The Nashville Predators punched their ticket to the Stanley Cup Final on Monday night and the hockey universe is now in a frenzy. How did these upstart Predators, who dispatched of the Anaheim Ducks 6-3 in Game 6 to claim the Clarence S. Campbell Bowl as Western Conference Champions, make it this far?
Subversively playing the role of David, the Ottawa Senators overcame the odds with a run that saw them vanquish the Boston Bruins and New York Rangers, before ultimately succumbing to the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final.
With both the Predators and Senators lasting deep into the 2017 Stanley Cup playoffs, what did this mean for small market teams across the league, most notably here in Winnipeg? Were these playoff performances replicable or was this just a miraculous fluke?
Firstly, Nashville’s meteoric rise through the Western Conference should be met by no more than the subtlest of eyebrow raises. The Predators, who finished the season with 94 points in the standings, were a strong team statisically throughout much of the regular season and didn’t get the benefit of puck luck in close contests. In fact, 27 (32.9%) of their regular season games were decided by one goal (taking into consideration regulation and overtime games only), and their winning percentage in these games was a paltry .407. This explains how they were perceived as a large underdog that was limping its way into the playoffs rather than the well-rounded team they truly were.
Looking at things analytically, the Predators score adjusted Corsi % of 51.24 was good for seventh best in the league while their 53.11 xGF% (a metric which turns goals for and against into a percentage score with 50% being the mean) at 5-on-5 ranked ninth. The Senators, however, were twenty-second (48.39) and nineteenth (48.91) in Corsi % and xGF% respectively, proving them to be much more pretender than the contender and a team that benefited from cushy playoff match-ups, timely goaltending, and an abundance of luck rather than their own laurels.
Make no mistake, goaltender Pekka Rinne has raised his game to another level this postseason and the Preds have seen Colton Sissons transform from a 0.18 point-per-game performer to a cult hero. But by and large, Nashville’s rise to the peak of hockey’s grandest stage is of no surprise; they deserve to be here. Ottawa’s unpredictable run can be best quantified by forward Clarke MacArthur who admitted un-apologetically that his team’s game plan is to “bore [their opponents] out of the building”.
Meanwhile, the Winnipeg Jets are coming off another turbulent season in which saw them finish outside of the playoff race for the fifth time in six seasons. A seven game winning streak to close out the year was enough to ensure they would finish their campaign with more wins than regulation losses for also their fifth time in six years. They sputtered with consistency issues through the first half of the year and much was made by Head Coach Paul Maurice about a treacherous schedule which saw them play 39 games in the first 80 days (one game every 2.05 days) to start the year. [Aside: for reference, the NHL season spanned a total of 179 days. Therefore, the Jets would play their remaining 43 games over a 99 day span (one game every 2.30 days).]
Given a divisional foe is now four wins away from hockey immortality whilst another Canadian team of similar market size came within one goal of facing them, many in Winnipeg are asking when the Jets’ time will come. This now begs the question: with all we currently know about the Predators and Senators, how do the Jets sincerely stack up?
Editor’s Note: The following tableau and graph will look much cleaner for those visiting via desktop or tablet.
2016-17 Analytical Review
|xGF% 5v5||53.11 (9)||48.75 (20)||48.91 (19)|
|GF60 5v5||2.42 (10)||2.41 (11)||2.07 (22)|
|GA60 5v5||2.15 (10)||2.54 (29)||2.16 (11)|
|SA Corsi||51.24 (7)||48.86 (21)||48.39 (22)|
|SV% All||91.10 (15)||90.03 (28)||91.52 (8)|
|PP%||18.9 (16)||18.2 (18)||17.0 (23)|
|PK %||80.9 (15)||77.5 (26)||79.7 (22)|
|SOG/G||31.2 (6)||29.9 (21)||30.0 (17)|
|SA/G||30.1 (16)||31.0 (20)||30.1 (15)|
As previously explained, Nashville’s data ranges from impressively good to passably earnest. There is no glaring defect to be gleaned from their numbers as they are a high event team offensively that does a good job in limiting chances defensively. Save for a fifteen day blip in their schedule, their Corsi For % was markedly strong. Their goaltending and special teams units happened to be their “weakest units” as both were right at league average through the season.
Ottawa, on the other hand, has rested on the event-adverse 1-3-1 defensive system of Guy Boucher and the dependable netminding of Craig Anderson and Mike Condon. Their offense was largely barren, reliant on Erik Karlsson, Mike Hoffman, Kyle Turris, and Mark Stone to drive it. Their defense gets by on team structure rather than having productive blue liners, as their collective Corsi-For % over the past two season tells the story.
Upon first blush, Winnipeg’s metrics aren’t pretty. Hidden from these numbers is the fact that they were among the NHL’s best in 4-on-4 play and that they led the NHL in shorthanded goals. It should be noted though that scoring while down a man isn’t predictive from year to year, so don’t expect this to be an authentic trend. A terrible stretch of games in December where the team played closer to a Corsi For % of 45 didn’t help matters. However, also note that Winnipeg’s statistical play surpassed the Senators for virtually most of the season. Take a moment to this about this: those Ottawa Senators, the same ones who came within an overtime puck bounce of competing for the Stanley Cup had worse numbers than the Jets, a team who finished on the doorstep of the Western Conference playoffs.
The Jets’ analytics come to confirm what we mostly knew in that consistency in goal was an issue in 2016-17. All three of Connor Hellebuyck, Michael Hutchinson, and Ondrej Pavelec struggled to keep pucks out of the net as evidenced by the team’s 90.03 all situation save percentage. Winnipeg’s blue line struggled for the most part as injuries forced players more suited for depth roles up the line-up for extended amounts of time. Winnipeg, like Ottawa, spent a lot of time in the penalty box, and their continued struggles on the penalty kill are evidenced in the data.
The seismic line of demarcation between the Jets and both the Senators and Predators lies in the offensive metrics. Yes, Winnipeg technically ranked behind Nashville in Goals For per 60 at 5-on-5, but hear me out. The Jets’ finished the season with two 30+ goal scorers in Patrik Laine (36) and Mark Scheifele (32) as well as three 20+ goal scorers in Blake Wheeler (26), Nikolaj Ehlers (25), and Bryan Little (21), with their top four scorers all ranking in the top 50 of NHL. Filip Forsberg (31), Viktor Arvidsson (31), and James Neal (23) were the only three players to score 20+ for Nashville while the aforementioned Turris (27), Hoffman (26), and Stone (22) were the only three to register for Ottawa.
Additionally, as of last August, prospect writer Corey Pronman had Winnipeg’s farm system ranked third best in the NHL. Nashville and Ottawa ranked twelfth and sixteenth respectively. Given Jack Roslovic and Kyle Connor both logged successful rookie seasons with the AHL’s Manitoba Moose, there is room to pad additional firepower into an already strong forward group.
For the Jets, their path to future success is clear. Firstly, more consistent production from the goalie position will be an absolute necessity moving forward. Secondly, roster depth - predominantly regarding their defensive corps - should be a top priority heading into the 2017 free agency period. It’s become clear the team will require more versatile defensemen to fit their line-up and options at the position should prove to be bountiful given a robust free agent class as well as expected league-wide roster turnover due to the Vegas Golden Knights Expansion Draft.
It’s become evident that Winnipeg’s blueprint for playoff success exists, though it requires some fine tuning to reach this coveted destination. The question will be whether they want to ameliorate their roster like the Nashville Predators have over the past two seasons or rather role the dice systematically on a middling squad like the Ottawa Senators. The choice of whether wish to build the contender or the pretender remains within the walls of their front office.
For fans, this will be a genuinely riveting off-season.