Revisiting the past

Among those who pay attention to advanced statistics in the NHL, the general rule of thumb is that the better a team is at controlling possession, the more likely they are to have success in the future. Teams like Chicago, Detroit, Pittsburgh, San Jose and, most recently, Los Angeles have backed up this theory as they are perennial playoff teams and are consistently some of the best clubs in the NHL at controlling possession. We know that teams who control possession are more likely to be successful in a given year, but something that isn’t discussed is the sustainability of a high possession rate over the course of multiple seasons.

Let’s say that you are writing a season preview for a team that you don’t know much about. One way to get an idea of how they will perform is to look at their Corsi or Fenwick percentage from the previous season and see how good they were beyond wins and losses. If a team has a Fenwick that is above 50% then some people will jump to the conclusion that this team should be in good shape for the next year because of their ability to drive play and control possession as a team. It isn’t a baseless assumption but there are some problems that arise if you jump to this conclusion. Just because a team was able to control possession at a high rate one year, doesn’t mean it will carry over to the next season. Sure, it might if the team in question has all of their key pieces returning but even then, it doesn’t always happen. Just ask the Tampa Bay Lightning, who saw their Fenwick Close percentage fall from 53.68% in 2010-11 to 48.31% last year.

Better yet, just ask the Carolina Hurricanes, who saw their Fenwick Close percentage take the biggest drop in the last five years after the 2008-09 season.

The 2008-09 season is one that a lot of Hurricanes fans remember very well. It was the year where the Hurricanes went 10-1-2 in the month of March and ended up making the playoffs as the 6th seed. It was the year that the Hurricanes pulled off a string of miraculous finishes to defeat the New Jersey Devils and the top-seeded Boston Bruins in seven games in the first two rounds of the playoffs. More importantly, it was the year where the Hurricanes pulled off one of their most impressive runs in franchise history and while things ended on a sour note, this year usually resonates well with Carolina fans. Even after they were swept by the Penguins in the Eastern Conference Finals, there was still a sense of optimism among the fan-base once the year was over.

The Hurricanes were ranked 6th in the NHL in Fenwick close, had a good looking roster featuring talents such as Eric Staal, Tuomo Ruutu and Joni Pitkanen who were in the prime of their careers, proven veterans in Ray Whitney, Matt Cullen and Sergei Samsonov and some decent young talents in Brandon Sutter, Anton Babchuk and Zach Boychuk who were planning to step into bigger roles the next season. There was plenty of reasons to stay optimistic in Carolina because it looked like this team was going to be in decent shape for at least the next season…until this happened.

Fenwick Close Percentage at Even Strength

2007-08 2008-09 2009-10 2010-11 2011-12
CAR 52.31 53.56 47.6 46.68 48.17

Over the course of one year, the Hurricanes saw their Fenwick percentage drop by nearly six points and they found themselves at the bottom of the NHL standings throughout most of the first half of the season. This is the biggest drop that any team has seen in one year and it does raise some questions about how sustainable a team’s Fenwick or Corsi percentage is over multiple seasons. Of course, the first thing that comes to my mind when I look at Carolina’s fall from grace is that it could be somewhat of an anomaly. How often has a team seen their Fenwick close rate drop by that much in such a short span of time? I mentioned earlier that the same thing happened to the Lightning last year but other than that, how often has a decline like this occurred?

Carolina has suffered the most extreme fall but this has happened to quite a few others teams since 2007:

Team Year Year 1 Year 2 Drop
Hurricanes 2009-10 53.56 47.6 -5.96
Lightning 2011-12 53.68 48.31 -5.37
Islanders 2008-09 49.81 44.61 -5.2
Canadiens 2011-12 51.6 46.81 -4.79
Red Wings 2009-10 57.19 52.42 -4.77
Sharks 2009-10 55.86 51.1 -4.76
Flames 2011-12 52.06 47.47 -4.59
Jackets 2011-12 51.92 47.53 -4.39
Coyotes 2008-09 49.42 45.09 -4.33
Leafs 2010-11 51.55 46.39 -4.17
Wild 2010-11 47.31 43.14 -4.17
Predators 2011-12 50.2 46.08 -4.12
Jackets 2009-10 52.04 47.96 -4.08
Avalanche 2008-09 50.37 46.5 -3.72
Blackhawks 2010-11 57.79 54.11 -3.68

