BY THOMAS DRANCE
Through eight games played in the AHL this season, the Vancouver Canucks’ AHL affiliate the Chicago Wolves (+850 to Win the Western Conference) lead the Midwest Division with 11 points, good for second in the Western Conference. While the Wolves’ sparkling 5-2-1 record represents an auspicious start to the season, if we peer beneath the surface, the Wolves haven’t been performing at an elite level for an AHL club let alone a Calder Cup favourite (+1700 to Win the Calder Cup).
THE BAD NEWS
Because the AHL score sheet doesn’t provide us with our full arsenal of “fancy stats,” we’ll have to rely on several cruder metrics, but the cruder metrics can still be instructive when deployed correctly. One of those simple metrics is “goal differential,” (GD). Now goal differential requires context (like all counting stats it can be inflated by the bounces) but as a general rule when a team’s record (results) has a contradictory relationship with their goal differential (process), the record is most often the “outlier” and will tend to revert to the mean over an extended sample of games.
Through 8 games the Wolves have won 5 contests, but they’re carrying a negative goal differential (-1). What this tells us is that when the Wolves win, they win narrowly; and when they lose, they lose by a wider margin. When we look at their game-by-game results, this analysis seems to be correct. Both of Chicago’s regulation losses this season have been decisive (a 4-1 loss against Abbotsford and a 4-1 loss against Peoria), while three of their wins have come in the shootout. Needless to say, this doesn’t bode well for the club going forward.
The major area of concern where goal differential is concerned has to be the Wolves’ third period performances and their special teams play. Much has been made of the Wolves’ third period performances this season (they’ve been bad) but looking over the shots for and against rates, I don’t see much that is out of the ordinary. I think the real “third period problem” that the Wolves are having has little to do with motivation and a lot more to do with their atrocious special teams.
Consider that Chicago’s opponents have scored eleven(!) power-play goals in only eight games so far this season. The Wolves penalty-kill unit’s success rate is an anemic 71% on the season. Actually a 71% success-rate while shorthanded isn’t anemic, it’s catastrophic.
On the other side of the puck, the Wolves’ power-play has been just as woeful. In eight games this season the Wolves have scored only two power-play markers in thirty-two power-play opportunities meaning the Wolves power-play is operating at a 6.25% clip on the season.
Breaking the Wolves’ power-play struggles down to a game-by-game rate reenforces how severely Chicago’s special teams performance is hurting the club so far this season. Wolves opponents are averaging 1.38 power-play goals for per game, while Chicago is averaging .25 power-play goals for per-game (a -1.13 differential). Those numbers are astronomically bad for Chicago and it’s hard to win many games with special teams rates like that. In fact if the penalty-kill and power-play units don’t tighten up significantly, the percentages will be against the Wolves remaining at the top of their division for much longer.
THE GOOD NEWS
As bad as Chicago’s special teams have been, there is good news in the club’s performance besides their 5-2-1 record.
First of all, as bad as the special teams have been, a 71% PK rate and a 6.25% PP rate are such dramatic numbers that even if the Wolves don’t “tighten up” their performance in these areas, they’re likely to see some improvement just due to normal regression.
Secondly, the Wolves have outscored their opponents 16-10 at even-strength through eight contests this season. It’s not just a fluke that the Wolves have kept their heads above water in the West, even while their penalty-kill is as generous as Henry Sugar and their power-play is as dangerous a butter-knife. Nope, it’s largely thanks to stellar goaltending, and good five-on-five play.
Realistically, most of any given hockey season is played at five-on-five. It’s the most important game-state by a country mile, and if the Wolves can continue to control ~60+% of the even-strength goal events going forward – they’ll do okay even if they remain the worst special teams club in the American Hockey League.