Awful First Half Teams Will Stay Awful

January marked the beginning of a new year. Resolutions were plentiful as were hopes that favorite NHL teams would somehow catch fire and make a run to the playoffs. I’m sorry to break it to you, but if your team stunk in January, it most likely will for the rest of the season.

Josh Gorges is on one of the NHL's first half bad teams (Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports)
Sabres’ Josh Gorges is on one of the NHL’s first half bad teams
(Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports)

January changeth not teams

The turning of a page on the calendar does not signify miraculous change in a team’s performance in the NHL. There are rare exceptions, of course. By and large, however, if your team was awful in the first half of the season, they are very likely to be awful in the second half, too.

Investors in the stock market are given a disclaimer that says, “Past performance is not a guarantee of future results.” This axiom is not applicable as a general rule in the NHL. Teams that have trouble winning usually have deep-rooted causes for those troubles.

It normally takes significant changes to turn a team from a bottom dweller into a contender. As I noted previously, there have been exceptions. It does not appear that this season will lend itself to another exception. There are at least three really awful teams currently in the NHL, and in all likelihood they will remain awful throughout the remainder of the season.

Tyler Ennis is a bright spot on of one the awful teams (Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports)
Tyler Ennis is a bright spot on of one the awful teams
(Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports)

Stating the obvious

The Buffalo Sabres are currently at the bottom of the heap in terms of total points accumulated thus far in the NHL. Is there any reason to think that they will make a sudden surge and find themselves in the hunt for a playoff spot? I’m reasonably sure you do not think that there is any reason. I’m also reasonably sure you are right.

I was reading a cool article on www.depthockeyanalytics.com about how things like “Score Adjusted” Corsi and PDO are good indicators of how a team is likely to perform in the second half of a season. The article makes a good case for the Sabres maintaining their firm grip on last place overall in the NHL by season’s end. What seems obvious to the eye seems validated by analytics.

Buffalo has challenges all across the board. A fascinating look at this team can be found at www.diebytheblade.com in an article written by Andy Boron and published just prior to the NHL All-Star Break. His list of five factoids included the unimaginable Corsi rating of the team’s defensemen and forwards. They are bad on both ends of the ice, with no indication of getting better anytime soon.

Will Sabres GM Tim Murray drop the axe on Ted Nolan? It is unlikely since this is his first full season as head coach. Will Murray open the team checkbook and try to make some trades that will help turn the season around? That is also unlikely. With the trade deadline approaching, Buffalo has no real hope of adding players that will turn this season around. They surely have their eye on the draft and Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel.

Festival City

The Edmonton Oilers are not what one would call having a season representative of the “Festival City” nickname Edmonton enjoys. Like their cellar dwelling counterpart Sabres, the Oilers have yet to crack the 40 point mark. That is bad. At 35 points, surely Edmonton is neck and neck with Buffalo in the race to the draft.

Dr. Phil Curry, whose work was referenced above from www.depthockeyanalytics.com indicates that the Oilers may not have as bad of a second half of the season as they did in the first half. That said, however, he still finds them likely finishing next to last overall.

Will Edmonton end up with Connor McDavid? Or will they select Jack Eichel? Will they pick another promising star if they are first or second in the upcoming draft?

Jordan Eberle leads the Oilers with 31 points amassed so far this season. Compare that with Buffalo’s Tyler Ennis who leads their team with 30 points. The problem for Edmonton has not been so much in scoring, as it has been in holding onto leads.

For example, this part of the headline in the Edmonton Journal from Sunday says it all: “…Oil Leak Away Another Lead…” In that particular game, they lost 4-2 to the Calgary Flames, after being up 2-1 going into the third period.

https://twitter.com/OilersAllNews/status/562275265829543937

The team is lacking in many areas, but is not so far removed from possible improvement as to think that

Viktor Fasth of the Oilers (Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports)
Viktor Fasth of the Oilers (Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports)

they are tanking. Taylor Hall should be back on the ice soon, and that is a positive. With both of their goalies sporting sub .900 save percentages, and plus 3 goals against averages, things will not drastically improve unless their play in the net improves. Chris Peters of CBS Sports sums up the Edmonton Oilers nicely:

“Edmonton doesn’t look like it’s going to catch the Buffalo Sabres in the futility race this season, but the Oilers are still in great position to nab one of the top three picks in the draft. The players aren’t rolling over, but there’s still a long way to go in this rather dreary season.”

[tweetthis]There is a long way to go for the Edmonton Oilers and the Buffalo Sabres. But, the way to the bottom is very short [/tweetthis], and a more realistic end to the long road that is the rest of this season.

Honorable Mention

(Photo Credit: Andy Martin Jr)
Carolina Hurricanes center Eric Staal (12) and New York Rangers right wing Jesper Fast (19) (Photo Credit: Andy Martin Jr)

The Carolina Hurricanes (40 points) are among teams that have been mostly awful in the first half of this season. In predicting the season’s finish, Dr. Phil Curry (cited above) said this of the Oilers and Hurricanes:

“They, along with Carolina, are predicted to show the most improvement in the second half, bettering their first half point totals by 16 points each. Edmonton will, however, still end up 2nd last overall and Carolina 3rd last.”

So basically everything should remain the same at the bottom. That’s not very encouraging for the fans of the ‘Canes. Since I cover the Carolina Hurricanes for the Hockey Writers, I can tell you that they are a team that can get better, and whose record should be better.

They are near the top of the NHL in killing penalties, and have vastly improved on defense as a whole under Head Coach Bill Peters. They struggled early and often in scoring goals, getting stuck in a stretch of one-goal games that was maddening to everyone, fans, players, and coaches alike.

The return of Jordan Staal from injury has meant a great deal to the Hurricanes. It can be seen in the scoring surge that brother Eric has had since his return. But, the scoring droughts of Alexander Semin and Jeff Skinner are cause for great concern.

If Coach Peters is to have any success the remainder of the season that is greater than the output of this team in the first half, he will have to get more offense from Semin and Skinner. If not, then Dr. Curry’s analytics may be dead-on in having the ‘Canes finish in the bottom three.

The race to the bottom may be predetermined in the minds of those who understand advanced analytics a lot better than me. But, even the novice stat-geek can watch and see that the Buffalo Sabres, Edmonton Oilers, and Carolina Hurricanes have had disappointing, seasons so far.

I can tell you without looking at your Corsi or PDO that there is not a lot that is likely to change between now and April for any of these three teams. Of course, analytics have been wrong, and so have pundits. But, as far as these three are concerned, the race is on…for Connor or Jack.