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Where is it most important to be elite? Part I: Offense

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Who is elite and does it really matter?

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-Tampa Bay Lightning at Columbus Blue Jackets
Nice goal, but are they ‘elite’?
Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

One of the fun parts of every off-season are the fan discussions around how a team should be constructed – Is offense king? Does the defense hold the line? Is the key to success building from the net out? A short while ago, this was discussed by fellow Cannonites and a decisive statement jumped out at me.

“Elite Offense > Elite Defense > Elite Goaltending”

So that started the gears turning – is that belief true? Is it perception? Let’s see what I can find out!

This series of articles will dive into various stats and metrics – some advanced, some not – to see if I can determine two things:

- Which play drives success? Offense, Defense, or Goaltending?

- Do elite face players drive the elite play?

Before we dive into this mess, let’s get a few definitions and caveats out of the way.

First, all statistics and metrics used are based on 5v5 play. Obviously, power play and penalty kill units are important, but they are called ‘special teams’ for a reason and I wanted to focus on full strength play.

Second, all statistics and metrics are from Natural Stat Trick. Different sites have different formulas, so I stuck to NST for consistency’s sake. Go to the glossary for the definitions of all the metrics I’m using. I am not placing any numerical weight on one metric over another. So there is a bit of subjectivity to this.

Third! We are focusing on regular season play only. Success, therefore, is measured by how a team does in the regular season standings.

Cuatro, I have set the bar at “elite” to mean being in the Top 5 in a given metric or statistic. I don’t remember what color ribbon we received for 6th place during field day in grade school, but I have none to give out. I think they were green. An elite ‘face’ player is a known quantity or name that you would expect to be elite — Kucherov, McDavid, etc.

Fifth and last. Teams are assigned a reverse order numeric value. 1st place in CF is 8 points, 2nd is 7 pts, etc. Then a little adding, a little averaging, and I come out with an overall ranking for that segment of metrics.

I am probably forgetting something. You can always ask me for an explanation.

Ready? Vamos.

*Note: All stats and metrics are courtesy of Natural Stat Trick*

Which teams have Elite Offenses?

I asked this question of Pale Dragon and Will Chase when I started this little project. Their responses included the following teams: Tampa Bay, Toronto, Colorado, Boston, San Jose, and Calgary. Who would be your top 5? Think about it, write them down…then continue.

As I thought about how to best determine who was elite, I decided that relying on 5 or 6 metrics may not provide the right amount of nuance. The best number, in my opinion, was 28. Yes, this seems like a lot.

As I started working, I quickly noticed that there seemed to be two distinct paths towards being an elite offense. I went ahead and divvied the metrics up in ways that I thought made sense. Generally speaking, I created groups of metrics that focus on shots and other metrics that focus on actual scoring.

Shot-Driven Metrics

These are what I consider the bread-and-butter advanced stats that are primarily derived from the number and quality of shots that a team takes. Finding the back of the net isn’t included in these metrics because it is somewhat assumed that the puck will go in at some point. Small details.

The list: CF, CF%, FF, FF% SF, SF%, xGF, and xGF%

Goal-Driven Metrics

Metrics that aim to soothe the hearts of followers of the Eye Test. Pretty basic and clear cut items. Did the team score? Did the team score more often than the opponent? Did they score more than they should have?

The list: GF, GF%, and Luck. Not the PDO variety — this is GF/xGF. Who exceeded expectations (most teams did, actually.)

Shot-Based Elites

SB
SB
Carolina Hurricanes
Vegas Golden Knights
San Jose Sharks
Montreal Canadiens
Toronto Maple Leafs

Goal-Based Elites

GB
GB
Tampa Bay Lightning
Washington Capitals
Toronto Maple Leafs
Calgary Flames
Chicago Blackhawks

This was a bit of a surprise. Practically no common teams between the two sets of metrics. Not only that, but when I went out to a Top 10 for each, there was still very little common ground. The Toronto Maple Leafs appear on both sides. Calgary Flames just missed the Shot-Driven Metrics.

Was this just a single season blip? I went back the last three seasons to check the trends and the findings held up. (I omitted Vegas from the last 3 seasons because…well, they were really bad 3 years ago)

Shot-Based Elites - Last 3 Seasons

SB
SB
Carolina Hurricanes
Boston Bruins
Montreal Canadiens
San Jose Sharks
Pittsburgh Penguins

Goal-Based Elites - Last 3 Seasons

GB
GB
Washington Capitals
Tampa Bay Lightning
Toronto Maple Leafs
Columbus Blue Jackets
Nashville Predators

Once again, even in the past three seasons there has been no common ground in these categories. The Carolina Hurricanes have been leading the pack in the fancy stats while the Washington Capitals and the Tampa Bay Lightning fill the net. Toronto came closest to appearing on both lists as they earned a green ribbon for the Shot-Driven Metrics.

~~~Intermission~~~

Doing alright? Staying hydrated? Let’s close it out.

~~~End Intermission~~~

Perhaps the initial sets of metrics were too general, or generic. The next set of comparisons are more situational. High danger chance situations and medium danger chance situations. How are those defined? High Danger situations are basically right in front and around the goal. Medium Danger situations include the slot and inside the circles towards the goal.

