Offense Wins Championships Too, But Do the Dallas Stars Fit the Profile of a Cup Winner?
A few surface level stats suggest that Dallas is a contending team. A few surface level stats suggest they are not. A few fancier stats suggest Dallas is a contending team. A few fancier stats suggest they are not. Just how far can Dallas go in the Stanley Cup playoffs according to the numbers?
Now that the Dallas Stars are officially in the playoffs, the 2015-2016 victory green incarnation have become the proverbial "wild card" team according to most pundits. Sure Dallas can score, pass, and skate, but can they flip the switch and defend the blueline like Helm's Deep?
Hasn't anyone told them that defense wins championships? Don't they know that you can run and gun in the regular season, but in the playoffs that just doesn't cut it?
Probably. Even Lindy Ruff and his puck pressure system will be talking about defense like gospel. In truth, the idea that "defense wins championships" is a psychological spandrel. The simplicity of the idea is mistaken for the frequency of its execution. Defense is no more critical than offense as a necessary component to victory, which is true across pretty much all sports to the surprise of no one.
Among the 49 NFL Super Bowls, the better defensive team, measured by points allowed that season, has won 30 times. The better offensive team has won 25 times.
...The Super Bowl champ has been a top-five defensive team during the regular season on 31 occasions. How many times was the Super Bowl champ ranked among the top five in offense? 27.
...Of the 69 NBA championships from 1947 to 2015, the league's best defensive teams during the regular season have won ten titles - including the Warriors last year - while the best offensive teams have won seven. In the playoffs, the better defensive teams win 54.4 percent of the time, while the better offensive teams win 54.7 percent of the time - almost dead even.
As Tobias Moskowitz and Jon Wertheim documented in Scorecasting, if you define defense by pitching, the same holds true of baseball: in 2011, the last 100 World Series winners had been won by better defensive teams 44 times to the better offense's 54. Across each postseason, the better offensive team won 51.8 Percent of the contests compared to 50.8 for the better "defense" .
As you'd expect, the same holds true of the NHL. Since 1980, seven of the 33 Stanley Cup winning teams had a goals against that ranked 10th or worse in the regular season. Meanwhile, only four teams had a goals for that ranked 10th or lower.
If you're a Dallas Stars fan you may want to look away because if you looked at that list, you'd find something more gruesome than Tyler Seguin's lacerated achilles' tendon: the worst ranked goals against for a team that won a Cup was 20th (the 1992 Pittsburgh Penguins). Dallas is currently ranked 24th.
You can uncover your eyes now. There are quite a few silver linings here. The first is the now famous Corsi "Mission Accomplished" chart. As we all know, don't know, or don't care to know by now, Corsi is the basic hockey stat that tallies shots, whether on goal, blocked, or sent into the nacho trays in row five like Trevor Daley used to do*. The differential between shot generation for, and shot generation against is defined as "CF%". As it approximates possession of the puck, teams with better puck possession tend to be more successful.
Five top possession teams in NHL since 2010. Winners of all of last seven Cups. pic.twitter.com/LHruGX9TX0— James Mirtle (@mirtle) April 26, 2015
Thanks James. Right now the Dallas Stars are sitting pretty on this front. How pretty?
Now, a team's shot generation won't be the whole story. As fancy stats rabble rouser, David Johnson, pointed out, you can deviate from CF% as long as you have either a strong shooting percentage (like the 2008-2009 Pens who were ranked 19th in CF% but 1st in Sh%), or a strong save percentage (like the 2010-2011 Bruins who were ranked 14th in CF% but 1st in Sv%).
Dallas does not have a strong save percentage. Thanks to defensive miscues, their high wire act, and two goalies who have struggled throughout the season, Dallas is ranked 27th in SV%. Only the Stanley Cup winning Blackhawks team of the 2009-2010 regular season was worse (at 29). So at least there's precedent.
But they do have a strong shooting percentage, currently ranked 2nd in the NHL behind the Washington Capitals. Better yet, there are a few numbers making the argument that Dallas may actually be underperforming when it comes to goals. So I've talked about this #fancystat before thanks to following around Sean Tierney in the Twitterverse. xG is a model combining shot quality with shot generation. It's a string theory attempt at calculating offense by combining the micro (shot distance, shot type, strength state, rush shot, et cetera) with the macro (possession via shots in general, per 60 minutes of play).
For a lengthier explanation, click here. For a graph of expected versus observed goal differential, look below:
The key here is basically this: any team label located at the top of their respective line is performing below expectations while a team label on the bottom means they are performing above expectations. Graham cracker crust goaltending and missed chances will do that.
That's the good news for Dallas fans. They can probably expect a noticeable uptick in offense. Toronto fans can look forward to next year (as well as the draft), and Washington should absolutely worry about Pittsburgh beyond simply their last meeting where they got wedgied and toe tagged.
Moreover, as Micah McCurdy observed in his models for which regular season qualities transfer over to playoff success, good offense and good goaltending are better than good defense and "hot shooting". The bad news is that goaltending is still critical. Even with Kari's recent run, history is not on his side.
If you ever watched James Cameron's The Abyss, you know how violent deep sea pressure change can be. Just ask Corporal Hicks. But some creatures are capable of withstanding that pressure. The sperm whale can dive over nine thousand feet below the ocean surface. How? A flexible rib cage allows their lungs to collapse, which keeps excess nitrogen out.
Hockey talking heads will say that the Dallas Stars need to become a different animal in order to win: defense wins championships, so block shots, clear the crease, and throw the body! They're sort of right; just for the wrong reasons.
Like the sperm whale, they need to exapt if they expect to go far (with the inclusion if bigger bodies that haven't slowed them down, this is exactly what they've done). But they don't need to transform into something they are not. This doesn't mean they're perfect or fit for a true run. Again, some of the numbers are on their side. Some are not. it just means their strengths are what make them special. They're better off refining who they are than they are miming who they think they should be.
*No offense intended, unlike the actual offense he's been helping generate for Pittsburgh. I am legitimately happy for the guy. As any Stars fan should be. Nothing defined Daley's career more in Dallas than that singular moment on Jamie Benn's Art Ross night, and his ear to ear grin as the first man to celebrate Jamie's achievement.