2018-2019 President Cup Preview by the Numbers

Here we are, the 50th QMJHL season is about to conclude with a final between the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies and the Halifax Mooseheads. With Halifax hosting the Memorial Cup this year, both teams have already qualified for the tournament. I don’t expect that to mean either team will ease up in this President Cup final though. Rouyn-Noranda has been the top team in the QMJHL and CHL all year and Halifax has rounded into fine form in the playoffs which should mean an entertaining series for fans. Let’s see what the numbers say about each of these teams heading into the series.

A brief but necessary aside: all data is from theqmjhl.ca/ and prospect-stats.com/. I cannot stress enough what an incredible resource @Prospect_Stats has built. Massive thanks to them for compiling and sharing their work in the public domain. Most, if not all, of the acronyms and abbreviations used can be found at prospect-stats.com/glossary.

And now, the numbers!1

The season long comparison of Halifax and Rouyn-Noranda in all situations immediately highlights the best aspects of each team: the Huskies defense and the Mooseheads finishing talent.

(Goal numbers do not include goals awarded for a shootout win)

The Huskies have been obliterating their competition all season on their way to 55 regulation and overtime wins on the strength of allowing the fewest goals in the league and scoring the second most. The Mooseheads happen to be second in total goals against and still allowed 26 more than Rouyn. As the shot location numbers will show later, Rouyn’s defensive reputation is well earned.

Rouyn-Noranda’s defensive reputation will be put to the test by Halifax’s elite scoring talent who converted to 12.13% of their shots into goals. At the other end of the ice, Rouyn’s astronomically high shot totals and lower shooting percentage indicate a bit more of a puck possession approach and death by a thousand paper cuts.

Eliminating special teams results from the season long team comparison2 reveals some tidbits and reinforces how stifling the Huskies defense can be in only allowing 87 goals at 5-on-5 play and receiving a 0.942 save percentage from their goalies. It is a daunting task facing the Mooseheads skaters, but one that they should be up for as evidenced by their league leading shooting percentage of 11.19% at 5-on-5.

The high-level look at 5-on-5 shows a relatively even match up until we dig into the 5-on-5 shot locations:

(shot danger zones are defined at prospect-stats.com/static/Heat_Maps/Danger_Zones.png)

On offence, both teams generated similar numbers of medium and high danger shots at 5-on-5. The almost 300 shot difference between the team totals comes in the form of Huskies low danger shots; something the Mooseheads can certainly live with and survive if they’re able to avoid getting cycled by Rouyn’s offence.

Defensively is where Rouyn-Noranda really separate themselves at even strength, allowing a miniscule number of medium and high danger shots, the fewest in both categories over the course of the season. Rouyn looks content to let teams shoot from low danger areas and completely wall off the slot to barely allow more than a few chances per game. Halifax will have to take advantage any time they’re able to get the puck into the slot or else this could be a very short series.

The even strength goal locations should cause even more worry for the Mooseheads. Rouyn-Noranda excels at creating high danger goals for and limiting high danger goals against. Halifax cannot reasonably expect almost 40% of their goals to come from low danger areas against a team as defensively sound as their President Cup opponent no matter their shooting talent. The Huskies get to the right areas of the ice offensively and deny them defensively; they are a complete team.

Of course, 5-on-5 play tells a large portion of the story but not the whole thing. Special teams may be series-deciding important between these two teams.

Teams do not win conferences or make it to the championship playoff round without supplementing their 5-on-5 play with at least one red hot special team and both Halifax and Rouyn are working some magic here. Halifax finished the season with the best penalty kill percentage in the league and then completely fell off in the post-season dropping 11% in efficiency. This is a serious area of concern for Halifax with Rouyn’s power play converting at an obscene 35.2% in the post-season. Rouyn’s second ranked penalty kill during the regular season has only improved when the games matter most and are currently operating at an impressive 87.7%. Halifax’s power play has been deadly in its own right throughout the playoffs by scoring on over 30% of their opportunities.

Interestingly, both teams have had minor reversals in their discipline from the regular season with Halifax reducing their PIMs by half of a minor penalty while Rouyn-Noranda is taking an extra minor penalty per game. Even if Halifax wins the penalty drawing battle, they’re still in trouble unless their penalty killing unit can return to regular season form. Discipline for both teams will be key; expect more than one game to be heavily influenced by special teams’ results.

Of course, it’s great to look at everything at the team level but teams are made up of players whose individual performances are critical to team success. None more so than the goaltenders in this series: Samuel Harvey for the Huskies and Alexis Gravel for the Mooseheads.

Any way you slice it these are two of the premier puck stoppers in the QMJHL. Halifax has a goaltending advantage against virtually every team except their President Cup foe. Harvey has been simply spectacular all season, but I do think it worth remembering were Rouyn allows shots from; the skaters in front of him have certainly had a positive impact on his numbers. Gravel, on the other hand, has likely faced more difficult shots and has been up to the task of carrying the Mooseheads at times.

A surprising commonality between the goalies is their weakness at stopping medium danger shots. Without watching hours upon hours of game footage, the guess is that this number is influenced by shots following cross-seam or “royal road” passes. The team that can best create and deny these opportunities will give themselves a strong advantage.

