NHL

Cullen: Which NHLers are getting the bounces this year?

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Scott Cullen
4/2/2014 3:35:44 PM
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No one likes it when luck is referred to when evaluating the performance of hockey players and teams. It goes against our ingrained notion, particularly in sports, that hard work is rewarded and that players create their own luck. But, the truth is, there are so many things that happen on the ice over which a single player has little to no control.

Advanced stats pioneer Gabriel Desjardins has taken the position that, in a given season, 38% of the standings results are luck-driven. (Start with shootouts and go from there.)

When it comes to individual players, there are a couple of numbers to look at to see if a player has been lucky, getting the bounces, whatever, and that is contributing to better-than-expected results.

On-ice shooting percentage refers to the 5-on-5 shooting percentage of all players when a particular player is on the ice. League average goaltending offers about a .922 save percentage in 5-on-5 situations so, naturally, average on-ice shooting percentages come in at 7.8%. Not every player shoots the puck with the same effectiveness, but even the best skaters can only have so much impact on a metric that involves four other skaters at any given time.

Very few players can, over the long haul, generate a substantially higher on-ice shooting percentage because it is so dependent on the performance of others. Sure, Sidney Crosby can hover over 11% and random fourth-liners hang around 5% year after year, but somewhere in between is where the vast majority of players fall. (Since 2007, among skaters to play at least 1000 minutes at 5-on-5, 592 of 796 skaters -- 74.4% -- fall between 6.5% and 9.0% on-ice shooting.)

The opposite angle of that percentage game is a player's on-ice save percentage during 5-on-5 situations and this is another number that, over a larger sample, is beyond a skater's control. A lot of it will depend on the goaltender, though a factor like quality of competition can play into those results too. If you're facing top lines every night, for example, it's not easy to hold their shooting percentages to five or six percent.

While the standard short-form measure for whether a player has been lucky is PDO (which combines on-ice shooting and save percentages), I thought I would break it into components because, while the tendency is to have a PDO around 1000 over the long haul, there are players that are outside that range.

Of 796 skaters to play at least 1000 5-on-5 minutes over the past seven seasons, 39 players have a cumulative PDO higher than 102.00, while 44 players have a PDO lower than 98.00. That leaves 713 of 796 (89.6%) within that 98-102 range.

What I've done is pulled out those players that have the largest differential from their previously-established on-ice shooting and save percentages to see who has benefited or being punished, essentially, by luck.

(minimum 1000 5-on-5 minutes 2007-2013; 500 5-on-5 minutes this season)

HIGH ON-ICE SHOOTING

Francois Beauchemin, D, Anaheim
2007-2013 On-ice SH%: 6.86
2013-14 On-ice SH%: 11.30
Difference: +4.44

Vladimir Sobotka, C, St. Louis
2007-2013 On-ice SH%: 5.91
2013-14 On-ice SH%: 9.14
Difference: +3.23

Ryan Getzlaf, C, Anaheim
2007-2013 On-ice SH%: 9.51
2013-14 On-ice SH%: 12.62
Difference: +3.11

Tyler Bozak, C, Toronto
2007-2013 On-ice SH%: 8.43
2013-14 On-ice SH%: 11.40
Difference: +2.97

It's difficult for individual players to affect on-ice shooting percentage, but especially so for defencemen, because they tend not to shoot the puck as often as forwards. So, Francois Beauchemin being far above his previous norms can be tied to spending a lot of his time on the ice with Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry. Oh, and it turns out that Getzlaf is even having more success than usual this year.

Blues C Vladimir Sobotka is an interesting case because he's spent much of his career as a third and fourth-liner, and been plenty effective in that role, but with St. Louis, he's had the opportunity to move up the depth chart. His most common linemates have been Jaden Schwartz and Vladimir Tarasenko, much better than typical checking line fare, and that should be at least part of the reason for his dramatic increase.

Then we get to Tyler Bozak, the Maple Leafs' centre who has come under so much criticism in recent seasons, but has quieted critics this season, scoring 45 points in 53 games.

Certainly, Bozak reaps the rewards of playing with Phil Kessel and James van Riemsdyk on Toronto's top line, but that's not unfamiliar territory -- Bozak has played a lot with Kessel over the years -- so the conclusion to be drawn from this is that Bozak (like anyone far exceeding their established norms) is likely due for some regression because, no matter how much of a Tyler Bozak supporter you might be, there's no argument to be made that he somehow creates scoring chances at the same calibre of Sidney Crosby over the long haul.

