Friday, 8 March 2013

The Northwest Advantage

The Vancouver Canucks currently stand 3rd in the Western conference and given the on ice performance the team has showcased so far this year, most fans and analysts would likely forecast the Canucks to finish in 3rd. Yet this says little of the true nature of the Vancouver Canucks, and what they may or may not be capable of achieving. Luckily for Vancouver, the team is able to benefit from their spot within the Northwest division. By being in arguably the worst division in the NHL they are often able to steal points in the 24 games they play against division rivals per season (18 this season), and due to the current structure of the standings, they may be able to leap frog teams with more points and finish with a higher rank. Some may take comfort in this, some may worry, and some may be disillusioned. However fans may feel, they deserve to see the truth.

Since the 2008-2009 season the Canucks have performed better against their Northwest division opponents than the rest of the NHL. The difference in terms of winning percentage between inter-divisional and non-divisional games has favored divisional by about 10-13% in most years, but has jumped to a 31% difference in this 2013 season. A clearer picture can be illustrated by averaging inter-divisional winning percentages since 2008, which yields .750, and comparing this to the average winning percentage outside of the division, .597. This means that during the 29% of games that face teams in the Northwest, the Canucks have on average a 15% better chance to earn points than if they were playing a team outside of their division. By the end of the regular season, this can translate into substantial points and even cause a shift in the standings.

(Note: for the sake of the argument, the following analysis assumes the standings are ranked strictly by points – otherwise Vancouver would finish third every year because the rest of the Northwest teams still trails by a substantial margin).

To illustrate just how powerful this effect is, take the 2008-2009 season, for example. By applying the Canucks winning percentage against teams outside of their division to the entire 82 game season, the Canucks would have racked up 95 points as opposed to their actual realized 100, and would have finished 6th instead of 3rd. The following year the Canucks would have lost 5 points again and fallen from 3rd to 8th. This year, by applying Vancouver’s meager .500 winning percentage against non-divisional teams to all games played so far this season, they would drop like a brick from 3rd to 12th.  Luckily for Canuck fans, Vancouver is propped up to a cozy playoff position thanks to a weak division and the structure of the standings.

Although these numbers are hypothetical, they hold meaningful implications for the Canucks past, present and future. By benefitting from these extra points scavenged from a weak division and being that the winner of the Northwest is granted a fate not worse than 3rd, the Canucks fans and community may have a false sense of confidence when they reflect on their team. Admittedly, every fan knows those Northwest division banners hanging in the otherwise bare rafters of Rogers Arena mean nothing, yet there is still some pride associated with this 4-year steak. Fans understand that regular season standings are just a necessary precursor to the big show, but the Presidents Trophy still felt nice in 2011. Yet if the NHL’ s regular season standings were intuitively formatted (as they last were in 1998) and the divisions were realigned, the silent comfort and confidence associated with these achievements would melt away. More practically, for those scratching their heads on how the Canucks have placed 3rd or better for the past 4 seasons and have yet to parade in downtown Vancouver, consider that they ceased to play division rivals in the playoffs. If their winning percentage in the playoffs drops to that of non-divisional games (which since 2009 it has, with a total W% of 0.550), they become a middle of the pack playoff team, and in the past their fate often converges with one. In fact the year that the Canucks had the best non-divisional winning percentage was the same year that they went to the Stanley Cup finals.

So what does this mean for the future? First of all, the Canucks shouldn’t bank on a below average division to rack up regular season points, especially since this doesn’t transfer into the playoffs when those teams will likely disappear (or at least fall from 29% of their total games played). With realignment a distinct possibility the Canucks may face tougher teams for 24 games a season. With this in mind, a stronger emphasis on the prospects and drafting may be required as Vancouver could otherwise see a significant (and surprising to most) fall from the top of the standings. And being that maybe the Canucks have not been as good as we thought, the franchise could be justified in making a coaching change. After all, how many years does a coach with a .597 winning percentage deserve to last with the talents of the Sedins, Kesler, enviable goaltending, and zero cups?