High Danger Chance Metrics/High Danger Goal Metrics

These metrics focus on teams that excel at creating opportunities in front of the net and get shots on goal from up tight. The second set of metrics focus on teams that seal the deal. A high danger chance isn’t so great if it involves a guy whacking a puck repeatedly into the goalie’s left pad.

The list of HD Chance metrics: HDCF, HDCF%, HDSF%

The list of HD Goal metrics: HDGF, HDGF/60, HDGF%, HDSH%

HDC Generators

HDC
HDC
Vegas Golden Knights
Carolina Hurricanes
Minnesota Wild
San Jose Sharks
Pittsburgh Penguins

HDG Scorers

HDG
HDG
Calgary Flames
Tampa Bay Lightning
San Jose Sharks
New York Islanders
Florida Panthers

Sensing a theme so far? There are, once again, not a lot of shared names here. San Jose is the only team to be elite in both creating high danger chances and in scoring goals from those chances. A couple of interesting teams show up here – I wouldn’t have thought of the New York Islanders or the Florida Panthers as being elite in any offensive area. However, the loss of John Tavares and the addition of Barry Trotz did nothing to slow down the LIRR when it comes to scoring while on the doorstep. Florida was better than everyone at making their shots count with the league leading HD shooting percentage.

When I looked back at the last three seasons, it was more of the same. Only the San Jose Sharks and Minnesota Wild were elite over the past three seasons in both areas. It was interesting to see the teams that appear to be trending up or down. Calgary got it done last year while the New York Rangers fell off the lists entirely.

Medium Danger Chance Metrics/Medium Danger Goal Metrics

Last set of stats before I jump to some conclusions. High danger situations lead to the gritty, dirty goals that most fans claim they want. Medium danger situations are usually prettier though. Nothing beats a wrist shot from the slot when it comes to making fans scream ‘Weak!’ at the goalie. I don’t place as much weight on MD situations as HD situations because, as you can guess, fewer goals and lesser impacts come from them. However, there was one very interesting thing that jumped out at me.

The list of MD Chance metrics: MDCF, MDCF%, MDSF%

The list of MD Goal metrics: MDGF, MDGF/60, MDGF%, MDSH%

MDC Generators

MDC
MDC
Vegas Golden Knights
Calgary Flames
Carolina Hurricanes
Toronto Maple Leafs
Montreal Canadiens

MDG Scorers

MDG
MDG
Washington Capitals
Tampa Bay Lightning
Chicago Blackhawks
Pittsburgh Penguins
Toronto Maple Leafs

First, there were more similarities here within the Top 8 lists because there are far fewer MD situations in general and the differences between teams are smaller. If anything, these metrics show the power of individual snipers to a team.

That being said, the Capitals easily outpaced the rest of the league here. Not just this past season, but for the last three as well. Is that primarily driven by Alex Ovechkin? Probably. Remember that these are just 5v5 metrics, so his campground on the circle during power plays isn’t included. The top teams here have rosters from which we could all pick out an elite sniper or three: Washington, Tampa Bay, Chicago Blackhawks, Pittsburgh Penguins, and Toronto.

Conclusions

Elite offenses seem to land in one of two buckets: those that favor quantity of shots and chances and those that favor quality and bury more of the fewer chances generated. There are very few instances of a team straddling the line. Only ONE team could be said to be a bit of both - Toronto.

For the 2018-2019, I decided to go with two sets of elite offenses: Shot-based and Goals-based. As you can see below, elite ‘goal-based’ teams were more numerous in the playoff bracket and had better seeds, including three division winners (also most were in the East). One elite offense (Montreal) did not make it.

Elite Shot-Based Offenses

SB
SB
Vegas - 6th West
Carolina - 7th East
San Jose - 3rd West
Montreal - Just a bit outside
Pittsburgh - 6th East

Elite Goal-Based Offenses

GB
GB
Tampa Bay - 1st in East - Division
Calgary - 1st in West - Division
Washington - 3rd in East - Division
Toronto - 5th in East
Boston - 2nd in East

9 of 16 teams in the playoffs had what I would consider an elite offense. They also tend to have plenty of star power on the roster. Tampa Bay, Boston, Toronto, Washington, and Pittsburgh fit that bill. However, would you consider Carolina, Vegas, and Calgary to be on that level? Their play is elite, but I don’t know that any of those teams have the faces. There’s clearly room for systems and good, if not elite, players to get the job done.

That’s an awful lot of words that don’t mention Columbus.

It’s a bit of a good news/bad news situation. Over the last three seasons, Columbus has been a top 10 offense in both the shot-driven and goal-driven metrics as well as the situational metrics. However, the team fell off this past season and didn’t crack the T5 in anything and slid outside the T10 in most. That’s… probably not going to improve next year. Without casting stones, it is difficult to really define the CBJ offensive system and there are no elite players that can tilt the balance.

This past season, the Blue Jackets fell into the Goal-Based team side of the ledger.

So that’s it for Elite Offenses! Next up is a look at Elite Defenses.