Friday Focus: October 11th
Welcome to the second edition of AFP Analytic’s Friday Focus section. In the Friday focus post I hope to highlight some of the most interesting events from a numbers perspective during the past week in the NHL. If something catches my eye from other sports, I might mention it here as well. I am intending on this being more of a quick hitter type of read that I hope everyone enjoys. I would also invite any readers to shoot us questions (@afpanalytics) and we will try to answer them every week. We are still early in the NHL season so we want to be careful to speak on definite terms but there are definitely some interesting trends developing that we need to keep an eye on.
Last Week’s Player to Watch – Rasmus Sandin
I previously raved about Rasmus Sandin’s NHL debut against the Ottawa Senators and noted that he is a player to keep an eye on to see if he could sustain his impressive play from his NHL debut. He has still been good but not elite. The Maple Leafs have not allowed a 5v5 goal while he has been on the ice but have also only scored one. The team has controlled the shot share at a 54% rate while basically breaking even in xGF%. Those numbers are perfectly acceptable for a bottom six defenseman but are not super exciting either.
Last Week’s Game to Watch
In last week’s post, I highlighted Tampa Bay-Carolina on Sunday as a game to watch. It did not turn out how I expected. Tampa Bay got absolutely throttled by the Hurricanes. They had no shots on goal in the second period. Carolina had a very nice 69% adjusted shot share and 71% xGF%. It is incredible that Tampa was able to take that game to overtime as they had no business being in the game with the numbers they posted. Again, it is early but Carolina, in my opinion, has announced they have arrived as a legitimate Stanley Cup contender. To me, this game says more about Carolina than it does Tampa Bay. Tampa Bay started slowly last season as well until storming to a historic regular season. But there has to be some concern because…
The Atlantic Division Looks to be a Gauntlet
Again, it is too early to press the panic button or plan the parade but the Atlantic Division is setting up to be absolutely brutal for its members. Ottawa seems like a lock to finish last based on their roster on paper though after having a strong game against St. Louis, they might be pesky enough to not be complete push overs and could sneak into seventh in the division but that would not be ideal for them. Their adjusted xGF% is actually a respectable 50%. Their adjusted CF% is not as strong at 46.58%. They are taking a quantity over quality approach in their defensive zone. They are allowing a high percentage of shots but their decent xGF% means they are likely not as strong in quality.
After Ottawa, things in the Atlantic get very interesting. Montreal and Florida have not gotten off to good starts. Their xGF%s, which is the best predictor of future success, are 45.22% and 41.85%, respectively. The next worst in the division is Toronto at 49%. Boston isn’t much further ahead at 50%. Tampa Bay vaulted themselves to 53.49%, which is tenth best in the NHL despite their dreadful performance against Carolina. The other top two Atlantic division teams in xGF% are two of the biggest surprises in the NHL. Detroit has the eighth best xGF% at 54.6% and the best team in the Atlantic and second best in the NHL is the Buffalo Sabres, who are sporting an impressive 59% xGF% through their first four games. Please keep in mind those are score adjusted numbers.
With Buffalo getting points in every game and Boston, Detroit, and Tampa getting points in three of four games, the early season struggles by Montreal and Florida must be highlighted. Montreal’s early season schedule hasn’t done them any favors, starting on the road against Carolina, Toronto, Buffalo before playing their home opener a night after a tough overtime loss to Buffalo. They at least get a few days of rest before they have to play the St. Louis Blues, the defending Stanley Cup Champions. I think Montreal is a good team on paper and I would expect to see both their underlying metrics and team point total tick upwards. However, the early season hole they find themselves in could be the difference at season’s end. Florida is in the same spot as Montreal as they played Tampa Bay twice and Carolina once. Getting one win out of those three games is commendable. I don’t like saying a team’s fourth game out of 82 is a must win but Florida losing to Buffalo tonight would not be good for the Panthers. Buffalo is likely to be one of the teams they will be directly competing with for a playoff spot and spotting them a seven-point lead might be a problem. It would also keep them in seventh place in the division so they would have to pass at least two Atlantic teams. Hockey fans, especially Sabre fans, will remember Buffalo got off to a fast start last year before choking down the stretch. Last season, their play seemed unsustainable based on how they were winning games. This season their metrics are strong enough that a regression is less likely. Again, it’s early but early season deficits are surprisingly difficult to overcome, especially for teams that were thought of as bubble teams at the beginning of the season.
What is up with San Jose?
