Every year there’s one of those teams who really exceeds expectations and rides a seemingly endless, unsustainable hot streak into the playoffs. Sometimes these teams stick, other times, they fall back into oblivion. This year we had the Flames, Predators, and Islanders all break out and massively exceed their preseason expectations. None of them were expected to be any good this season, especially the Flames, who were supposed to be knee deep in the McDavid sweepstakes, but they vastly exceeded their expectations and put together really good seasons.
Last year, we had Colorado and Tampa Bay. Both of them were lottery watching in the shortened 2013 season, but managed to exceed expectations and finish as two of the best teams in the league in 2014. As we all know, one of them fell off a cliff, and the other one looks like they might win the Stanley Cup this year.
So what’s going to happen with Calgary, Nashville, and Long Island? How can we tell when these teams are legitimate, rather than just luck driven overachievers?
I’m going to look at 15 breakouts over the past six seasons. Starting in 2009-10, we have the Avalanche, Coyotes, and Kings. The Avs might by the biggest yo-yo team of recent memory. I mean, it’s almost inevitable they’re going to win the President’s Trophy, or something, in 2015-16 because they had an awful season this year, and they always seem to rotate back and forth. In 2010-11 the only real breakout was Tampa Bay, who went all the way from a middling team one year to coming within one win of the Cup Finals the next year. In 2011-12 we have the Panthers, a team who largely made it clear that the old division winner finishing in the top three format was really, really flawed. In the lockout shortened year, the Leafs, Canadiens, Ducks, and Islanders all took steps, but as we all know, they only had to play half a season, so it can only be taken with a grain of salt. And finally, Last year we had Colorado (again), Columbus, and Tampa Bay (again). About half of these teams managed to stick after their breakout season, while the other half dwindled off.
Can we find a pattern here? Where do the teams from this year’s crop fit?
All stats are even strength, score adjusted, courtesy of war-on-ice.com
THE LEGITIMATE BREAKOUTS
Like I said before, about half of these teams were legitimate, meaning they actually continued to be a playoff contending team after their breakout season. The bolded teams, Coyotes, Kings, Ducks, Canadiens, and Lightning (the second time) all made the playoffs again after their breakout seasons. Of those five teams, only the Coyotes have dropped off as a legitimate playoff contender since their breakout season, but they still managed to make the playoffs a few times before dropping off.
The most glaring pattern that I see in regards to the five bolded teams is the strong goal differential at even strength. Aside from the Kings in 2010, each of these teams scored at least 15 more goals than their opponents at even strength throughout the year. On top of that, only the Ducks in 2013 finished with an even strength Corsi For percentage below 50 per cent in their breakout season. These five teams also didn’t rely too much on luck to have success. Aside from the Ducks, who seem to be the outlier here, all of them had a PDO that hovered around 100. PDO just counts even strength shot and save percentage, which can best be used to explain whether or not a team was riding really hot shooting or goaltending throughout the year. Generally if a team has a high PDO for a period of time, it’s difficult to sustain. Basically, all of these legitimate contenders had average to above average luck, positive possession stats, and a strong goal differential at even strength.
THE ONES WHO FELL OFF A CLIFF
How about the pretenders? I want to look at them a little more closely. Specifically, the five teams who didn’t have their breakout year during the lockout shortened season: Colorado (both times), Tampa (the first time), Florida, and Columbus.
The Colorado team in 2009-10 wasn’t great, but they managed to squeeze into the final playoff spot in the Western Conference in Matt Duchene’s rookie season. They had the third worst even strength Corsi For percentage in the league, but they had the fourth highest PDO in the league. The year before, they had almost the exact same possession stats at even strength, but a waaaaaay worse PDO. In fact, in 2008-09, Colorado had the lowest PDO of any team in the league. 2010-11 was a similar to the two previous years in terms of peripheral stats, but Colorado’s PDO reverted back to the bottom third of the league, which was the clear cause of their regression. They finished 2008-09 with a goal differential of -43 and 69 points. They improved in 2009-10 despite having the same CorsiFor percentage to a goal differential of +7 and 95 points, and then regressed back to a -25 goal differential and 68 points.
