When you are a passionate sports fan, it can be hard to avoid certain biases, especially when it comes to your own team. It can be harder still to have the self-awareness to locate and put a label on your biases because the reason you have them in the first place is because the passion you reserve for your favorite teams comes built in with a certain level of blindness. For example, living in Boston, it is easy for me to spot the biases of the local fans who seem to be insulated in their own alternate-version of realty to a point where one quickly learns that it is better to accept and ignore rather than enter into an argument anytime someone says something that is ludicrously untrue to which everybody else responds by nodding in agreement as if the crazy statement was an accepted cold hard fact.
While I may think Boston-sports-fans are out of their minds, I probably sound just as crazy when I say that I think the Panthers could be a playoff team this season. Admittedly, I sometimes let my fanhood cloud my judgement when it comes to the Panthers. Its something I try to be aware of and try to nip in the bud lest I come off like a raving lunatic making passionate cases that Team USA would be benefit from bringing Nick Bjugstad to the Sochi Olympics. (By the way, the Bjugstad Olympics thing is something I on-and-off believe and when I watch him dominate opposing defenders with his big frame I get to thinking that he would be much better depth forward option than some veteran on the wrong side of 30. The counter argument is that I watch Bjugstad on a nightly basis while I watch much less of the other options hence I know a lot about what Bjugstad can do but close to nothing about how his game compares to some of the other players in the national team pool, but that is an argument for another day.)
If you have watch a lot of Panther hockey this season, you have probably had the experience of feeling like the Panthers deserve a better record than the one they have. You have probably watched to Panthers dominate supposedly better teams and thought to yourself, “why doesn’t this translate into more wins?” I have certainly had some of those feelings and I have wrestled with the question of, ‘should I attribute these feelings to my inherent biases or is there really something more to this team?’ After digging through some advanced stats, I am beginning to think the answer is the latter.
Are the Panthers better than their record indicates?
The key to winning games in the NHL is to score more goals than your opponent. The key to scoring goals is taking shots and the key to taking shots is having possession of the puck. That line of logic is pretty straightforward. Its stands to reason then that a team that possesses the puck more than their opponent will be successful. (If you are already familiar with these advanced stats, jump ahead two paragraphs, you won’t miss much. I promise.)
We cannot exactly measure puck possession but we can measure the results of puck possession which are shots. A team that takes more shots than their opponents will most likely possess the puck more and thus we can use shots as a proxy for puck possession with the reasoning that if a team takes a lot of shots then they will also control the possession battle and will thus win more games. Rather than just using shots on goal, we measure every shot a team takes including shots that miss the net and shots that are blocked. The resulting number is called a Corsi number. The close relative to Corsi is known as Fenwick which is exactly the same as Corsi except that it does not factor in shots that are blocked. (For more detail about the background of these stats head here.)
Over the course of the season we can measure the total number of shots a team attempts (Corsi For) vs the total number of shots a team allows (Corsi Against). Successful teams tend to take a lot more shots than their opponents which indicates that they usually dominate the possession battle. A good indicator of success if Corsi For Percentage (CF%) which you get by dividing a teams Corsi For by their combined Corsi For and Corsi Against. For example if a team has take 600 total shot attempts and allowed 400 shot attempts their CF would be 600 and CA would be 400. Their CF% would be 60% meaning of the 1000 shots attempted involving that team, 60% are shots for, which tells us that team possessed the puck about 60% of the time.