In the case of the few teams (San Jose, Chicago, Detroit), being 3-5 percent worse at controlling possession than they were the previous year didn’t mean a whole lot because they were already top teams in the league in Fenwick percentage. However, for teams like Toronto, Columbus, Nashville, Colorado, Calgary and Montreal, it made a much bigger impact because being a few percentages worse than they were the year before was the difference between being average to above average territorially and being a bad team. The one exception here being the Minnesota Wild who went from bad to just plain awful.

Carolina, Tampa Bay and the Islanders are in a class of their own here, though because their Fenwick percentage dropped much more than the rest of the teams here. Carolina went from having the sixth highest Fenwick close rate in the NHL in 2008-09 to being in the bottom-ten the next season. The Lightning had the third best Fenwick close percentage in the NHL in 2010-11 only to plummet to 19th the next season and the Islanders well…they went from being mediocre to horrible which is similar to what happened to the Wild in 2010-11. 

Were all of these declines completely random and out of the blue or are there some logical explanations behind them? I mentioned that a team’s possession rates are likely to stay put if the majority of their team stays intact so a major roster turnover or a loss of a key player can have a direct effect on how well a team can control possession. For instance, Tampa Bay lost Sean Bergenheim to free agency before the 2011-12 season and while Bergenheim isn’t a star, he is a terrific player at swimming upstream and controlling possession. He’s one of the best in the league at doing this too, so losing him definitely affected the Lightning’s ability to drive the play forward, especially since most of their top scorers aren’t exactly aces when it comes to driving the play forward. Did Carolina have any similar losses after the 2008-09 season? Let’s take a look. 

IN GP FenClose
Kostopoulos 82 0.494
Alberts 62 0.5
A. Ward 60 0.471
Yelle 59 0.488
Harrison 38 0.5
Pothier 20 0.405
Tlusty 18 0.463
McBain 14 0.461
Bowman 9 0.492
Picard 9 0.395
Samson 7 0.578
Goertzen 6 0.447
Osala 1 0.636
OUT GP FenClose
Eaves 74 0.514
Babchuk 72 0.54
Seidenberg 70 0.504
Bayda 70 0.486
Williams 32 0.558
Kaberle 30 0.567
Brookbank 27 0.493
Helminen 23 0.432
Ryan 18 0.581
Melichar 14 0.523
LaCouture 11 0.42
Petruzalek 2 0.571

The Hurricanes roster didn’t suffer many ground-breaking changes but there were more than a few moves made. Dennis Seidenberg was traded, Anton Babchuk left for the KHL and both Patrick Eaves and Ryan Bayda departed via free agency. Three out of these four players were doing a pretty good job at pushing the play forward but they weren’t anywhere close to being the best on the team in this category, so their contributions should have been replaced without that much of a problem. The Canes went the free agency route to fill these holes by signing Tom Kostopoulos, Aaron Ward, Andrew Alberts, Jay Harrison and Stephane Yelle.

What they got out of these players wasn’t terrible but it’s hard to argue that they weren’t downgrades compared to what they lost the previous year. With that being said, the Hurricanes still didn’t lose that much overall. Eaves and Bayda were bottom-six depth forwards, so Kostopoulos and Yelle being “downgrades” there was not that big of a deal. Anton Babchuk is a powerplay quarterback and a defenseman who could only be trusted in heavily sheltered minutes and while his goal production was missed, the minutes he played aren’t difficult to replace. Unfortunately, the Hurricanes didn’t have the best luck here and cycled through a number of different players such as Bryan Rodney, Jay Harrison, Alex Picard, Brett Carson and Jamie McBain in the “sheltered, offensive defenseman” role. Still, players like Babchuk are not that hard to find and losing him was not that big of a blow.

