Probable, ‘Cause is a new feature where the Hockey Graphs staff give their predictions about the big unknowns in the hockey universe today. We’ll offer a question and give the reasons why it will and won’t happen, and then our estimate of the probability that the answer will wind up being yes. At the end of each question you’ll have the chance to submit your predictions as well, and we’ll review the group’s answers in the next edition of Probable, ‘Cause. This week, we’ll look at Braden Holtby’s odds of entering the NHL record books, whether Erik Karlsson can keep up his hot hand, and how nervous broadcasters should be at the prospect of an all-American playoffs this year.
With the league returning from the completely predictable All-Star festivities (I didn’t see the game but can only presume that John Scott screwed the whole thing up, since that’s what Gary Bettman implied would happen), there’s no time like the present to look back at the first 50 games and take stock of the NHL season that’s been so far. And since the only thing better than arbitrary lists or rankings is many arbitrary lists or rankings, we here at Hockey Graphs have put together our picks for each of the end of season major awards.
Alexander Semin did not have a good season last year. After producing decent numbers in his first two seasons in Carolina, with 35 goals and 51 assists in 109 games, Semin struggled in 2014-2015, putting up only 19 points over 57 games and seeing his shooting percentage drop below 10% for only the second time in his 10 year career. With three years remaining on a contract paying $7MM per season, the Hurricanes decided to cut their losses, buying out the Russian winger prior to the start of the UFA period in July.
While at first glance Semin’s release seems like a reasonable response for a former top scorer who appeared to have lost the magic touch, if we look at little closer at Semin’s numbers a different story beings to emerge. Semin logged only 1.5 minutes of powerplay time per game in 2014-2015, down more than 2 minutes from his 2013-2014 total, and well below the 4+ minutes he would see at the start of his career in Washington. While other factors certainly played a role in his fall from grace (a 97.5 PDO at 5-on-5 doesn’t help), there’s no denying that the coaching staff’s decision to keep Semin off the ice when the ‘Canes were up a man cost him (and likely the team) points.
Although Semin is an extreme case, the general story of a player losing points as his powerplay time decreases is not uncommon amongst NHLers, and illustrates that opportunity often matters just as much as ability when it comes to a player’s results. Each team’s powerplay minutes are limited, and valuable to both the team and player, given the higher scoring environment that exists when a team is up a skater. Overall, teams scored roughly 25% of their goals on the powerplay last year, despite the fact that less than 20% of total ice time was played with a team on the man-advantage.
Luca Sbisa may be one of the players who best epitomizes the divide between the old-school, eye test view on hockey and the statistics-focussed analysts offering their opinions from their mother’s basements on fan curated sites across the internet. While GM Jim Benning clearly thinks Sbisa is a useful defender, rewarding him with a 3-year, 10.8MM deal, and consistently praising his defensive zone smarts, Canucks fans have been less bullish on the talents of the 25-year-old Swiss pointman. Correctly noting his less than stellar possession numbers, J.D. Burke commented that his first season with Vancouver featured few “extended stretches in which any pairing with Sbisa on it looked passable”. These aren’t just the criticisms of a bitter fan wishful for better years, Burke backed up his arguments with a detailed numerical breakdown of Sbisa’s many failings, and video evidence of some of his less than professional defending from 2014-2015. Burke, and the Canucks’ fanbase in general, seemed to paint a picture of Sbisa that stands in stark contrast to what Vancouver management observed. Where the fans saw a player who frequently found himself out of position at critical junctures when defending his own end, Vancouver’s brain trust viewed Sbisa as the ideal player to disrupt a cycle down low. How could two groups of people who watched the same games with such intense devotion come to such different conclusions?
One of the biggest difficulties with evaluating Sbisa, and defencemen in general, is that what the eye test says is important is often wildly out of sync with what statistics can currently measure. While stats-based analyses focus on a defender’s ability to prevent shot attempts (in other words, their Corsi Against per 60), most of the praise for defensively-minded defencemen tends to focus on hockey IQ, being in the right position, and winning battles in the corner. While ideally these less “quantifiable” skills should lead to favourable statistical results, issues with differences in player deployment and the teammate-dependent nature of defending often mean that what gets praised in post-game interviews isn’t what shows up on the scoresheets, leaving a divide between management’s view and the story told by pure shot attempt numbers.
Pekka Rinne is good at controlling his rebounds. I know this, because people on the internet have made their opinions abundantly clear. Scouts and fanalysts alike credit Rinne’s quick glove hand with helping him catch a significantly higher volume of shots than most other goalies, leaving few opportunities behind for lurking opponents to deposit into his net.
James Reimer is not good at controlling his rebounds. I know this, once again, because people on the internet have made their opinions abundantly clear. Reimer’s (supposed) inability to prevent the shots he’s saved from bouncing into dangerous areas is often cited as one of the main reasons for why he should be the #2 goalie behind Jonathan Bernier on the Leafs’ depth chart.
Zone starts are not that great of a metric. Although certain players do tend to be put out almost exclusively for offensive or defensive purposes, the reality is that for most players’ zone starts have a relatively small effect on a player’s performance. And yet, many hockey writers still frequently qualify a player’s performance based on observations like “they played sheltered minutes” or “they take the tough draws in the defensive zone”. Part of the problem is that we’ve never really developed a good way of quantifying a player’s deployment. With many current metrics, such as both traditional and true zone starts, it’s difficult to express their effect except in a relative sense (i.e. by comparing zone starts between players). So when a pundit says that a player had 48% of his on-ice faceoffs in the offensive zone, it’s difficult to communicate to most people what that really means.
Going beyond that, even if we know that 48% would make a player one of the most sheltered skaters in the league, the question that we should ask is so what? Simply knowing that a player played tough minutes doesn’t give us any information that’s useful to adjust a player’s observed results, which is really the reason that we care about zone starts. We know that if you start your shifts predominantly in the defensive zone, you’ll likely see worse results, but zone start percentages don’t tell us how much worse they should be. Traditional deployment metrics are too blunt of a tool – they provide a measurement, but not one that gives any context to the performance numbers that we really care about.
As a loyal reader of Hockey Graphs you may be aware that today marks the start of the 2015-16 NHL season. This is an uncertain time in many hockey fans’ lives, and you probably have questions: Will my favourite team make the playoffs? Who is going to win the Stanley Cup? Are the Leafs really going to be that bad again?
As standings-list-compiler-in-chief of Hockey Graphs (we almost went with Listicleditor in Chief but thought it was too wordy), my job is to answer those questions for you. I have made the process of knowing who is going to make the playoffs, win their division, and play for the cup easy! So easy in fact, that even a Habs fan could get it (the process, not the Cup, they’re definitely not going to win the Cup). Simply consult the sharply presented table below and you (probably) won’t even need to watch the games! Isn’t that simpler and more fulfilling?
A few days ago, James Mirtle of the Globe and Mail brought up one of the first significant shifts in tactics under the Mike Babcock regime in Toronto.
Parenteau playing as fourth forward on Leafs PP and scores. New look for Toronto man advantage, run by assistant coach Jim Hiller.
— James Mirtle (@mirtle) September 21, 2015
While the change may be surprising to some fans, particularly given the lack of depth in the Leafs forward corps, it shouldn’t be altogether unexpected.