Needless to say, I’m feeling pretty excited that hockey is back. While I didn’t like the idea of having to play the same teams over and over, I do like the playoff feel the regular season will have. The Oilers are playing against the teams they’ll be chasing or trying to create separation from every single night, which makes every game, every point that much more important. We’re probably going to see teams be a little more aggressive with goalie pulls and extra attackers, which should add to the drama. Lots of scoreboard watching.
The North division should be a lot of fun considering the rivalries and the fact that there’s going to be a lot of randomness in the results over a 56-game season. There’s less time to make up ground, making winning and losing streaks, all the more important. Throw in injuries to key players and how teams adapt their rosters to cover for them, while playing two and three-game series over a short period – it’s going to be wild. All seven teams have their storylines worth following and it’ll be fun to watch some of the high-end talent and prospects from other Canadian clubs – see what the hype is about!
It’s going to be interesting to see how coaching staff’s adapt their powerplays and penalty kills. You’re playing the same teams over and over, so you can expect your opponents to game-plan their special teams a lot more. If your powerplay goes stale, and struggles to generate chances, you’re going to have to adapt and change the look of it – either tactical or changing up the deployment. I suspect the Oilers powerplay will continue to be strong, but will likely see a slight dip from their 20.27% team shooting percentage, likely hovering in the top five overall. Penalty kill is likely to regress, considering their high save percentage last season, but should remain competitive and (hopefully) not cost the team wins in the standings.
For my own curiosity, I wanted to see how well the Canadian teams did on special teams last season, combining their rates of goals for and against on the powerplay and penalty kill.
Special teams Goals/60
Toronto Maple Leafs
We all know how dominant Edmonton was on the powerplay, scoring 10.64 goals per hour, Vancouver was right behind them ranking fourth scoring 8.54 goals per hour and Toronto ranking sixth scoring 8.26 goals per hour. What’s interesting is that while they struggled to score, Winnipeg posted some of the highest rates of unblocked shot attempts and shots on goal. Montreal was dreadful – they were one of the worst at generating chances and finished 24th in terms of goals per hour. Looking at penalty killing rates, both the Senators and Jets were dreadful at preventing chances against, finishing in the bottom five in terms of shots against and goals against. Will be interesting to see how much the teams rely on special teams to boost their overall goal-differentials.
Goaltending is going to be huge. With a condensed schedule, teams will need to be mindful of their starters’ workloads, getting them rest between games and avoiding any significant injuries. Some of the teams in the North division look pretty solid in net, with Hellebuyck coming off a strong season, winning the Vezina trophy as the league’s best goalie and Markstom solidifying things in Calgary. Anderson is looking to bounce-back from a down-year last season, but should be back to career-level marks – and motivated by the fact that he’s in a contract year. The Oilers goaltending is not a position of strength as this point. The Oilers have a good, league-average goalie in Koskinen, but he would benefit from a shared workload and I don’t think Smith is up for the job considering his dreadful numbers over the past few years.
To get a sense of the goalies in the division, I looked at each team’s netminders and what their numbers have been like over the past three seasons. The table below is sorted by save percentage, and is for all situations. Included is each goalie’s save percentage (SV%), goals-saved-above-average (GSAA) and high-danger save percentage (HDSV%). The full list included 95 goalies who played at least 1,000 minutes (about 10 games), with the average save percentage being 0.908.
Good news is that Koskinen has been in the right range and we should expect him to be a league-average netminder. Couple wild cards in the division include Demko, a good prospect who has only played 37 games and is expected to carry the load with Holtby, who has not been very good in the last three years – something to watch for in Vancouver. I was also surprised to see that Murray’s numbers aren’t as strong as I’d thought and he doesn’t have a strong back-up either. I think Toronto appears to have the advantage here with an Andersen/Campbell combo.
One last thing I wanted to know was how each of the Canadian teams did last season without their best players on the ice at even-strength. That’s usually about 70% of the team’s total time, making it pretty critical that they control the flow of play as measured by shot metrics and not get outscored too badly.
Montreal and Winnipeg were the two that came out on top in terms of goal-share without their star player, but that doesn’t say much considering that it was below 50%. What’s interesting however is that the Habs posted pretty strong shot-share numbers. The issue was that they couldn’t finish, something that looks to be corrected with the addition of Toffoli and the development of players like Suzuki. Toronto had the shot-share advantage as well and that’s probably going to continue. Edmonton, as we know, struggled mightily thanks to their bottom six. That should be improved with the addition of Turris and Puljujaarvi, but I’m not convinced that they and the rest of the bottom six roster players can be above 48%.
While it’s exciting to have hockey starting up again, it’s difficult to ignore the health risks these players and team staff members are taking on. The harsh reality is that we’re likely to see players test positive for COVID-19 and there’s no guarantee that the protocols like social distancing and masking along with regular testing will limit the spread of the virus and prevent serious outbreaks. There’s also the mental health impact of playing away from family and friends for an extended period of time in a restricted bubble. And then you have the heightened risk of players getting injured with teams scheduled to play a lot of hockey withing tight time-frames. Make no mistake, this is driven by money, not the “love of the game”. Here’s hoping players and staff stay healthy and avoid the long-term health impacts of the COVID-19 virus.
The actual series between Edmonton and Chicago I think is going to be interesting and could be closer than we’d like to think. The Oilers definitely have the edge when it comes to overall talent and the powerplay, but I think the Blackhawks had some things going for them in the latter half of the season, especially at even-strength.
Over the final twenty-five games of the season, the Oilers went 13-8-4, a points percentage of 0.600 – placing them in the top ten league wide. Chicago wasn’t too far behind and actually posted stronger results with a +11 goal differential compared to Edmonton’s +2. Chicago also did a slightly better job when it came to controlling the flow of play as measured by shot attempts (i.e., Corsi) as well as scoring chances which uses unblocked shot attempts as a proxy.
Final 25 Games (2019/20)
5v5 – Goal-share
5v5 – Goal-differential
5v5 – Corsi For%
5v5 – Fenwick For%
5v5 – Shooting%
5v5 – Save%
What’s interesting is that while Chicago and Edmonton ranked 19th and 20th respectively when it came to preventing scoring chances, Chicago did a much better job generating scoring chances ranking 6th in the league while Edmonton ranked 22nd. The other area where I think Chicago has the slight edge is in net, which plays a significant role in the playoffs. Edmonton finished the season 14th overall with a 90.55% team save percentage at all strengths, while Chicago finished 6th with 91.30%.
The other area where Chicago did well with consistently was their penalty kill, which finished ninth best in the league when it came to the rate of goals against with 6.34 per hour. And that was due in large part to their goaltending, which ranked third in the league when it came to save percentage shorthanded. The fact that Chicago got consistent goaltending throughout the season, and the fact that the Oilers struggled to generate offence in the latter part of the season should be of concern and will hopefully be recognized and addressed by the coaching staff during training camp.