One way or another, in order for Vancouver to succeed now and in the future they must perform better against non-divisional teams. They undoubtedly have a strong team, but it may not be as solid as we think. Looking carefully at the numbers suggests that changes in the near future will have to be made if Vancouver wants to see their first Stanley Cup. With expectations as high as they are in this city, those changes will likely occur if the Canucks linger on this mediocre path for much longer, especially if it becomes realized that even these results are inflated. Continuing to prey on the weak will not keep this team afloat come April, and those who might take solace in another third place finish may be left with a bad taste in their mouths when the playoffs roll into town this year. 

**As mentioned in the article, the “Forecasted Placing” is calculated using the winning percentage against non-divisional teams and applying this to all 82 games. The standings are reformatted to be ranked strictly by point, in order to illustrate the reality of competition.
** all stats are taken as from March 6th 

Wednesday, 27 June 2012

A Tale Of Two Tenders

The greatest difference going into the Vancouver Canuck's 2012/13 season will be in net, as this organization has been lucky enough to have two franchise goaltenders on the roster for too long now, and due to both Cory Schneider's looming RFA status and the way things ended for Roberto Luongo last season, it has become clear that only one goalie will remain a Canuck come September.  There has been much talk of Luongo being traded over the summer, and many opinions on the matter, but there has been a lack of analysis on each player's numbers, how they differ, and what they mean for the Canuck's future.

Let's start with the basics- in the last two seasons (since Schneider has shared duties with Luongo), #1 and #35's GAA have been 2.26 and 1.86 respectively.  When we enter the playoffs, Luongo's GAA rises 11% to 2.52, while Schneider's falls 26% to 1.38. This is where we begin to see the differences between the two goaltender's games, and the gap only widens from here. The standard deviation (degree to which each game is near the goalie's average GAA) between the two goaltenders is quite comparable throughout an entire season, but when we isolate the playoffs, Schneider's SD falls by 34%, from 1.39 to 0.91, meaning be becomes more consistent, and Luongo's playoff standard deviation increases by 31%, from 1.41 to 1.85, showing less consistency.  We have seen this empirically throughout the years, but the numbers make our convictions abundantly clear.

The statistics don't stop here- when we look closely at the differences between GAA and SV% between the two goaltenders we find an intriguing detail. As mentioned, the GAA move in opposite directions for each goaltender when they enter the playoffs, however, the SV% remains virtually the same for each.  Luongo's SV% only worsens by 2%, while his GAA worsens by 11%. This means he is saving nearly the same proportion of shots (although, not on a consistent basis, according to his SD), but is allowing more, thus he has to be facing more shots. Schneider's save percentage remains unchanged in playoffs, but his GAA improves by 26%, meaning he is saving the same proportion, but is facing less shots on average. This suggests that the team as a whole plays better defensively when Schneider is in net, by allowing less shots on net, and this theory can be confirmed by comparing shots against in the past two years. It turns out that on average, Schneider faces 14% less shots than Luongo, and although there are many possible explanations for this phenomenon, the fact is that during the last two seasons, the Canucks have been more defensively responsible when Schneider is behind them.

So what does this mean for the Canucks going forward if they choose Cory Schneider as the future goaltender of the franchise? Well, during last year's playoffs, it began evident that the Canucks held more trust in Schneider than Luongo, and the numbers presented above support management's decision. Schneider brings less volatility, more consistency come playoffs, and perhaps most surprisingly, better defense from the team as a whole.  If he remains a Canuck, the trickle down effect will likely result in tighter, more defensively sound games, and less of the offensive explosions that we have seen from the Canucks in past years. In fact, since 2009, goals for and number of games played by Schneider has been inversely related, as over this time frame goals for are 6% higher on average with Luongo in net. However, when comparing GF to GA while each goaltender is in net, we find that the Canuck’s goal differential favorably increases by 34% when Schneider is playing.

