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Using Shot Differential to Pick the 2014-15 Stanley Cup Winner


More and more there are general and situational statistics for every thing in hockey.  And while I don't subscribe to all of them, some stats are certainties.  For example, to score you have to shoot!

Yes I'm leaving out goal differentials, quality of scoring chances, Fenwick and many other 'advanced' stats.  The last couple years I have taken a detailed look at shooting differentials among all playoff teams as an empirical way to fill out my NHL pool picks.  In 2013 it worked out surprisingly well, predicting almost every series correctly, including the early exit of the 3rd seed (and favored) Canucks.  In 2014 it again was extremely accurate, predicting the first round upset of the Avalanche to the Wild, the Rangers as the favorite to come out of the East, and the winner of the first round series between the Sharks and LA Kings to be extra tough to pick against in following rounds.

Team Shooting Differential (per game)

This statistic takes a look at the 'average shots for' versus the 'average shots against' for a particular team over 82 games.  The theory is a team with a positive differential gets more shots on net, allows fewer shots against (with strong defense and blocked shots), and hence has proportionately more scoring chances than their opponent.

In the last 21 seasons, not only have almost all Stanley Cup winning teams had a positive team shooting differential, they have consistently been in the Top 10.  Here is how the Stanley Cup winners since 1993 have stacked up:

  • Los Angeles Kings (2014) - Ranked 3rd overall with a +5.4 differential per game
  • Chicago Blackhawks (2013) - Ranked 2nd overall with a +4.9 differential per game
  • Los Angeles Kings (2012) – Ranked 6th overall with a +3.2 differential per game
  • Boston Bruins (2011) – Ranked 17th overall, but still had a +0.5 differential
  • Chicago Blackhawks (2010) – Ranked 1st overall, a +9.0 differential per game
  • Pittsburgh Penguins (2009) – Ranked 21st overall, the only Cup winner with a negative differential -1.3
  • Detroit Red Wings (2008) – Ranked 1st overall, a huge +10.9 per game differential
  • Anaheim Ducks (2007) – Ranked 3rd overall, a +4.1 per game differential
  • Carolina Hurricanes (2006) – Ranked 10th overall, a +0.7 per game differential
  • Tampa Bay Lightening (2004) – Ranked 2nd overall, a +4.6 per game differential
  • New Jersey Devils (2003) – Ranked 1st overall, a +8.1 per game differential
  • Detroit Red Wings (2002) – Ranked 4th overall, a +4.6 per game differential
  • Colorado Avalanche (2001) – Ranked 4th overall, a +4.1 per game differential
  • New Jersey Devils (2000) – Ranked 2nd overall, a +7.5 per game differential
  • Dallas Stars (1999) – Ranked 6th overall, a +3.7 per game differential
  • Detroit Red Wings (1998) – Ranked 2nd overall, a +5.0 per game differential
  • Detroit Red Wings (1997) – Ranked 1st overall, a +7.9 per game differential
  • Colorado Avalanche (1996) – Ranked 6th overall, a +3.3 per game differential
  • New Jersey Devils (1995) – Ranked 5th overall, a +4.7 per game differential
  • New York Rangers (1994) – Ranked 3rd overall, a +8.2 per game differential
  • Montreal Canadians (1993) – Ranked 10th overall, a +1.8 per game differential

In the last 21 years, the only team to have a negative differential and win the Stanley Cup was the 2009 Pittsburgh Penguins.  67% of Stanley Cup winning teams have been in the Top 5, and 90% of winning teams have been in the Top 10 when it comes to overall shooting differential.

Here is how the regular season shot differential per game looks going into the 2015 NHL Playoffs:

(See past year's shot differential)

 Looking at this year’s differentials, the following three playoff bound teams have a negative differential:

  • Calgary Flames – Ranked 24th overall with a -1.7 differential per game
  • Montreal Canadiens – Ranked 23rd overall with a -1.7 (-1.66 to be precise) differential per game
  • Ottawa Senators – Ranked 21st overall with a -1.2 differential per game

Twenty-one years of historical data would indicate with a 95% certainty you can throw out these 3 teams from winning the Stanley Cup.  Taking it a step further, there are only 4 teams since the 1992-93 season that have had a differential below +2.0.  This year’s fringe playoff teams are the Vancouver Canucks (+0.1), Washington Capitals (+0.6), Winnipeg Jets (+1.1), Anaheim Ducks (+1.1), Detroit Red Wings (+1.3), and the Tampa Bay Lightning (+1.7). 

Looking for Value or an Upset?

There is no doubting the fact that teams in the regular season that shoot the puck more, and prevent shots against, tend to win more games and have better records.  At this point we’ve essentially ruled out 9 of the 16 playoff teams this season, where is there value?  When the LA Kings won the Cup so dominantly in 2012 they finished 8th in the Western Conference, but they were a Top 6 team in shooting differential.  There isn't a ton of value in round one because most of the series' involve teams with very similar shot differentials, so save it for round 2, but here are a couple that jump out:

  1. New York Islanders (+5.5) vs. Washington Capitals (+0.6) – The Islanders don't have home ice advantage, but they do have a 4.9 SPG advantage.  The Islanders are 2.30 underdogs to win the series.
  2. Pittsburgh Penguins (+2.4) vs. New York Rangers (+2.0) – Tough to predict now that star defenseman Kris Letang is injured.  But Pittsburgh holds 0.4 SPG advantage, which isn't huge, but they are huge long-shots to win the series.  PIT is 3.00 to win the series, the biggest long-shot in Round 1, there is value there.
  3. Winnipeg Jets (+1.1) vs Anaheim Ducks (+1.1) – This series is a deadlock in shot differential and could go the distance, but the odds makers don't see it that way. WPG is a 2.40 underdog to win the series.

I'm paying special attention to the Blackhawks vs Predators series, both teams are top 5 in shot differential and play in the first round. Meanwhile for your East bracket, there are only three teams in the Top 10...the Islanders, Penguins, and Rangers.  I'm shortlisting one of those three to come out of the East.  In my pool, I'm taking the Islanders out of the East, mainly because if it isn't them I don't feel any other Eastern teams will stack up.  But the winner has to come out of the West, the Blues/'Hawks/Predators are so close, but I'm rolling with the Blues to win it all.

Good luck hockey fans with your selections for this year’s playoffs, while shooting differential isn’t a crystal ball for picking the Stanley Cup winner, hopefully it has helped narrow down and eliminate certain teams from contention. 



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