Previewing the Metropolitan Division through Hockey Analytics

A return engagement? - USA TODAY Sports

Okay, so we recently had someone note in a comment that ESPN writers had revealed their Metropolitan projections. But really, no analytics people have done the same in a public forum. So I thought I'd write a quick analytical preview of the division to see what the Isles chances are.

First off: The Division Last Year:

Team Fenwick Close
Devils 55.03% 6.7% .905 972
Rangers 53.88% 7.6% .930 1006
Islanders 52.01% 8.4% .903 987
Hurricanes 51.08% 7.9% .908 987
Penguins 49.87% 10% .928 1028
Flyers 48.49% 8.3% .903 986
Capitals 47.72% 8.9% .927 1016
Blue Jackets
45.39% 8.9% .927 1016

A quick explanation of the columns: Fenwick Close is a measure of shot differential - including shots on goal and missed shots, but EXCLUDING blocked shots - when the score is within 1 goal in the first two periods or tied in the 3rd period, at 5 on 5. In essence it is what we call a POSSESSION METRIC: it attempts to measure what % of the game does each team possess the puck while the game is still close.

Shooting % and Save % are pretty self explanatory. PDO is simply a combination of those two statistics - literally, it's calculated by adding save% and shooting% together. Over a long season, teams tend to put up PDOs around 1000 - although a team with a real good goaltender can put up a higher PDO than normal for a few seasons in a row. If a team's PDO is much different from 1000, then that team is often considered lucky (if it's well above 1000) or unlucky (under 1000) and is expected to regress going forward. In essence PDO is a measure of luck.

A note of caution: teams can sustain slightly higher or lower than 1000 PDOs for a good time period, pretty much entirely due to good or bad goaltending situations. Nearly all PDOs however tend to fall within 1010 and 990 over a full season and PDOs well above or below those points tend to signal luck that is likely to change.


Enough of the explanations. Let's go through each team from top to bottom, although we'll save the Isles for last:

1. The New Jersey Devils:

The Devils made history last year by being the first elite possession team (Fen Close above 55%) to miss the playoffs since we started tracking possession #s in 06-07. Hell, no team with a Fen Close above 52.5% had ever missed the playoffs since 06-07 (The Canes in 06-07 missed the playoffs with a 52.34%). The Devils were substantially above that. Hell, of the 9 teams to have a 55% over the past 6 years, 4 of them have made the Cup Finals (The Blackhawks last year became the latest to pull off that feat).

So what the hell went wrong if the Devils were a dominant possession team? Well, for one thing, the team was a good bit unlucky, as you'd see from their division worst PDO (and 3rd worst in the NHL). While you might argue that the Devils weren't a team full of good shooters, 6.7% at 5 on 5 is ridiculously low, especially given that they were an 8% shooting team the year before (Yes they lost Parise - but one shooter doesn't change things that much!). Similarly, while the Devils weren't a great goaltending team - Johan Hedberg's fall off a cliff was probably exaggerated and a combination of age AND bad luck. Believe it or not, Brodeur's EVSV% was higher than Nabakov last year - it's just that he had bad Penalty Killing #s.

Speaking of special teams, the Devils also sucked at it. While their possession #s on the PP were solid, their shooting was bottom 1/3 (which is not unbelievable as true talent) and they also gave up a 2nd in the league 6 shorties at 5 on 4. That trend might reverse - although the Devils allowed a lot of shorties the last two years as well. On the PK the Devils were actually pretty good, with the league lead in shorthanded goals by themselves and the league best shots against rate.

Projection for this year:

The loss of Ilya Kovalchuk will not really matter that much to the Devils, who will still be playing a strong possession game without him (he didn't really excel in that area). And that will make the Devils tough, because their demise was greatly exaggerated last year - some of the SH% and SV% performance was real, but it was almost certainly exaggerated by luck, and had it been an 82 game season, they would've challenged for the 8th spot.

Meanwhile, while the shooting will improve at least due to regression, the Devils went out and improved upon Hedberg by acquiring Corey Schneider, who has the 3rd best SV% over the past 3 years, right in line with Lundqvist. The Devils will stupidly not play him as much as they should, and his talent level isn't really clear (Goalie samples suck), but over Hedberg he should be a massive improvement.

