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Right now is a very odd time to be a Leafs fan for sure. Despite a 5-1 record, if you read the papers around town, listen to local sports radio, watch Canadian sports news stations or read almost any Leafs blogs, the universal reaction around the team seems to be a mixture of confusion and disbelief. The Leafs, as they say, are getting lucky, just as they did last season, per Corsi enthusiasts. The games even look ugly for the Leafs when watched by a casual observer. The problems in the possession statistics have been obvious. The Leafs lead the league by a huge margin in giveaways, have been terrible in the faceoff dot and again are showing poor team Corsi stats. As a life-long fan, it seems to me that we’ve clearly lost sight of what really makes a difference in hockey games. Possession and shot attempts do correlate with winning, but at the end of the day, neither possession nor shot attempts drive goal scoring on their own.
The defensive benefits of possession are obvious. The opposing team rarely scores without the puck (although the Eller goal in the Canucks-Habs game demonstrates why I say ‘rarely’ and not ‘never’). On offense, possession and shot attempts are only as effective as the scoring chances they generate. But at the same time, ‘scoring chances’, as they’re recorded, are often misleading as well. First of all, as we all know, scoring chances are recorded subjectively and the standards seem to vary depending on the home team’s in-building stats personnel. I also shake my head whenever a puck that’s fired straight into a goaltender’s chest or straight into his pads without even heading towards the opening between his legs is recorded as a scoring chance. It doesn’t matter how close-in the chance is if the shot is placed into where a goalie will predictably go into his butterfly (Tim Thomas notwithstanding). And for that matter, marginal plays such as sharp-angle rushes to the net are often given the same credit as scoring chances as are empty net tap-ins (excluding the goal).
So what’s my point? I have three which work in conjunction:
a) Scoring chances, as they’re recorded, don’t necessarily tell you much about who should win a game at the NHL level.
b) Possession stats, regardless of how you feel about their information content, aren’t a very effective way of assessing which team should win a game. And before I ruffle any feathers by making my argument, this is NOT an anti-Corsi argument. Corsi and Fenwick do still tell us a great deal about past, current and future success. But they’re far from the first thing we should be looking at in assessing which team ‘deserves’ to win a game. I am assessing individual games in this post; Corsi and Fenwick are designed to analyze long-term success.
c) The fundamental problem with the way that scoring chances are counted and what they tell you about which team deserves to win is that they don’t discern the quality of the shot that’s generated. A shot that’s made towards a half empty net in-tight but is flubbed straight into the goaltender isn’t likely to result in a goal. And yes, it is the shooter’s fault (in absence of other factors) for blowing the opportunity. A play like this does not result in anything tangible that would contribute to their team’s success. So let’s look at this a little differently. This is the adjustment I’d propose: scoring chances should be measured from the goaltender’s perspective, not the shooter’s perspective as they currently are, in determining which team ‘deserves’ to win a game. What this does is it takes the factors which go into the actual shot itself into account, and excludes chances which aren’t put on net. Shots which are going wide of the net or are not well placed generally don’t result in goals. Since shot quality is within the control of the attacking team, it plays a large role in whether or not they ‘deserve’ to win. I will note also that Corsi and Fenwick work into this in as far as they contribute to shot quality, and they normally do.
As much as you may hate to hear it, scoring chances from the goaltender’s perspective can only be measured subjectively. But here are some basic guidelines in how I go about doing it. I use a 1-10 scale (with 0.5 increments) in assessing shots made on net with some of the following guidelines:
10s are nearly never stopped. Think empty net tap-ins. Raymond’s goal against the Sens was a good example.
9.5s are very rarely stopped. Bolland’s first goal against the Flyers was a good example.
9s are rarely stopped. Kessel’s goal against the Predators was a good example.
8 – 8.5s are very solid shot attempts, often in ‘challenge’ positions between the shooter and the goaltender (i.e. most breakaway goals and quality goals from the slot fall into this range). Phaneuf’s goal against the Habs was an 8.
7 – 7.5s are good attempts but clearly stoppable. Lupul’s goal against the Sens was a 7.
6 – 6.5s have a decent chance at find the back of the net, but good goaltenders should stop these. Lupul’s goal against the Avs was a 6.
5 – 5.5s are borderline questionable if they go in. Lupul’s second goal against the Oilers was a 5.
Anything below that is a bad goal.
It also needs to be understood that the relationship between the rating of the shot quality on this scale with its impact on the game is generally exponential. This is, the impact of the increase in shot quality on the game’s result generally increases more greatly the higher along the scale you go. I.e. the difference between 1 and 1.5 is nearly nothing. The difference between 7 and 7.5 is fairly substantial. The difference between an 8 and 8.5 is even larger than the difference between a 7 and a 7.5. This does kind of start to top off after 9 as a 9 that goes in has the same impact on the scoreboard as a 10 that does the same. I.e. I would take 4 9.5s over 3 10s.
Alternatively, I often assess this by considering that for 9 or higher, more than 90% of goaltenders would not be able to stop the shot. For 8 – 8.5, about 40% - 90%, for 7 – 7.5, about 15% - 40%, for 6 – 6.5, about 7.5% - 15%, for 5 – 5.5, about 4% - 7.5%. Anything under that would just be degradations of awful.
In the simplest case, if a team gets 6 empty net taps-ins (10s), it realistically hardly matters how many chances the opposition gets in the 5 – 8.5 range. The game has essentially been won with those 6 plays, and deservedly so.
So how does this relate to the Leafs and how they’ve performed so far? In general, games are won or lost on opportunities that are 9 or higher on the scale, even if they come around infrequently. By my count, the Leafs have either tied or outscored their opponents in this category in every game they’ve played so far except for the one they lost against Colorado. Let’s analyze this by game. Here are the goals in the games the Leafs have played that I’d score 9 or higher, which I refer to as ‘high quality goals’:
@ Montreal: for Montreal, 2 (goals #1 and #2); for Toronto, 2 (#3 and #4) – A tie, but Toronto’s goals #1 and #2 were of clearly better quality than Montreal’s #3.
@ Philadelphia: for Philadelphia, 0; for Toronto, all 3
Vs Ottawa: for Ottawa, 0; for Toronto, 3 (#1, #2 and #4) – No, Ottawa’s second and third goals aren’t quite 9s. Reimer was not in proper position on goal #2 and he took himself out of the play on goal #3.
Vs Colorado: for Colorado, 1 (#2); for Toronto, 0
@ Nashville: for Nashville, 0; for Toronto, 3 (#1, #3 and #4) – I’ll note that #3 counts despite the bounce off the defender’s foot. If the pass had not hit his foot and got through, it would have been a tap-in anyways.
Vs Edmonton: for Edmonton, 2 (#1 and #5); for Toronto, 2 (#2 and #3) – let’s face it, Bernier was weak, but Dubnyk was just awful in this game.
A few of these are arguable, but I don’t think I’m far off. The Leafs are clearly getting more high quality shots on net than their opponents. If you’re doing that and getting good goaltending, you’ll rarely lose. If a team loses despite having the majority of high quality goals, the game has probably been either stolen or blown by a goaltender.
High quality goals generally determine the outcome of games and are indicative of when goals are truly ‘deserved’ by a team. In a time where we’re so focused on the nuances of the game, it really seems like many of the larger, simpler truths have been lost along the way.