The Decline of Corsi In The 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs

Most people don’t like change, and few groups resist new thoughts and ideas more than the stakeholders of the National Hockey League. Expansion of advanced statistics was long established in the other major North American sports leagues by the time the NHL finally admitted, in 2015, that these new measurements have value. Many teams already embraced the availability of an extended data set by then, adding another layer of context when analyzing team performance.

The two Stanley Cup finalists had mediocre Corsi numbers during the regular season. Injuries have directly affected possession for Pittsburgh during the playoffs, but hasn’t affected their ability to win games. Nashville has trounced the west, despite a declining Corsi. Betting site Bodog lists the Pittsburgh Penguins as -165 moneyline favorites to win the Stanley Cup, while the Nashville Predators, who had better Corsi numbers all year, have a +145 moneyline as underdogs. There’s definitely a method to Bodog's madness, however.

Fans of technology hailed Corsi as a powerful predictor, believing that the stat was an unassailable source of wisdom. Other teams, headed by luddites, completely rejected advanced stats in favor of the good ol’ eye test. The 2017 playoffs have proven once again that neither camp is entirely correct. Value exists in both perspectives, which will likely change once again as technology advances further.
Nashville Stanley Cup Run Independent of Corsi Decline

Nashville barely squeaked into the 2017 NHL playoffs, finishing fourth in the NHL Central Division with 94 points – good for last seed in the West. Then the miraculous happened: the Predators completely destroyed the Blackhawks, sweeping Chicago out of the first round. Nashville followed up this incredible performance with two more series wins, against the St. Louis Blues and the Anaheim Ducks in six games each.

With the exception of Filip Forsberg, who’s been dangerous the entire postseason, most of the Preds lineup has experienced a dip in Corsi. The downward swing was most apparent in game six against the Anaheim Ducks, after Ryan Johansen went down. Anaheim completely outshot and out-possessed the Predators, but Nashville still triumphed in a convincing fashion.

The eye test and simple stats alone would have revealed why Nashville won – goaltending. Pekka Rinne completely outplayed Jonathan Bernier, and Nashville converted on their limited chances, tangible reasons for victory ignored by the numbers.
Pittsburgh As The Prime Anti-Corsi Franchise

The Pittsburgh Penguins serve as the most extreme anti-Corsi case study in the 2017 playoffs. This franchise had middle-of-the-road regular season Corsi numbers and finished second overall in points.

During the 2016 NHL playoffs, the majority of the lineup had Corsi of percentages above 50%, indicating dominant possession. This year features the opposite trend for the Stanley Cup finalists. A quick glance at CF% reveals that only six members of the roster, two of them limited contributors, have been able to crack the 50% mark.
It’s not a coincidence that diminished Corsi stats would follow a Kris Letang injury – a stud blueliner capable of controlling wide swaths of ice.

What’s interesting is the adjustment made by the Pens, who have adapted by simplifying their defensive structure and demanding more of their forwards. This plummeted Pittsburgh Corsi stats, which hasn’t negatively affected them. Solid goaltending, MVP performances from Crosby and Malkin, and timely scoring from Rust, Kessel, and Guentzel: these three factors have proven far more important than Corsi.

Tech Innovation Will Soon Replace Corsi Anyway

Corsi, Fenwick, and associated stats have been useful to paint a rough picture of possession-based data, but have proven to be less influential than first thought. Tracking microchips and data gathered by cameras will soon replace Corsi with precise time measurements of possession. Instead, possession will be separated from shot attempts, which will create another wave of controversy as experts attempt to ascertain the value of upcoming stat evolutions in the Stanley Cup playoffs.

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