Just Win Baby

John MacKinnon of the Edmonton Journal trotted out a rather trollish tweet after last night’s NHL games concluded.

While the narrative is an easy one to build, fancy stats are garbage because they can’t predict everything(!), I would like to take a slightly different view of the topic.

For the non-statistically inclined individual the explanation comes down to the old adages. “They’re and honest and hard working team”, “They take more shots from the hard areas”, “They have really bought in to playing hockey the right way”, “They play with a lot of heart”. But what does this really explain? Is there any definable truth when framing it that way? What results can we look at that can help explain why?

Fun With Charts

I love charts. They give a visual representation of what is happening over time that can get lost when looking at just numbers, I would love it if “the pros” could adopt simple techniques like this to show/prove/backup what they are saying with something of substance. As much as some like to think the opposite, numbers do tell a story. (In all honesty, it took me longer to write this post than it did to make the charts I’m about to show you. )

chart 1

The preceding chart shows the difference between the Flames’ and Oilers’ possession (CF%) and scoring chance (SCF%) numbers over 10 game segments (Oilers blue/orange, Flames red/yellow). A few observations.

  • The Oilers’ possession differential has been equal to or better than the Flames for most of the season.
  • Both teams are well below 50% (break even) in CF% (Corsi, or all shot attempts, for) and SCF% (Scoring chance for) for most of the season.
  • Since the game 27-36 segment the Flames have consistently maintained a better SCF% than CF%.
  • For most of the season the Oilers’ CF% has been greater than their SCF%.

chart 2

The second (preceding) chart shows the difference between the Flames’ and Oilers’ PDO and Scoring chances For per 60 minutes. (Same colors) PDO axis is on the left, SCF/60 on the right. A few more observations.

  • The Flames have had the fortune of above average puck saving and/or shooting success over most of the season. As many bloggers have proven, these two items are not easily controlled and susceptible to big swings.
  • The Flames’ SCF/60 has been trending upwards all season. If you are going to pick an area to improve, this is probably a good one to do so with.
  • The Oilers have once again been on the wrong end of the PDO stick. Winning hockey games is tough enough when possession numbers are shite. Add on the shite PDO and you have a lottery team… again.
  • The Oilers started the season with scoring chance numbers heading in the right direction, then the went the wrong direction and now Nelson has them going in the right direction again.

What does it all mean Boris?

I’ll be the first to say that I am frequently wrong about all sorts of things. That said, here is the conclusion I currently come to.

The Oilers and Flames aren’t all that different once you dig into it. Both are below average possession teams. Both have recently started to turn their possession and scoring chance numbers north. They slightly differ in the “shot quality” category, where the Flames appear to take more shots from the “home plate” scoring zone. The two teams really differ in the one area that can easily make or break a season. Shooting and save percentages. Look nowhere else to find the single biggest reason for the Flames’ success, especially in comparison to the Oilers’ lack thereof.

It doesn’t take a genius to figure this stuff out. I’m living proof. It would be nice, for once, to see people in the know, people with far more experience and access than I, adopt (or enhance) a new means of telling their stories. The “team x wins again, everyone is happy, all is good and anyone who says otherwise doesn’t have a clue of what they are talking about” story is tired and boring. Are the Flames better than the Oilers? Yes. You can’t argue that. Is it fun for fans in YYC? Yup. Is it going to last? There are caveats that will send that answer either way. Does explaining what they are doing with numbers take away anything from what they are doing? Though some do think thats the case, I don’t.

It’s fair to criticize the work and opinion of others. I have no problem with it. But if you do, you should probably take some time to understand what you are criticizing. What the Flames were accomplishing early on in the season was unsustainable. Their PDO tanked and the slipped to the bottom of the playoff race. It now has rebounded back to above average levels, but so have their recent possession numbers (not average, but better then they’ve been). With those two factors you have a team heading towards a date with the post season.

It was smoke and mirrors, just like the PDO princes of seasons past. But they’ve cleared the air and polished the mirrors sending them closer to what are trying to accomplish. So frame the story as you wish. Boil it down to “Just win baby” if you must. But remember that the truth is there if you are interesting in finding it.

All numbers for the charts courtesy of War on Ice.

Thanks for reading.

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