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Matt Wilson The Hockey Writers

Published on Tuesday, October 10, 2017





What Does an OHL Contender Look Like?

Last month, I picked a fight with a couple Kitchener Rangers fans, who were bemoaning what they said was their team’s mediocre play over the past few seasons.

“We haven’t contended for years!” one of the fans lamented.

“What about the 2015-16 season?” I asked. “That team put up 90-plus points and was top-10 in the CHL for most of the year.” But the others agreed with their friend. The Rangers had been a decent team that year, they said, but as their four-game second-round playoff sweep at the hands of rival London showed, they weren’t really a ‘contender.’

The Rangers are off to a 5-2-1 start this season, and they might put together a run this year that renders our pre-season conversation moot. But I thought the Rangers fans raised an interesting question, so I decided to do a bit of number crunching to see if I could build a rudimentary statistical profile for a contender in the modern OHL.

What Does it Mean to Be a “Contender”?

Let’s start with the indisputable: every champion qualifies as a contender. Anything else would make a mockery of the term.

What unites the champions, aside from overall roster talent and their championships themselves? Two simple metrics stand out as useful proxies for contender status: team points and goal differential. Great teams outscore their opponents, often by a lot, and that scoring almost always translates into wins on the scoresheet.

I also decided to look at a team’s Corsi rating, or percentage of even-strength shot attempts for. Corsi has its limits — teams with great goaltending or a dynamic power-play can greatly outperform their Corsi rating— but it’s generally seen as a decent proxy for team strength.

The 2015-16 London Knights

The 2015-16 Knights, led by co-captains Christian Dvorak and Mitchell Marner, were most certainly contenders. (Claus Andersen/Getty Images)

Below is the list of OHL champions since the 2004-05 London Knights rewrote the recipe for building a championship team. I’ve argued elsewhere that the 2004-05 season was the first year of the modern OHL. This definition might warrant a revisit, but I think it’s satisfactory for our purposes here. It’s an impressive group.

Season Team Pts Pts Rank GD GD Rank CF% CF% Rank
2004-05 London 120 1 185 1 54.84 2
2005-06 Peterborough 99 2 72 3 50.69 8
2006-07 Plymouth 103 2 124 1 50.52 10
2007-08 Kitchener 110 1 118 1 61.81 1
2008-09 Windsor 115 1 138 1 60.82 1
2009-10 Windsor 106 2 129 2 61.63 1
2010-11 Owen Sound 97 2 70 4 54.16 3
2011-12 London 99 1 95 2 52.15 3
2012-13 London 105 1 95 1 53.16 5
2013-14 Guelph 108 1 149 1 54.55 5
2014-15 Oshawa 108 2 137 2 58.94 1
2015-16 London 105 T1 138 1 55.09 3
2016-17 Erie 103 1 135 1 59.85 1

Devising an OHL Contention Metric

There’s a lot to unpack here. First, we see that regular season points correlate very highly with playoff success. In fact, every OHL champion in the modern era finished with a top-two regular season points total. If we wanted to, we could cut off our analysis by saying that top-two finishers are contenders and everyone else is an also-ran. But that feels unsatisfying and would omit some great teams from our list.

Moving to the other columns, we see that there’s also a pretty strong correlation between goal differential and championships, with just two teams, the 2005-06 Peterborough Petes and the 2010-11 Owen Sound Attack, finishing outside the top two in the league in their championship seasons, and none finishing outside the top four. Corsi is less highly correlated with playoff success, but it’s worth noting that every champion had a positive rating and all but two teams finished in the top five.

OHL Attack

The 2010-11 Attack don’t care that they were the least statistically impressive OHL champion of the modern era.

Those Petes and Attack teams are real outliers in terms of goal differential: a good 20-plus goals behind the 2011-12 and 2012-13 Knights and far behind the 130-plus GD squads that have won championships the past few years. They’re also notable as two of just three modern OHL champions (again with the 2011-12 Knights) to win the league with fewer than 103 regular season points.

Because most modern OHL champions have outpaced those teams considerably, it seems fair to consider the 2005-06 Petes and the 2010-11 Attack as forming a kind of lower bound for championship contention. The Attack’s 97 points and plus-70 GD are the lowest in the sample. Let’s use those values to establish a kind of “contention threshold” and examine which teams from 2004-05 on have reached both benchmarks.

