The NHL regular season is almost over and we see that the West Conference remains stronger than the East Conference this season. The West has a 152-103 (with 28 regulation tie points) record against East Conference teams. Almost sixty percent of inter-conference games have wound up with the West Conference winning. The only West teams that do not have winning records against the East are Edmonton, Dallas, Columbus and Anaheim (the latter two have apparent winning records when the point for losing is taken into account).
This inequity between conferences is seen in the NHL standings. Colorado has 89 points and holds down the last playoff spot in the West. In the East, Boston is in the last playoff spot with only 80 points. Calgary looks likely to miss playoffs in the West. They have a 38-38 record (with 9 regulation tie points) that would have them sixth in the East. This compares with the Boston Bruins 34-40 (with 12 regulation tie points) record that looks good enough for playoffs in the East.
The NHL got its first 100 point scorer of the season last night. With two assists in a losing effort last night against San Jose, Henrik Sedin now has 101 points. He is the first player this season to clear the 100 point barrier. As a player who had a previous career best of 82 points, would you have predicted this last summer? I know that I wouldn’t have.
Henrik Sedin was picked third overall in the 1999 entry draft by the Vancouver Canucks. Though he has been one of the Canucks top players for a few years, this is the first season where he has been one of the best in the league. At age 29, it is a little late in his career to make such a jump. Most players do so at a younger age. One of the most debated questions this summer will be whether or not Henrik’s season is repeatable. I am unconvinced that he can score 100 or more points on a routine basis.
A few days ago I wrote about subjective stats where a scorer makes a decision about whether or not an event occurred (when there often isn’t a clear definition of the event) or a scorer makes a decision about who is responsible for a goal. The problem with these statistics is they are filtered through the subjective bias of the scorer. It is hard to determine any meaningful conclusions from these statistics because the systematic bias of the scoring is often the signal and there is no underlying effect in the actual hockey. I was prompted to write this because of Dave Staples +/- system where he scores pluses and minuses to who he thinks were responsible for the goal as opposed to all players on the ice in the NHL’s +/-. I am arguing that the systematic bias this system imposes makes it a poor way to learn about hockey.
There is an example of an even simpler subjective stat that is very hard to interpret because of systematic scorer bias. The NHL scores hits in its games. In principle it should be simple for a scorer to determine if a hit occurred, but behind the net hockey shows that this isn’t so.
It is conventional wisdom among most NHL fans that even though the Washington Capitals are first overall in the league, it will be hard for them to win the Stanley Cup because of a lack of top goaltending. Jose Theodore is the Capitals number one goalie. He won the Hart and Vezina Trophies in 2002. Since that time things have not gone so well. He put up a pathetic .882 saves percentage in 2005/06 and followed it up with .891 the next season. From that point on, it has been hard to consider Jose Theodore a top goaltender, but he has rebounded. In fact, Theodore has played extremely well in the last few months. Since January 13th, 2010, Theodore has not had a regulation loss. This is a 19 game run where Theodore has gone 17-0-2. In that time, Theodore put up a .927 saves percentage (the only goalie in the league who played as much as Theodore with a better saves percentage is Tomas Vokoun of Florida). He has a 2.42 GAA in that time.
If Jose Theodore plays as well as he has been playing for the last several months, Washington does not have a liability in goal. They have a strength. When the first place team in the league appears to have solved the problem that was to be their Achilles heel, it is time for the rest of the league to take notice and be worried.
There have been a few stories written about faceoffs on the blogosphere lately. Jibblescribbits wrote a post of the Selke Trophy frontrunners that used faceoff percentages as a significant portion of his reasoning and behind the net wrote about faceoffs as well. I think that both have over-emphasized the importance of faceoffs. I have written about this topic in the past.
When people begin to record non-traditional statistics (beyond goals, assists and penalty minutes), faceoffs are one of the easiest things to record. The puck is dropped and one of two teams takes control. It is a binary event. Even in the most complicated case where the two faceoff-men tie each other up and a third player gains control of the puck, it is clear that there is a winner. Thus it is easy to record statistics for faceoffs.
As you may know, Dave Staples of Cult of Hockey has been railing against +/- ratings for a while. He has gone as far as calculating his own +/- rating system where he watches games and subjectively gives players pluses and minuses based on his opinion of how culpable they are for goals he watches. I have written in the past about how I think his approach is wrong and will not yield any useful insight into hockey. Now that he is trying to draw conclusions from his stat, it is time to explain my criticism in some detail.
Early this season I picked Jacques Lemaire of the New Jersey Devils as the coach of the year favorite. While he has done a good job with the Devils, who have had key injuries to their defence (Paul Martin) and have an aging superstar goalie in Martin Brodeur, who is no longer as good as he once was, the Devils are not on pace to gathering as many points this year as they did last year. I think a better coach of the year choice is Dave Tippett from the surprising Phoenix Coyotes.
It is easier to gage Tippett’s success with his team because of how badly things fell apart last year. When Phoenix Coyotes financial troubles began to make news, the team fell quickly from what looked like a playoff spot to 13th place in the West Conference. Previous coach Wayne Gretzky was entirely unable to stop the fall. Phoenix was clearly a good team who had failed because the coaching staff had failed to keep the team focused when the going got tough.
As teams in the NHL have ten games or less left this season, now is the important time for teams to get hot. The hottest team right now is the Cinderella team - the Phoenix Coyotes. They have won their last nine games straight. They are a team that has been through a bankruptcy and are being kept alive by NHL ownership this season.
They are a team that finished third from last in the West Conference last season. Last year at mid-season, Phoenix looked like a playoff team until the rumors of financial problems began. They derailed the season. Wayne Gretzky was not a strong enough coach to keep things on track, but Dave Tippett is.
One valuable sabermetric number that is often ignored is zone starts. For each player, the zone where faceoffs occur (offensive, neutral or defensive) with that player on the ice is recorded. Some players are used for many more defensive faceoffs than offensive ones. These players tend to be lower scoring and have worse +/- and Corsi ratings than players who are on for significantly more offensive faceoffs than defensive ones, but those differences in their numbers do not show that the defensive player is a weaker player. They have a tougher job and may more more important to their team`s success.
Last year, Evgeni Malkin was a player who had one of the easiest jobs last year in terms of zone starts. He was the top scorer in the NHL and one reason for his offensive success was that he was put on the ice for offensive situations and taken off in defensive ones. On a team with other offensive stars (most notably Sidney Crosby), it is a poor way for the Penguins to allocate their shifts. Thus it was a good prediction that Evgeni Malkin`s offensive totals would decline this year. Malkin has 70 points in 63 games. If he scored at last year`s pace he would have 87 points by now.
One team that made playoffs last year that is looking like they will miss them this year is the New York Rangers. The Rangers are currently tenth in the East Conference with a 31-40 record (with nine regulation tie points). They are three points back of eighth seed Boston.
In order for a playoff team from last year to miss playoffs this year, several things must go wrong. This season, the Rangers have allowed 0.12 more goals per game than they have scored. Last year, the Rangers allowed 0.14 more goals per game than they scored. Essentially the team’s +/- is the same this year as it was last year. The New York Rangers are scoring more than they did last year and allowing more goals as well. I think that is an adjustment to a new coach John Tortorella who allows his team to play a more offensive style than Tom Renney (who coached most of last year).
About The Puck Stops Here
Who am I? A diehard hockey fan.
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