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Analysis: How the St. John's IceCaps blew the 2015-16 season

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The IceCaps tremendous start turned into a collapse in the second half of the year, and it appears to be the result of problems with a far greater reach than just injuries.

Jeff Parsons/IceCaps

The season started out fairly well. The IceCaps sat atop the North Division, even ahead of the Toronto Marlies, with a .750 winning percentage after 8 games. By January 8th, 2016, they had a very respectable 16-9-4-3 record, despite losing Sven Andrighetto, Daniel Carr, and number one defender Mark Barberio in December.

However, January 8th marked the beginning of a monumental tumble down the standings. The IceCaps lost five straight and finished the final four months of the season with just 16 wins in 44 games.

While reviewing the season, I formulated a few hypotheses:

1. The IceCaps benefited from of an inflated PDO ,which cratered in the second half.

2. Lefebvre's system wasn't conducive to his player's strengths (or possibly just poor in general).

3. The IceCaps were dramatically hurt by the losses of Andrighetto, Barberio, and Carr.

First, I'll break down the call ups and injuries, then discuss the result of luck on the IceCaps season, and finish with a system analysis that will also attempt to explain the effect that the aforementioned players had on the team.

Call Ups & Injuries

There is no denying the effect that the Canadiens' injury woes had. Three key members of the team played 26 games or less with the IceCaps.

Name GP Record With Record Without
Sven Andrighetto 26 12-9-3-2 20-24-5-1
Mark Barberio 26 12-8-4-2 20-25-5-1
Daniel Carr 24 12-6-4-2 20-27-4-1

No player had as large of impact as Daniel Carr. When he returned for a two-game series versus the Toronto Marlies, he was arguably the team's best player. Before being recalled in late December, Barberio was the IceCaps' number one defender, forming an excellent top pairing with Morgan Ellis.

The IceCaps forwards took a huge hit due to injury and callups, losing Michael Bournival for 56 games, Connor Crisp for 66, Jacob de la Rose for 42, Markus Eisenschmid for 48, Charles Hudon for seven, Michael McCarron for 17, and Nikita Scherbak for 28.

The defenders didn't have much luck, either. The loss of Barberio was obviously huge, but Ryan Johnston proved to be a useful addition when he finally made his debut in January. Although no regulars missed an extended period of time, the callups eventually forced John Scott to play a few games on defence.

A Little Luck?

The IceCaps were the beneficiary of an inflated PDO that cratered, causing their second half collapse.

While they did initially get the benefit of a somewhat high PDO, averaging 101.5 in the first three months, they finished with 99.99. This can be explained by January's 96.43 PDO, which was coincidentally the month where the IceCaps fell apart.

The IceCaps were high shooting percentage team, scoring on 9.17% of their shots, good for 10th in the AHL. Meanwhile, the goaltending was 17th in the AHL, stopping 90.82% of shots faced.

It's clear that the IceCaps were initially a lucky team, but it's not surprising considering the relative strength of the roster. Although that luck dried up, they were not an unlucky team all things considered.

The System

If the IceCaps were neither lucky nor unlucky, perhaps they just simply weren't a good hockey club despite owning a strong roster, even once you consider the bevy of call-ups.

The results really do speak for themselves:

SF SA SD SF% GF GA GD GF%
2177 (23rd) 2453 (26th) -247 (27th) 47.02 (27th) 206 (18th) 236 (24th) -30 (23rd) 46.61 (23rd)

Looking at these numbers, it really makes sense as to why the IceCaps missed the playoffs: These aren't indicative of a good hockey team.

There has been much talk about Sylvain Lefebvre's IceCaps using the Montreal Canadiens' system in order to ease the transition for their callups. Unfortunately, it is quite clear that the Canadiens' system is not so great.

In order to explain the failures of the IceCaps' system, here are a few key points I have identified: Defensive zone coverage, zone exits, and shot generation.

(1) Defensive Zone Coverage

The IceCaps defensive zone coverage is not so good, to put it bluntly.

(The above clip is composed of just two periods of March 5th's matchup against the Albany Devils.)

The defenders play too passively on opposing forwards. While the forwards backcheck hard, often times assignments are not picked up. Passing and shooting lanes are rarely clogged. The IceCaps' speed-based, uncontrolled breakout leads to turnovers and lengthy periods of pressure in their defensive zone. The combination of lack of pressure and positioning, with lots of time defending to leads to a plethora of dangerous scoring chances against.

