The role of luck in hockey is somewhat controversial among hockey fans and analysts. Most people know that you need to be both lucky and good to win a championship, but the subject of luck often gets brushed aside when evaluating a team's performance over a full season. Think of how many times you've seen a shot go off the post or saw a golden scoring chance taken away by a great save or a defender clearing a rebound at the last millisecond. Also think about how many goals you've seen come off a weird bounce, a deflection or some other strange occurrence. This is puck luck in action and it has a direct impact on the outcome of a game and, over the long run, where a team finishes in the standings.
Whenever the word "luck" is mentioned in sports, the usual response is that the bounces "even out" over the course of the season. It doesn't always work like this, though. Just as the 2013 Carolina Hurricanes, whose season can be defined as one where nothing went right. They were plagued by injuries, had stretches where they couldn't buy a goal and received some simply wretched goaltending in the last 20 games or so. Luck shouldn't' be used as an "excuse" for the Canes missing the playoffs for the fourth straight season, but when you look at how almost everything that was out of their control go against them, it's fair to say that it contributed to them finishing 26th in the NHL.
Rob Vollman of Hockey Prospectus recently posted a chart looking at certain variables to show how "lucky" each team was last season. This takes into account how many significant players were lost to injury, their shooting and save percentage, their special teams efficiency rates along with their success in one goal & overtime games. I'm a little skeptical of special teams being a factor of luck but the other four are definitely factors that are subject ot change from year-to-year. Based on these principles, Carolina was the fourth "unluckiest" team in the league last season, which isn't surprising.
As I mentioned earlier, the team was destroyed by injuries. They used over 30 players, were without their starting goaltender for half of the season and had at least six defensemen go on the shelf during parts of the year. Injuries are part of the game, though and teams like Detroit, Ottawa & Vancouver made the playoffs despite having worse injury problems than Carolina. Why is this? They had better depth and more luck when it came to goal-scoring and save percentage. It's true that injuries hurt these teams, but they all received some of the best goaltending in the league while Carolina's was sub-par and on top of that, they had trouble scoring for most of the second half of the year. That ultimately ended up being the difference maker.
The question is will the Hurricanes be a little more fortunate next season? You can't predict injuries or how close games will turn out and some argue that the same can be said for a player's shooting & save percentage. Outside of their first line, most of the Hurricanes forwards had trouble scoring and this largely contributed to their second half slump. Is it possible that this might change next season? We'll answer those questions after the jump.
Before diving into the numbers, let's talk about what goes into a scoring a goal. Sometimes it takes a perfect shot, other times it's a great passing play or a rebound from a goaltender and there are many times where a deflection or a strange bounce leads to a goal. It's true that a player needs to have a certain amount of skill to be a consistent goal-scorer, but I think most would agree that luck factors into goal-scoring when you take everything into consideration. Players who constantly take weak wrist shots from 50 feet away aren't going to score much, but players who regularly shoot from a closer range are also prone to scoring slumps.
Hell, even some of the best goal-scorers are prone to slumps and down years. Just look at Evgeni Malkin and how his shooting percentage has fluctuated over the years. He is considered one of the best dangerous offensive players in the game and a threat to score every time he touches the puck. Yet, he is prone to the same goal-scoring slumps that all players are when you look at his shooting percentage over the years. Other high-end offensive players such as Claude Giroux, Marian Gaborik, Alexander Ovechkin, Daniel Sedin, Phil Kessel and Patrick Kane have gone through the same thing. There are some players who have better finishing talent than others (see Steven Stamkos), but slumps happen to every player and a lot of them can last over the course of a full-season. That's just the way things work sometimes.
Unfortunately for the Hurricanes, over half of the team seemed to be in an offensive slump that lasted around 15-17 games or so.
For whatever reason, the Hurricanes offense completely dried up around Game 26 and didn't recover until it was too late. To make things worse, their opponents were finding the back of the net on 10-14% of their shots, which relates to the Canes goaltending issues towards the end of the year. I've heard a lot of reasons for the Canes offensive struggles. They've been called a "fragile" team and a lot of fans said that they don't create "quality shots" when the goals aren't coming, but I don't really buy that argument.
As much as we like to think that shot quality exists, and I'm sure it does to an extent, I have a hard time believing that the Canes magically forgot how to score goals for a 15-17 game period. What were they doing that was so different that they went from scoring on 8-10% of their shots to only 2-5% of them? You can drive yourself crazy trying to answer this question because it's tough to find what the real "problem" was.