In short, the Devils are likely to be playoff contenders next year, and every major news media will be surprised how they are doing it. Don't listen to them. I have them as 4th in the division and in one of the wild card spots.

2. The New York Rangers.

**** em. Okay we're done here.




What, I have to analyze them? Goddamn it. The Rangers were also a strong possession team last year, yet they barely made the playoffs, clinching after the Isles, although getting the gift of the 6th spot somehow. This despite having the league's best goalie giving them an above average PDO. They were third in goal differential at 5 on 5, so this was not like the Devils, great possession marred by bad luck.

So why did they barely make the playoffs? For one, they had incredibly bad special teams. On the power play, they were 4th to last in unblocked shot attempts, and 4th to last in SOG - so if you were a Ranger Fan, yelling SHOOOOOT! was probably right. They scored at nearly half the rate of the Islanders on the PP, and the Isles weren't exactly world beaters. Perhaps their new coach will fix this, but the personnel is still the same. On the PK, the Rangers were also pretty horrible, although some of that was goalie performance that I wouldnt expect to continue.

But mostly, it was just bad luck. The Rangers shot like crap when the score was close, but magically were amazing at shooting when the game wasn't close. It seems unlikely for that trend to continue.


Sadly, I have the Rangers at the top of the Metro this year simply because they retain most of the team that was a strong possession team, have the league's best goalie, and their timely shooting luck is almost certain to regress. The loss of Carl Hagelin for the first 10 games of the season (He's going on LTIR) and probably Callahan too will hurt a good bit, but really, this is a really good team without many flaws.

F*** em.

4. Carolina Hurricanes

This is going to sound like a broken record soon, but here we have yet ANOTHER team with some bad luck, both in goaltending and shooting. The Canes were a strong possession team who looked like the likely winner of the Southeast until they suddenly forgot how to shoot in the second half. Also, while they were fine for a bit when Cam Ward went down - Dan Ellis played pretty well and Ward was not much better than Nabby last season - Dan Ellis' injury eventually forced them to rely on bad goalie Justin Peters.

Oh and their D men were injured to hell. Unfortunately for them, Joni PItkanen's injury may have cost Joni his career, so their D has only improved a slight bit (Andrej Sekera should be an improvement and Ryan Murphy (plus another year of Justin Faulk's development)).

Still their goaltending should be better barring injuries with Ward-Khudobin, and god knows the J. Staal Skinner line should have better shooting luck.


With Pitkanen's injury and the otherwise lack of improvements on the Canes, I'm not convinced this is much better of a team than last year, when they were a team both worse in skill and luck from the Isles. They're not a bad team by any means, but I have them coming in 6th in the division.

5. Pittsburgh Penguins

Wait, the Penguins were a below average possession team last year? Yes - although with the big asterisk coming on the fact they were without Crosby for a good portion of the year and their possession #s dropped like a stone without him. Still, even with Crosby, they weren't an elite possession team WITH him - 51.2% (of course some of that was Malkin being out).

Which really speaks to the real curious thing about the Penguins: They are literally just a two line team - without Crosby or Malkin on the ice, they were awful last year.

Fleury w/Crosby: 56.8%, w/out Crosby: 46.5%.
Fleury w/Malkin: 57.5%, w/out Malking: 46.9%

The #s are the same for Vokoun as well. Under 47% possession #s are truly awful, and those #s are actually GENEROUS because the #s w/out Crosby include ice time WITH Malkin (the two barely played together at EV). Seriously, they were awful with their 3rd and 4th lines out there - the loss of Jordan Staal was huge.

Defensively, they were also very MEH last year. Kris Letang was amazing, and Simon Despres showed a lot of talent, though the Pens management for some reason didn't like him. Instead Mark Eaton, Brooks Orpik, and Douglas Murray were dreadful.

Now the Pens' results didn't look like I"m describing, mainly because they had incredible luck. Marc-Andre Fleury is an average goaltender for his career, and pulled out a terrific .927 evSV% over 31 starts. Vokoun is an amazing goalie, but his .940 in the backup role (17 starts) is also unrealistic to expect to continue - that'd be best of all time goaltending. And shooting wise, they shot at a 10% Clip! Now the Pens may be a team filled with good shooters, but 10% is ridiculous and unlikely to repeat itself: No team has put up 10% shooting #s over consecutive seasons - in fact only one team has done it over one full 82 game season...and that team, 10-11 Washington, regressed heavily (to around 7.5% shooting) the next year.

