Five Thoughts for a Friday: Wild Card Breakdown
Looking at five of Ottawa’s Wild Card competitors
As minimal as the probabilities may sometimes seem, the Ottawa Senators still find themselves in the mix for the one of the Eastern Conference Wildcard play-off berths (last night’s thrilling victory going a long way in this department). The organization has thus, to date, fulfilled its promise to deliver meaningful hockey in March (and dare we hope even April?). To reiterate what you probably already know: the Bruins and Leafs have all but sewn up the first two playoff spots in the division. Some have pointed to glaring flaws in the Lightning’s play of late but they’ve banked enough points this season that I cannot confidently discount their place in the third spot in the division. The division’s guaranteed play-off spots are spoken for.
Elsewhere, the Hurricanes, Devils, and Rangers have all but locked up one-three in their division with a similar argument that the Rangers hold their position tenuously at best. Like the Lightning, the Rangers have their problems, especially of late, but they also have a lot of points accumulated in the standings and enough for the purpose of this exercise to draw my focus to other teams.
On a final note in my preamble, the Red Wings technically should deserve just about as much consideration as say the Capitals in the wild card mix but due to recent developments I legally do not have to put any goddamn respect on Detroit.
So without further ado, let us take a more detailed look at the five other teams jostling with your Ottawa Senators for those two coveted wild card berths in the eastern conference in this the year of our lord, 2023.
For anyone else who had hoped the Sens could sneak past the Sabres in their respective rebuild cycles, I have some bad news for you: the Sabres have a core of very good young players, tonnes of cap space, and most of their draft capital intact thanks to the Jack Eichel trade. To that effect I find it somewhat surprising that they only acquired Jordan Greenway at the deadline (although they also need to keep their long-term objectives in mind, I suppose). The Sabres also have health on their side right now with only Alex Tuch of note on the injured list. Like the Sens, the Sabres still don’t look like a finished product and probably need a year or two more to fully take shape but they have all the potential to do so given the talent in their organization.
In terms of immediate statistical comparisons, as of Thursday, Ottawa and Buffalo had identical records. The Sabres score more goals than the Sens but they also give up more. Going by five-on-five expected goals, as opposed to actual, the Sens generate more and allow less but as always, Ottawa’s lousy shooting percentage bites them here and gives Buffalo a clear advantage and thus more actual total goals for the Sabres. In good news, Ottawa has much better per 60 rates on the powerplay, and of the five teams profiled here, only Buffalo has a better powerplay shooting percentage. Ottawa has the advantage on the penalty kill across the board when compared to Buffalo.
One last thought before I render my verdict on the Ottawa-Buffalo comparison: Craig Effing Anderson. The best goalie in Senators franchise history could very well kill Ottawa’s playoff hopes in 2023. Of the qualified goalies I looked at in the eastern conference wild card mix, Andy has put up the best numbers by anyone not named Sorokin. He has played like vintage Anderson and the Sens look like fools for letting him walk a couple years ago.
Verdict: Over an entire 82-game sample with these rosters and results I would bet on Ottawa finishing with a better record than Buffalo but in a 19-game crucible with Cam Talbot unavailable for the next three weeks, I think Andy probably comes back to haunt us. To my surprise, Ukko-Pekka Luukonen has not had a great season but has started more games than Andy and if by some twist of fate we get a battle of the rookie goaltenders down the stretch then that could change things.
Talk about a fall from grace, the Paul Maurice era in Florida has gotten off to an underwhelming start after the dominant season the Panthers had last year. While the Cats did upgrade Jonathan Huberdeau for Matthew Tkachuk last summer, everything else has regressed in the meantime. Unlike the Sabres, the Panthers have no cap space or draft capital, and have depleted their farm system so naturally they did nothing at the trade deadline. But how does this affect the Sens?
Head-to-head, the comparison starts off well for Ottawa as the Sens have a better points percentage and two games in hand on the Panthers. Like Buffalo, Florida scores more than Ottawa but also concedes more. Florida generates a lot of shots and does not give up much by way of volume. To Ottawa’s credit they allow less in terms of five-on-five expected goals against. Of the five teams profiled here, only Florida has a powerplay and penalty kill that stacks up against Ottawa’s statistically. All told, I would argue the Panthers have the best underlying rates of the teams in the mix, but like Ottawa, the actual results have eluded them. Specifically, both teams have struggled to score at five-on-five and have lacked in terms of goaltending results.
On that note, in the absence of Spencer Knight, Sergei Bobrovsky can make or break the Panthers hopes for the postseason and as it turns out his overall numbers look a lot like Talbot’s. Bobrovsky has played better at five-on-five and Talbot has done a better job killing penalties but the total numbers wash out, adding even more intrigue to this matchup.
Verdict: Florida can match Ottawa’s strengths on the powerplay and penalty kill, while having better five-on-five offensive rates (and comparable five-on-five defensive rates), and very similar goaltending results. Assuming Bobrovsky and Talbot get the bulk of the workload down the stretch for their respective teams, Florida comes out with a slight edge here. Not off to a good start in Ottawa’s postseason quest!
New York Islanders
As an organization, the Islanders fall somewhere between the Sabres and Panthers. The Isles have little in the way of cap space, draft capital, and prospect stock after acquiring Bo Horvat and to a lesser extent Pierre Engvall. They have some injury issues with Jean-Gabriel Pageau (shoutout to the original short king) and Oliver Wahlstrom currently sidelined but nothing like missing Anton Forsberg and Josh Norris for the balance of the season.