The Lightning (the first time) are a little bit different than Colorado (the first time). Tampa’s breakout season in 2010-11 looked pretty legitimate considering their peripheral stats and low PDO. They managed to be a successful team that season despite having average goaltending and a really bad shooting percentage at even strength. The season before they had similar luck in terms of awful shooting and mediocre goaltending, but they had a much worse Corsi For percentage, and as a result, a much worse goal differential. The year after, their possession stats regressed by quite a bit, their goaltending got even worse, and their shooting percentage went up. It’s difficult to say what went into Tampa’s regression in 2011-12 specifically, but it was legitimate. It’s not like they were good the year before because of luck, like Colorado, they were good because they played well, despite having poor luck.
I’m not going to go into depth with the Panthers. I think we all know why they made the playoffs in 2012, and it sure as hell wasn’t because they were a good team. They had nearly the exact same peripheral and luck stats the year they made the playoffs as they did the year before when they were a bottom dweller. The Panthers were the benefactor of an awful division, and the year after, they reverted back to where their underlying performance would suggest they should be in the standings. What about Columbus? They were pretty solid in 2013-14, with an even Corsi For percentage and a realistic PDO. They actually looked like they were legitimately trending in the right direction, but this year they took a step back not only in their team save percentage, but their team possession stats. I guess we can chalk this one up largely to injuries, but the Jackets had worse peripheral stats in 2014-15 than they did in 2012-13, before they broke out.
Now, back to Colorado! Like I said, a yo-yo, this team is so up and down. They were really successful in 2013-14 despite having some pretty mediocre peripheral stats. In fact, they were in the bottom third of the league in both even strength Corsi and Fenwick percentages, and they were third worst in the league in terms of High-Danger Scoring Chances percentage according to war-on-ice. Long story short, this team wasn’t good, like at all. They averaged 28.4 shots on net per game, but allowed 31.3 against. Despite that, they averaged 2.5 goals per game at even strength, and just 2.2 against. Their 9.0 shooting percentage was second highest in the league, while their 92.9 team save percentage was in the top 10. Everybody thinks the Avs were overachievers last year because of their amazing goaltending. No, not at all, it was their amazing shooting percentage that did the trick.
WHAT DOES THIS MEAN
Well, there’s two different types of teams that I can see. On one hand, you have both of the Colorados and Florida. You can see these ones coming from a mile away. They have similar peripheral stats to the years before when they were unsuccessful, but boast a really high PDO and did well in the standings because of it. In short, they were unsustainable, luck driven teams riding something that’s eventually going to go dry. On the other hand, you have Tampa Bay and Columbus. It’s difficult to say what happened here, because I don’t really follow either team too closely. Like I said before, Columbus really struggled this year with injuries, which would likely explain their peripheral regression. Tampa Bay back in 2011 looked to be trending upwards. They didn’t have very good luck, yet they made it to the seventh game of the Eastern Conference Finals then fell off a cliff the next year. Yeah, their goaltending got worse, by a lot, but they went from one of the better possession teams in the league to one of the worst. At a quick glance, pretty much all of Tampa’s good players had a lower Corsi For percentage in 2012 than they did in 2011, and that could be for a variety of reasons.
How can we apply this to this years bunch? Well, as we’ve all heard many times, Calgary is pretty easily the most illegitimate of the group. They had pretty good goaltending, a really high shooting percentage, poor underlying stats, and a negative goal differential. I will say one thing, though, they are young, and they can take a big step and be a better team next year. Personally, I wouldn’t bank on it. I doubt they’ll get goaltending like they did this year, meaning they won’t see the same level of success. The Islanders and Predators have much strong underlying stats which matches them up with the teams who managed to continue to be contenders. But like we saw with Tampa Bay back in 2011, anything can happen. If I did have to venture a guess, though, I would put Calgary in the Colorado category, and the Islanders and Nashville in the contenders category.