Suppose there's a team that looks a lot like the Los Angeles Kings, from a statistical perspective.
We're talking score-adjusted possession numbers that are among the best in the league; the ability to limit high-quality against them at some of the most impressive levels in recent years; maintaining elite numbers when it comes to things like shot suppression, and not even letting their opponents attempt many shots in the first place.
Now suppose that team, the Carolina Hurricanes, is sitting tied for 20th on the league table — 20 points in 22 games — and it's probably a little better than most people expected through 22 games.
This from a team that finished fifth from the bottom of the league last season and didn't really make too many significant changes in the offseason? Really, all they did was get Eddie Lack, James Wisniewski and Kris Versteeg. Versteeg is first among team forwards in scoring with 14 points in 22 games, sure, but that's not anything to write home about. Wisniewski has played one game so far this year because of a torn ACL. Lack has been terrible.
Which sounds like the skeleton of a team with 20 points in 22 games, quite frankly. Top-scoring forward who's tied for 90th in the league with Dale Weise and Jason Zucker, no goaltending, etc.
But that in no way lines up with all those “advanced” numbers which are indicative of a team that really ought to be doing a lot better.
The first thing you have to say, though, is that the success rates on shots on goal kind of fall into place with what most people probably would have expected for a team with this kind of talent level, particularly up front and between the pipes. Because for the many ways in which the Hurricanes now dominate their opponents in all areas of the ice, the two they don't are in terms of shooting and save percentage. Carolina's 5-on-5 shooting percentage is tied for fourth-worst in the league. Its save percentage is fourth-worst all by itself. And guess what folks: This is where that thing people who think these metrics are useless always say about not being good at measuring talent turns out to be right in some cases. Well, to some extent.
At this point in the year you'd expect Jordan Staal and Jeff Skinner to have more than five goals and 14 points combined, for example. You'd expect just about any team's points leader to not be a defenseman with 18 points. You'd expect an NHL team to not carry an .898 save percentage in all situations through 22 dates. And to that end, yeah, that's absolutely why the Hurricanes are currently sitting in the bottom third of the league table once again. For sure.
It's especially concerning because, while Lack certainly isn't this bad, the low .900s is probably just about Cam Ward's demonstrated talent level. Unless there's something wrong with Lack or maybe the goaltending coaching or something, the number should be significantly higher than .898, and maybe that turns around, but it's not just bad luck at 5-on-5. Rotten on the PK (.842 is 23rd in the league), good enough on the power play that they don't need to worry about getting scored on shorthanded (.941 is ninth), and you're looking at a pretty concerning issue with no real end in sight. That is, unless Lack suddenly gets his head on straight and plays to the level of quality routinely seen in his Vancouver days.
But it's also possible that Carolina is just a goalie grave yard, because look at all the goalies in recent years who have gone there and been given every opportunity by Ward to take over the No. 1 spot, and often underperformed their career norms. Lack isn't the first. Since 2010, Carolina has used eight goalies besides Ward for at least some amount of time, and none of them have numbers of which you'd be all that proud. Part of that has to do with the fact that the Hurricanes have had a rotten defense for much of the last few years, and are really only starting to turn a corner there in the last year or two, but also: Bad goalies.
When you're facing as few high-quality chances as Ward and Lack are this year — only 9.3 per 60 minutes of full-strength play — you really ought to be turning in better performances than this on a routine basis. But Lack has the second-worst save percentage on high-quality shots in the league, and Ward's is much better but it's still only 36th out of 52 goalies with at least 200 minutes played. In fact, they barely have anything resembling even middling numbers on shots of any quality, and it's a major issue:
Indeed, if Ward and Lack combined to stop the league-average score-adjusted save percentage at 5-on-5 on only the relatively few high-quality chances Carolina concedes each night, they'd have prevented six more goals against. That probably adds at least two points to their total in the standings (mathematically speaking), but given the number of one-goal games — or two-goal games with an empty netter — they've played currently sits at 13, which is a lot.
Of course, they're also 6-3-4 in such games, so it could be worse. But it could be better, too.
And none of that gets into the other aforementioned issue, which is that the team's shooting percentage isn't helping either. What's the problem there? They're decent at creating them at 5-on-5 — they're 12th in the NHL — but not really converting them, which should come as no surprise. From the high-danger areas, they're shooting about 11.8 percent versus a league average approaching 16 percent. That difference is going to cost you some goals as well, because Carolina only has 15 goals in 22 games from high-danger areas, and a big chunk of those came in just a handful of games, so there's not a lot of even distribution. What that means, basically, is that the Hurricanes can't count on scoring anywhere close to just one goal a night from within just a few feet of the crease. That's crazy.
The good news is that teams tend to regress toward the mean, and the odds that Skinner and Jordan Staal end the season scoring at this rate are slim. So help is probably coming when it comes to scoring in high-danger areas, but that doesn't make up the points lost already.
Making matters worse is that the Hurricanes power play has been atrocious.
It's running at just 13.33 percent for the season, which is dead last in the NHL, and “percentages” aren't the problem there. Sure, a 29th-in-the-NHL shooting efficiency of 9.9 percent isn't helping, but a lot of that can be chalked up to the fact that it generates the third-fewest high-danger chances per 60 (only 13.3, not all that much more than the 10.6 they cobble together at 5-on-5!). You hear coaches talk all the time about needing to pay the price get to the “hard” areas of the ice, and the Hurricanes have just about no apparent will to do so on the power play.
It's a terribly strange quirk of Bill Peters' system, or a shocking lack of talent (maybe both?) because this was a problem last year as well. Just to a far lesser extent. In 79 games last season, the club created 20.9 high-danger chances per 60 on the power play, which still not very good, but it's better by about half. Maybe that's a number that normalizes as the season goes on. Especially because so far this year, it seems like Carolina has been good at drawing penalties, which makes sense because they're a dominant possession team.
The good news for the Hurricanes is that they're four points out of a playoff spot, and playing the way they have at 5-on-5 so far this year tends to lend itself to a lot of success. That's not an insurmountable discrepancy if their shooting percentage gets to where it ought to be.
The bad news is that there is nothing in recent Hurricanes history to suggest goaltending is any sort of organizational strength. But if either goalie catches fire, this is a team that could really start KO’ing the rest of the East on a regular basis.
All stats via War on Ice unless otherwise stated.
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