First, the Numbers: There’s a Story to Tell Here

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Over the last few years, the Carolina Hurricanes have posted some “interesting” statistics. From shooting percentage to penalty kill percentage to overtime losses, it has all played into the sometimes “close but no cigar” story of the franchise. Here is the most important number, 4 post season appearances since the turn of the century…and none in the last 9 years. Now granted, in two of those efforts, the team made the Stanley Cup finals, including the miraculous 2005-06 Cup winning season. Heck, in one of the others, they lost in the Eastern Conference Finals to the eventual champs.

Still the drought has been long and, well, dry. It’s pretty easy to look at some of those squads and point to some of the talent on those teams, marginal at best and non-NHL quality at worst. Guys like Drayson Bowman, Brett Bellemore, Chris Terry, Jamie McBain, Bobby Sanguinetti, Patrick Dwyer…the list goes on and on. Once departing the Hurricanes organization, for the most part, almost none of these guys found another NHL home. If they did, it was usually in an emergency “call up” role. Without a doubt, talent played a role as the team wandered in the wilderness.

This raised some questions about how, over the years, the successful teams compared to the more recent unsuccessful teams. What did they do well? Perhaps more importantly, where were those less successful teams lacking? Certain patterns surface, boy, do they ever. There are clearly identifiable aspects to those winning teams. Surprisingly, there are a number of positives the Bill Peters Hurricanes can build upon. Looking at the last 17 years through something of a holistic lens yields some very illuminating insights.

Damning With Statistics

A while back, and in another place, I wrote a long read about shooting percentages and how that was an indicator for the more recent futility that the Carolina Hurricanes suffered. It wasn’t the “be all and end all” of an explanation, merely a “jumping off point”. Teams with higher shooting percentages tend to have more guys with advanced offensive skills. They’ve got playmakers with vision and the ability to get the puck to the open man at the right moment. They’ve got physical guys who plant themselves in front of the net for both screens and the banging in of rebounds. And yes, it’s a pretty good stand in for high quality shots in general.

Carolina has not always been what you would characterize as a “good shooting” team. They’ve always been opportunistic, usually hard working, occasionally lucky, but a team of snipers they have not often been. In point of fact, for most of the seasons since 2000, they have had a shooting percentage (S%) below league average. Of their four post-season appearances, in only one season, the 2005-06 Stanley Cup winning championship season did they exceed the league avearage (11.2% vs. 10.3%). That team, incidentally, was 2nd in the league that year in that category. Keep in mind that team had two guys who scored 20 or more goals, three guys who potted 30 or more goals, and one young Eric Staal who put up 45. This was clearly the most skilled team offensively in the franchise’s 20 year history in the Carolinas.

Memories of slick passing Ray Whitney and Cory Stillman still surface. Rod Brind’Amour and Justin Williams banged in many a rebound. Young Eric Staal was often the beneficiary of Stillman’s largesse. That team played with speed, with aggressiveness, but mostly it played with a calculated finesse where players were always in the right spots at the right times. Lots of goals were scored from the slot and/or below the offensive zone dots.

Forgetting for the moment about those forgettable teams between the 2009 Eastern Conference Finals run and concentrating on the more recent Bill Peters’ teams, one can begin to see incremental improvement in some of these same areas. First, looking at S% as an indicator statistic. We’ve seen what have, frankly, been some pretty mediocre teams (or bad teams if you want to be more blunt) and their results reflect that fact. In Peters’ first season, the team’s shooting percentage was 7.3%. The next season, it marginally improved to 8%. This past season it made a respectable jump to 8.5%. However, compare this with league averages of 9.1%, 9.1%, and 9.2% respectively. The improvement is noticeable, but it still doesn’t indicate a team with the offensive chops to be a contender. Every team that made the playoffs last season save one, the Ottawa Senators, had a S% better than the Hurricanes. Eleven of the sixteen playoff teams had a S% better than league average. Suffice it to say, the more offensively skilled teams tend to make the playoffs more often.

When It Comes to Offense, Only Results Matter

Nebulous, multi-indicator statistics like shooting percentage are all fine and dandy, but actual shots and goals are what really matter, right? Well, mostly or kinda sorta. Teams that put up a lot of shots on goals tend to win more. However, if you’re shooting the puck into the goalie’s chest protector a lot of those times, that’s not going to cut it. Also, this sort of thing goes hand in glove (see what I did there) with keeping the puck out of your own net. Last season, the Florida Panthers were 3rd in the league in shots on goal. Yet, if you pair that with a S% of 7.8% and a negative 27 goal differential, you end up with a team that was below the Hurricanes in the final Eastern Conference standings. Florida scored less goals that Carolina and gave up more goals against. That sort of math is pretty simple.

Looking at goal differential tells a lot about your team too, especially if you compare yourself to the rest of the league. In 2000-01, the Hurricanes made the playoffs with a negative goal differential (212 GF to 225 GA) which was below league average in GF, but slightly better than league average in GA (GA/GF that season was 226). The Canes were in similar straights in shots on goal and shots against, behind in the former and a bit ahead in the latter. As you might have guessed, the Cup winning squad put up a number of shots above league average. They also gave up a higher number of shots than league average. Their 294 goals scored was good enough for 3rd in the league and represented a 34 goal differential to the 260 goals given up.

