Carolina Hurricanes

Numbers show possession helps NHL bubble teams make playoffs

In some cities, fans can begin to get comfortable with their shiny new trade deadline acquisitions – players intended to help them on their way to the Stanley Cup title.

In other cities, fans brace themselves for the inevitable despair of missing the playoffs, and hope to get a shot at landing top prospect Connor McDavid.

In other cities still, spring means the excitement of a playoff race, with uncertain outcomes but with at least some hope of making the postseason. For those teams on the outside looking in, the question is: how can we tell whether that hope is reasonable, or the fanciful dreaming of a pretender?

In the last six full seasons (2007-08 to last year, but not counting 2012-13 lockout season), there have been 10 teams that made the playoffs even though they did not hold at least a share of a playoff berth after 60 games.

What, if anything, do these late-season comebacks (and corresponding collapses for teams missing the playoffs) have in common?

Typically, the comeback teams were better possession teams than the collapsing teams. The average Score Adjusted Corsi (shot-attempt metric), or SAC, of the comeback teams was 50.2, while the average SAC of collapsing teams was 47.7. Indeed, only three of the comeback teams caught teams that were better in terms of SAC.

This should not be too surprising. As many studies have demonstrated, possession metrics aren’t perfect, but they do pretty well at predicting a team’s future record. Moreover, in this case, we’re talking about teams that have roughly the same number of points over the first 60 games.

If a poor possession team has generated the same record as a good possession team over the first 60 games, which seems more likely to be able to step up its play down the stretch?

A team that has built its record on goaltending and shooting probably doesn’t have much room to go up in those categories, and it’s very rare for a team to suddenly start generating more shots.

A good possession team, meanwhile, must not have had as good goaltending or shooting (or else it would have had a better record), and so is more likely to have room to improve its play in those areas.

There don’t appear to be any prime comeback candidates this season. In the East, after 60 games, the No. 8 spot was occupied by Boston – a pretty solid possession team, with a 52.3 percent SAC. Florida, Ottawa, and Philadelphia aren’t terrible (at 50.3, 50.1, and 49.4 respectively), but there isn’t much to suggest that they can catch a Boston team that is just now getting healthy.

In the West, while there may appear to be more of a race, chances are it won’t pan out to be much of one. The two wild-card teams after 60 games were Winnipeg and Minnesota, both very strong possession teams. The chasers right now are Calgary, one of the league’s worst possession teams with a SAC of 44.4 per cent, and San Jose, whose SAC of 51.1 is not bad, but considerably lower than their 54.6 of a year ago.

The two teams that were just ahead of the wild cards were Los Angeles and Vancouver, both of whom could be catchable based on the point difference between them, Calgary and San Jose. The Kings, however, own the league’s second-best SAC (at 54.4 percent) and appear to be turning things around. That leaves the Canucks, whose SAC of 49.4 percent is less than San Jose’s, but they also had a five-point cushion after 60 games.

This isn’t to say that it’s impossible for some team to come from outside to claim a playoff berth, just that it’s unlikely. But it sure would make things more interesting if some club was to pull it off.

Copyright 2015 © Phil Curry. The Department of Hockey Analytics employs advanced statistical methods and innovative approaches to better understand hockey. Please visit us at Distributed by Torstar Syndication Services.