Based on the play of the netminders, you may expect this to be a low scoring championship round: however, in the two regular season games these teams played (5-4 and 8-4 Rouyn-Noranda wins), they combined for 21 total goals! That firepower is largely driven by the top forwards3 on each team:

Quick notes on the forward data:

  • The forward data shown above is for all situations because the top junior players typically play a disproportionately large amount of time at both even strength and 5-on-5;
  • Abbandonato has been included because he recently started skating and the assumption is that he’ll return in time to play an impact role in this series;

As expected, the Halifax and Rouyn-Noranda top lines have dominated their QMJHL competition this year. Each team’s top line appears to be constructed in a similar manner with a play maker (Morand and Abbandonato) a highly skilled net front presence (Asselin and Teasdale) and a more perimeter-oriented sniper (Lavoie and Beaucage). Both top lines earn almost 70% or more of the goals when they’re on the ice and this series may very well be won by the team whose top line can dominate the other.

Where Halifax has had an advantage over their previous playoff opponents is the depth of their line up, unfortunately Rouyn-Noranda boasts equal depth among their top six forwards. The second line for each team also appears evenly matched.

The largest discrepancies between the Mooseheads top forwards and the Huskies top forwards are shooting percentage (Sh%) and playing time (eTOI). The shooting percentage advantage for the Mooseheads shows up at both the team level and player level. While it’s probably not reasonable to expect the lines centered by Asselin and Groulx to shoot north of 15% against Harvey, it is feasible that Halifax can maintain a high shooting percentage and will not need to completely dominate puck possession to win games in this series if Gravel continues to play at a high level.

Another area where the Mooseheads may be able to make up ground on Rouyn-Noranda is playing their top lines more. Rouyn may employ the same tactic, but Halifax played their stars considerably less across the board than Rouyn did. There’s no time left for conserving energy and saving legs and Halifax will need to take advantage of any games that Abbandonato misses by ramping up the ice time of their top forwards.

On the backend, what Rouyn-Noranda’s top defensemen4 may lack in flashy play and star power, they make up for with complete control of the game:

Don’t be fooled by Dobson’s relatively low goals for percentage as most of the negative portion of that was accumulated prior to his trade from the Acadie-Bathurst Titan to the Huskies. Dobson is a game-breaking talent who puts up shots, points, and most impressively, plays almost half the game. He will be a treat for fans to watch and a terror to the Mooseheads who will have to find ways to pressure him and minimize his impact on each and every game. Dobson’s partner Bergeron is certainly no slouch either, posting a goals for percentage of almost 77% and he is equally as capable of creating offense.

Across the ice on the opposite blue line Halifax typically deploys its top two defensemen on separate pairs. McIsaac is a prototypical offensive defenseman capable of stepping up into the play to drive offense and can often be caught giving a bit back the other way. Ryczek plays a slightly lower event style of game and help tilt the ice heavily in Halifax’s favour whenever he plays. Both will be tasked with stopping the force that is Abbandonato when he returns to action and that must be a worrisome proposition for Halifax.

Both Halifax’s and Rouyn’s nominal second defense pairing feature a QMJHL veteran and a young up and comer. The Huskie’s duo of Regis and Cyr are exactly what you want from a second pair in that they’re able to shut down their opponents and get the puck to the high skilled forwards. Halifax goes in a different direction with Chainey representing more of a stay at home defender allowing Barron to wheel and create offense. If Barron’s ice time comes against the lower half of Rouyn’s roster, he has the potential to be an x-factor in this series.

The player level data shows that the top ends of each roster are extremely closely matched. The team level data shows that Rouyn-Noranda has been able to dictate play all season in all game situations. Both teams are entering the final with scorching goaltending numbers and convincing semi-final round wins. This looks to be another close series and perhaps the first real test for the regular season front running Rouyn-Noranda Huskies. Halifax’s best chance to take home a second President Cup in team history lives in their ability to put the puck in the net and get game stealing performances from Alex Gravel; a high variance strategy that also may be the best option against a juggernaut. Rouyn-Noranda is on a mission to capture their fourth ever league title and look to do so by owning the puck and living in the offensive zone. Both teams have game breaking talent all over the ice, but the results and process thus far speak for themselves and the Huskies are rightfully the favourites in this matchup.

Prediction: Huskies in 6

  1. I chose to use season long numbers as the data set for this preview because it provides a larger sample size that is less likely to be influenced by hot goalie or shooting streaks that occur during playoff series. None of the data presented includes adjustments for quality of competition or injuries. Obviously, these are both important factors in a hockey game, but I am trying to use the data available to me. In that sense, I strongly believe that the data collected by Prospect-Stats.com provides enough contextual information to get a true sense of each team’s talent level. For those interested, Prospect-Stats.com does provide an estimated quality of competition and quality of teammates metric for individual players.
  2. I believe 5-on-5 play is more indicative of a team’s true talent because, while still generally structured, it is far less influenced by coaching systems than special teams.
  3. The top forwards were selected by estimated time on ice data and league game sheets.
  4. The top defensemen were selected by estimated time on ice data and league game sheets.

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