The Pens were 8.9% shooters 2 years ago, which seems right - above average, but not too much.


So the Pens' possession #s should improve assuming there are no further injuries, and their D got better without the boat anchors of Douglas Murray and Mark Eaton (Brooks Orpik is still horrible and still there). That said, their shooting and save % luck should regress hard. Those projecting over 110 points should be laughed out of the room (seriously bet the under hard), and I don't think they'll finish above 2nd in the Metro, and I could see them falling further. And god forbid Crosby or Malkin go down again.


6. Philadelphia

Okay, so this team was as bad as it looks (FINALLY I Can say that!). Philly was a below average possession team with bad goaltending. They've solved their problem by:

1. Signing Ray Emery and Steve Mason?!
2. Mark Streit and Vinny LeCavalier

Yeah, the former isn't going to solve much, while the latter should slightly improve them. More helpful to them will be a more healthy defense - which was in shreds last year - 12 D Men playing 10 games or more is bad.

Still, this team strikes me as Isles light - a mediocre possession team with still bad goaltending instead of a potentially good possession team. Put them down for Seventh in the Division.

7. Washington

Back to massively overrated teams - the Caps. A poor possession team who made the playoffs thanks to a crappy division, a shooting spike late in the year, and great goaltending by Braden Holtby. Holtby's still there, but well, I wouldn't bet on them pulling off 8.9% shooting again (Bye Lucky Bum Mike Ribeiro!). They were at 8.1% the year prior and that'd make more sense.


Their big addition was the addition of Grabovski, and that's certainly an upgrade over Ribeiro possession wise. On the other hand, their D is getting older (Mike Green is a shell of his former self and they're still throwing Jack Hillen out there), and well...while Grabbo is a better player than Ribeiro, he's not likely to get his luck from last year. Nor is Ovechkin likely to be as lucky.

People keep projecting Washington to do well because they're "Washington." They were decent possession wise at the end of the season, but not that great (51% Fen Close), and I don't see why they should be better than last year - if not worse. I have them at 5th in the Division, fighting for that 2nd wild card spot which they probably don't get.

8. Columbus:

So despite the "playoff chase" from #Lumbus, this team sucked last year. Sorry, someone had to say it. They were a horrible possession team that survived off a career year from Bobrovsky, that he's unlikely to duplicate - his career #s now have him as a .927 EVSV% goalie, which is good, but far from .941! So him being a good yet not elite goalie and the team suddenly doesn't look so good. Regression is going to hit hard.


8th Full stop. I could see Carolina and Philly flipping, or maybe Washington surprising. But Columbus was still a bad team last year and the goaltending luck is unlikely to save them in a full season.


Final Projected Standings (Playoff spots in bold):

1. NYR
2. PIT
3. NYI
4. N.J.
5. WSH
6. CAR
7. PHI
8. CBJ

Yes I have the Isles as 3rd. The Isles broke out as a strong possession team last year, and are bringing back nearly every essential part of that team. And in fact, they'll have several players - Lubomir Visnovsky, Josh Bailey - from the start, and lack certain deadweight (Joe Finley oh my god get the hell out). The loss of Streit will be more than compensated for these things.

Then there's the fact that the team was playing in the 2nd half like an elite (55%+ Fenwick Close) Possession team, which makes me suspect the team is even better than that 52% suggests. There's a lot of potential here. Tavares should regress downwards in shooting, but Moulson should regress upwards in shooting, Nielsen-Okposo-Bailey all should shoot better, etc. And then there's PMB - upgrade on Boyes - and Nelson as well as any other kids who show up.

The question mark is Nabby and the backups, but I'm suspecting the backups will be better since they have to be and Nabby won't fall off a cliff. Moreover, I think this team is a good enough possession team to survive weak goaltending. It can be done - see last year's Kings. Overall, I think 3rd is a fairly conservative projection, and those projecting far worse can't see past our team's recent history and think it is all John Tavares.

But well, the only way to know is to play the whole damn season out. Enough with this preseason garbage.

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