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Are The Ottawa Senators Lucky?

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A statistical look at the Sens’ hot start, what’s gone right, and why it doesn’t appear sustainable.

Ottawa Senators v Toronto Maple Leafs

The 2018-19 season is three weeks old, and the Ottawa Senators find themselves in a position few were expecting them to be in. Although they currently reside outside of a playoff spot and sit sixth in the division, they have a winning record, which includes convincing wins over divisional rivals Toronto and Montreal.

The Sens’ outlook from everyone before the season, traditional analysts and stats nerds alike, all read basically the same, and it wasn’t positive. If Ottawa wasn’t last in your standings prediction, it was a bit of an anomaly.

While the season’s first eight games have exceeded the expectations, there are some key statistics to watch, some good and some bad. This article will be focusing on two key aspects that will be worth keeping an eye on: shooting luck, and defensive performance.

Shooting Luck

Heading into today’s game against Colorado, the Sens rank 2nd league-wide with a shooting percentage of 10.78% at 5v5. Before the game against Boston where they scored one goal on 39 shots, they possesses the league lead by a healthy margin, shooting 12.5% at 5v5, nearly 2% higher than the second place team.Considering the league average in 2017-18 was 7.76%, with no team shooting higher than 9.36% (Tampa Bay, who has Stamkos and Kucherov as top shooting talents), we can say with almost complete certainty that Ottawa’s been having some bounces go their way thus far.

According to Corsica, given the quality of Ottawa’s shots this season (including shots on-goal and missed shots), they’d be expected to score on those 6.06% of the time. If you subtract that from their current shooting percentage (including shots on-goal and missed) of 7.79%, the difference between the two numbers (real vs. expected) is the second largest in the NHL. Only the Pittsburgh Penguins are expected to regress more than Ottawa in their shooting luck, and they just came off a nine-goal victory last night.

At the individual level is where things become even more apparent. For some context, last year’s league average for all-situations shooting percentage was 11.04% for forwards, and 4.78% for defencemen.

With that out of the way, here are some individual shooting percentage numbers. Four Sens players are currently shooting over 20% (i.e. a goal on every five shots), including Chris Wideman (22.2%), Brady Tkachuk (21.4%), Mark Stone (20.0%) and Zack Smith (20%). Four of their defencemen are shooting over twice the expected league average for their position, which includes Wideman, Max Lajoie (17.4%), Thomas Chabot (15.8%) and Dylan DeMelo (12.5%).

Also concerning for Ottawa, especially when looking at forwards, is the discrepancy in talent between the top and bottom of the roster. It’s not like the lucky shooters are on the fourth line only playing minimal ice time. In fact, Ottawa’s fourth line has yet to be responsible for a goal this season. If the top of the roster starts to inevitably run dry of luck, then the ripples will be strongly felt on the scoresheet.

As fun as it is to look at Max Lajoie’s incredible start and see that he’s on pace for 41 goals, we never actually believe he’ll reach 41 goals. While the beginning of the season has been extremely fun to watch with Ottawa filling the scoreboard, we can’t expect it to last for the entire season. Their shooting luck so far is unsustainable.

Defensive Performance

Glancing at the shot clock, the trend this season is already becoming evident. The Sens have won the shot battle in three of their first eight games, with some of the losing battles, such 43-25 to Chicago or 38-24 to Dallas, being especially frustrating. Looking at pure shots against (including shots on goal, blocked and missed), Ottawa ranks third last, giving up 64.8 shots per 60 minutes at 5v5. While this alone is concerning, there’s another layer worth looking at, which might spark a bit of optimism.

Using the expected goals model from Corsica, Ottawa only gives up 2.35 per 60 minutes, which ranks 16th in the NHL. Why such the big gap between giving up shots and expected goals? Ottawa’s prevention of shot quality has been off to a surprising start, keeping opponents strictly to the outside. Using another stat from Corsica, Expected Fenwick Save Percentage is a way to measure the quality of shots against. At 94.84%, the Sens have been the fifth best team so far this season at keeping the quality of shots down. Take this heat map from HockeyViz.com as proof:

This may speak to a change in system, or it could be from playing against teams that have been shooting poorly such as Chicago, Boston and L.A. Most likely it’s a combination of both. Continually losing the shot battle is definitely not a recipe for success, as the sheer volume allowed will become more of a concern as the season progresses. However, if the Sens can mould their system enough to consistently keep opponents to the outside, the concern may not be as large.

Conclusion

Is there reason to believe Ottawa could be a playoff team? With the amount of early injuries Ottawa has faced, and some hope that Craig Anderson can to continue to stop shots like he’s back in peak form, you could maybe make a case. Although looking at the shooting numbers, it’s also undeniable that this team has had quite a bit of luck early this season.

On the defensive side, the numbers look intriguing, and will be worth keeping an eye on to see if the Sens can sustain this type of play throughout the season, given how many shots they’re allowing the opposition to take in their end.

These shouldn’t detract you from enjoying games, however, which have been entertaining to watch with the rookies making an impact. Just don’t expect the winning to last forever.

Data used in this article is from Natural Stat Trick and Corsica.