Has Ottawa Improved Defensively?

Last season, the Sens struggled defensively, giving up the 6th most goals against, and 2nd most shots against in the league. Fortunately, they had the 4th best offense, allowing them to slip into the playoffs as the 8th seed. Now things have changed completely; they currently sit 1st in goals against, but are 27th in goals for. To boot, the Sens lead the league in shots for, and are the 2nd worst in shots against.

So what has caused this improvement in goals againt? The easy explanation would be goaltending, but one could argue the defence has been limiting shot quality more than they were last season.

Thanks to this fancy website, we’re able to look at shot distances to see whether the Sens are playing better defencively, or are just benefitting from good goaltending. (NOTE: the NHL's shot location data has some issues, so just keep that in mind.)

Even-Strength

According to BehindTheNet, the Sens are allowing more shots against at 5-on-5 this year, but by looking at shot distances I think we can get a better idea of why the team is allowing fewer goals this season:

- The Sens are limiting shot quality, but not by much. Despite the loss of Jared Cowen and Erik Karlsson for half the season, they’re allowing about 1 fewer shot against within 20 feet of the net per 60 minutes. This could be due to playing well, but it could also be influenced by some lucky bounces and hit crossbars.

- The reason why their overall shot rate is higher is because they’re giving up about 2 more shots from 30+ feet. In effect, by pushing shots to the outside, the Sens are helping improve their goaltenders save percentage.

Now let’s break down the Sens’ even-strength save percentage by shot distance:

-From this graph, it is quite clear that the Sens defence is thriving from goaltending a lot more than reduced shot quality.

- The Sens goaltending has been particularly good in the scrambuuuuuuuuuuuullllllsssss this year, with an improvement in save percentage of over 10% on shots within 10 feet of the net. So not only are the Sens giving up fewer shots from in close, but they’re also allowing fewer.

- The team’s save percentage on shots from 30+ feet is about the same as it was last year. Some might argue that’s because it’s a larger sample size, and the Sens true goaltending talent is shining through. In my opinion it’s because shots from that far are relatively easy to stop, and the only reason an NHL goaltender would allow one would be because of a screen or a deflection. For example, some 2011-12 teams like STL, NSH and PHX had a 30+ ft SV% that was only about .5% better than the Sens, but their 0-10 feet SV% was much, much better.

- With the loss of Karlsson and Spezza, and with Alfredsson, Michalek and Smith struggling to score, it’s imperative that the goaltending keeps this up. One thing working in their favour is that the team has 3 NHL calibre goaltenders (once Anderson gets back), so even if one of them struggles, they still have 2 other viable options.

Penalty Kill

The Sens have also been benefitting from having the 2nd ranked PK in the league this season, which is a big improvement over last season when they finished 20th. First off, let’s take a closer look at the numbers. Keep in mind these are very small sample sizes:

- The Sens seem to be pushing more shots outside 20 feet of the net, as they’re allowing about 3.5 fewer SA/60 from in close (three cheers for Marc Methot!).

- Despite that, the Sens are having trouble clearing the puck, as they’re allowing more shots against than they were last season.

Here are the PK save percentage numbers:

- Just like at ES, the team is seeing a huge improvement in save percentage from shots in close.

- Sens goaltending since the start of last season has had basically no trouble at all stopping shots from 30+ feet, so we really shouldn’t worry too much about the Sens allowing a ton of shots from that far out.

- Here’s a cool fact folks: the Sens have not allowed a goal off a shot from 20-30 feet on the PK this season. Feel free to tell that bad boy to your friends.

So what to conclude here?

While the Sens seem to be pushing shots to the outside more than they were last season (especially on the PK), their improvement in SV% should be attributed mostly to the goaltenders playing at an elite level. The majority of goals are scored in close around the net, and at this distance Ottawa's goalers have been excellent as compared to a year ago. Obviously these save percentages aren't sustainable, but with 23 games left there's a lot less time to regress as compared to a full 82 game season. With a full and healthy defence corps you'd hope going forward next year that MacLean can get the shots against down, as teams don't always get and shouldn't bank on .940+ goaltending.

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