The movie version of “Moneyball” was very interesting in that it was built around something that was more or less the opposite of what it should have been.
The premise of the book (and the principles behind how the Oakland Athletics built baseball teams before anyone else) was that over a long enough period, the things that are most conducive to winning end up resulting in a large number of wins. The premise of the movie is that winning 20 games in a row was cool, and that their eventual loss to the Twins in the playoffs was in some way unfair.
The reason for this is that, in general, sports fans like to keep things as simple as possible, but ride a roller coaster of emotion throughout the course of the season. Take, for example, the Toronto Maple Leafs, who started out the season as one of the better teams in the Eastern Conference with a 10-4 start. At that time, all those who defended their offseason moves were strutting around like Mick Jagger, telling all the nerds who kept looking up from their calculators to say, “Umm, actually,” where they could put their spreadsheets. This was a validation of Leafs Hockey as it is now constituted to the nth degree.
Then they started losing. A lot. From Game 15 to Game 46, they went 11-16-5, with only four regulation wins in that stretch. This, we were told, was regression that any idiot could have seen coming and boy didn't it just serve all those dumb jocks right for ever believing in this awful team. Those dumb jocks, by the way, had skulked off to the darker corners of the hockey universe because it appeared as though all the dorks with their math were going to end up being right, and so the less said about any of it, the better.
Then the Leafs started winning again, culminating in a six-game winning streak during which the team won four times in regulation, and twice more in the shootout. Suddenly the mob looking to shove people into lockers were back out in full force, crowing about how the team had righted the ship by finding their compete level, or whatever other mysticism had escaped them from November through the end of the first week of January.
The truth of the matter of how good the Leafs are is probably somewhere in the middle of their runs of 10-4, 11-16-5, and now 6-0. All of it adds up to a playoff spot right this second (and a fairly comfortable one at that, for the time being) which is, the numbers say, still a bit of a reach for the team over the final 30 or so games of the season.
All of which is to say that when viewing a team over short periods of time, the conclusions you'll likely be able to draw from most of the results are not in and of themselves good predictors of how the team is going to finish the year.
Another way to look at it is this: The Leafs have been without David Clarkson for an hilarious number of games so far this season thanks to suspensions and injuries which have in no way helped his pathetic stat line in making that contract look any good at all for Dave Nonis. Prior to last night, the Leafs were 11-5 with Clarkson out of the lineup, and therefore 16-15-5 with him. That's a swing from a 113-point pace to one of 84. There is no single player you could dress in the entire NHL who could have that much of a negative impact on a team, whether it's their save percentage or shooting percentage. No one has the ability to make 29 points disappear (or indeed, appear) over 82 games. It's just one of those weird things that's not going to make sense because it doesn't have to. They're still being outshot dramatically in just about every game they play. Hockey's weird sometimes. We can all just accept that.
Another good example of this which has come to the fore in the past few weeks is the run on which the Columbus Blue Jackets now find themselves. Through mid-December they were basically a doormat even in the East, which takes some doing, thanks to their 14-17-4 record. Since that low point, though, they've lost just three games, and won the other 11, and the turnaround seems like it must be miraculous. That Dec. 19 loss to the Flyers brought their fenwick at 5-on-5 and with the score close to just 46.9, but 14 games later it stands at 50.1. That's an incredible turnaround, and their percentage of 5-on-5 close fenwick over the last 10 games has been 57.1, which is absolutely ludicrous.
So to what can we attribute this turnaround? The return of Nathan Horton to the lineup doesn't exactly coincide with the surge, as his first game was Jan. 2, but it sure hasn't hurt. There's also the fact that Sergei Bobrovsky returned from injury, playing in seven games since Jan. 6, posting a .936 save percentage in those games. Prior to that, his save percentage in October and November was just .906. In the absence of the reigning Vezina winner, backup Curtis McElhinney's save percentage, meanwhile, went from .897 in 10 games in December to .912 in January.
So in short, the goalies are stopping far more pucks than they did early in the season, and their rolling 10-game PDO has spiked to 101.9 prior to last night's game from 98.8 on Dec. 9, but was as high as nearly 105 in late December. That's how things correct themselves over the course of a season. If a goaltender is playing well below his career numbers (or above them), one can expect them to move toward that average accumulated over several seasons by exceeding it for some stretch of time.
Team performance works in more or less the same way. All that stuff you hear about, “If the season ended today, (weird thing) would happen is true,” but the season doesn't end today. The Leafs are still likely to fall out of a playoff spot, and the Blue Jackets are still likely to hang tenuously onto that bubble position they now hold.
The Blue Jackets were “just” five points out of eighth when their sideways season righted itself because their goaltenders stopped playing horribly. After a full month-plus in which they lost but three games, they're now tied for eighth with Detroit, behind whom they had fallen by seven points. It's making up ground, but ground they likely should never have lost in the first place. Likewise, on Jan. 11, just a day before the Leafs went on this winning streak, they were the top wild card team, two points clear of the Rangers, with one extra game played. Before last night, they were still the top wild card team, with a five-point lead on Columbus, the Blue Jackets holding three games in hand.
That's the point: Things are fluid in this league, and teams over the course of the last month or more are really no safer now than they were before. Rational observation and educated guesses derived from data tell you what they all are, more so than any specific segment of a season. Frankly, not even a playoff appearance is a real validator of success these days, so we're going to have to wait a while longer before we start making pronouncements of anything short-term being proof of anything long-term.