I’ve been hearing a lot about PDO and ‘luck’ since Horachek took over this Leafs team and it’s rather annoying. Actually, it’s comical that the same people who discount intangibles like character, leadership, grit and hockey IQ for their ‘immeasurable’ nature, rationalize quantifying the intangibility of ‘luck’ through a largely ambiguous number known as PDO (team shooting % + team save %).
Apparently, a PDO of around 1 implies a team is neither lucky nor unlucky. Anything below is ‘unlucky’ and anything above, ‘lucky’. Sure, an investigation of a particularly high or low PDO could be a great starting point in identifying why a team is performing really really well or conversely, rather poorly. However, to look at an abnormal PDO and to plainly surmise that it was all Luck’s doing… we may as well put blind faith in a hockey Ouija board for answers from here on in.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t believe the notion of luck to be absurd. Hockey performance can certainly be tied to luck. It would be ridiculous to claim that luck didn’t exist considering at some point we’ve all certainly been witness to a ‘puck that had eyes’ goal. Not accepting the existence of luck would be just as outrageous as the disbelief in say, oh let’s see… hockey IQ? And as a Leafs fan you can trust me when I say, I have been privy to near imbecile levels of hockey IQ for some years now. To think anything otherwise, now THAT would be absurd.
Since Horachek has taken over the head coaching duties from Carlyle, we have seen the Leafs go 1-7. Yeah, I know… catastrophic to say the least. However, there has been much to-do about the change in possession metrics under Horacek and his new ‘system of 5-5-5’, a system basically entailing the need for all 5 skaters to be supporting each other in every zone. Translated further, skaters need to skate harder, faster and longer. Yet even further, one might interpret it as players needing to exhibit more ‘compete’. Ahem… umm… yeah. My apologies, I needn’t have gone there.
Not that it’s Horachek’s doing, but watching the Leafs during his reign has been quite difficult. There is no energy, no spark or no life whatsoever emanating from this roster. All the pressure created from constant TML media focus has finally extracted its pound of flesh from this team. Sadly, this is a team not playing for the win, but rather playing to avoid an embarrassing loss.
Defense has been an issue in the past and was the mandate for Horachek when he took over the top spot. It is clearly apparent that many forwards that once lacked an appreciated effort on defense have turned the page and are indeed stepping up in that regard. However, it has come at a cost. The highly creative and offensively gifted group of players this Leafs team once boasted is now miles from that. In the past, any rush of Leafs players crossing the blue line was met with fan anticipation and excitement. You never quite knew what they might do with the puck, as it was high-octane, high-risk hockey. Of course, the highly risky nature of this team’s puck movement was just as likely to cause a giveaway resulting in an odd man rush against as it was likely in creating a great scoring chance for, but that was the tradeoff. Cue the mandate for a defensive first hockey team and it is quite evident the Leafs are eliminating high-risk plays from their playbook in order to facilitate a commitment to defensive hockey.
Some plays I haven’t seen much of lately under Horachek are as follows:
- Kessel, Bozak, or JVR leaving the zone early in anticipation of that long separation pass, instead of waiting to break out as a unit.
- Kadri trying to beat his man inside at the blue line with a toe-drag instead of taking the outside and establishing possession.
- Bozak, Kessel or JVR at the top of the circle saucing it through traffic to the high slot instead of turning and cycling the puck down low.
The 1st and 3rd plays stand out in my mind more than any just because they would usually result in excellent scoring opportunities or horrible turnovers. As a result of these risk-minimizing efforts, the Leafs have improved a great deal from a possession standpoint. This would lead some to believe that they are finally challenging to win games the ‘right’ way. However, in all 8 games I have witnessed save for maybe 2, the Leafs didn’t look to threaten for the win at any point.
In the ‘Numbers Test’ to come shortly, I will discuss the Leafs very low PDO. This low PDO would have many believe that the Leafs are suffering from some very bad puck luck and that this is the reason why they aren’t winning. This is where PDO and I are in huge disagreement. In fact, I’d go as far as saying we were lucky to score as many as we actually did! If you think on it, almost every goal scored during this losing skid was either off a skate, errant stick or horrible rebound. All in all, the Leafs have played horrible hockey despite what corsi might be telling us.
Below are some tables comparing the Leafs under Carlyle (his last 8 games) and Horachek (his first 8 games). Carlyle’s last 8 game stretch was easily his worst during his tenure this season, yet for the sake of an analysis free of any unfair bias it was used for reasons of chronological congruency. Any possible flows in momentum, slumps, personnel use and team morale (to name a few) could more easily be transferred from coach to coach if the timeline was kept undisturbed.
The above table consists of 5v5 team metrics that we can use to gauge Horachek’s performance since he took the helm. I found it overly impressive that the Leafs were able to increase their corsi% to 50.1% under Horachek. Even during Carlyle’s better corsi stretches with the team, we would rarely see a run of games north of 46-47%.
However, goal differential data puts a sudden and abrupt end to any impressive corsi results. Yes, GA has dropped by about 0.5 goals a game, but GF has dropped even further at around 1 goal per game. In fact, despite very favorable shot metrics, Horachek’s team has a G+/- that is 3 goals inferior to Carlyle’s team. A Carlyle team that played arguably its worst stretch of hockey all season, which is exemplified by its absolutely atrocious corsi.
