Amercian Thanksgiving, which is roughly a quarter of the way through a typical NHL season, is a time of reference where fans look at the standings and determine if a team will be in or out of the playoffs. Historically, somewhere between 11 and 14 teams that are in a playoff position on Thanksgiving go on to make the playoffs. This is a combination of the head start for the remaining three quarters of the season, and that the ~20 game sample size is large enough that the best teams are generally in the top half of the league, regardless of final seed. It’s a bit silly in the year 2023.
One thing that has popped up this season has been standings goal differential, which is all situations goal differential plus shootout wins less shootout losses. Typically, goal differential correlates quite strongly with standings points, but in small samples like this, some people feel that goal differential could be a signal of regression in record.
Right now, there are three teams out of a playoff spot with a positive goal differential: Arizona Coyotes (Tied for WC2, +4), Ottawa Senators (16th in conference, +1), and the Pittsburgh Penguins (4 points out, +10). Pittsburgh and Ottawa are the interesting cases as they make up two of the bottom four in the East based on standings points, where Ottawa has played the least games in the NHL so far this season. But should you be high on them because of their goal differential?
Of course, the purpose of analytics is to move away from goal differential for instances like this. Goals are rare (which makes the game fun), and noisy (sometimes referred to as luck). For the Penguins, their 5v5 expected goal share has been great at 54.1%. They’re working through some things, particularly their powerplay, but their underlying metrics back up their goal differential. Getting better timing of goals should bring them into a wild card position. On the other hand, the Senators have a very poor 5v5 expected goal share at 43.5% which ranks 30th in the league. That is backed up by a fanbase that is calling for their head coach to be fired, not on that thinks this is bad luck.
Based on the end of season projections, both appear to be outsiders looking in with less than a 40% chance of making the playoffs.
Shot attempt rates are up
We discussed on our podcast before the season began that we expected the rate of blocked shots to be up significantly from prior years due to the NHL’s introduction of “teammate blocks” or shot attempts that are blocked by a teammate rather than an opponent. Previously, there was a bit of inconsistency in the recording of these types of events, sometimes recording them as deflections, but most of the time no recording them at all. Right now, there are 16.9 5v5 shot attempts blocked per 60 minutes compared to 14.7 last season. That’s a 15% increase year over year. Shot attempts are up to 59.3 from 56.7 last season, and as you can see, that difference is almost entirely made up in the increase of blocked shot attempts that were previously not captured.
Vladislav Gavrikov is paying off in LA
Over the last few months, Vladislav Gavrikov has been one of the most interesting players to follow. In a weak deadline market, he was one of the only defensemen on the market. Columbus thought they had a deal to send him to Boston, which may or may not have actually existed, before the Bruins elected to acquire fellow Russian defenseman Dmitry Orlov. Around a week later, he would find himself moving to LA, where he played well through the end of the season and the playoffs. He then elected to re-sign with LA, requesting a two-year deal paid almost entirely in signing bonuses, the maximum allowed under the CBA.
Gavrikov was never a poor player, but maybe received a bit more attention at the time of the deadline than warranted given the lack of supply. However, his stellar play in LA left hope for even better results than in Columbus, and so far that has been true.
Right now, Gavrikov ranks second in defensemen in xG RAPM impact per 60, 25th in GAR, and 18th in xGAR. He has been quite incredible for the Kings this season, and is one of the reasons they are playing so well.
Nick Bonino’s blocked shots
In his sophomore year at Farmington High School, Nick Bonino scored 68 goals in 24 games. Let’s see Patrick Kane do that. At 35, the Rangers didn’t bring in the Connecticut-native to score goals. He has been one of the most reliable defensive players in the league in his 30’s, offering the coaching staff someone who they can put on the ice who won’t screw up all of the work the top nine just did. The Boston University Terrier hasn’t gotten off to the start defensively that we’ve seen in recent years, but he does stand out in one particular metric: blocked shots. His 50 blocked shots are 19 more than the next forward. That gap would place tied-23rd in forwards. Bonino has simply been a magnet for pucks this season.