Great Teams, Greater Heartbreak

The following teams put up a minimum of 97 points in the regular season and a goal differential of plus-70 or greater but did not win a championship.

Season Team Pts Pts Rank GD GD Rank CF% CF% Rank
2005-06 London 102 1 91 1 50.93 6
2006-07 London 104 1 73 T5 48.53 15
2006-07 Kitchener 98 3 75 3 58.47 1
2006-07 Barrie 97 4 74 4 58.08 8
2007-08 Belleville 102 2 105 2 51.90 7
2008-09 London 101 2 93 2 53.43 3
2008-09 Belleville 98 3 83 3 49.75 9
2009-10 Barrie 116 1 142 1 55.24 3
2010-11 Mississauga 108 1 115 1 59.68 1
2011-12 Niagara 97 T2 123 1 58.65 2
2011-12 Plymouth 97 T2 71 3 51.91 4
2013-14 Erie 106 2 140 2 56.34 2
2013-14 London 103 3 116 3 56.58 1
2014-15 Sault Ste. Marie 110 1 146 1 56.12 4
2014-15 Erie 104 3 117 3 56.60 3
2015-16 Erie 105 T1 79 3 56.56 1
2016-17 Owen Sound 102 2 120 2 58.97 2
2016-17 Sault Ste. Marie 100 3 77 4 54.26 3
2016-17 London 99 4 97 3 50.84 8

Nineteen teams, and a who’s who of talented squads that came up short, from the 116-point 2009-10 Barrie Colts to the series of 50-win Erie Otters teams that experienced various degrees of playoff heartbreak before finally breaking through this past season.

Erie Otters, Kris Knobloch, OHL

Now-departed Otters coach Kris Knoblauch finally cracked a smile last season after his team broke through for an OHL title. Probably. (Terry Wilson/OHL Images)

There’s an obvious step down here from the previous group, championships aside: they averaged 3.5 fewer points and 20 fewer net goals. But they were dominant against non-champions in the playoffs, winning 37 of 40 series against them, excluding series against each other. Fourteen of the teams lost to the eventual champion. If we’re expanding our definition of “contender” beyond just the champions, this is a great group to start with.

Is this group enough? When you consider that no team with a lesser points total or lower goal differential has won the modern OHL, it seems like a reasonable cut-off. But it’s hard to shake the feeling that we’re missing some other excellent teams—and some thrilling playoff stories.

Who Are We Missing?

Five times in the modern OHL, the eventual champion has been pushed to seven games. Most recently, the Knights took the Otters to seven in their second-round series in April.

Mark Scheifele OHL

Want to push a powerful Knights team to seven games in the OHL Final? Get Mark Scheifele. (Aaron Bell/CHL images)

Three of those times, the opponent in question was one of the contenders above. (2007-08 Belleville and 2009-10 Mississauga are the others.) But the last two teams deserve mention as well. In the 2010 playoffs, the feisty Rangers opened up what is perhaps the most improbable 3-0 series lead in OHL history on the reigning Memorial Cup champion Windsor Spitfires. The Spitfires, of course, mounted a historic comeback to win the series, swept Barrie in the OHL Final, and went on to become the first back-to-back Memorial Cup winner since the early 90s. Three years later, the Knights executed their own heroic comeback, clawing back from a 3-1 deficit against the Barrie Colts.

Here’s the nitty-gritty on the Rangers and Colts:

Season Team Pts Pts Rank GD GD Rank CF% CF% Rank
2009-10 Kitchener 91 4 50 4 50.37 8
2012-13 Barrie 92 5 56 5 48.21 12

Finally, the unique format of the Memorial Cup gives us the occasional champion that didn’t win its own league. The 2016-17 Spitfires are the only team in the modern OHL to pull off the feat, but excluding them after their dominant Cup performance seems foolish.

Season Team Pts Pts Rank GD GD Rank CF% CF% Rank
2016-17 Windsor 90 5 49 5 50.42 9

By our relevant statistical measures, the three teams are almost identical—90-ish points, approximately 50 more goals than their opponents on the season, and middling Corsi ratings.

The Fringe OHL Contenders

Using the 90-point, plus-49 GD Spitfires as a baseline, we can sketch out another level of contention below our previously established threshold. Let’s call this group the ‘fringe contenders.’