Ilya Sorokin. That’s it. That’s the breakdown. The Isles currently hold the first wild card spot thanks in no small part to their phenomenal goaltender. Ottawa generates way more than New York by way of volume and chances and can match up defensively but the Islanders get otherworldly goaltending from Sorokin and have all the shooting luck because why not. Ottawa has the better powerplay and penalty kill so take some solace in that I guess.
What else can I say, Sorokin could very well win the Vezina this year if not for that juggernaut team in Boston. Ottawa can’t do much about that.
Verdict: Over an 82-game sample I would absolutely expect Ottawa to finish with a better record than New York because the Sens have better rates per 60 in all phases of the game (even without Norris) and you never bet on sustained high shooting percentages. But in the NHL goalies can and do steal games all the time. Given his numbers to date, Sorokin can probably keep the dream alive on Long Island with under twenty games to go. The Sens should definitely have a better fate than the Islanders but they probably will not catch New York at this rate.
Finally I have some good news for you: the Penguins stink and I hate them. But more importantly, they have an old, expensive roster and little on the way in terms of young talent. The Penguins also opted to get older and worse at the deadline acquiring Dmitry Kulikov, Mikael Granlund, and Nick Bonino, while losing Kasperi Kapanen on waivers. The Penguins do finally have a healthy roster but I don’t care, they still kinda stink.
Yes, Pittsburgh has five more (loser!) points than Ottawa in the same number of games and currently hold the second wild card spot but don’t let that fool you. Yes, Pittsburgh still has a strong offensive core that generates a lot of volume and chances but suddenly, so does Ottawa. And Ottawa has had better defensive numbers across the board. Ottawa also has much better special teams than Pittsburgh.
In goal, Tristan Jarry has certainly outperformed the likes of Talbot (Casey DeSmith has put up pedestrian numbers not unlike Ottawa’s netminder) but nothing like Sorokin or even Anderson. I do not believe Jarry’s numbers mitigate Ottawa’s statistical advantages in other departments.
Verdict: I believe Ottawa should outperform Pittsburgh over an 82-game sample based on the numbers and that the Sens will leapfrog the Pens in the coming weeks.
The Sens currently have as many points in the standings as the Caps with two games in hand and will look to pull away after Washington’s deadline sell-off. The Caps have finally gotten mostly healthy after an injury-plagued season but still do not have Connor Brown or John Carlson on the ice. And to recap their deadline, Washington parted ways with Lars Eller, Erik Gustafsson, Garnet Hathaway, Marcus Johansson, and Dmitry Orlov while shrewdly acquiring Rasmus Sandin along with some draft capital. They still have a very old and expensive roster with little to no cap flexibility going forward.
From a statistical perspective, things look promising for Ottawa. Somehow, and completely without my noticing, the Senators started generating more offence than the once-mighty Capitals who now employ a more defence-first system, believe it or not. On the defensive side of the puck, Ottawa still stacks up pretty closely with veteran Washington. Ottawa has a clear advantage on the powerplay (seriously, when did this happen?) and both teams have decent penalty kills.
Darcy Kuemper has provided perfectly adequate goaltending for the Caps but not quite most-sought-after-goaltender-on-the-free-agent-market type numbers. Charlie Lindgren’s numbers more or less mirror those of Talbot’s so give Washington the slight advantage in the crease.
Verdict: Washington wins games with sound defence that Ottawa can mostly match and Ottawa has the better powerplay. Kuemper represents an advantage but keep in mind the Caps lost a lot of talent in front of Kuemper over the past few weeks. Over an 82-game season I reckon Ottawa still has a slightly better record and I don’t foresee Washington catching up down the stretch.
So there you have it. I did not render the outcome I had hoped for when I started working on this article but I still feel pretty confident in my assessment. I imagine Ottawa stays in the mix until the very end but ultimately misses out by one or two points. I do not foresee the New York Sorokins folding any time soon and I think the last wild card spot comes down to Florida and Buffalo (bring on the imminent Pittsburgh collapse).
I have included all the stats used in the tables below (courtesy as always of naturalstattrick). I used full season stats for teams, and I stuck with qualified goalies because in neither case did I want to tinker too much with small samples. Much better and more sophisticated analysts adjust for factors like roster turnover, remaining schedule (home versus road, and rest factors), and recent-game weighting. Moneypuck, for instance has Pittsburgh and New York making the cut with Florida and Ottawa on the outside looking in. Micah Blake McCurdy projects the same thing.
Overall, the Senators could certainly do a lot worse than ninth or tenth in the conference and everyone in the organization should feel good about the progress the team has made. Personally, I’m losing my goddamn mind thinking the Sens will possibly miss the postseason by a game or two (a difference they could absolutely make up with goaltending just slightly above replacement level or a bionic shoulder for Norris). So it goes!
|Team||Games Played||Points %||Goals/60||Goals against/60||Goals%||Shots/60||Shots against/60||Shots%||CF/60 (5v5)||CA/60 (5v5)||CF% (5v5)||xGF/60 (5v5)||xGA/60 (5v5)||xGF% (5v5)||Shooting% (5v5)||Save% (5v5)||PDO (5v5)||CF/60 (PP)||xG/60 (PP)||Shooting% (PP)||CA/60 (PK)||xGA/60 (PK)||Save% (PK)||CF% special teams||xGF% special teams||PDO special teams|
|Name||Team||Games Played||Save% (ALL)||GSAA/60 (ALL)||Save% (5v5)||GSAA/60 (5v5)||Save% (PK)||GSAA/60 (PK)|