The difference of just one player will likely cause the 2013 Canucks to look quite different from the 2009 or 2010 high-scoring teams that Vancouver is used to.  While fans may have to adapt to a more defensive style of play with less goals and perhaps even less excitement, when we look to the defensive consistency the LA Kings showed throughout their recent run, the city of Vancouver just might have a better chance at a cup.

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

The Missing Piece

After watching Vancouver lose the last two games, the progressively frustrating question persists: why are the Canucks losing? Of course, the rational fan will credit Jonathan Quick for his superb play and the Kings for their strong defence and ability to play close, low scoring games and come out on top. However, the fact that there are two teams on the ice begs not only the question of what are the Kings doing right, but equally, what are the Canucks doing wrong?

The answer to this is both simple and complex. The simple reason: Vancouver is not scoring enough goals. As we further inspect this issue, the issue becomes more complex. In the last two games Vancouver has thrown 89 pucks on net, and has been rewarded with only two goals. On 14 opportunities, the Canucks have failed to score a single powerplay goal this series. Our top three active forwards in terms of points in the regular season have a combined five points in three games (Henrik, Burrows, Kesler). Fortunately, the remedy for the Canucks woes may return tonight in the form of the integral Daniel Sedin.

As noted above, the Canucks don't have a problem with shots on goal- they have a problem with shooting percentage. In the regular season, the two players with the highest shooting percentage (and more than 5 goals) were Burrows and Daniel Sedin, with 14.1% and 13.1% respectively. Of course, Burrows is active and playing, so you may be wondering why his shooting percentage is only 6.7% so far these playoffs. The fact that he has only played three games so far might have something to do with it, but with a bit of digging we find that while Daniel was in the lineup, 33% of Burrow’s goals came from the first assist of Daniel Sedin. This is telling us the obvious, but perhaps forgotten aspect of number 14: Burrows scores about a third of his goals from rebounds or bounces from Daniel’s shots. Yes, he scores some skilled goals too, but a significant portion of them are ugly and scored within a couple feet of the net. The return of Daniel will regenerate the type of opportunities that Burrows thrives on, and hopefully for the Canucks, his shooting percentage will increase. This, and the addition of the team’s second highest shooting percentage in Daniel himself, will help the Canucks generate more opportune shots that have a better chance of getting past Quick.

The power play has yet to score a goal so far these playoffs, and since Daniel’s injury our PP% has gone from 21.3% to 7.5%. Given these numbers, there must be more going wrong with the powerplay than just the absence of Daniel Sedin, but confidence often plays a large role in powerplay numbers, and the return of the leading powerplay goal scorer for the Canucks could provide a desperately needed improvement. In addition, in terms of the Sedins 1 + 1 = 3 and Daniels return will help Henrik's productivity on the man advantage, not to mention provide extra space for Kesler, who has not scored a goal since Daniel’s injury, as a result of an increased threat and awareness the Sedins command from the Kings penalty killers.

Everyone knows that Daniel Sedin is an integral part of this team, and obviously the Canucks are better with him than they are without him. But what might be less obvious is that the way in which he contributes seems to match the Canucks current woes to a tee, and the return of a healthy Daniel Sedin could be exactly what the team needs. Now more than ever the Canucks must take this series one game at a time, but if Daniel returns to the lineup their chances of seeing game 5 are markedly better.  

Sunday, 15 April 2012

The Comeback Contingency

There is no denying that beginning the playoffs 0-2 at home is a less than promising start, and the hopeful pessimism in the city is warranted at this time. However, the series is by no means over, and after looking at a few numbers and factors, the Canucks chances of a comeback may be better than expected. 

It’s true that out of 291 times in which teams have trailed 2-0 in a series they have only come back to win 37 times, which gives us an daunting 12.7% comeback rate. However, this includes many scenarios that are very different from the current Vancouver-Los Angeles circumstances. Many times a higher ranked seed will win the first two games and go on to win the best-of-seven series, but this is not what we are dealing with in the Canucks series. Also, the 12.7% includes games from every round of the playoffs since 1918, whereas we are in the first round, and given the changes in the game since the beginning of the NHL, the numbers from the mid 20th century mean very little to modern day hockey. Making the odds a little more applicable to the series at hand, I looked at the chances of a higher ranked seed beating a lower ranked seed in the first round of the playoffs after losing the first two games, with numbers beginning after the division changes to the NHL in 1998 (1999 playoffs-2011).

