Hello Gopher fans! I haven’t forgotten or abandoned this project and have been hard at work tracking and compiling stats for the 2017-18 season. So far I have the first six games tracked and plan to get to the Michigan State series eventually. I skipped Clarkson so that I had some time to compile the data already tracked and might get to it during the Gophers’ winter break but we’ll see.
While the team has lost some key players since last year in Justin Kloos and Vinni Lettieri, we all know this is a team that doesn’t tend to rebuild and instead reloads. Before the year there was a ton of excitement around the fact that one of the newest recruits, Casey Mittlestadt, a top 8 pick in the NHL draft, is now with the team. With the acquisition of him, Scott Reedy, and Brannon McMannus to name a few, the preseason outlook of the forward group was very favorable. The defense looks to be fairly similar to last year’s with the losses of two upper classmen, Jake Bischoff and Ryan Collins, whose icetime has mostly been replaced by Tyler Nanne and Jack Glover. And with new goalie Nate Robson now on the roster (who is eligible to play later in the season), the goalie outlook looked strong as well between him and Eric Schierhorn. As such the preseason expectations were very high with this team.
So far this year the brightest spot has to be goaltending and the improvement of Eric Schierhorn. It’s still early but as of today he is second only to Jake Keilly of Clarkson in save percentage for goalies who have played 10 games or more. If you include goalies that have played 8+ games he is currently 5th and within .001 of of the top 5. Given UMN’s difficult schedule to start the year and how the team has consistently been outshot this is really impressive and a good sign going forward. Whether this is repeatable is a fair question to ask given that his .933 sv% is a big jump from his save percentage over his .906 sv% over the 74 games that preceded this year. But a lot has been made of his preparation before the season and the fact that he now has better competition in Nate Robson for the spot. It will be interesting to see how this progresses going forward but as of right now goaltending is probably the team’s biggest strength thus far and by far the biggest reason for their current record of 7-3.
As for what we’re seeing from the rest of the team, admittedly it’s hard to be down on them given their current record and the fact that their schedule has been pretty tough including 3 difficult road games vs North Dakota and Duluth. But there are some trends that are a little bit concerning both from a sustainability and a pure entertainment standpoint. Let’s dig into the numbers a bit.
One of the better predictors of success at the NHL level is even strength shot attempts for and against. A lot this has to do with the fact that the majority of all hockey games is played at 5 on 5 and shot rates tend to correlate with scoring chances. In the link you can see that while expected goals is slightly better, even strength shot attempt differential tends to be pretty close and is much better than goal differential. At the collegiate level we don’t have expected goal metrics available to us and another limitation is that we also don’t have score adjusted shot metrics to take out some of the noise of score effects. That said it’s still more ideal to be on the right end of that spectrum and consistently out-shooting your opponents more often than not.
Before the Michigan State series the Gophers sat in the bottom 10 of all NCAA teams in even strength shot differential, next to the likes of Holy Cross, Brown, and Alaska. As of today they’re 47th out of 60 teams. To get a sense of which teams are in the top 10, we can see that some of the best teams in the polls that have higher expectations such as North Dakota, Denver, Duluth, Mankato, Penn State, and Harvard, all sit in the top 10. Even a team like St. Cloud who has been been a bit more pedestrian in this area is right at about 50% and in the middle of the pack of all NCAA teams. For the Gophers it’s still very early in the season and this team has had some players recovering from injuries that happened last year as well as this year but this will be something to watch going forward as it doesn’t tend to bode well for future success. A lot has been made of the special teams difficulties this team had especially in the series vs North Dakota but to me the 5 on 5 play is a bigger concern simply because the vast majority of all games is played at even strength and this team doesn’t lack shooting talent, the power play was bound to bounce back at some point. For frame of reference, last year’s Gopher team ended up 19th in the NCAA in this metric and Denver, the team that ended up winning it all, was 6th (and due to the difficulty of their schedule vs some of the WCHA/Atlantic teams ahead of them, 6th is probably under selling how good they were in this area). The year before North Dakota was 4th in this metric and the Gophers, who eventually missed the tournament, were 19th (keep in mind the B1G was terrible that year and only one team made the NCAA tournament, their shot differential was undoubtedly worse vs non-conference teams). As such it’s definitely good to see this team winning as many games as it has but it’s also fair to say that this team has been outplayed more often than I expected, especially against the NCHC opponents.
While it’s obviously somewhat concerning that this team is consistently being outshot at even strength, I would argue that what’s driving it is even more alarming. Before Saturday’s game vs the Spartans the team was 5th worst in the entire NCAA in terms of EV shots/game ahead of Brown, LSSU, Sacred Heart, and Anchorage in that order*. Even if you just want to look at goals per game this team currently ranks 39th. For a team that has mostly reloaded in terms of its roster and has kept much of its key talent up front and acquired Casey Mittlestadt, this isn’t exactly what I would’ve expected going into the year. So while the team is currently getting the tangible results it needs to get an NCAA birth and that’s a good thing, it is interesting to see this team struggling on offense and playing somewhat conservatively.
Another way to gain some insight into the strategy the coaches are trying to implement is by looking at team pace, ie when you add up the shots for and against per game, is this that total on the higher or lower end of the spectrum? Generally speaking teams with higher numbers here tend to be playing more of a run and gun style, in the NHL the last couple years the Penguins and the Maple Leafs were on the higher end and teams like New Jersey and Vancouver (this year anyhow) at the bottom playing more of a trapping/defensive style. There are some exceptions but generally it gives us some insight into what teams are trying to do strategically. As of right now the Gophers are second to last, only above Anchorage. The other teams in that realm are North Dakota and Bemidji. North Dakota is by far the best shot suppression team in the entire country and towards the middle of the pack in terms of shot generation which is probably the biggest explanation of why their pace is so low. In reality they aren’t necessarily trying to play a slow paced game, they just have a really good D core. Bemidji is a team that has been known to slow the game down in recent years and Anchorage is… well Anchorage. If I had to guess based on what I’m seeing as well as what the numbers show, this years Gopher team is playing more of a conservative defensive based system.
Now on a more positive note Dakota and Duluth are top 10 teams in terms of suppressing shots and the team won’t be playing either of them again during the regular season. As such it’s hard to imagine the team not improving in a lot of these areas. In the past 2 games vs Michigan State (which haven’t been tracked yet) the team has looked better and outshot them while looking significantly better at even strength. And I can’t deny that the team is getting the results it needs to gain some ground in the pairwise despite playing below their capabilities.
While this post probably seems a bit negative for a team that’s played a tough schedule, gotten good results, and dealt with a spate of injuries (possibly including some lingering ones), I think it is fair to try and think about the results and the overall process as separate entities. While the team has gotten outplayed quite a bit in the early part of the year, I also think that it’s really impressive when a team can manage to find ways to win games where they get thoroughly outplayed. This team is talented enough where it can pull more of those types of wins than a lesser skilled team and hopefully they can build off an MSU series where they looked better. In the next post I will post some of the team level and individual stats I’ve been tracking. Thanks for reading!
*Since not all teams play the exact same amount of time at even strength I tried to come up with a way to calculate this. What I did was took the total shots on goal at all strengths, divided that by the number of shots at even strength to create a coefficient for every NCAA team, and multiplied it by their EV shot rates across the board to try and figure out what every team’s even strength shots for and against per game would look like if the entirety of all their games was played at 5 on 5. I’ve also done this with using a coefficient derived from taking penalty minutes out of the equation and got similar results. This method isn’t perfect and ideally we’d have 5 on 5 ice time to work with but I’m doing the best with the limited data that exists for NCAA hockey. All data came from CHN’s website.