This team didn't exactly have a lot of fire power in their bottom-six, but their top-six is immensely talented. Sure, the first line did most of the heavy-lifting and both Jordan Staal & Jeff Skinner had down seasons, but both players are likely to rebound next year. Staal, in particular, should have a good season because he had arguably the worst shooting luck of any Carolina player. His shooting percentage of 8.8% may not seen awful, but it's actually very far off from his career average and there wasn't a lot he was doing differently this year aside from playing more minutes.
|Year||Goals||Sh%||Shots/60||Avg. Sh Dist.|
Staal doesn't have a flashy skill-set and scores most of his goals through rebounds, deflections and crashing the net. When you look at where he shot from last year, his strategy wasn't different from past seasons and he shot the puck roughly the same amount as he did when he scored 25 goals. Yet, he ended up with only 10 last year. Sometimes players will have stretches where they light up the score-sheet and other times they'll go 10-20 games without scoring more than three goals. That's just the way hockey works sometimes and unless a player's shot rate or ability to drive play falls off drastically, it's mostly because of poor shooting luck. This appeared to be the case with Staal and Skinner last year, as both of them were among the Canes best players at controlling puck-possession but had issues scoring.
They weren't the only ones who went through this, though. I mentioned that the team's goal-scoring dried up around mid-March and it lasted about 15-18 games. That's when the main slump happened, but there were a lot of players who had issues finding the back of the net throughout the season.
|Player||ESG/60||ESP/60||Sh%||Career Sh%||5v5 On-ice Sh%||5v5 On-ice Sv%||PDO|
Note: I included Palushaj in here to give us some reference on what to expect from him next season. Stats taken from Behind the Net
Seven of 13 Carolina's regular forwards shot below their career averages last season and most of them were bottom-six players. Tim Brent's 2011-12 season was clearly an aberration, but I doubt he will go another full season without scoring any goals. Chad LaRose is also a lot better than what he showed last year, even if he has never been a great finisher and it's doubtful that Skinner will have this bad of an offensive year again. He creates too many chances to have this low of a shooting percentage in a full season. Also worth noting is that Alexander Semin might see his goal total go up next season while his assist rate declines if his career numbers are any indication. That could help cover the damage when Jiri Tlusty inevitably regresses next season.
You may also notice that I included each player's on-ice shooting and save percentage. These are factors that are largely dependent on the player's teammates and goaltending rather than their own ability. Aside from the first line, almost every regular Carolina forward had a low on-ice shooting percentage and Skinner's was especially bad. I already talked about how a player's individual shooting percentage can change from year-to-year and the same applies for their on-ice shooting percentage, so Carolina shouldn't continue to stay this unlucky at even strength. Just like the Toronto Maple Leafs shouldn't expect all but three of their forwards score on over 10% of the shots they are on the ice for next season.
People like to believe that the bounces shake out over a full season, but that isn't always the case and it especially isn't true in a 48-game season. The Leafs striking gold every time they shot the puck last season is proof of that.
|Player||ESG/60||ESP/60||Sh%||Career Sh%||5v5 On-ice Sh%||5v5 On-ice Sv%||PDO|
Shooting percentage for defensemen is a little tougher to figure out because they typically shoot from long distances and their goal-scoring tends to be more random than others. However, an interesting thing to look at is their on-ice save percentage during 5v5 play. Some like to use this as a way to judge their defensive play and the theory sort of makes sense in practice. A defenseman who constantly turns the puck over is going to have a lower on-ice save percentage than someone who does a good job of preventing shots & scoring chances.
However, this ignores the goalie they are playing in front of. A defenseman could turn the puck over and have his goaltender bail him out while another defenseman might get charged with a minus because the goaltender let in a soft goal. Since Carolina's goaltending was a complete mess for the second half of the year, I'm hesitant to judge a defenseman based on the number of goals he is on the ice for.
Just like the most a goal-scorer can do is get himself into good position to get a shot on net, the most a defenseman can do is try to prevent shots for force an opposing player to shoot from an unfavorable spot on the ice. What happens after that is in the goalie's hands. This is why I prefer looking at how good they are at preventing chances & shots against rather than goal differential. It's also why I valued Sanguinetti's play on the team despite his -6 rating. He played soft minutes, but was one of the team's better defensemen at controlling the territorial battle and was rarely forced to play in his own zone. Did he make mistakes? Absolutely. Was he to blame for every goal he was on the ice for, though? Nope, because no player is. Unfortunately, no other NHL club saw this and Sanguinetti ended up signing with the KHL.
So when reviewing all of this, luck was not on the Hurricanes side last season and now the question is will things be better next year? These things are generally unpredictable, but I do think that we'll see better seasons from the likes of Jordan Staal, Jeff Skinner, Jay Harrison and many others. Will it be enough to get the Hurricanes back to the playoffs, though? It's really hard to tell at this point and it's also tough to say how many points in the standings Carolina lost due to bad luck. However, I do think this shows that this team was not as bad as the results indicate and they should be a better club next year unless one of their core pieces gets moved within the next month or so.