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Who’s A Contender Or Pretender In 2017 Eastern Conference?

The stats bear out that the Pens are for real, but what about the others in the Eastern Conference?
Photo by Gene J. Puskar/AP

Since we’re more or less at the halfway point of the 2016-17 NHL season, now seems like as good a time as any to evaluate the competition against the Penguins in the Eastern Conference.  For purposes of this article, I’m only going to look at the teams currently in the playoff picture (with one bonus team to discuss, especially to watch starting next year).  The teams that are currently out of the playoff picture all have negative goal differentials, which is a quick measuring stick for me to evaluate the long-term prospects of a team’s title contention worthiness.

The crux of this article is going to rotate around three evaluation stats — Corsi For (CF%), Shooting Percentage (Sh%), and PDO which is a summation of a team’s Shooting Percentage and Save Percentage.  All three of these stats will be using 5-on-5 results only, as special teams will just skew the conversation.  These three stats, albeit rudimentary, can help peel back the curtain on a team’s record to determine if it is sustainable or not.  All stats are prior to the start of 1/10/2017 games.

Corsi For — this is a rough way of evaluating a team’s ability to possess the puck.  It takes a team’s shots on the opposing goalie and divides it by the sum of the team’s shots for and against.  Anything above 50% is good and indicates that your team is more in control of the game’s flow.

Shooting Percentage — this is the 1st of the two somewhat related “puck luck” stats.  Team shooting percentage is hovering around 9% in recent years, so if a team is significantly higher or lower than this threshold, there could be some regression to the mean in store.

PDO — this incorporates the above Shooting Percentage in with team goalie’s Save Percentage to get a stat that hovers around 100.  If your team is above, they may be lucky.  Below, better times may be in store.  I could have easily just done Save Percentage, but I think all humans are more comfortable with 100 as a baseline.  Plus it shows if a team’s offense or defense (via the goalie) is the culprit.

PITTSBURGH PENGUINS

Crosby is a goal scoring machine and the Penguins do not appear to have a Stanley Cup hangover.  There has been a breakout performance from Justin Schultz and Conor Sheary has solidified his standing on Crosby’s wing.

  • CF — 51.4%
  • Sh% — 8.29%
  • PDO — 100.9

The Penguins are pretty much right in line with the cutoffs between lucky and not lucky, so the stats (and the eyes) are in agreement that they are contenders.  

COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS

How is one of the NHL’s most non-descript franchises the talk of the NHL this year?  A 16 game winning streak that is now 2nd only behind the 1992-93 Penguins is a large part.

  • CF% — 50.1%
  • Sh% — 8.96%
  • PDO — 102.7

Columbus’s first two metrics check out, but the PDO reveals that Sergei Bobrovsky (primarily) has been playing out his mind with a crazy .931 save percentage that is hard-to-fathom unsustainable.  This is a good team and a contender, but they’re not as good as they currently are pictured in the standings.

NEW YORK RANGERS

The Rangers are the closest team in per game scoring to the Penguins (3.56 for the Pens, 3.48 for the Rangers) and have better goals against averages (2.55 for the Rangers, 2.79 for the Penguins).  So why does it feel like something is off with this team?

  • CF% — 47.5%
  • Sh% — 10.04%
  • PDO — 101.9

There it is.  A rather sub-par Corsi For (25th in the NHL) coupled with a high Shooting Percentage (1st in the NHL) paints the picture of a lucky team.  To distill this down to the basics, the Rangers don’t have possession of the puck very much, but when they do they score.  That’s typically not a good recipe for post-season success.  See the 2015-16 New York Rangers, for example.  The Rangers have all the hallmarks of a pretender this year.

WASHINGTON CAPITALS

Because of the bizarre NHL seeding system, the Capitals have been mostly a “wild card” #7 seed in recent weeks, but they’re one of the best teams on paper in the Eastern Conference.

