 39-27-15, outscored their opponents by 12 goals (in fact, they tied for 2nd in the league in goal differential at even strength), and could get 95 points and not make the playoffs. In the loser point era, there were only two seasons that was even possible, and both occurred in the stronger Western Conference. It’s a successful season by anything except the fluid marker of the playoffs, which unfortunately for them is all-important to reach.

Hope this helps,

Best,

Ben

Note: One critique I’d like to address – yes, all teams in the league are theoretically dealing with the tank battle, but tanking doesn’t occur across the entire season, which means that teams that have already played most or all of their games against tanking teams earlier in the year won’t have the benefit. Additionally, those same teams might have the resulting, added pressure of a more-difficult set of opponents through the latter portion of the season. If the difference between making the playoffs versus not is a matter of a few points, the difference in scheduling can become all the difference in the world.

Who are NHL Coaches Playing More with the (Big) Lead?

Photo by Michael Miller, via Wikimedia Commons

Johan Larsson’s TOI% jumps 8.5% when the Sabres are leading by 2 or more goals (which is never). Photo by Michael Miller, via Wikimedia Commons

Right out the gates, I knew two things: 1) I wanted to take TOI% data from close scores and subtract it from TOI% data from 2+ goal leads, and 2) that it would automatically tell us that perceived poorer players are given more playing time with the lead. Why? Because they tend to play less when the score is close, which increases the likelihood that a differential with 2+ goal time on-ice will show they get to play more with a big lead. That said, I wanted to run a quick study to see just how much of a difference that time swing could be, and which players come out of the woodwork on either end.

But first, I want to whittle away the small sample players, and to do that I’m going to run a quick test to see at what # of games played this TOI 2+ minus TOI Close differential (let’s call it “TOI Lead Diff”) stabilizes.

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