If you look at the list of the best puck possession teams, the list usually closely resembles to top of the NHL standings. Below are the top seven teams in the league as well as the top 7 teams in CF% and FF% (Fenwick For %). (These stats are 5 on 5, close game situations).
|NHL Stadnings||Points||Top CF% Teams||CF%||Top FF% Teams||FF%|
|1. Chicago||55||1. Chicago||57.2%||1. Chicago||56.1%|
|2. Anaheim||53||2. Los Angeles||56.2%||2. San Jose||55.7%|
|3. Pittsburgh||51||3. San Jose||55.2%||3. Los Angeles||55.2%|
|4. Los Angeles||50||4. St. Louis||54.4%||4. St. Louis||54.4%|
|5. St. Louis||48||5. New Jersey||53.8%||5. Pittsburgh||54.1%|
|6. Boston||48||6. Boston||53.5%||6. Vancouver||53.2%|
|7. San Jose||48||7. Vancouver||52.8%||7. Boston||53.0%|
|27. Florida||31||13. Florida||50.7%||14. Florida||50.7%|
(Stats courtesy of Extra Skater)
These numbers tell us that generally speaking, good possession numbers are closely correlated with success. With a few minor exceptions, the teams at the top of the standings are the teams with the best possession numbers. But what about the exceptions? What do they tell us?
How can we explain the Anaheim Ducks? They are 2nd in the NHL with 53 points but rank 16th and 11th in CF% and FF% respectively. What about New Jersey who is the 5th best CF% team but is 23rd in the NHL? Or how about the Florida Panthers for that matter? The Panthers are 13th in CF% at 50.7% but are 27th in the league standings? Their 13 spot discrepancy between CF% and their place in the standings is one of the biggest discrepancies in the league. To understand these teams it helps to introduce the concept of PDO.
PDO is a stat that combines a teams shooting percentage and their save percentage. It is generally understood that shooting percentage and save percentage are numbers that over time will regress to the mean. PDO, being the combination of shot and save percentage, is thus a good indicator of puck luck. A PDO of 100 is considered to be average while anything above 100 suggests a team has been lucky while anything below 100 suggests a team has been unlucky.
PDO, it turns out helps explain some of our above exceptions. Lets take a look at the Ducks. Anaheim has the highest PDO in the league at 104.2. This number is mainly due to the fact that they are leading the league in shooting percentage at 11.0%. Not only are they leading the league but they are doing so by a wide margin. Second on the shooting percentage list is St. Louis at 9.7% and the league average is 7.5%. This all suggests that the Ducks have been lucky this season. As the season progresses, it will be hard to Anaheim to maintain their shooting rate and as that number regresses a bit, it would not be surprising to see Anaheim drop in the standings. Their high PDO and average possession numbers make them a prime candidate to experience a second half swoon.
The Devils have a PDO of 96.6 (28th in the league) which would help explain why there is such a discrepancy between their strong possession numbers and their lowly place in the league standings.
Have the Panthers also been a casualty of bad luck? The answer seems to be absolutely yes! Florida currently has the league’s lowest PDO at 95.2. The low PDO is a result of a low shooting percentage (5.6%, 28th) and a league worst save percentage (89.6%). The Panthers strong possession stats, 50.7 CF%, tell us that Florida should be a slightly above average team, 13th in the league to be exact, but their PDO indicates that they have experienced a lot of bad luck. The combination of good possession numbers and a very low PDO tells us that the Panthers are primed to make a run up the standings if they start to get some bounces to go their way.
Statistics are a useful tool because they offer a way for us to confirm or dispute what we think we see when we watch the games. When I watch the Panthers, I see a team that rarely gets outplayed by an opponent and I see a team that usually controls the puck for a good portion of the game. Based on their play, the Panthers deserve a better record than the one they’ve got and the advanced stats seem to back that up. Florida ranks 13th in CF% at 50.7%. That number tells us that the Panthers possess the puck more than their opponent which something usually associated with winning. Their league low PDO tells us that they have been unlucky this season and if they see an improvement in their shooting and save percentages, they could make a notable run up the standings.
As a fan of the perpetually rebuilding Florida Panthers sometimes biases are necessary. What’s the point of showing up if you don’t truly believe that your team has a shot at the playoffs at the start of each season? Its a whole lot more fun if you have a little bit of hope and sometimes you need a bit of irrationality in order to keep coming back. The thought that the Panthers are better than their record may just be a necessary bias but at least this time it is also justified.