By golly, the anti-analytics crowd is going to have a field day with this one, yes it will. Those who poo-poo the fancy stats can look at the NHL standings today and point out that the best possession team in the league, the Los Angeles Kings, missed the playoffs, while one of the worst possession teams in the league, the Calgary Flames, lost their best defenseman and punched their ticket to the Stanley Cup dance.
Take that and stick it in your pocket protectors, or something like that.
It’s remarkable, really. Over the past couple of years, the hockey world has been led to believe that advanced stats are the best harbinger for team success. Teams that have good possession numbers have far more success than those that don’t. So how do you explain how a team with a shot attempt differential of plus-733 has missed the playoffs, while one with a minus-847 (a difference of 1,580) can make it?
That the Kings are the best possession team in the NHL is not even open to discussion. They have the best team possession numbers and defense partners Drew Doughty and Jake Muzzin have the best individual possession numbers. Anze Kopitar, Justin Williams, Marian Gaborik and Jeff Carter are among the league’s top forwards when it comes to puck possession.
So what happened? Well, pretty much everything you need to know is that the Kings were 3-15 in games that went beyond 60 minutes – 2-8 in shootouts and 1-7 in overtime. The Kings were atrocious in shootouts. They were dead last in the league in shooting percentage in the skills contest, scoring on just 14.3 percent of their shots. Only one team in the league, the Tampa Bay Lightning (try figuring that one out while you’re at it), had fewer than the five shootout goals the Kings had this season. And things weren’t much better at the other end of the ice. The Kings had a team save percentage of just .636 in the shootout, with No. 1 man Jonathan Quick logging just a .593 mark.
All right, that explains some of it, but if the Kings were such a great possession team, why weren’t they able to put teams away in regulation time and overtime? Well, they kind of did. The Kings are currently 36-27 in regulation-time games, which is better than the Chicago Blackhawks, Anaheim Ducks and the Flames. But after the third period buzzer,the Kings were terrible. Their shooting percentage in 4-on-4 situations, of which the vast majority would be overtime, was just 3.6 percent and their save percentage was just .881. When you combine those two stats, the Kings were the second-worst statistical team in the league in 4-on-4 play. But why? Well, one theory is that the Kings are a ‘heavy’ team that thrives on cycling the puck and not giving their opponents much space. But in 4-on-4 there’s a lot more room to maneuver on the ice, so perhaps that wasn’t an area of the game that favored the Kings.
Conversely, the Flames were dominated in the possession game this season, but had a number of other factors on their side. First, they scored a league-high 10 goals when their goalie was pulled, and four times they tied the game with their goalie pulled for an extra attacker. The Flames gave up 11 empty-net goals, which gave them a goals for-goals against differential that is mind-boggling. By contrast, when the Flames opponents had their goaltender pulled, the Flames scored 12 times and only gave up one.
And the Flames also thrived on special teams. They had the best penalty differential in the NHL and they have so far spent 128 minutes and 47 seconds on the power play than they have on the penalty kill. No team has spent less time this season killing penalties than the Flames, which not only reduces their chances of being scored upon, but also saves their penalty killers and goaltenders from logging some very hard minutes.
Even those in the analytics community acknowledge that much of this comes down to luck. The Colorado Avalanche was a terrible possession team last season, but had a huge amount of good luck, a trend that reversed itself this season when the Avs missed the playoffs. Shootouts are a coin flip and it’s almost impossible to determine who will win those.
So if so much of it comes down to luck, why are we focusing so much on advanced stats in the first place? It’s a valid question, one that isn’t easily answered. But it does prove this much, that the hockey world still seems to be finding its way when it comes to analytics. Or as one advanced stats guy put it to me: “Probability isn’t destiny."
Usually, analytics are right, but sometimes they're wrong. In this case, they were wrong. The Kings should have made the playoffs and the Flames should have missed, according to analytics. But you can't control luck. And when so many games are decided by a goal or two, luck plays a more pivotal factor. The one thing is, and the Avalanche proved that this season, that luck will change. Being a team that gives itself the best chance to win by possessing the puck and having the best chances to score has the better chance for long-term success.