Season Team Pts Pts Rank GD GD Rank CF% CF% Rank
2004-05 Owen Sound 90 2 58 2 58.75 1
2005-06 Kitchener 96 3 90 2 56.38 1
2005-06 Brampton 91 4 50 5 50.89 7
2005-06 Barrie 90 5 65 4 54.08 3
2006-07 Saginaw 91 5 73 T5 54.90 3
2006-07 Mississauga 90 6 77 2 54.23 4
2007-08 Sault Ste. Marie 94 T3 76 4 54.70 4
2007-08 Windsor 94 T3 77 3 58.00 2
2008-09 Brampton 96 4 79 4 59.10 2
2009-10 London 101 3 62 3 52.94 4
2009-10 Kitchener 91 4 50 4 50.37 8
2010-11 Niagara 96 3 76 3 53.58 4
2010-11 Ottawa 93 4 77 2 48.69 12
2012-13 Belleville 96 2 58 4 57.51 7
2012-13 Owen Sound 94 3 66 3 58.55 8
2012-13 Plymouth 93 4 93 2 56.53 2
2012-13 Barrie 92 5 56 5 48.21 14
2013-14 Sault Ste. Marie 95 4 69 4 52.35 7
2015-16 Kingston 97 3 60 T5 54.74 T4
2015-16 Kitchener 95 4 60 T5 55.41 2
2015-16 Sarnia 91 5 62 4 54.74 T4
2016-17 Windsor 90 5 49 5 50.42 9

It’s a big list, with a big spread in team quality, and it points to how imprecise this work can be. There are some great, memorable teams on that list, such as the John Tavares-led 2008-09 Knights, who pushed the Spitfires to five straight overtime games in the 2009 playoffs. But there are also some notable flameouts. The 2005-06 Rangers were ousted in five games by an Attack team that attempted to deliberately lose a game to avoid playing them, while the 2015-16 Sarnia Sting lost their opening round series to a seventh-seeded Greyhounds team after adding aggressively at the trade deadline.

Nikita Korostelev

Nikita Korostelev couldn’t find the net in the Sting’s upset loss to the Greyhounds in the 2016 playoffs. (OHL Images)

Which Model Do We Prefer?

Do the fringe contenders belong with the more robust teams we identified earlier?

In a word, no. More than a third of the fringe contenders lost to non-contenders (i.e. sub-90-point and/or sub-49 GD teams), and the fringe contenders were a collective 1-10 against our list of contenders, with the one win by the 2008-09 Brampton Battalion (96 points, plus-79 GD) against the Belleville Bulls (98 points, plus-83 GD)—statistically indistinguishable teams, at least by our metrics. And while teams like the Battalion probably deserve better than “fringe contender” status, the Battalion would have been the weakest OHL champion by points since 2002, and ultimately bowed out meekly to the powerhouse Spitfires in five games in the OHL Final, getting outscored by 13 goals.

Dropping the points requirement to 95 or 96 to accommodate teams like the Battalion or letting in high GD teams that missed the points threshold would drag in a fair bit of chaff with the wheat. Ultimately, I think our first group of contenders is a good one. The teams put marks in the W column while dominating the scorer’s sheet, and they’re statistically similar to the teams that have won the league in the past. As for the fringe contenders, they’re probably best thought of as exactly that: fringe contenders, or longshots. The next fringe contender to win the league will be the first in the modern OHL. With a manageable playoff path and a few lucky breaks, it could happen. I just wouldn’t bet on it.

It turns out that the 2015-16 Rangers, with their 95 points and plus-60 goal differential, are just such a fringe contender. So as far as this analysis is concerned, those Rangers fans were right, and I was wrong—their team was not a legitimate contender two seasons ago.

Adam Mascherin

Sorry, Adam Mascherin, but Rangers fans and statistics bloggers agree: your 2015-16 Rangers were not a ‘contender.’ (Terry Wilson/OHL Images)

Over the next few months, we’ll take a further dive into contention metrics and what they can tell us about the league, from which OHL seasons have been the most exciting to which OHL fanbases are the most long-suffering. I’ll also check in around the midpoint of the season to see which teams are shaping up as 2017-18’s championship contenders, fringe contenders, and also-rans.



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