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How the League's Best Possession Team Missed the Playoffs

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he wasn't the reason
he wasn't the reason
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
Much to the surprise of the hockey world, the Los Angeles Kings did not qualify for the 2015 postseason. Over the next few days many explanations will be given for the team's failure, attempting to pinpoint which poor performances or external disturbances caused LA's decline in play.

But I suspect that approach will be unproductive, because the assumption that there was a decline in play is dubious. Probably the biggest breakthrough of the hockey analytics community is the discovery that Corsi% is an excellent metric of team quality. And for the third consecutive year, the Kings lead the league in Corsi% in 2014-15. They also lead the league in Fenwick%, and shot%, and score-adjusted Corsi%, and pretty much any other possession metric you'd like to use. That strongly suggests the Kings are good.

And it's a weird thing that the Kings missed. The league leader in Corsi% had previously never missed the playoffs as far back as we have data (2007-08). The Corsi leaderboard usually aligns tightly with the standings, and it does this year: the bottom eight teams in score-adjusted Corsi% all missed the playoffs (except the Flames), and the top nine all made it (except the Kings). So what happened? Let's look at the possible explanations and see which ones can withstand scrutiny.

Suspensions, Injuries, and Fatigue
I'm lumping all of these together for a reason. I expect some combination of these to be the most common explanation of why LA missed. As the story goes, only six games in LA lost top-four defenseman Slava Voynov to suspension. Then, after suffering almost no significant injuries during the 2013-14 season, LA's injury luck ran out and the team lost Tanner Pearson and Alec Martinez for significant stretches. These absences put heavy burdens on inexperienced rookies and aging veterans, none of whom proved quite up to the task. Add in the exhaustion from playing 64 playoff games over the past three years, and it's no wonder the Kings fell short.

Except... that whole narrative doesn't work. If the Kings were so tired and worn down, their depth so exposed, how were they able to lead the league in attempting shots and suppressing them? It seems to me a team that missed the playoffs because it was exhausted would not be the best team in the league at controlling the puck, which I'd guess requires quite a bit of energy.

It's possible that these things did hurt the Kings a little bit. No one has done a good study on what the fatigue from long playoff runs does to teams in subsequent seasons, so we can only guess at exactly what its effect was. But we do know that it wasn't enough to stop the Kings from leading the league in Corsi%, so I'd guess the effect is minor. It's possible the Kings would have been even better and led the league in Corsi by more if they weren't so tired, but that's really as far as the fatigue argument can go.

The injuries argument runs into the same obstacle. Plus, while the Kings had worse injury luck than in 2013-14, they were still on the lower-end among NHL teams in terms of man-games lost, even taking into account the Voynov suspension. That shouldn't be surprising--it probably wouldn't be possible for a team overwhelmed by injuries to lead the league in Corsi%, and LA's decent health helped them achieve that.

Just because the Kings led the league in Corsi% doesn't mean they played perfectly. Obviously, some individuals struggled. But the Kings as a whole were excellent at controlling the puck this year, and any explanation for them missing the playoffs that does not take that into account is at best extremely insufficient. We need to look deeper.

PDO
Of all the ways the standings can deviate from the possession statistics, PDO is the most infamous and the most discussed. PDO certainly can wreak havoc on the standings--it is the main reason the Calgary Flames (44.4% Corsi) got to the postseason. And in the past it's been hypothesized that LA's emphasis on puck possession might drive down shooting percentage (and thus PDO), making LA worse than their Corsi indicates.

But LA's 5v5 PDO for the year is 100.3 and 15th in the league--almost exactly average. They are 16th in 5v5 shooting percentage and 9th in 5v5 save percentage. In terms of converting shots into goals, LA had no issues.

So if LA was very good at getting more shots than their opponents and turned shots into goals at about an average rate, logically they must have outscored their opponents 5v5--and indeed they did, by quite a bit. LA scored 28 more goals than their opponents at 5v5, which was 4th-best in the league (and all three teams ahead of them had high PDOs). So LA posted good underlying numbers, had average puck luck, and the result was a highly productive season at 5v5.

Special Teams
Over the past few seasons Jewels from the Crown has often commented that LA's special teams units have been lackluster, especially in comparison to the team's stellar 5v5 play. In 2013-14 LA compounded the problem by taking way more penalties than they drew.

But this didn't sink the Kings in 2014-15, either. Los Angeles players have collectively drawn 10 more penalties than they have taken, and while neither the power play nor the penalty kill have been exceptional, LA has a +5 goal differential on special teams (scoring 7 shorthanded goals while conceding only 1 helped a lot). So if anything, LA's special teams helped the cause.

