Friday Focus: October 18th
Welcome to the third 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 Players to Watch – Travis Konecny; Sabres’ “LOG” Line
My first player to watch was Rasmus Sandin who went from having a stellar NHL debut to average results to the AHL, which was probably the right decision by the Maple Leafs organization. I was hoping appearing in the Player to Watch section was not a kiss of death for a player because we didn’t get off to a great start. Last week I stretched this section to include the Flyers’ Travis Konecny and the Sabres’ line of Kyle Okposo, Johan Larsson and Zemgus Girgensons, who have been dubbed the “LOG” line by some of Buffalo’s media. Travis Konecny has been able to maintain his strong start to the season. Through five games he is third in Corsi For (CF)% and second in expected Goals For (xGF)%. I have looked at adjusted metrics and did not include players who have not played every game for their team. The Flyers haven’t played as many games as most of the other teams in the league so it might be a little premature to gush too much over Konecny. However, I will continue to keep an eye on him because he is in a stage in his career where he is expected to start to take some major steps forward.
The Sabres’ LOG line has regressed some though Kyle Okposo has maintained his strong play. Last week I published this article on Friday afternoon and raved about the line as a whole. That evening against the Florida Panthers, the line accounted for both of the Sabres’ goals (the Sabres won 3-2 in a shootout). My prediction that they would soon be rewarded was correct. The line is still the best driver of possession for the first place Sabres but have been bitten by the regression bug. However, Okposo ranks directly behind Konency in both measures discussed above. The Sabres’ only lineup change of the season was replacing an injured Conor Sheary. With the success the team is having, it is not surprising to see them maintain status quo in their lineup but when they hit an inevitable rut, I would not be surprised to see the team try to use Okposo as a sparkplug for another line.
Last Week’s Game to Watch
In last week’s post, I highlighted Nashville playing at Vegas as the game to watch. I am pretty happy with my pick as Nashville was able to get a win they did not deserve but that is an important test for them. I am a strong believer in using numbers to tell a story but I also think it was important for Nashville to gain the confidence that comes along with beating a team they likely will have to go through if they hope to come out of the Western Conference. In the game the shots were basically equal during 5v5 play, when adjusting for score effects, but Vegas dominated in shot quality but could not finish.
Question from our followers:
This week is the first we will discuss a question from our followers. I would love to have this weekly post be guided by your questions as we move forward. I want to know what you are interested in hearing about.
Anyways, our first question comes from @PatrickSalmon1, who asks what my thoughts on the Islanders are to start the season and where they need to improve to have success going forward.
Let me start by saying the Islanders overachieved last season and I think they were lucky to have the success they did. I thoroughly expected them to drop off a cliff at any point. To my surprise, they were able to advance past Pittsburgh before losing to a far superior Carolina Hurricanes team. Last season the Islanders were sixth worse in controlling the shot counter but were slightly better than their opponents in generating quality. They were a well-coached team who did their best to make their goaltenders’ lives easier. They succeeded and were rewarded by incredible goaltending play. They were not the strongest offensive team but were able to score enough and at the right time to win plenty of games. Unless they dramatically improved their team in the offseason, if seemed like they would have trouble to repeat last season’s success. Their fall has probably been harder than they deserved but I fully expected the fall to happen, especially considering the offseason they had. Predicting goaltending performance year to year is unreliable but I am pretty comfortable in betting that Robin Lehner will have a stronger season than Semyon Varlamov. I think letting Lehner go in favor of Varlamov is negligence by Lou Lamoriello. Performance aside, I think there are intangible factors also in play because of the journey Lehner has been through. Additionally, Lamoriello putting all his eggs in the Panarin basket was a major problem. The Islanders desperately needed the offensive infusion that Panarin could have provided. Not having a plan B was an issue.