Lately, things are trending in the right direction for Bill Peters’ squad. During his tenure they’ve been 27th, 27th, and 21st in goal scoring (188, 198, and 215 respectively). This near 30 goal improvement is a big deal and should be lauded. However, to be a contender this season, they will need to tack on an additional 20-30 goals. They will also need to reduce the amount of goals scored by the opposition. For example, the only playoff team that had a negative GF/GA goals differential was the Senators and that was only a -2. Simply put, playoff teams score more goals than they give up. The only team that had a positive goal differential and didn’t make the playoffs was Tampa Bay. A combination of close victories and lopsided losses likely led to this situation.

On the “shots on goal” vs. “shots against” front, the Carolina Hurricanes are again trending in the right direction. For this franchise, this seems to be a bell-weather of success. Since 2000, in every year that the team made a post-season appearance, they had a positive shots on goal to shots against ratio. In 3 of those years they were top 10 in shots on goal. During the Peters years, the team has done an excellent job at suppressing shots on goal, finishing in the top 5 league-wide. They’ve had a positive ratio in each of these years. The total number of shots on goal still hovers near the middle of the pack, but with improved skill levels that this year’s team is likely to bring, there should be a broad uptick in offensive statistics.

Special Occasions – What Power Play and Penalty Kill Statistics Really Mean for the Canes

The year is 2006 and the Carolina Hurricanes are on their way to an historic Stanley Cup Championship. It is the year following a season lost to labor strife. Rule changes have been implemented to make the game “more exciting”, to provide the game with more offense. No team took advantage of this sea change like the Hurricanes. That team was 3rd in the league in power play opportunities and 6th in the league in opposing power play opportunities. They were 8th in the league in power play goals. Most importantly, the Canes took real advantage, scoring 31 of their 71 post-season goals on the man advantage. Eric Staal, who put up 9 goals and 28 points over the 25 game post-season, potted 7 of his markers on the power play. Rod Brind’Amour put up 6 goals and Ray Whitney 5 when the Hurricanes were a man up. Taking advantage of these specialty situations proved to be critical. Overall, the team was significantly better on the power play in the post season and that played an integral role in the Cup win.

Fast forward to 2017 and the eventual Cup champs, the Pittsburgh Penguins. Those guys had the 3rd best power play in the league. They scored the 2nd most power play goals. While this doesn’t necessarily hold in every season, it is one of the great equalizers. The Canes penalty kill, 4th, 6th, and 6th over the last 3 seasons, has done wonders in helping keep this team in games…and even in seasons that could have been lost long before the proverbial chubby girl prepped for her arias. The power play is slowly improving as well. After taking a step back in 2015-16 (and some were calling for Roddy’s head over it), the PP unit made incremental gains again last season. It appears, if preseason is any indicator of anything, it might be poised to take yet another step. The team scored 41 PP goals last season while giving up a paltry 32. Somehow Carolina led the league with the fewest number of power play opportunities given to their opponents. The league officiating crews, in their eminent wisdom, saw fit to give Carolina’s opponents the 5th fewest number of power play opportunities as payback for such good behavior. Regardless, an uptick in power play scoring will go a long way to getting this team into the post season.

Hoping With Statistics, Living With Reality

There are a number of other analyses that could be explored with this team. Save percentage has been beaten to a righteous pulp (as well it should be given the 26th, 29th, and 26th place finish in the league over the last 3 seasons). With the hoped for better goaltending and the young and improving defense, these should help drive that number up a bit. We have more talent offensively, so all of that data should look better. Overtime losses? Say no more…this team has to finish off opponents in regulation. Failing that they need to win more than they lose during these extra time games.

Optimistically, the team is just better, both on paper and in the 4 preseason games so far. There’s depth that is forcing real training camp competition. The absence of 40 point man, Lee Stempniak, isn’t something that looks to be an issue as various youngsters seem poised to step up to fill the void. Anybody who saw Julien Gauthier’s rocket against the Capitals has to be smiling just a little bit. Concurrently, Valentin Zykov’s complimentary play is illuminating as well. Trevor Carrick is giving assumed 3rd pairing LHD frontrunner, Haydn Fleury, a “run” for his money. To do so, he had to be impressive as Fleury’s been a stand out with his excellent all-around play. Derek Ryan’s play announced that the team’s decision to re-sign him for another season feels like a good move. Kruger has fit in seamlessly and the overall defense looks very, very good.

With this broad upgrade in talent, whether through the youngsters being a year farther along in their development and/or Ron Francis’s efforts at bringing in targeted newcomers, the story the data should begin telling is one of a team rapidly on the upswing. The Carolina Hurricanes are getting a lot of “underdog love” from the hockey press, being called a potential playoff team. If the team improves incrementally on offense, continues to be stingy on defense, and grows in its special teams play, then those pundits might prove to be prescient.

 

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