Though it’s still early in the season, with a roughly ten game sample to work with, we can begin to gauge the quality of teams with some degree of sophistication. As you can see from the image above, at this current juncture in the season the Oilers are riding high, with the Avalanche hot on their tail. The Minnesota Wild are treading water while the Canucks and Flames play poker in the cellar. But how much is what we see a mirage, and how much of it is a more meaningful reflection of the respective team’s actual quality?
To do this we’ll look at a few factors; controlling play, puck luck and overall shot differential. Let’s begin with a quick primer on PDO and Fenwick tied. PDO is the sum of a team’s on-ice save percentage and on-ice shooting percentage. Over a long enough sample it will regress to 1000, so we can expect team’s with a PDO over 1000 to benefit less from the "bounces" over time, whereas teams with a sub 1000 PDO have likely been unlucky and should see the puck luck start to go their way a bit. You can read more about it here.
Fenwick itself is a metric that counts all of a team’s shots for, missed shots for and goals for, as well as a team’s shots against, missed shots against and goals against, then expresses those stats as a differential or percentage. In the case of a team’s fenwick tied, it means that a team with a fenwick tied% over 500 has had more control of play at 5-on-5 against their opponents when the score was even. A team with a fenwick tied% below 500 had relatively less control of play when their games were tied. Fenwick Tied% is the gold-standard for predicting the quality of hockey teams, for example, it perfectly predicted the Western Conference playoffs last season (according to Fenwick tied%, the Chicago Blackhawks were the Western Conference’s second best team last season).
Let’s take a look, starting from the top and working our way down.
Shot Differential: -3.9 (per game)
Fenwick Tied%: .491
Team PDO: 1032
While there is no denying that the Oilers are a much improved team over the previous couple of years, it looks as if their hot start has a fair bit of mirage potential. Both of their goaltenders are carrying a save percentage close to .960 which, is entirely unsustainable, and the team as a whole have enjoyed a .960 sv% at even-strength while tied. Those numbers are ludicrously high, and will come back to Earth soon.
The fact that the Oilers are being outshot considerably, and aren’t scoring altogether that many goals (2.12 per game) is an important indication that this bubble should burst soon (and not soon enough). For all the headlines that the Oilers impressive young stars are generating, this is a team that is at the top of the table because of some incredibly hot early season goaltending that will surely not continue. Based on the Oilers meagre offensive output, they have been very reliant on Khabibulin and Dubnyk for their seven wins, but when their goaltenders falter, expect this team to come to Earth in a hurry.
Nonetheless, for a team that needs to get every point available, the Oilers have started well which is a huge positive for their club. Despite their negative shot differential, they look to be much improved defensively from a "seen them good" perspective. It’s possible that this team could pick up enough swagger and unsustainably hot goaltending to allow them to defy the percentages and sneak into the playoffs, similar to what happened to the Ottawa Senators in 2009/10. I wouldn’t wager any money on it though…
So should the Canucks be worried about the Oilers? Down the road, absolutely. But this season, I doubt the Oilers will remain on top of the Northwest Division standings come mid-December. Sorry I’m not sorry.
Shot Differential: -0.4 (per game)
Fenwick Tied%: .480
Team PDO: 992
The Avalanche have also relied on the sterling goaltending presence of a Russian player whom many questioned before this season. Semyon Varlamov, however, has been a rock, and has stopped .950% of shots at even-strength with the score tied.
Though Varlamov will likely regress somewhat, the teams on-ice shooting percentage is well below 7% (5.4%), which, means they haven’t necessarily enjoyed crazy puck-luck at both ends of the ice. While the Oilers look marginally better from a Fenwick tied perspective, the Avs are scoring more goals and seem to be less reliant on the hot-play of their goaltender than the Oilers are.
Also, Gabriel Landeskog is the real deal. He’s a beast, he plays tough minutes and he’s the Avs leading even-strength goal scorer. He’s also in the top tier of their players in terms of his personal Fenwick Tied% behind only Stasny, Wilson and his less talented linemate Daniel Winnick, and he’s only 18. I’ll admit it, I have a man-crush on the rugged Swede and find myself tuning into Avs games with a regularity that shocks me.
Much like the Oilers, the Avs bubble looks like just that: a bubble. And also, much like the team from the so called "City of Champions" the Avs can draw on a lot of positives from their hot-start to the season, even if it’s likely that the good times will end soon for the thin-aired club in crimson.
Shot Differential: -4.4 (per game)
Fenwick Tied%: .465
Team PDO: 1019
The Wild are so boring. No NHL team is scoring fewer goals per game, so the Wild are entirely reliant on their goaltenders, who luckily for the hockey fans in Minnesota are playing extremely well. They have the worst fenwick tied of any team in the Northwest, the second highest PDO and are getting the best goaltending at even-strength with a tied score of any team in the Northwest. Despite their puck luck, they’re still only third in the division, and are tied with the Canucks in points (though they’ve got a game in hand).
If the first eighth of the season is any indication, the Wild will be a cellar team by mid-November. They’ll also be painful to watch, not just for the rest of this season, but quite possibly forever.*
(*) Michael Granlund is really cool, he has a chance to be the first entertaining Minnesota Wild skater since Gaborik. But seriously, the Wild are the worst.
Shot Differential: +6.9
Fenwick Tied%: .547
Team PDO: 962
Everything I know about the percentages at play in hockey tell me that the Canucks .500 record is an aberration. The reason the Canucks have performed so poorly? It’s the percentages, which most fans perceive as "terrible goaltending." Though the Canucks have entirely dominated their opponents with the score tied, their goaltenders sv% in that situation is terrible: .901%. The team’s on-ice shooting% at EV tied? 4.5%.
Basically the percentages have cratered on the team in a dramatic way, but it will probably change in a hurry. The Canucks clearly aren’t pushing the panic button and are continuing to play the long game, which, was always the plan. While some Vancouver journalists waste ink bemoaning the +/- of certain defensemen, or newly acquired power-forwards, the team itself is performing very well – the results just aren’t there yet.
Rest assured Canucks fans, this team will begin to pick up points and dominate their feeble Northwest Division opponents soon. And when they do it won’t be because the team started "playing better" or because "October is over and they always suck in October." Nope, the team will start to win because they’re the best team in this division, they’re already playing like it, and the bounces are unlikely to go against you forever.
Shot Differential: -3.2
Fenwick Tied%: .522
Team PDO: 1013
The Flames are controlling play when it matters, and for the most part the percentages are going their way. But they’re not winning games at the rate one might expect in the early going, and in all likelihood that will change. The Flames are a good hockey team in a way the other three non-Canucks teams in the Northwest aren’t. They’re a veteran squad with a roster filled with legitimate (if somewhat mediocre) NHL skaters. That said, they probably possess the least amount of raw talent of any team in the division, outside of Minnesota of course, whose roster is filled with dullards and Mikko Koivu.
When you look at the Northwest Division standings today, you’ll see the Flames and Canucks at the bottom of the table. The two clubs will meet tonight, so at least one of them will remain there until later this week. After that, expect the silt to settle, and expect the Flames and Canucks to crawl over the lower quality teams in the division. Also Canucks fans, take the advice of the late, great Douglas Adams and don’t panic.