LOW ON-ICE SHOOTING

Bryan Bickell, LW, Chicago
2007-2013 On-ice SH%: 9.05
2013-14 On-ice SH%: 5.88
Difference: -3.17

Kris Letang, C, Pittsburgh
2007-2013 On-ice SH%: 9.00
2013-14 On-ice SH%: 5.74
Difference: -3.26

Dan Cleary, RW, Detroit
2007-2013 On-ice SH%: 7.90
2013-14 On-ice SH%: 4.58
Difference: -3.32

Steve Ott, C, St. Louis
2007-2013 On-ice SH%: 8.03
2013-14 On-ice SH%: 4.43
Difference: -3.60

Matt Hendricks, LW, Edmonton
2007-2013 On-ice SH%: 6.68
2013-14 On-ice SH%: 3.05
Difference: -3.63

Alex Ovechkin, RW, Washington
2007-2013 On-ice SH%: 9.54
2013-14 On-ice SH%: 5.66
Difference: -3.88

Steve Bernier, RW, New Jersey
2007-2013 On-ice SH%: 8.46
2013-14 On-ice SH%: 4.39
Difference: -4.07

Alexander Edler, D, Vancouver
2007-2013 On-ice SH%: 8.12
2013-14 On-ice SH%: 3.88
Difference: -4.22

Ville Leino, LW, Buffalo
2007-2013 On-ice SH%: 8.52
2013-14 On-ice SH%: 3.53
Difference: -4.99

While this season has obviously been far from ideal for Blackhawks LW Bryan Bickell following his tremendous 2013 playoff performance, he has scored 10 goals, his most since 2010-2011, while playing 11:18 per game. However, Bickell has also managed just two assists in 53 games -- the last one coming December 30 -- so no one is doing much scoring with Bickell on the ice and, in the rare instances that they do, he's rarely part of the scoring play.

Veterans Dan Cleary and Steve Bernier run into fourth-line problems. There's no guarantee that skating on the fourth line is going to leave you with an on-ice shooting percentage that low, but that's not going to happen with a full season on the first line either.

To an extreme, look at what has happened with Matt Hendricks, already starting from a relatively low point and still finding a way to cut that percentage more than in half -- he hasn't recorded an assist in 27 games with Edmonton.

Ville Leino and, since traded Steve Ott suffer from the effects of playing together in Buffalo, apparently.

Kris Letang and Alexander Edler counted among the unluckiest defencemen, epecially so in Letang's case since his most common forwards have been Sidney Crosby, Kris Letang and Evgeni Malkin -- not exactly lacking in finishing skill.

Of course, we can't ignore Alex Ovechkin, who has spent plenty of time with Nicklas Backstrom and Marcus Johansson, but Ovechkin has been the only one on the Capitals scoring when he's on the ice 5-on-5. In those situations, Ovechkin has 20 goals on 215 shots (9.3%) and the rest of the Capitals on the ice with him have combined for 10 goals on 309 shots (3.2%).

It's such a dramatic departure from Ovechkin's previous levels, that it doesn't reasonably figure to be the new norm, unless the Capitals decide to keep skating Ovechkin with Jay Beagle on a regular basis.

HIGH ON-ICE SAVE PERCENTAGE

Paul Ranger, D, Toronto
2007-2013 On-ice SH%: 88.76
2013-14 On-ice SV%: 93.58
Difference: +4.82

Kyle Clifford, LW, Los Angeles
2007-2013 On-ice SH%: 91.75
2013-14 On-ice SV%: 95.41
Difference: +3.66

Nikita Nikitin, D, Columbus
2007-2013 On-ice SV%: 90.73
2013-14 On-ice SV%: 94.32
Difference: +3.59

John Mitchell, C, Colorado
2007-2013 On-ice SV%: 91.71
2013-14 On-ice SV%: 95.21
Difference: +3.50

Marco Scandella, D, Minnesota
2007-2013 On-ice SH%: 90.76
2013-14 On-ice SV%: 94.09
Difference: +3.33

John-Michael Liles, D, Carolina
2007-2013 On-ice SH%: 90.99
2013-14 On-ice SV%: 94.32
Difference: +3.32

Anze Kopitar, C, Los Angeles
2007-2013 On-ice SH%: 91.48
2013-14 On-ice SV%: 94.70
Difference: +3.22

Cody McLeod, LW, Colorado
2007-2013 On-ice SV%: 91.91
2013-14 On-ice SV%: 95.08
Difference: +3.17

Maxime Talbot, RW, Colorado
2007-2013 On-ice SV%: 91.56
2013-14 On-ice SV%: 94.73
Difference: +3.17

Alexei Emelin, D, Montreal
2007-2013 On-ice SV%: 89.68
2013-14 On-ice SV%: 92.84
Difference: +3.16

When you see the list of players that have experienced higher-than-normal save percentages, it doesn't seem to indicate anything more than they are playing in front of goaltenders having strong seasons and that's fine, but given the variance in goaltending from year to year, that's not something upon which you would like to base your opinion of a skater.