It is noteworthy that Horachek’s team has suffered from a very poor sh% of 3.1%. This is quite out of the ordinary and will be investigated further. A microanalysis of the roster may help to connect the dots and shed light on this abnormally low sh%. What we shouldn’t do is blindly attribute this poor sh% to bad luck.
Shot Data for each coach’s last 8 games:
*All data is 5v5
CF60 = team shot attempts for (corsi for) per 60 minutes of on-ice play
CA60 = team shot attempts against (corsi against) per 60 minutes of on-ice play
iSF = individual shots on net
iCF = individual shot attempts (corsi)
SAc% = Shot Accuracy % (iSF/iCF) the % of shot attempts (corsi) that hit the net for an individual player
sh% = % of shots that are goals.
Data source: war-on-ice.com
Due to changing TOI for certain players as a result of the coaching change or injuries, using absolute values for this analysis could skew results towards players with more TOI. As such, I decided to use rates per 60 to even out the playing field. That way we can compare and contrast players under each coaching regime and better assess whether differences have truly occurred. Of course, players with more TOI consequently have a greater impact on the team and as such it should not be ignored, which is why I will bring TOI and player usage into play a little later on.
A few things stand out with a quick scan of both tables. First, the exceedingly higher CA60 exhibited by the Leafs top line of Bozak, Kessel and JVR under Carlyle. This line is almost 20 greater than the rest of the team. Statistically, this is quite significant and would come as no surprise to regular viewers of this team. As Burke would aptly put it, “This line couldn’t spell ‘DEFENSE’ if it tried”.
Second, is the infrequency of single digit events in Horachek’s table vs Carlyle’s. It would appear that Horachek has been able to spread out shot productivity somewhat better than Carlyle. This I would attribute to Horachek’s commitment to disciplined hockey. Players are buying into the idea that lower risk, higher frequency chances are better than higher risk, lower frequency ones.
Differential Analysis (Horachek Shot data subtracted by Carlyle Shot data)
What immediately stands out in the table above is the drastic decrease in Bozak and Kessel’s CA60 and as a result, the consequent increase in their CF60. If we assume that Kessel and Bozak will on average play 14-15 minutes per game 5v5 (as indicated by each player’s TOI/gm), or conversely 30% of a 50-minute 5v5 game (15min TOI/gm / 50min total game TOI taking into account average PP, PK and other non 5v5 events), we can extrapolate their per game affect. As a line, Kessel and Bozak have contributed an additional 5 CF per game (CF60*TOI% or 16*30%) and also prevented 6 CA per game (CA60*TOI% or 21×30%). That’s an 11 corsi swing in possession metrics per game!
If you don’t immediately realize the impact this would have on the Leafs CF%, I will give you even further perspective. For simplicity’s sake, assume that in a particular hockey match there are a total of 100 shot attempts (CF) by both teams (shot attempts on average are approximately 120 per game for both teams combined). An 11 CF swing would be the difference between say a 40% CF versus a 51% CF. Crazy huh?!? One could basically surmise that the only change needed in fixing this team’s CF% was to get the 1st line to play some defense. Who would have thought?? Yes… this is sarcasm.
Now, this would be pretty impressive for both Kessel and Bozak were it not for their correspondingly atrocious sh%. Looking at some metrics that may give some insight into shot accuracy/quality (SAc% and sh%) we can see that the increase in CF came at a cost. The whole team, save for a few players has seen their SAc% and sh% fall quite significantly.
Can a whole team experience bad luck? Maybe.
Can a system change dedicated to ‘defense first’ affect offensive output? Probably.
Let’s look further into goal data to understand more.
Out of all players in this chart only Winnik and Komarov have seen their GF60 rise and GA60 drop. Seeing that Komarov only played 2.5 games it basically leaves Winnik as the only improved 2-way player under Horachek. This makes sense considering Winnik is known as a 2-way player to begin with. Having him play with teammates that actually put an effort at both ends of the ice would only benefit him further. Of additional note is the 4.5-minute increase in TOI/gm for Winnik under Horachek. Granted, he’s a 3rd line guy, but I would have done the same were I Horachek. Winnik deserved it. Imagine the uproar on Twitter were Carlyle to do the same for a 3rd line guy… yup.
The only players to have exhibited an improvement in G+/- were Winnik, Santorelli, Booth and Komarov. Again Komarov played only 2.5 games and Booth was barely playing 4th line minutes so let’s exclude them. Winnik and Santorelli throughout this season have often displayed a commitment to 2-way play. They have also shown strong acumen on the cycle and winning one-on-one battles along the boards. Hence, it’s not at all surprising that these 2 have improved under a Horachek system committed to defensive hockey.
The Leafs are a team in transition under Horachek. Do I like what he’s trying to do? I most certainly do considering I’m a fan of defense, cycling and structured hockey.
Do I think the Leafs are going in the right direction? This is where I would have to say no, not with this roster.
Based on what I’ve observed on the ice and what I’ve analyzed in the data, it would lead me to believe that there aren’t enough pieces on this team to achieve a defensively structured hockey team that can grind out goals from the counter attack and from the cycle. Kessel will never be able to play defense but he is a very gifted scorer. As the numbers have indicated, having him commit to defense is just a waste of his offensive talent. He needs an elite 2-way center to support him and allow him to be that offensive threat he genuinely is. That being said, they could also use a number 1 defenseman and a true power winger. Of course, the Leafs are at the cap ceiling. Can you say REBUILD??