The Dizzying Highs, the Terrifying Lows, and Why the Creamy Middles Are Likely Out of Reach in 2011-12

Last night I received an email from a reader that included an awesome piece of statistical analysis that helps explain why Ottawa's downfall is not surprising. With his permission, I've published his work here on the site. My thanks go out to @Wham_City for submitting his work. I'd also like to encourage the readers who are on Twitter to start following him. Do it now!

So without further ado…

A familiar refrain of late in Ottawa has been that "expectations were a lot higher for this group". This was a “good team” who “simply haven’t played up to their potential this season”. It's a point that's regularly driven home on the team1200 in the morning, afternoon, evening, pre-game and post-game. How could a 5th place team with minor roster turnover find itself in 13th place in the conference and 27th place overall 49 games into the season? How could these players have underachieved to this extent?

While I amply enjoyed last year’s somewhat surprising ride to the playoffs, my enthusiasm was tempered with a fair amount of skepticism as to the true strength of the team. An average record that was buoyed by a franchise record 11 game winning streak to vault securely into the playoffs was a curious development to say the least. Couple that with the worst goal differential to make the postseason since the lockout, and the suggestion was there for all to see that this was not a true 5th seed.

The peculiar circumstance of a middle playoff team with –13 goal differential on my mind ever since, it was only in the last few days that I decided to take a closer look at the underlying numbers. This is what I found:

On one hand the Senators had the third highest point percentage in one goal games:

* Playoff teams in blue
* Non-playoff teams in red
 
  PT % W L OTL
PHX .780 29 6 6
PIT .730 25 7 7
OTT .724 18 5 6
NSH .714 27 9 6
NJD .700 21 7 7
SJS .689 20 6 11
DET .688 24 7 14
CHI .675 23 9 8
ANA .671 18 6 10
LAK .670 25 10 9
STL .666 21 8 10
DAL .657 18 6 14
COL .655 23 10 9
BUF .650 21 9 10
VAN .650 17 8 5
WSH .646 20 8 13
MIN .627 23 12 8
PHI .625 17 9 6
TOR .605 16 8 14
TBL .600 15 8 12
CAR .580 13 8 10
NYI .569 19 13 11
MTL .568 20 13 10
BOS .566 19 13 13
FLA .565 15 10 13
CLB .562 15 10 15
CGY .534 18 15 10
NYR .513 13 12 11
ATL .511 16 15 13
EDM .500 14 14 8

On the other they were blown out (loss by 3 goals or more) the most of anyone in the league:

Playoff teams in blue
Non-playoff teams in red
 
  Total
OTT 22
TBL 21
FLA 20
TOR 19
NYI 18
CBJ 17
EDM 17
ANA 16
CAR 16
ATL 15
PIT 15
DAL 14
PHI 13
BOS 12
MIN 11
NYR 11
PHX 11
CGY 10
COL 10
DET 10
LAK 10
NJD 10
NAS 10
SJS 10
STL 10
MTL 9
BUF 8
VAN 8
WSH 6
CHI 5

Many would reason a loss is a loss and degree is immaterial. The obvious rejoinder being that good teams simply don't get blown out all that often, much less lead the league. 

These two tables are a decent illustration of what many fans would contend was the most salient feature of the Sens in 09/10, their streakiness. A 5 game losing streak would be followed soon after by an 11 game winning streak, bookended by another 5 game losing streak, and so on. Series of close wins and strings of brutal blowouts. Fundamentally this group was a lot sicker than it appeared on the surface.

The situation at present…

The Senators continue to lead the league in losses by 3 goals or more with 16 through 50 games; and are on pace to lose by that mark 26 times over 82 games. And what of last year's saving grace, their record in one-goal games you ask? This year it's a pedestrian 6-7-8 (.476%), a poor team regressing to the mean perhaps? Taken together (from 2009/10 to present) the Sens have been what I would classify as “uncompetitive” in 38 of 132 games; Toronto is #2 with a mark of 32/131. Should “good teams” ever be this prolific in the art of being blown out? (back-to-back titles thus far).

This season’s trajectory is consistent with an organization that has been bottoming out for some time, a projected -85 goal differential a testament to that stark reality. The remnants of a core that were peaking from 02-03 to 06-07 remain, but since that apex the team’s decline has been dramatic. Simply climbing back onto the positive side of goal differential would be a major accomplishment in itself.

