Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Some Pundits Overrating Buffalo

Last year, the Buffalo Sabres came within one game of a trip to the Stanley Cup finals. This came after the team took a big leap forward making the playoffs for the first time since 2001. It has become a somewhat fashionable statement to claim they are the best team in the NHL since they are off to a 5-0 start this season. In fact, there is even an hfboards thread asking if the Sabres are the best team in hockey.

Now I picked the Sabres to a respectable seventh in the East Division but hardly in a position that is worthy of "the best team in hockey". In fact of the predictions Jes Golbez gathered I pick the Sabres to have the worst finish of all nine pundits.

Last year, the Sabres made a big step forward. They did it with depth. They did it with everyone contributing well. And they did it without superstars. In fact the Hockey News top 50 players list does not include a single Sabre. This is the kind of team that finds it hard to repeat. This is the kind of team that often regresses to the mean. This is one of the most fundamental results in sabremetric analysis. So I boldly ignore the popular opinion and predict Buffalo will regress to the mean. They still don't have any superstar forwards (Daniel Briere is pretty good but he's a step below superstar). Their defence might be an achilles heel as it will have to be without Jay McKee and Teppo Numminen is still holding on despite some heart problems. Ryan Miller might be a superstar goalie, but he is making his jump to NHL regular at an awfully late age (he's 26) and this generally means he won't continue to progress much as he is already approaching his years of peak performance. I predict Buffalo will be a good team, but they won't be able to repeat at the level they did last year.

Now this season they are 5-0 am I wrong? They may have a perfect record, but I am still not impressed. Three of their five wins were shootout wins. That means the games were very close. Even if Buffalo is an unbeatable team in shootouts (something I doubt based on their 2-7 result in shootouts in 2005/06, that is too many close games and it will catch up to them. In regulation, Buffalo has scored 19 goals and allowed 15. This gives them a Pythagorean winning percentage of .616 which is good, but its not the best in the NHL. In fact it is nineth. Atlanta, Dallas, Detroit, Edmonton, Minnesota, New Jersey and San Jose all have better pythagorean winning percentages (goals for ^2 / (goals for ^2 + goals against ^2))right now. Theoretically, they should project to nineth place. That is no place for the team being crowned "best in the NHL".

Early last season, many of the pundits picked Ottawa as the best team in the NHL. I believe that had Dominik Hasek stayed healthy and continued his Vezina level goaltending he was showing before injury they would have shown that, but in the end they didn't come very close to the Stanley Cup.

NOTE: Several hours after I posted this, Buffalo defeated the Philadelphia Flyers 9-1. This certainly is a dominant win that I had been looking for. Whether this more clearly shows the problems in Philly or the strength of the Sabres is another question.

Well, the shootout sure put a big wallop on the Pythagorean formula.

Be careful not to rely on such a tool so early in the season. The formula is not very good in such a short sample. One or two really lopsided games can throw the whole thing out of whack.

I look at Minnesota who played below their pythag last year to regress upward, but you have to take into account just how much their team changed in the offseason. The tool has been used by baseball, but they have double the games and far less roster turnover compared to today's NHL.
The point that the pythagorean formula shows is that Buffalo has not outscored their opposition significantly despite winning all their games.

Of course its far too early to put any predictive power in the statistics at this point in the year. I am sure nobody seriously expects Martin Havlat to lead the NHL in points this year or anything.

My point is they haven't been as dominant as a 5-0 record might indicate.
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