A lower seed has won the first two games in the first round 15 times, and 5 times the higher seed has come back to win the series. This gives a comeback percentage of 33%, although still not a favorable number for the Canucks, this is more than double the initial odds of 12.7%. This still contains all seeding matchups, including ones with less disparity such as the 5-4 and 6-3 seeds. If we only look at the 1-8 series, there has been a 50% chance of comeback for a higher seed after going down 2-0. This being said, there have only been two cases since 1999 which a lower ranked seed has won the first two games, but Canucks fans might remember one of them particularly well. In 2002 Vancouver won it’s first two games in Detroit, and the Canucks, an 8th seed, ended up losing the series 4-2 (the Red Wings went on to win the Stanley Cup). Of course there are plenty of anecdotes in recent past to help us visualize a comeback, but a better indication of the Canucks chances may be in some of the statistics presented above which illustrate the outcomes of teams in similar positions over the past decade.

On a more micro-level, we can inspect games one and two and see unusual factors that edged the game in the Kings favor. Statistically the Canucks have outplayed the Kings at even-strength, outshooting and outscoring them 60-46 and 4-3 respectively (including an open net goal for the Kings). Of course the Canucks have to play better with the man advantage and on the penalty kill if they want to come back in this series. My previous article, Penalty Peak, discussed the abnormal amount of penalties in game one, and clearly two shorthanded goals in game two is something that shouldn’t happen repeatedly (the Canucks only gave up 4 shorthanded goals all regular season). We can only expect an improvement in special teams given the rock bottom levels of play lately, and since 5 out of the King’s 8 goals have been during special teams play, it is clear that an improvement for the Canucks will make a difference in the outcome of this series.

The Canucks undoubtedly face an uphill battle, but given the abnormality of special teams play in the first two games, it can be done, it has been done, and the odds might not be as bad as you think. 

Friday, 13 April 2012

Penalty Peak

While Game 1 was not a particularly impressive performance by the Vancouver Canucks, any panic from fans and media is unjustified and there is one strong reason to believe why next game and the rest of the series will look different from Wednesday night’s action: penalties.

Vancouver was shorthanded for 15:22 minutes of the game (two Powerplay goals from the Kings reduced the shorthanded time from 17 minutes). That is a lot of time out of offensive potential, including the playing time of Henrik Sedin, however, what leads me to be optimistic about the rest of the series is the nature of the penalties that were called. Vancouver was shorthanded for over a quarter of the game due to 1 Unsportsmanlike Conduct, 2 Delay of Games, 2 Charging, 1 Boarding Major/Game Misconduct, and 1 Hooking. Salo’s Hooking call aside, these are not typical penalties and they speak more to the situational factors surrounding the game than the anything else, and are not a good indication of what to expect throughout the rest of this series and playoffs. With all the excitement and expectations going into the Canucks first home playoff game since Game 7, some nerves are understandable and it shouldn’t come as a huge surprise that they took some mindless and nervous penalties given the circumstances. With a 2011/12 season average of 3.51 penalties a game, 8 penalities on Wednesday night was the most penalties taken all year and this suggests that the number should be accepted as an outlier since it is unlikely to return. Also, we do not see an onslaught of “being outplayed” penalties such as slashing, hooking, tripping or holding that might indicate the Canucks are competing against a better or faster team. Instead we see foolish penalties (Kesler’s Unsportsmanlike, both Delay of Games), and over-excited penalties (Charging and Boarding) brought on largely from the electric home crowd on the opening night of the playoffs. These penalties are the product of first game jitters, and as the Canucks settle into the series, we should expect that these generally disappear.

