Advanced statistics can be a great predictor of what’s on the horizon for NHL clubs, and December has shown that the Panthers, Penguins and Maple Leafs may be establishing themselves as strong possession teams. Things haven’t been so great for the Capitals, Canucks and Senators, though.
As the month winds down, it’s time to look at which teams have been hot (or not) going into the New Year. Most people would take that to mean who got the most points during December, but with the NHL’s new numbers movement we can dig a little deeper than that. What’s more interesting is which teams actively improved (or degraded) their game regardless of results and identifying which teams are trending in the right or wrong direction. Most people generally use shot rates to measure the direction a team is going as they can be good indicators of a team’s true talent level. Shot rates fluctuate throughout the year and that movement is worth keeping an eye on. That’s what this trend report is all about because how a team is playing lately is usually a good indication of what’s to come in the future. Here are three teams going in the right direction and three teams trending the other way:
(All stats are score-adjusted and per 60 minutes via war-on-ice.com)
Florida: Raise your hand if you saw ‘Florida Panthers: 1st in the Atlantic’ coming as soon as this season. Almost halfway through the season, the Panthers are atop the Atlantic thanks to a 10-3-0 record in December. Full credit goes to Roberto Luongo, who has been playing out of his mind lately, but the team has really helped him out over the past month. Without sacrificing any offense, the Panthers have cut nine shot attempts against from their diet and have played like an elite shot suppression team in December. Their 45 attempts against per 60 minutes is better than every single team in the league, just above reputed defensive-minded teams like the Kings, Red Wings and Devils. Shot suppression is key to winning hockey games because when your opponent is getting nothing going offensively frustration sets in.
Pittsburgh: Since Mike Johnston was relieved of his coaching duties, the Penguins have been an entirely different team. They’re the top shot rate team since Mike Sullivan took over on Dec. 12 with a big emphasis on offense and generating chances. They’re taking 10 more shot attempts per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 under Sullivan and playing a style that’s much better suited to the makeup of the roster. Granted, seven games is not enough to judge a new coach, but the early numbers look promising. Too often under Johnston, the Penguins played a conservative game to shelter a weak D-corps and it ended up suppressing their offence. There was no speed in their attack and the team looked like it was half asleep most nights. Under Sullivan this team is finally playing to their strengths and while the results aren’t there yet, they’ll come soon. Pittsburgh is still a talented team and they’re finally starting to show it.
Toronto: The Maple Leafs have had an up and down season. This time last month, the Leafs were in the trending down portion of this list as they tumbled down the Corsi standings after a strong start. Of course, the weird part was that their record didn’t match their play. Underlying numbers were good in October but they were losing games, while November was the exact opposite. Hockey works in strange ways, but the team looks to be back on track and the results are following as the Leafs are 5-3-2 for the month. Whatever the issue was in November, it’s been mostly cleared up as the Leafs are again showing signs of becoming an elite possession team. This season is less about winning and more about establishing an effective system that can win hockey games consistently. Mission accomplished so far. The next step is filling out the roster with talent.
Washington: At 9-1-1, no team was hotter than the Capitals in the month of December, but things weren’t so rosy beneath the surface. Washington’s score-adjusted Corsi for the month was the fifth-worst mark in the league, sandwiched between Arizona and Columbus at just above 46 percent. That’s a huge drop considering they were a borderline top five team before December. It’s likely just a mid-season funk more than anything else, but it’s still a troubling sign for a team with serious Stanley Cup aspirations. The Capitals are strong outside of their possession game – they have one of the league’s best powerplays and elite goaltender Braden Holtby – and that’s why they were able to win so often despite the shot rate concerns. But those are strengths that teams can’t consistently depend on. The Caps need to get back to the way they were playing earlier in the year, because getting routinely out-chanced will catch up to them.
Vancouver: Before the season started, the Canucks were picked by many to find a home near the Pacific division basement, and that prediction may come true if they keep up their recent play. Only the Senators were outshot more than the Canucks over the past month which is a big change from their play during the start of the season. Injuries have been a big issue for the team recently, so it’s possible that their December decline is a product of that. Once they regain health, it’ll be interesting to see if the trend continues. But despite the injuries and horrific underlying numbers, the team still sits third in the lackluster Pacific division. Don’t expect that to last though considering the foundation of their success is built upon a stockpile of loser points. Only Anaheim has won fewer games in the Pacific and given their recent shot rate issues, it’s likely the team starts sliding down the standings pretty soon.
Ottawa: The Senators were already playing an ineffective brand of hockey before this month began, but they’ve somehow sunk even further. During an average 60 minutes of 5-on-5 play, the Sens were out-attempted by more than 16 shot attempts in December, four more than the next worst team. The issue with the team – as outlined by their most fervent supporters online – has been questionable player deployment. One such example is a game this season where one of the team’s worst defenseman, Mark Borowiecki, played on the top line over Mike Hoffman, arguably the team’s most dangerous forward. That’s just one of many questionable decisions the Sens have made with their roster and it’s certainly part of the reason they controlled just 42 percent of the shot attempt battle in December. That’s a mark usually reserved for lottery-bound clubs and yet the Senators have somehow remained in the playoff mix. That likely won’t last, not if they keep playing like this. Here’s how the rest of the league looked during the month of December compared to the previous two months: