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How Bad Teams Outshoot their Opponents at Even-Strength

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The indispensable Vic Ferrari wrote something a couple of weeks back that looked a little more deeply into my post on bad teams that outshot their opponents. In particular, I had written of the recent vintage of the Toronto Maple Leafs - who have both consistently outshot their opponents and been horrible - that "[t]oo many penalties, weak penalty-killing and poor goaltending are all to blame." While a large penalty imbalance and weak goaltending will result in more high-percentage shots for your opponents, it will also result in a team playing behind a lot of the time. As we've seen before, playing while you're down results in a better shot differential, but a lower shooting percentage. It might seem unintuitive, but having a bad goaltender and taking too many penalties will actually tend to make it easier to outshoot your opponents at even-strength.

Let's look at the Even-Strength SF/SA ratio of various teams last season, overall, in tie games, and when trailing and leading by one goal:

Overall Tied Game Down One Up One
det 27.9 33.8 56.2 17.0
sj 18.9 31.7 38.7 0.2
car 9.1 20.0 33.3 -11.2
chi 22.3 19.3 34.6 9.3
was 20.8 18.7 41.7 5.8
nyr 8.9 14.7 26.2 -5.5
cgy 16.0 12.3 45.0 -1.3
nj 10.0 8.1 24.9 9.2
bos 1.1 7.2 18.1 -15.4
dal 2.2 5.4 10.7 -15.3
cls 7.9 3.7 31.4 4.5
la 3.2 2.2 15.9 -15.5
phi -5.9 2.0 -0.9 -21.6
ott -0.7 1.8 1.9 -18.8
buf -2.6 0.2 4.0 -16.5
stl -3.6 -1.4 12.6 -17.1
van -4.2 -2.4 16.5 -12.5
ana 3.5 -2.6 39.6 -16.9
pit -4.5 -4.2 23.2 -15.3
nsh -4.3 -4.3 0.5 -14.3
mon -9.0 -7.6 4.0 -27.7
tor 0.2 -8.4 12.4 -6.6
min -10.8 -10.1 9.9 -27.8
edm -11.3 -13.5 16.3 -30.7
col -6.7 -13.8 5.8 -27.4
nyi -15.3 -15.1 -7.8 -31.2
tb -9.8 -17.2 3.1 -16.2
fla -15.1 -17.2 -8.5 -14.9
atl -11.6 -17.4 2.2 -33.3
pho -16.4 -20.2 -8.3 -15.3

As it turns out, SF/SA ratio at even-strength in tie games is a better predictor (R^2 = 54%) of a team's record in regulation than its SF/SA ratio overall at even-strength (R^2 = 40%). And when the score was tied, the Leafs were not very good - 22nd overall - at outshooting their opponents at even-strength last season.

So how did they outshoot their opponents? As we've seen before, teams tend to play tougher defense when they have the lead, leading to fewer shots for and more shots against. On average, team GF/GA ratio drops 12% when a team goes up a goal. But the Leafs, as Vic points out, went the other direction. They actually increased their SF/SA ratio when they were up a goal, presumably by taking unwise chances. The net result was that the Leafs had by far the lowest save percentage in the league when they were up a goal - more three standard deviations worse than the league average.

The worst part is that the Leafs save percentage was around league average both when the score was tied and when they were down a goal. They actually took the lead at even-strength in tie games seven more times than they went down a goal - only New Jersey, Boston Pittsburgh and Columbus were in double-digits.

Why the Leafs played the way they did is a mystery to me. Screwing around when you have the lead certainly isn't a hallmark of Ron Wilson's teams. But it certainly supports two notions, one popular and the other unpopular: first, the Leafs really did play stupid hockey; second, Vesa Toskala really isn't anywhere near as bad as everyone thinks he is.