Shootouts
This is part of it. The Kings have gone 2-8 in the shootout, dead last among NHL teams. If they were a league average 5-5, they'd have three extra points and their season would not be over.

But are things really that simple? Should we assume the Kings had league-average shooting talent and got unlucky?

The answer is yes. The shootout has been investigated ad nauseam for any speck of sustainable talent or skill amidst the randomness, and there just isn't any. The aggregated statistical evidence is the key reason to believe this, but there are also jarring individual examples. The 2013-14 New Jersey Devils were famously impotent in the shootout; they went 0-13 and scored on one of their first 30 shootout attempts that season. If ever there was a team without shootout talent, that was it. This year? They went an almost-average 5-7. The Kings themselves were a respectable 8-6 in the shootout a year ago, with more or less the same players.

If you're still not convinced, look at LA's save percentage and shooting percentage in the shootout over the last few years (thanks to @JTDutch for the data):


Los Angeles in the Shootout, 2011-2014

Save Percentage Shooting Percentage
2011-12 0.633 25%
2012-13 0.455 43%
2013-14 0.759 31%
2014-15 0.636 14%
And that's with mostly the same goalie and many of the same shooters. This just fluctuates year-to-year without rhyme or reason, and this year the Kings got the short end of the stick.

Overtime Losses
The Kings went 1-7 in non-shootout OT games, also the worst in the NHL. Unlike at 5v5, the issue here was bad puck luck. In 116 minutes of 4v4 play, the Kings had a 91.8 PDO, 28th in the league. Some have speculated that the Kings are particularly poorly suited for 4v4, since their physical style works better when there's less open ice. Maybe, but the Kings haven't been bad at 4v4 in the recent past. Over the past three years (it's important to look at multi-year samples here since otherwise the sample size is too small) the Kings are 4th in the NHL in 4v4 Corsi at 54.1%. It seems more likely that the Kings got unlucky than that this is a legitimate weakness. League-average luck probably gets the Kings 2 or 3 more standings points.

Pythagorean Expectation
As you'd expect of a very good team, the Kings posted an excellent goal differential. You'll find them at 15th in the league at +12 in the official standings, but that's not quite right. The NHL does not remove empty netters--remove those and the Kings are at +19. The NHL also counts shootout wins as a goal for and shootout losses as a goal against (???), so cut that out and the Kings are a robust +25, good for 9th in the league (and most of the teams ahead of them had unsustainably high PDOs this year).

Unfortunately, while a mix of luck and skill goes into generating a good goal differential, turning that goal differential into standings points is a matter of sheer luck. If a team plays well but happens to have its goals distributed poorly, it will do poorly in the standings. This concept was first applied to baseball, but the logic holds true in hockey. Two teams can have the same talent and create the same number of goals. But if one team wins a lot of blowouts but loses a lot of close games, the other team will surge ahead.

The Kings were excellent in games decided by 2 goals or more, but 27th in the NHL in games decided by a goal. The Ducks were first in the NHL in that category and had only one regulation loss by one goal all year, while the Kings had nine. That's how the Ducks got ahead of the Kings, even though the Kings were superior in Corsi and goal differential. The Ducks distributed their goals better so they won the close games, while many of the Kings' goals were wasted in blowout wins.

But teams do not control how their goals are distributed, although they are severely affected by it. This is luck, a huge contributor to variance in the NHL standings; and unfortunately, it worked in favor of the other Pacific division teams this year.

Other Teams
The Kings have 93 points now; if they beat the Sharks at home tomorrow, they'll get 95. That's exactly how many regular season points the 2011-12 cup team had. The difference was the 2011-12 Flames only got to 90 points and finished 9th, while the 2014-15 Flames surged ahead and will get to 97 or more.

If the 2011-12 Flames had won three more games, that Kings team would have missed the playoffs, and no one would have known what they were capable of--except perhaps stats bloggers, who recognized how great the team's underlying possession numbers were. It's worth reflecting on that before dismissing this Kings team. For all the bad luck and frustrations of the season, in plenty of years they still would have done enough.

Conclusion
So what is the result of all these considerations? I think it is optimistic. The Kings didn't play poorly. They didn't miss the playoffs because they were worn down, or because they were untalented, or because they didn't try hard enough. The Kings did well in the aspects of the game they could control, but hockey teams are always at the mercy of chance, and chance was unkind to the Kings this year.


If we conclude that LA was unlucky, not bad, that means the core of the team is not rotten. LA can bring back a similar group of players next year and reasonably expect better results simply from the regression of their luck. With some players departing and others declining, minor changes will be necessary; but there is no need to tear down the structure the Kings have spent the past decade building.