December 02 2013 10:11AM
Talking heads on TV sports panels have never met a statistical anomaly they didn't like. No matter how meaningless. No matter how lacking in context. No matter how irrelevant.
No. The only thing that matters is whether they contribute to a narrative, or tell a story.
Well, there they were on December 1 and the Canucks sat three points out of a playoff spot.
Apparently December 1 is a magic date because only X teams in the last Y years that were out of the playoffs at this point in time have come back to make it into the post-season by the end of the year. Insert your own favourite numbers in there for X and Y, or heck, just make them up because either way it will have just as much bearing on the final standings this year.
By the way, is it points back coming in to Dec. 1 or at the end of Dec. 1? Either way, they were still out of a playoff spot, but I'm starting to see what they mean about stats being confusing. And there's not even any math involved in this one.
Anyway, Travis Yost actually dug up the standings for the last five full seasons and found 19 teams that made the playoffs despite being 9th or worse in their conference on December 1. That's less than four per season. The chances of making it must be really low, right?
Well, on December 1 there are 14 teams not in a playoff spot. So if you're one of those teams, you would be 28% likely to get in, just based on historical percentages. But as I said above, historical percentages have just as much bearing on the final standings as made-up percentages.
What does have a bearing on final standings, however, are the possession metrics. In particular, a given team's ratio of unblocked shot attempts for/against during score-close even strength play (FenClose in fancystats jargon) has been shown to have the greatest relationship to final standings points than any other statistic, including goal differential and even current points.
There are two things you should notice when you look at that list of teams that did come back to make the playoffs. First, the Canucks are on there twice. As we are well aware, this team has recovered from some pretty bad starts to a season. But again, that's just a statistical anomaly. The important thing to take away is that the FenClose% for most of those teams is around 50% or higher.
This year, the Canucks are sitting at 53.7% FenClose. That's currently sixth best in the league. It's barely behind LA and San Jose, and ahead of four of the teams they're chasing for playoff spots, including the Ducks. Now, they are seven points back of the Ducks and Anaheim isn't too shabby at 52.5% FenClose, so it's unlikely they're going to catch them for the third seed in the Pacific. But Phoenix, Minnesota and Colorado are all catchable, even with games in hand.
Coming into this season, all the talk in the advanced stats community was about how Toronto would be a litmus test possession stats. Despite the hot start, the Leafs have been a very mediocre team of late and are starting to come back down to earth. Turns out that the Canucks are also turning out be a test, but from the opposite direction. They are a better team than where they sit in the standings, and barring an incredible run of bad luck, injuries or both, the meaningful stats are actually in their favour.
So take another look at those standings. Sure, the Canucks came into Dec. 1 three points out of the playoffs, while over in the Leastern Conference, the Leafs sat four points up on ninth. But which team would YOU rather have?
Finally, I want to end with a shameless plug.
If you like these poorly drawn graphs and you like know what day it is, then have I got the perfect thing for you!
The Graphic Comments 2014 wall calendar is now available, featuring 12 of your favourite graphs from the last year or so. This would make the perfect stocking stuffer for your favourite hockey fan. Well, it would be if they have a size 29 shoe, but you know what I mean.
Plus, next year you'll know exactly when December 1 rolls so you'll know when you can stop looking at the standings.
(PS: The online publishing site I used for the calendar is offering free shipping on any orders placed by 11:59 PM on Dec. 3. Just use the FREESHIP coupon code.)