  • CF% — 52.3%
  • Sh% — 8.82%
  • PDO — 102.9

The Capitals haven’t received nearly as much hype as the Blue Jackets this year, but you can see that their trio of metrics is in the same sphere as them.  As with the Blue Jackets’ Bobrovsky, the Captials’ Braden Holtby is playing out of his mind with his own .931 save percentage.  As with the Blue Jackets, the Capitals are due for a little regression but are definitely a contender.

MONTREAL CANADIENS

After a dreadful 2015-16 campaign, due almost entirely to the loss of all-world goalie Carey Price for the majority of the year, Michel Therrien has rallied the team back to the heights they were in 2014-15.

  • CF% — 52.4%
  • Sh% — 7.90%
  • PDO — 101.8

The Canadiens are a muted version of the Blue Jackets and Capitals.  They possess the puck well, but don’t shoot with as much accuracy.  All three are buoyed by their goalies, as Carey Price has put up a .928 save percentage.  The crazy part is that Price is capable of sustaining that over the course of a year.  Two seasons ago, when he won the Vezina, Price had a .933 and in his short 12-game stint last year, Price already had a .934 save percentage.  The Canadiens are absolutely a contender, especially if they can find a complementary scoring piece to Max Pacioretty.

PHILADELPHIA FLYERS

The team every Pens fan loves to hate, with good reason in most cases, has been quietly consistent this year.  They’ve been caught up in the riptide of the Metro Division with the Blue Jackets, Penguins, and Rangers all overshadowing them at times this year.

  • CF% — 51.0%
  • Sh% — 7.39%
  • PDO — 98.3

The Flyers are a team struggling with their shot accuracy, as their 7.39% ranks them 19th in the NHL.  More troubling for them is their goalie save percentage of just 90.88 (embedded within the PDO) that has them at 29th out of 30 NHL teams.  Steve Mason is their primary goalie and the Flyers should look to upgrade on him, or at least get a more competent backup than Michal Neuvirth.  Both of them are unrestricted free agents at the end of the year.  Right now, their goalie situation makes them a pretender for me.

BOSTON BRUINS

By virtue of being in the weaker Atlantic Division, the Bruins have a more elevated playoff standing than other teams with more points than them so far.  The Bruins are really a walking contradiction of stats, too.

  • CF% — 55.2%
  • Sh% — 6.34%
  • PDO — 98.2

No one possesses the puck (via the act of throwing shots on goal) more than the Bruins, who are 1st in Corsi For by a healthy margin.  But when they do shoot it, it doesn’t go anywhere, as evidenced by their 28th-ranked Shooting Percentage.  This drags their PDO down to 28th too, as Tuukka Rask and his .928 save percentage can only do so much.  Unless the Bruins get a little more puck luck going their way in the second half, it’s hard to not label them a pretender.

OTTAWA SENATORS

Of all eight current playoff teams, the Ottawa Senators have scored the fewest goals (99).

  • CF% — 47.6%
  • Sh% — 7.30%
  • PDO — 99.8

The Senators don’t possess the puck well and don’t score on the oft-chance they have the puck, but aside from that they’re doing great.  They’re clearly a pretender and it wouldn’t shock me to see them lose their playoff spot to our bonus team…

*BONUS TEAM — TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS

The Maple Leafs may be one year too early to get ready for the playoffs, but they have a stunning collection of young talent, highlighted of course by Auston Matthews (19).  Mitch Marner (19) and William Nylander (20) are also promising young talents (among others on the team) and it’s not as if James van Riemsdyk (27) and Nazem Kadri (26) are greybeards.

  • CF% — 50.1%
  • Sh% — 8.34%
  • PDO — 100.3

The metrics paint a much rosier picture of future success for the Leafs than the Senators, so we’ll see if they eventually run them down for a playoff spot this year.  No matter what, the Leafs are establishing themselves as a real threat in the not-so-distant future.

About Kevin Creagh (260 Articles)
Nerd engineer by day, nerd writer at night. Kevin is the co-founder of The Point of Pittsburgh. He is the author of Creating Christ, a sci-fi novel available on Amazon.

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