As the season draws to a close, we can see which teams are truly finishing higher than expected in the standings. There are 3 teams that VUKOTA picked to finish in the bottom 6 of the league that are currently in playoff position in the Western Conference: Phoenix, Colorado and Los Angeles. What has been the key to the success of these 3 teams, is it sustainable, and what are their prospects for next season?
1. Phoenix Coyotes
VUKOTA projection: 28th in NHL, 80 points, 222 GF, 254 GA
Projected season-end stats: 3rd in NHL, 106 points, 225 GF, 203 GA
(Note: I’ve just been upstaged by the ever-timely Gabriel Desjardins, who had a post on the Coyotes yesterday, which is well worth reading and gets into some of the same points I will detail here). As you can see from the above stats, the Coyotes kept their goals against 51 below what was expected, while keeping their offense roughly where it was expected. Ilya Bryzgalov has been a huge part of this: while he has always been a pretty good goaltender, I doubt anyone was picking him for the Vezina when the season started. Bryzgalov’s GVT of 23.4 is about 18 higher than his VUKOTA projection, which was negatively influenced by his poor season last year. Even Jason Labarbera has contributed 7.1 GVT, far above the replacement-level 0.6 he was pegged for. All in all, good goaltending explains roughly 50% of Phoenix’s turnaround.
The other half comes from improved even-strength play. Last year, the Coyotes were outshot by 278 shots at even-strength, and consequently were outscored by 28 goals. This year, the Coyotes are actually up by 117 shots, making this an almost 400 shot turnaround with roughly the same personnel. While clearly the whole team must be playing better for this to happen, two players in particular have exceeded expectations: one is defenseman Keith Yandle, who has been Phoenix’s top player by Corsi with +233 and is in the top 15 in the NHL in DeltaSOT at +9.2. While Yandle is not yet a fully rounded defenseman, as he can’t kill penalties and is used mainly in an offensive role, there’s something to be said for a defenseman who can play 16 minutes a night at even-strength, consistently outshoot and outchance the opposition, and still quarterback the power-play, like a poor man’s Mike Green. The other is Radim Vrbata, who has been an inspired pickup from Tampa Bay. Vrbata has lined up against pretty good players and acquitted himself admirably at even-strength, with a Corsi of +162 despite and a DeltaSOT of +6.0 despite having the 3rd-highest QualComp among Phoenix forwards. He’s also been one of the few sparkplugs on a power-play that’s been otherwise miserable.
Is it sustainable? As Gabriel pointed out, even this season Phoenix is not a 106-point team. A +20 goal differential should give you 97 or 98 points; this is the same goal differential as Detroit, Colorado and LA, and not much more than Philadelphia’s. Any success model based on your goaltenders approaching Hasek-level is dangerous. Nevertheless, the even-strength improvement is real, and the goaltending’s true talent level is midway between last year’s and this year’s, so the Coyotes should be an average team next season, which will make a playoff berth a challenge but a manageable one.
2. Colorado Avalanche
VUKOTA projection: 27th in NHL, 81 points, 218 GF, 250 GA
Projected season-end stats: 12th in NHL, 97 points, 225 GF, 207 GA
PuckProspectus’ own Robert Vollman recommended to the Avalanche that they pick up Craig Anderson in the offseason, and they haven’t looked back. Colorado had the 28th worst goaltending in 2008-09, with Peter Budaj and Andrew Raycroft combining to be 22 goals below average. Craig Anderson has been a monster in net for them, playing over 85% of the time this season and putting up a sparkling 0.920 save percentage. Interestingly, Budaj has also been very good, with the same 0.920 but over less playing time.
The Avalanche’s statistics are completely reversed from last season: last season, the Avalanche were almost even on shots, -17 for the year, but got killed on the percentages, with only an NHL-29th 8.1% shooting percentage while their opponents enjoyed a 10.6% success rate, mainly because of the weak goaltending. This year, the Avalanche are 29th in the NHL in shot differential, an abysmal -354, while they’ve benefitted from a 2nd-ranked 10.7% shooting rate and a 91.6% stopping rate, 7th in the league. Some of the Avalanche’s personnel changes explain this: last season’s team featured poor shooters who can hold the fort on shot differential, like Ryan Smyth and Tyler Arnason. The Avalanche are also creating quality chances, even if they’re getting outshot: for instance, they’ve outchanced their opponents on rebounds, 138-125, and have put away 54 of them vs. the 39 they’ve allowed. Whatever the Avalanche are doing, it’s contagious: Peter Mueller, who was deemed a failure in Phoenix after scoring only 4 goals on 89 shots (4.5%), has 7 goals on 29 shots (24.1%) since coming to Colorado.
Is it sustainable? It’s too soon to know whether young players like Chris Stewart, Matt Duchene and Brandon Yip really are quality shooters or blips, but the fact is they have nowhere to go but down. The long-term still looks good: the Avalanche have a solid core of youngsters who should only get better, but currently it seems they’re getting outplayed and bailed out by their goaltender and their good fortune. They certainly won’t return to the 69 points they had last year, but I think Colorado will be an 85-90 point team next year and will miss the playoffs.
3. Los Angeles Kings
VUKOTA projection: 25th in NHL, 84 points, 223 GF, 247 GA
Projected season-end stats: 11th in NHL, 99 points, 237 GF, 218 GA
The Kings are a bit less of a surprise than the other two teams here, as they’ve been rebuilding and everybody knew it was just a matter of time before they’d be good, but regardless neither VUKOTA nor any of the other season previews I checked (TSN, the Hockey News, Yahoo Sports) had them in a playoff spot. But the Kings have arrived, and it looks as though they’re here to stay.
To some extent, the Kings’ failures last season were the product of bad luck. Their shooting percentage at 5-on-5 was a poor 6.8% (league average was 8.0%), and taking into account the quality of their shots they underperformed more than any other team in the NHL. Some of that was bound to bounce back, and it has done so: the Kings’ shooting percentage at 5-on-5 this season is 8.2%. But the biggest improvement has come in the play of their young players, and especially Drew Doughty. Last year, Doughty looked like a player with potential, but nothing more: his Corsi was an uninspiring -25, his DeltaSOT a poor -4.9, and he only scored 28 points on the year despite playing almost 4 minutes a game on the power-play; accordingly, his GVT was a middle-of-the-road 6.5. But this season Doughty, at only 20 years of age, is looking like a Norris trophy winner: his Corsi is an impressive +103, his DeltaSOT is an amazing +9.6, he and Rob Scuderi are lining up against all of the opposition’s best players, and he is 4th in points among defensemen with 54 and 4th in GVT with 17.3. If he continues to get better, the rest of the league should be scared.
Another player who has taken a huge leap forward is Wayne Simmonds. Last season Simmonds scored 18 points at even-strength, but this season he has 40, tops on the team (yes, ahead of Anze Kopitar, despite less ice time).
Is it sustainable? The Kings have outshot their opposition by 77 shots this season, which shows that their success is not a product of chance. Jonathan Quick has been good in nets, but no better than he was last season (in fact, his save percentage is down from 0.914 to 0.907); the only difference is that he’s getting far more starts. Kopitar, Simmonds and Doughty are 22, 21 and 20 years old respectively. Teams that emerge don’t usually do so meteorically, so I don’t expect the Kings to win the Presidents’ Trophy next season. But their success is no fluke, and another 100-point season is likely.
Tom Awad is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
You can contact Tom by clicking here or click here to see Tom's other articles.