This season we see the Islanders rank last in CF% (42.36%) and third worst in xGF% (43%). The combination of those measures leads me to be pessimistic in them demonstrating any significant improvement in the standings. When looking at players’ individual performances, the picture does not get any better. They do not have a single player on their roster who has been on the ice for more shots for than against (when considering score adjustments). Oliver Wahlstrom and Noah Dobson have provided some offensive spark as they have produced quality xGF%. Wahlstrom is at 61% and Dobson at 54.54%. The first step the Islanders should take is to give Wahlstrom and Dobson more opportunities. I also wonder if the team wrote off Josh Ho-Sang too early. For a team that needs to drive more offense, Ho-Sang provides just that. When looking at the bigger picture, I worry about the path Lamoriello has set the Islanders on. He has committed significant dollars to Josh Bailey, Brock Nelson, Anders Lee, and Jordan Eberle. He will soon have to do the same for Mat Barzal. Good players deserve to be paid and I think all of the players I just listed are good players. However, with the exception of Barzal, all those forwards are probably on the wrong side of their aging curve and for a team that already lacks some speed, they are going to slow them down further. Additionally, I see them as quality second-line players but I am not convinced they are first-line players on a team that contends for a Stanley Cup. When looking at those forwards plus Leo Komarov and the previously mentioned Varlamov, we see Lamoriello has committed $31.5M to just those players.
If the Islanders want to turn the corner, they need to add some elite skill both at forward and defense. The best way to get this type of talent is to pick at the top of the draft. Unfortunately, the Islanders’ roster is likely too good to finish low enough to pick there without some lottery luck. I think they need a major speed infusion but also need to be patient. I really liked what Lamoriello did in his first offseason as Islanders’ GM but hated this past offseason. I know Islanders’ fans want to see their team succeed now but I think they are going to have to remain patient as their roster is going to need some major overhaul. Barry Trotz is a top coach who has probably already maximized the talent so a change there will not likely lead to immediate improvement either.
Looking at the bottom teams
We are starting to get closer to being able to be a little more definite in conclusions about teams but I still want to caution that there is time for things to change. Today, I want to highlight teams whose metrics indicate they may be overachieving and those that are probably going to stay toward the bottom of the standings.
Bad Teams Who are Bad
Once again, I want to reiterate it is still early in the season and teams can dramatically improve their play. However, poor CF% and xGF% are usually indicators that any sort of improvement in points without better metrics are probably unsustainable runs. Here we see the New York Rangers, New Jersey Devils, San Jose Sharks, and Chicago Blackhawks. These teams came into the season with various levels of expectations but they are all teams I expected to be in the playoff hunt for most of the season. San Jose was a popular pick to make a run in the West. The other three were teams that should have taken a step forward. Poor starts in the NHL can doom a team’s whole season, especially considering other bubble teams have gotten off to strong starts. Where I want to spend more time though is on the bad teams who are currently dressed as good teams.
Good Teams Who are Bad
Throughout a season, teams can have stretches where they can put together point streaks even when they get out played during 5v5 play. Here we see St. Louis, New York Islanders, Edmonton, and Boston. Last season, I correctly predicted the Sabres regression at the exact moment it happened. This year I am putting these four teams on early regression notice. Right now, I would consider Edmonton the most likely candidate as their scoring is mostly coming from one line and their CF% and xGF% metrics are poor.
Player(s) to Watch
This week I am interested to see if Oliver Wahlstrom can continue to be a strong offensive driver for the Islanders. He has not yet been on the ice for a goal for or goal against but has been expected to be on the ice for at least a goal. His numbers aren’t eye-popping but I am always interested to see how high draft perform in their early game action. As I discussed earlier, the Islanders struggle to drive offense and Wahlstrom appears to be one of the players who can do that.
Game to Watch
This week we get to see Boston and Toronto square off twice, which is sure to be a good matchup. We also get matchups of Washington at Edmonton and Pittsburgh at Tampa. However, the matchup I am most interested in this week is Colorado at Tampa, which is happening Saturday night. Tampa appears to have found their footing and Colorado is still the only team to not be defeated in regulation. Many people have been high on Colorado since the offseason but I am still not 100% sold on them. Their metrics haven’t been spectacular but they have beaten some good teams. Playing at Tampa will be a good measure for them.
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.