Although Los Angeles scored 2 powerplay goals, it was not purely the time with the man advantage that led to their victory; the momentum factors following their powerplay time helped the Kings largely control the play in the first and second period. The onrush of penalties had a trickle down effect that ultimately edged a close game in favor of the Kings. However, a regression to the mean for the Canuck’s penalty numbers could result in a different look for Game 2 and the remainder of the series.

The red line shows Game 1 vs. Kings

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

The Upside Of Injury

Since Daniel Sedin was sidelined by Duncan Keith on March 21st, the Canucks have gone from crisis mode to cruise control, coasting to a 6-0 record since the injury. This could be a coincidence, but it could also be the result of a much needed shock to the system, in which the ugly injured can be alternatively viewed as a blessing in disguise. Let's take a look at the Canucks numbers in March before and after the injury.

Pre-injury, the Canucks had a March record of 3-5-1, somewhat disappointing for a Stanley Cup contender, and by the sounds of this city, the team was going to hell, but since the injury, the Canucks are undefeated. The game stats tell an even more intriguing story. The average goals for (GF) have only increased by 0.23, a rather insignificant number given the small sample size. So these wins must be mostly a result of the play from the other end of the ice, and in fact, they are. The Canucks goals against average (GAA) have improved from 3.11 to 1.16 since the injury, begging the question, how does the absence of  the Canuck's leading scorer lead to a decrease in goals against?

We can examine this by looking at two different factors. The average shots against have increased since the March 21st, so the numbers do not suggest a change in the defensive style of play, but instead in the performance of the goaltenders. Although Schneider's GA have only increased from 1.75 to 1.0 and SV% from 0.942 to 0.965, the more intriguing difference has been in Roberto Luongo's play. Luongo has improved his GA from 3.0 to 1.33 and SV% from 0.851 to 0.963. This could be coincidence, but if we go back to 2009 when Daniel was injured, we almost identical results- Luongo's GA improved from 3.0 to 2.15 and SV% increased from 0.835 to 0.915. Why is this? A shock to the system provides extra incentive for players to better themselves in order to fill the hole occupied by the injured player. This likely occurs at every position from forward to net minder, and as we see, the absence of the Canuck's leading scorer in fact led to a slight increase in average goals for (GF), suggesting the forwards' effort to increase their contribution to fill the goal gap. But the injury provides the same incentive to all players on the team, and in the goaltender's case, there is no such hole to be filled, so instead of maintaining roughly the same numbers, we instead witness a surge in statistical performance.

What does this mean? Confidence. Goaltenders will likely maintain this high level of play even when the player returns, as we can see in Luongo's play in 2009 when Daniel returned to the line up (his GA further improved to 2.07 and his SV% followed suit at 0.928 in the month following his return). And how about the rest of the team? Although the team stats, such as goals for, may have stayed the same during the absence of Daniel Sedin, individual stats have increased to fill the gap. With this growth, players too have gained confidence, and when the leading goal scorer returns, we can only expect a further surge in goals for. This is precisely what occurred in 2009, when goals for increased from 2.88 to 3.13 in the month following Daniel’s return.

This is a phenomenon that runs contrary to common intuition. What appears to be a negative incident turns out to be have a positive effect in the long run. The negative shock of Daniel Sedin's injury gave incentive for the entire team to play better in order to fill the gap. The team successfully did this as goals for have actually increased by a small margin, and given there was never a gap needing filling in goals against, Luongo's improvement can be seen as a net improvement of play. When Daniel returns, we can expect that the confidence that the team possess will allow them to continue at this enhanced level, and Daniel's return to the lineup will only add more offense, creating a larger margin between goals for an goals against, potentially resulting in more wins. This could not come at a better time for the Canucks given the proximity to playoffs. Of course, the surge in goals will only come if Sedin makes it back into the lineup, and the Canucks are undoubtedly a stronger team with him. But even without Daniel in the lineup, the argument can be made that at least goaltending will be better.