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The game of hockey – rife with randomness. Systemic versus random incidents can be identified using some of the methods I’ll outline here today.
Commentary around how the Toronto Maple Leafs give up too many quality chances to be true contenders principally sparked this idea to look closer at the data to draw conclusions. Does Toronto’s defensive play give up too many good scoring chances to be considered true contenders?
Toronto’s challenges with goaltending are well documented this season, and for myself, I feel Toronto will only go as far as Matthews and Marner score up front, and how well their goaltending stands up to the adversity it will surely face in about one week.
My counter to the argument was that Toronto can outscore their goaltending issues. But I don’t think that they are any worse in the chances allowed than most contenders either in the Eastern or Western Conferences.
Data is provided by two different sources, Natural Stat Trick. Scoring chance areas are defined essentially with the groupings in the image below and only stated at 5v5, to keep things even. Special teams will play their part, but even strength is the focus of this exercise.
Let’s isolate Toronto first and get our bearing to where they stand. The image below consists of the five-game moving averages of team’s scoring chances for and against by danger zone.
The colored images on the right outline the percentage of high danger shots (dark blue) and medium danger shots (black) of the overall shots fired. The context is that team’s medium and high dangers shots can dictate whether or not they’re maximizing their scoring chances.
So let’s start with the 5-game moving average of danger zone chances – the images on the left. At the top, we have high danger chances for and against, with medium and low danger chances charted directly underneath. The dates at the bottom conform to each of the charts, lining up games played for all three areas.
What is noticeable at first is the degree of randomness in Low Danger chances. Since these are moving averages, they tend to smooth out individual spikes but there’s a range of low danger chances for (at about the 15 events per game to a high of just under 30 in mid-March). The low danger chances against peaks just over 25 and craters to just under 15 events. Teams want to maximize low danger events to suppress goal scoring. Medium and high danger areas tend to produce much higher percentages of goals scored.
Toronto tops out at about 20 events at medium danger for, and 15 high danger for. Chances against top out at about 16 medium events with a low of 10. For high danger, it tops out at about 12 in late November and bottoms at about five (5) in mid-February and once again in late March. In the blue chart we can see a major dip in shot percentages attributed to high danger in the yellow boxed area.
For this exercise, I wanted to focus more on the range of medium and high danger scoring chances, in particular in comparison to other Eastern Contenders over time – the length of this 2021-22 season, so keep the medium and high danger ranges in mind when comparing to the teams below.
Toronto is likely to start the playoffs against the defending Stanley Cup Champions, Tampa Bay Lightning. They haven’t been the dominant team we’ve seen over the last couple of seasons, but with talent up front and upper echelon goaltender, they can still compete against the best of the best. So how did they fare this season?
The first thing to draw attention to is the increase in percentages of high danger shots, compared to overall shots. They are giving up less medium danger shots, but allowing more high danger shots. It’s a slight increase, but the trend isn’t positive.
For their scoring chances, they topped out at about 11 high danger chances against and bottomed out at around 5 events. They’ve consistently generated more high danger chances for except for the convergence of averages in March to around the 10 event level for and against. Is that really different than the chances given up by Toronto? Slightly better, but hovering around the same upper band. They are fairly similar at medium chances as well. Goaltending will play an immense part in the series more so than chance generation by either club.
Let’s take a look at other Eastern Conference contenders. Boston is up first.
At first glance, they allowed similar high danger chances against like the Leafs and Lightning. In fact, they stayed close within that 5 to 10 events band and didn’t really spike out of it as much as the other teams. The biggest difference is that the Bruins seem to ride events closer to the lower band than the upper band marks – and they strengthened their blueline at the trade deadline. Goaltending is likely another issues with the Bruins, but they are better at suppressing high danger chances against than their divisional rivals.
The Bruins likely open up the playoffs against the Carolina Hurricanes – who have some goaltending issues of their own lately, with injury concerns to Frederik Andersen and Anti Raanta. Their high octane offense also gives up more high danger scoring chances than other teams – similar to Florida in fact, while stretching out the low danger chances. Seems like they fire pucks from low areas and jump on rebounds and loose puck in high danger areas, while allowing teams to reciprocate. Note the randomness in their 5-game moving average for high danger shot percentages (the blue chart). Carolina still remains highly effective – unless they fall into goaltending difficulty.
The class of the Eastern Conference is the Florida Panthers.
Running away with the conference title, and battling against the Avalanche for the Presidents Trophy, they ran the table against the Eastern Conference. They are one of only five teams to top 300 goals in all situations, but still give up middle of the pack in goals against. Their chart below is telling, indicative of a high powered offense, shown by the high danger chance for generating at an exceptional level, consistently this season.
More randomness exists in their high danger chances against than any of their division rivals, and they are getting better results from their medium danger scoring chance generation than the other teams. If Florida has any goaltending issues, they may be able to score their way out of trouble as well – similar to the expectations of the Leafs – and to a lesser extent Tampa Bay, but I’m not convinced the Bruins offense can make up for any defensive shortcomings.
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The intent was to focus solely on the Eastern Conference teams due to the idea of Toronto’s high danger chances coming into question, but thought that I should provide what some of the Western Conference contenders look like.
First up is Colorado. The one note is the recent spike in high danger chances against as the calendar turned to April. If there was a team that knows about goaltending failures in the playoffs, it’s the Avs.
The Calgary Flames have been lights out all season long, having fared similarly to the upper crust of the NHL this season. What might be a bit worrisome is the increase in the increment of percentage of shots against from mid-March to present. There’s a big correction as of late, but that’s a significant rise – coinciding with peak medium shot percentage. As the medium danger shots decreases, it’s replaced by the increase in high danger shots – making shots more difficult to transform into saves.
Even the scoring chances show that increase.
The St. Louis Blues were offering up more high danger scoring chances earlier in the season and the high danger chances for has been bumped up to the same level around 10 chances for and against. They applied corrective measures mid-February which was more about lowering the percentage of high danger shots against.
Minnesota has shown an increase in the percentage of high danger shots against entering April. Their high danger scoring chances against were less consistent hitting peaks and cratering at the end of March.
Do the Leafs give up more high danger scoring chances than other contenders? It doesn’t seem like it based on these results.
Contenders can control individual elements of playoff series. Yes, Toronto and Tampa Bay and Florida and other contenders give up similar high danger scoring chances over the course of a season. The key is to outscore the defensive woes, and heavily rely on average to better goaltending. If a goalie catches a heater and the offense is working, that’s a team that is difficult to beat.