Erik Karlsson, Mike Hoffman and Kyle Turris. (Photo by Francois Lacasse/NHLI via Getty Images)
The Ottawa Senators have looked like a burgeoning contender of late, but the underlying stats suggest they're playing way over their heads.
While covering an event this past summer, I found myself on a couch with Washington Capitals center Michael Latta and Ottawa Senators left winger Mike Hoffman. It was THN prediction season, and Latta and Hoffman were curious about how we forecasted their teams to finish in 2015-16.
"Well, you'll be happy," I told Latta. "We have the Caps winning the East and reaching the Stanley Cup final."
"What about us?" Hoffman asked.
Then, the awkward silence.
"Come on," Latta said with a smirk. "Tell him. Don't sugarcoat it. Don't hold back."
I looked Hoffman in the eye.
"…We have you ninth," I said. "Sorry man. You were eighth for a while, but when Pittsburgh added Bonino and Fehr, we had to flip-flop you."
It was painful to tell a good young player we didn't think his team was quite good enough to reach the big dance again, but it was how we felt at THN. The Sens were a sensational story last season but needed an inhuman run by goalie Andrew Hammond just to qualify for the playoffs on the final day. They had a promising future, and GM Bryan Murray did a great job re-signing youngsters Hoffman, Mark Stone and Mika Zibanejad, but there wasn't room to add much more to what was already a bubble team. We figured Ottawa would stay competitive but fall just short.
Here we are in December and the Sens look more than competitive. They're 13-7-5, third in the Atlantic Division and one point out of second with a game in hand on Detroit. The Sens are 6-2-2 in their past 10 games. They took down the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks Thursday night. Only the powerhouse Dallas Stars and Montreal Canadiens have scored more goals. All-world blueliner Erik Karlsson continues to be Erik Karlsson, and Ottawa has gotten outstanding individual effort from its top six forwards. Bobby Ryan is playing the best hockey of his career, almost to the point of becoming a Hart Trophy dark horse. Hoffman and Stone have not only proven last year's breakouts were legitimate, but they have improved on the paces they set in 2014-15. Kyle Turris continues to hum along as one of the sport's most underrated pivots. He and Stone have been point-per-game players for almost a full calendar year now.
So it appears Hoffman and Co. are poised to make THN chow down on roasted crow this spring. But beneath the extremely entertaining hockey to which Ottawa has treated us lie some alarming tendencies that suggest this team is what we thought it was during that awkward summer couch chat.
You know what's coming. Time to dip our heads in the advanced stats hole. Per war-on-ice.com, Ottawa ranks a hideous 29th in the NHL in 5-on-5 score-adjusted Corsi For percentage at 46.2. It's the worst mark in the Eastern Conference. The Sens finished 19th in the NHL last year.
They rank 22nd in the NHL in 5-on-5 score adjusted shot attempts per 60 minutes. If the Sens have a weak "possession" score, why are they sniping so many goals? Their shooting percentage is 11.1, tops in the NHL. Meanwhile, they are dead last in the corresponding shot attempts against category. Based on the stats, we could argue Ottawa is the worst defensive team in hockey right now.
And suddenly, this team strikingly resembles the 2014-15 Calgary Flames or 2013-14 Colorado Avalanche. Ottawa's shooting percentage will regress to the mean and the goal production will dip. As long as the Sens keep giving up more chances than any other team in the NHL, they'll start giving up more goals than they score, and they'll start losing games. They've been lots of fun to watch, but they're winning via unsustainable events.
The one thing in Ottawa's favor right now: Colorado and Calgary still made the playoffs in their respective "lucky" seasons. It's entirely possible the regression doesn't happen this year, and maybe the Sens bamboozle us, creeping into the post-season again. But if the numbers have taught us one thing, it's that you can only run from them for so long. The fall is coming. It's just a matter of when.
Matt Larkin is an associate editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin