All across Canada this winter, two trends have dominated: The weather has been unseasonably warm, and the hockey abnormally second-rate.
Unless you’re a maple syrup farmer or a hibernating animal, the latter is probably of greater concern. If the NHL season ended today, exactly zero of the league’s seven Canadian franchises would qualify for the playoffs (something that has happened only once before, in 1969-70). And although that fate isn’t a lock — Hockey-Reference.com’s simulations say there’s still a 26 percent chance that at least one Canadian team will manage to claw its way into the postseason — there’s no denying that this has been one of the more trying seasons in Canada’s ongoing 23-year Stanley Cup drought.
|YEAR||NO. OF CANADIAN TEAMS||POINT%||SRS||CORSI||NO. OF PLAYOFF TEAMS|
By most statistical indicators,1 2015-16 has contained the worst collective performance by Canadian franchises since at least 1987-88, the earliest season for which I have complete data on shot attempts (thereby enabling us to estimate such #fancystats as Corsi). As a group, the Canadiens, Senators, Jets, Flames, Canucks, Maple Leafs and Oilers have captured a mere 42.3 percent of the points available in their games, and they’ve been outscored by an adjusted margin of 0.35 goals per game (as measured by the Simple Rating System). If they hold up until season’s end, both figures would represent the lowest average of the past 28 seasons for Canadian teams. Canada is faring only mildly better on possession: By Corsi,2 this is the fourth-worst season for the nation’s teams since ’88.
Perhaps the only thing more striking than Canada’s malaise this season has been the abruptness with which it arose. Although 2014-15 wasn’t a sensational season north of the border — by the metrics above, it was almost exactly average — a very healthy 71 percent of the league’s Canadian franchises made the playoffs, with Montreal and Calgary each winning a series. And although I was skeptical of the Canadiens as a Cup contender before this season, I never thought it would make 2013-14, when Montreal was Canada’s lone playoff entry, look enviable.
Yet that’s the state in which Canada currently finds itself, with its clubs making up a disproportionate share of the NHL teams that have declined most from a year earlier. According to total team point shares above replacement (PSAR),3 the league’s five biggest year-over-year drop-offs belong to squads hailing from north of the border — specifically, Vancouver, Calgary, Winnipeg, Ottawa and Montreal. (The Maple Leafs have also declined slightly, while only the Oilers rank among the league’s most improved teams this year.)
|PSAR||CHANGE IN PSAR CAUSED BY|
|Toronto Maple Leafs||28.3||26.6||-1.7||+5.6||+2.1||-9.3|
In Vancouver’s case, some of the blame has to fall on summer roster shuffling — the team lost a handful of semi-productive players, and their output hasn’t been suitably replaced. But for most of the league’s struggling Canadian contingent, the problems stem not from offseason additions or subtractions, but from holdovers. Simply put, a significant number of players who shone in the Great White North last season have taken major steps backward this season.
As is often the case in hockey, let’s cast the first wave of criticism in the direction of the netminders. Among players who stayed with the same team between 2014-15 and 2015-16, the seven biggest year-over-year declines in PSAR (and eight of the top 10) belong to goaltenders. Of those, five belong to goaltenders from Canadian franchises: Carey Price of the Canadiens, Jonas Hiller of the Flames, Andrew Hammond of the Senators, Jonathan Bernier of the Leafs and Ondrej Pavelec of the Jets. Together, that group has been worth the equivalent of about 15 fewer wins this season than last. (And we’re only about 70 percent of the way through the schedule, so there’s time for things to get even worse.)
The irony of goaltending is that performance between the pipes is simultaneously one of the most important and one of the most fickle contributors to a team’s success. Last season, Canadian teams came out basically dead-even on the goaltending ledger (in terms of goals saved relative to a league-average save percentage), with Price’s historically great campaign and Ben Scrivens’s historically awful one essentially canceling each other out. But Canada’s current batch of goalies has played more like Scrivens than Price, and faulty goaltending has been responsible for about 60 percent of Canada’s collectively negative goal differential this season.
Add in some below-average shooting percentages, and it’s not hard to see why the Canadian teams have fallen so flat. But perhaps the cruelest part of this, Canada’s (figuratively) most bitter winter, is that its teams may not have actually gotten worse between last season and this one, in terms of their underlying skill. The average Corsi for Canadian squads this season (48.6 percent) is virtually identical to that of last season (48.5 percent), which means that Canada’s drop-off in goal differential — and, consequently, record — can largely be attributed to changes in shooting and save percentages, two numbers notorious for the influence that luck wields over them.
It’s still debatable exactly how much a team can bend those percentages in its favor through factors like raw talent and playing style, but it’s fair to say that at least some part of Canada’s declining fortunes this season have been due to the whims of chance. At least that’s good news for its teams next season, when the luck gets a chance to reverse itself — even if Canada’s chances of ending its Cup drought this year are next to nonexistent.