I wouldn’t anticipate apocalyptic like -190 differentials the likes of which this franchise was burdened with in the early 90’s. Nevertheless, there exists scarce high upside young blood capable of stepping in next season to pick this team up off the mat, particularly at forward and in goal, a strong upward swing next season is far from a given.

Barring disaster, Clouston will continue to skillfully guide this team to a bottom five finish. Lottery pick in hand the best-case scenario would be a drafted forward capable of contributing as soon as opening night; the bar for an optimistic rookie campaign set at 40 points. That level of production little more than a drop in the bucket that is the collective offensive futility running up and down this roster. A group that is on pace to score in the 170’s in goals for, a mark not reached since the ‘99 expansion Thrashers. Among prospects currently in the system there is little reason to believe the likes of Butler, Silfverberg and O’Brien project to be major difference makers anytime soon.

On the subject of the General Managers state of mind, exactly how much stock should one put in Bryan’s comments on Monday that a 1-year re-tool is all that is necessary? A return to being comfortably ensconced in the middle of the pack as easy as one or two moves? I’m going to go out on a limb and say…not much (especially in light of those same remarks being walked back/clarified on the FAN590 today). My immediate takeaway from his SBP presser was the defiant tone Bryan struck in the face of questions pertaining to the success of his tenure. There were certainly a few instances in which his defenses seemed especially desperate and nakedly unpersuasive. (NOTE: a desperate GM can easily be spotted extolling the virtues of Colin Greening and Eric Condra as impactful NHL forwards). Quite simply he sounded like a guy whose job is on the line (weird, huh?).

The expectations game…

Among those harboring high hopes for the Sens in 2011-12, I’d suggest you might want to save yourself the grief. In goal, Lehner is two years away at least from being an everyday NHL starter. Up front, a 38-year-old Alfie is finally looking his age, a probable 20-30 guy next season (barring retirement). Within the farm and abroad, elite talent is lacking in the forward ranks; those skilled in pushing the pace, playmaking and creating their own shot are nowhere to be found. On the backend, Cowen and Rundblad are expected to make the jump, both stand to be plenty green i.e. plenty full of youthful error. As it relates to a change in philosophy, promoting from within is an admirable direction to chart. However I think most fans are savvy enough to spot the difference between organizational depth, and organizational depth that can contribute significantly at the NHL level.

In recent days, Scanlan has reported the years of being a cap team look to be reevaluated; a full salaried roster could conceivably be iced for 10% less year over year. With that in mind, I wouldn’t hesitate to place this team within the bottom 10 at the conclusion of next season, a top 5 pick (every game Kuba plays increases this outcome exponentially) likely within striking distance. Lest you think I am completely devoid of optimism, the ’12 draft looks to be at least as strong as ‘ 08. The Ottawa Senators have entered the wilderness, the “terrifying lows” if you will. Short of being a 12 month aberration, this has the makings of a multi-year tenancy.

For the first time in memory “the Euge” seems unwilling to proclaim, “The State of the Senators is…STRONG!” His rhetorical flourishes down precipitously from the days of open declarations to “hoard the Cup”. Which isn’t to say Stanley’s no longer on his brain at all times, it is. In any case this week’s developments struck me as positive, Melnyk seems chastened…to the degree that's possible for Eugene. A mindset I’m hopeful will linger and serve him well as this organization takes sober stock of its current position and future direction.

What a difference 8 months can make…

May 2, 2010

Q: Sometimes, if you’re a middle of the pack team, in terms of drafting, you’re picking between 15 and 20, as opposed to bottoming out and picking a superstar in the making. Do you ever think that if you have a really terrible, terrible year, it almost sets you up because you’ve got a potential phenom coming?

Melnyk: First of all, that would never happen. I don’t see a year where we’re not going to be competitive, because we know what’s in our pipeline. We have so much talent coming up, I can’t see us ever doing that.

January 24, 2011

Q: Bryan indicated today that within a year, this team could be back where everyone wants it to be. Are you of the same belief, that it's not going to take a long time for it to happen?

Melnyk: I think a year is a little aggressive. I know we all want to be miracle workers and we all believe we can be. To me, ultimately, we want to succeed. If you're going to get there and people see you're getting there, that's more important than trying to put a deadline on it that may or may not happen. We know what the ultimate objective is and that's all I want to commit to. And that's a big commitment.

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