(2) Zone Exits

The IceCaps, quite simply, were not good at controlled exits. Considering the well-studied correlation between shot generation and controlled exits/entries, and the results of the familiar Canadiens system, this isn't surprising.

I will concede that the IceCaps are quite good at controlled zone entries, which makes sense considering the fact that they play "run-and-gun" hockey. However, they are heavily reliant on dump outs and chips off the glass to exit the zone. They play the puck-side winger high in the zone, so they can capitalize on a quick counterattack. However, this often hands the puck back over to the opposition. Since the forward has flown out of the zone, it often results in an odd-man rush against.

The defence was inexperienced, and quite prone to turnovers from hesitation. However, all the regular defenders are quite mobile, and for the most part are solid puck-movers, so it's baffling to me as to why the IceCaps didn't employ a system that leaned on the defence to orchestrated controlled exits.

(3) Shot Generation

Before delving into analysis, it is important to keep in mind that the AHL doesn't have Corsi or Fenwick stats available, so this I will use shots for percentage, which has its limitations.

Essentially, the IceCaps are terrible at generating shots on goal:

IceCaps SF%

The first point of interest here is in between games 19 and 25. The IceCaps SF% dropped, which can certainly be explained the simultaneous losses of Andrighetto, Carr, and Christian Thomasthe three highest players on the team in terms of SOG/GP, and certainly three of the best shooters the roster had all season.

Even before the loss of the trio (as well as Barberio), the IceCaps were a terrible team at getting shots on goal, which points towards the idea that maybe they just weren't a good team.

The second point of interest in the rise between games 34 and 39, which coincides with the return of Nikita Scherbak and the debut of Ryan Johnston. Although neither had spectacular seasons, Scherbak is a high-flying offensive threat who creates plenty of chances, and Johnston is the master of the controlled exit/entryan element the IceCaps lacked.

While the IceCaps dropped significantly in the late 40s, it's not huge surprise considering it was at the end of a month-long road trip. The uptick shortly after coincides with their return to home ice.

Period 1 Period 2 Period 3
AV SF AV SA Diff. AV SF AV SA Diff. AV SF AV SA Diff.
9.64 10.08 -0.44 9.86 10.84 -0.98 8.88 11.07 -2.19

Breaking shots for down by period is also quite frightening. The IceCaps were out-shot in every period, but got absolutely pelted in the third period, averaging more than two shots less than they gave up.

The main point to extrapolate from here is: Even with the loaded roster at the beginning of the season, the IceCaps were a poor shot generation team.

Conclusion

Let's go back to the hypotheses from the beginning:

1. The IceCaps were the beneficiary of an inflated PDO which cratered in the second half.

2. Lefebvre's system wasn't conducive to his player's strengths (or possibly just poor in general).

3. The IceCaps were dramatically hurt by the losses of Sven Andrighetto, Mark Barberio, and Daniel Carr.

I was wrong, and the result was actually worse. While luck would have been a convenient explanation, the IceCaps' PDO was slightly above average in the first half, slight below average in the second half.

Now the second hypothesis is far more broad, but the (basic) statistical measures indicate that the IceCaps were simply a bad hockey team. Even when the IceCaps had Andrighetto, Barberio, and Carr in the lineup, they struggled to get shots on goal, which leads to me to believe perhaps something is wrong with the system. I do not believe that it properly maximizes the roster's strengths.

Instead of utilizing the mobile defenders, the blue line throws the puck away to the opposition. Despite having a bevy of powerful and/or high-volume shooters (such as Bud Holloway, Charles Hudon, Michael McCarron, Gabriel Dumont, Nikita Scherbak, and Jeremy Gregoire), the team just cannot get shots on goal.

The blame doesn't fall entirely on Lefebvre. Development isn't linear. Players follow unexpected adjustment curves and Marc Bergevin failed to adequately supply the roster in the Lefebvre's first few years. But missing the playoffs these past two years, especially this year, is ridiculous, especially when it's clear that the IceCaps were simply bad, injuries or not.

This isn't to say that it was all bad in St. John's. Michael McCarron adjusted faster than many expected, Charles Hudon continued his excellent play, and Morgan Ellis turned out to be an incredible story. The IceCaps were always entertaining to watch.

But it has to be said, after five consecutive years of no post-season action, change is needed.