Paul Ranger is at the extreme end, but his data also has a large gap for the years that he didn't play between the Lightning and the Leafs. Kyle Clifford and Anze Kopitar have strong goaltending in Los Angeles, but they've had strong goaltending in the past, so it sure seems that they're extra fortunate this year.

The Colorado trio of John Mitchell, Cody McLeod and Maxime Talbot is certainly reaping the rewards of Semyon Varlamov's play. It's those fortuitous percentages that leave them with positive plus-minus numbers despite subpar puck possession stats.

Where the value comes in seeing these numbers is in terms of perception. Nikita Nikitin or Marco Scandella may not be held in terribly high regard, but these numbers show that there is some luck involved in their respective plus ratings this season, the type that would be due to regress in time.

LOW ON-ICE SAVE PERCENTAGE

Pavel Datsyuk, C, Detroit
2007-2013 On-ice SV%: 92.33
2013-14 On-ice SV%: 89.26
Difference: -3.07

Eric Nystrom, LW, Nashville
2007-2013 On-ice SV%: 92.38
2013-14 On-ice SV%: 89.29
Difference: -3.09

Michal Rozsival, D, Chicago
2007-2013 On-ice SV%: 92.51
2013-14 On-ice SV%: 89.40
Difference: -3.11

Frans Nielsen, C, N.Y. Islanders
2007-2013 On-ice SV%: 91.85
2013-14 On-ice SV%: 88.64
Difference: -3.21

Michael Grabner, LW, N.Y. Islanders
2007-2013 On-ice SV%: 91.57
2013-14 On-ice SV%: 88.25
Difference: -3.32

Dustin Byfuglien, RW, Winnipeg
2007-2013 On-ice SV%: 92.03
2013-14 On-ice SV%: 88.66
Difference: -3.37

Dmitry Kulikov, D, Florida
2007-2013 On-ice SV%: 92.89
2013-14 On-ice SV%: 89.49
Difference: -3.40

Mike Cammalleri, LW, Calgary
2007-2013 On-ice SV%: 92.06
2013-14 On-ice SV%: 88.59
Difference: -3.47

Ryane Clowe, LW, New Jersey
2007-2013 On-ice SV%: 92.21
2013-14 On-ice SV%: 88.72
Difference: -3.49

Keith Ballard, D, Minnesota
2007-2013 On-ice SV%: 93.41
2013-14 On-ice SV%: 89.88
Difference: -3.53

Taylor Pyatt, LW, Pittsburgh
2007-2013 On-ice SV%: 93.83
2013-14 On-ice SV%: 90.07
Difference: -3.76

T.J. Galiardi, LW, Calgary
2007-2013 On-ice SV%: 92.00
2013-14 On-ice SV%: 88.18
Difference: -3.82

Patrik Elias, LW, New Jersey
2007-2013 On-ice SV%: 91.58
2013-14 On-ice SV%: 87.67
Difference: -3.91

Lee Stempniak, RW, Pittsburgh
2007-2013 On-ice SV%: 92.74
2013-14 On-ice SV%: 88.38
Difference: -4.36

On the other end of the save percentage spectrum, is it a collection of players that are clueless around their own end? Not especially. There's an all-time great two-way forward, Pavel Datsyuk, and a puck-rushing defenceman-turned-forward Dustin Byfuglien that might be considered at opposite ends of the defensive spectrum by some, but it really appears to be a random list that includes both offensive and defensive players.

Are they players who have had some shaky goaltending behind them this year? Yes.

Stempniak, Galiardi and Cammalleri have been victims of Calgary's subpar puck-stoppers, while Elias and Clowe take some lumps with New Jersey's goaltending. This group consists of the players that have been unlucky relative to previous seasons and, aside from Pyatt and Stempniak, who joined Pittsburgh in-season, the rest are all on teams that rank in the bottom third of save percentage this season.

The takeaway, then, is not to worry so much about Stempniak being minus-21 in 52 games with the Flames because, with better goaltending alone, he would be due to improve, and he's quickly plus-5 in his first 15 games with Pittsburgh. Patrik Elias may be a minus player, but he continues to be a strong possession player whose numbers would appear more favourable with the randomness of better goaltending when he's on the ice.

That's the story to be revealed by some of these numbers, that some players are getting good breaks this year, others aren't and, in the relatively small sample of a single season of hockey, these things happen. Over time, those numbers tend to even out, so the players that have been fortunate this year, may be hard-pressed to duplicate their success, while those that have been getting a bit of a raw deal could be expected to have better days ahead.

Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@bellmedia.ca and followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tsnscottcullen. For more, check out TSN Fantasy on Facebook.

Phil Kessel, Tyler Bozak (Photo: Graig Abel/Getty Images )

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(Photo: Graig Abel/Getty Images )
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