The loss of Seidenberg, however, was much more difficult to replace because he was a top-four defender for the Hurricanes and played on both special teams units. He wasn’t blowing away his competition and he wasn’t even close to being the best defenseman on the team that year, but he left some pretty big shoes to fill after the Hurricanes traded him. Now, if you compare Alberts’ numbers to Seidenberg’s you might say that the Canes didn’t see that much of a drop off with him but the numbers here are misleading because Alberts wasn’t taking over Seidenberg’s role. Alberts played much fewer minutes than Seidenberg, was used against significantly weaker opponents and was primarly a 3rd pairing/penalty kill specialist. Although, with Gleason, Corvo, Pitkanen and Wallin on the roster at the time, you would have to think that one of them could take over Seidenberg’s role without too much of an issue.

In theory, this sounded like a good idea at the time and it shoudn’t have dragged down the Hurricanes that much but it didn’t take long for things to get ugly that season. Corvo spent a lot of the year injured and played in only 34 games before being traded to the Washington Capitals at the deadline, Gleason missed 21 games with various injuries and Pitkanen was forced to take on an enormous workload due to the lack of talent on the blue-line (he averaged 27 minutes a game) and looked a bit over his head despite setting a career high in points. At the end of the season, their time on ice leaders included names like Brian Pothier, Brett Carson and Aaron Ward. When you account for that, you can definitely say that injuries combined with the loss of Seidenberg played a role in the Hurricanes going into free fall mode in 2009 but that was just part of the problem. A bigger issue was that their top players from the previous year were vastly under-performing.

Player 08-09 GP 09-10 GP 08-09 FenClose 09-10 FenClose
Whitney 82 80 0.554 0.454
Staal 82 70 0.594 0.467
Samsonov 81 72 0.528 0.493
Corvo 81 34 0.541 0.523
LaRose 81 56 0.541 0.466
Brind’Amour 80 80 0.49 0.522
Ruutu 79 54 0.555 0.47
Pitkanen 71 71 0.57 0.464
Gleason 70 61 0.498 0.476
Cullen 69 60 0.514 0.52
Wallin 64 47 0.511 0.502
Sutter 50 72 0.515 0.447
Walker 41 33 0.559 0.521
Jokinen 25 81 0.534 0.458
Cole 17 40 0.519 0.438
Dwyer 13 58 0.571 0.485
Rodney 8 22 0.515 0.469
Carson 4 54 0.568 0.46

There might be some who want to blame the Hurricanes misfortunes on the injuries to Tuomo Ruutu, Erik Cole and Chad LaRose and while those certainly didn’t help matters, you would be foolish to think that injures were the only thing keeping this team down. In the end, it all comes back to your top players not performing up to standard and that was the case with just about everyone on the Hurricanes that year. Staal, Whitney, Samsonov, Jokinen, Pitkanen, Sutter and many others went from being very good possession players one year to guys who could barely push the play forward the next, which pretty much describes the Hurricanes team numbers, as well.

My theory is that there is always an explanation for everything, so I don’t believe that a team that was so good at controlling play at even strength one year could take such a dramatic turn in the opposite direction for no reason at all, especially in the span of only one season. What exactly was the reason for so many players on the Hurricanes sharp decline, though? I touched on Pitkanen and how he was forced to take on a bigger role earlier, but what about Eric Staal? Is it possible that his 2008-09 season was an aberration and that his true talent is closer to what we’ve seen the last couple of years? When looking at his recent track record, that could be true. As for Ray Whitney, it’s possible that his age may have been catching up to him even though his boxcar numbers indicated otherwise. Erik Cole’s ghastly numbers may have been the result of him being used in a tough-minutes role that he wasn’t suited for and I’m not sure what to say about most of the other names on this list.

This Carolina squad in particular may just be a freak case but remember, they aren’t the only team to see their performance fall off a cliff almost inexplicably so it’s not like every team is immune to this kind of downfall. If there is one thing that the Hurricanes have shown here, it is that once you see your performance take this kind of dive, it takes a long time to get it back to where it was. The Hurricanes are entering their fourth year since this happened and are still below-average in territorial play. Will the additions of Jordan Staal and Alexander Semin change that? We shall see.