San Jose was a popular pick to make a deep playoff run this season. The team lost Joe Pavelski but was able to maintain the rest of their core and now have a healthy Erik Karlsson. For a team that was only six wins from the Stanley Cup and decimated with injuries during the playoffs, it did not seem unreasonable to expect them to be strong once again this season. However, they could not have started worse. They started with two losses to Vegas, the first of which they were throttled (which we detailed last week). They have gotten better each game, even dominating against Nashville and finally got their first win in dominating fashion against Chicago last night, a game they almost had to win.
Although San Jose finally got a win, their underlying metrics are still a major cause for concern. They have just a 51% CF% and a very poor 46% xGF%. Those are both adjusted metrics. The Sharks are going to have to go on a run at some point because Vegas, Arizona, Anaheim, and Los Angeles all rank in the top half of the league in xGF%. Calgary has a decent xGF% and has banked some team points, while Edmonton has worse metrics than San Jose but has still managed to start 4-0. In what will likely be a tough Pacific division and an even tougher Western Conference, San Jose’s slow start has to be looked at critically.
Five Teams Remain Unbeaten
Heading into Friday’s action, we see five NHL teams, the Carolina Hurricanes, Colorado Avalanche, Edmonton Oilers, New York Rangers, and Philadelphia Flyers remain unbeaten but their performances could not be more different. Since New York and Philadelphia have only played two games, I do not want to discuss them further here because of a small sample. I have already touched on Carolina but I once again want to reiterate how impressive they have been early on. They rank fourth in xGF% (57%) and eighth in CF% (53%). As long as they continue to get adequate goaltending, they may want to hold off on scheduling any events in their arena for April and May. Colorado just had an impressive win over a good Bruins’ team, where they had a slight advantage in shots and broke even in xGF%. Their underlying numbers are very average. They were expected to be a top team coming into the season and have only played three games so I wouldn’t be surprised to see their numbers uptick slightly to match their results. Edmonton, the third unbeaten team, instill the least confidence. As previously mentioned, their numbers are not strong. They are the early candidate to be this year’s 2018 Buffalo Sabres, start hot and limp to the finish. Their underlying metrics during 5v5 play have to improve if they hope to make the playoffs.
Player(s) to Watch
Last week I highlighted Rasmus Sandin to see if he could continue his incredible play that he showed against Ottawa and I discussed the results above. This week I want to highlight Travis Konecny and the Buffalo Sabres’ “4th line.” Konecny is a player I have been high on since he was drafted. He has flashed moments of strong play but has not taken the next step in performance. However, he is still young and is playing his first season on a new long-term contract. Although it is still early (2 games), he has been on the ice for 35 shots for and only 13 against (73% CF%). His xGF% is an impressive 85.39%. He has also scored two goals.
The other players I would like to highlight are players that have often drawn the criticism of #SabresTwitter. I mentioned Kyle Okposo last week and want to once again highlight him and his line mates, Johan Larsson and Zemegus Girgensons. The three of them compose Buffalo’s “fourth line” but the trio has arguable been the best line in hockey, by advanced metrics, through the team’s first four games. Okposo ranks second, Girgensons fifth, and Larsson sixth, among players who have played at least ten minutes in xGF%. When it comes to CF%, Okposo is third, Girgensons ninth, and Larsson 16th. For three players who fans didn’t want to be on the opening night roster, they have been extremely steady and impressive. It would be nice to have some goals come from their strong play but for a team that played strong during 5v5 hockey in their first two games and dropped off in their second two their steady play has to be appreciated.
Game to Watch
Like last week, there are some strong contenders for the game to watch this week. On Monday, we have Colorado at Washington, Tuesday there is Tampa Bay at Montreal and Nashville at Vegas, Wednesday has Colorado at Pittsburgh and Toronto at Washington, while Thursday has Tampa Bay at Boston. Last week I highlighted a potential Eastern Conference Final matchup so this week I am going to go for the potential Western Conference Final matchup and go with Nashville at Vegas.
If you have any thoughts or would like to submit questions for next week’s Friday Focus, tweet us, @afpanalytics, or me, @k_sticher.
All data is courtesy of naturalstattrick.com and capfriendly.com
KYLE STICH is the Director of AFP Analytics. In addition, Mr. Stich is a tax specialist and Director of Operations at AFP Consulting LLC, whose clientele include professional athletes performing services on three separate continents. Mr. Stich earned his Master of Science in Sport Management with a Concentration in Sport Analytics from Columbia University in 2017. He earned his undergraduate degrees in Accounting and Sport Management from St. John Fisher College in 2015, where he has served as an adjunct professor teaching Sport Finance and Baseball Analytics.