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Blades win ninth straight: what spurred the turnaround in Saskatoon?

Blades' two-way forward Matej Stransky throws a check (CP)When is it going to be time to start talking about how good of a hockey team this spring's MasterCard Memorial Cup hosts are?

This current nine-game winning streak they're on can't last, although the group put together by head coach and general manager Lorne Molleken is now beginning to get results as advertised. They beat the Swift Current Broncos on a late goal from Josh Nicholls last night to improve their record to 32-29-3. It seems like a long time ago the team began 2-7 and there were already questions about Duncan Siemens' leadership, the chemistry in the locker room, and the Sportsnet cameras following around the team all the time.

As it happens, when you're scoring on just 6.4% of your shots and your opponents are scoring on 14.6% of the same, you're probably not going to win too many hockey games. But shooting and save percentages are fairly unsustainable, especially over a very small sample of games. Even while the team had a poor start, they were consistently out-shooting the opposition and holding an advantage in puck possession. They just weren't winning.

It was still a team that had Dallas Stars' prospect and sensational two-way player Matej Stransky, the big summer acquisition from Kelowna Shane McColgan, and star goaltender Andrey Makarov. The season is 72 games long and more often than not at this level, the good teams will eventually display their talent by winning more games. Molleken, as it turns out, is lucky that his teams' role as Memorial Cup hosts didn't necessarily mean that he was going to be put into a position to trade away his stars for talent—while the team dropped some players, they didn't end up trading NHL prospects Duncan Siemens or Dalton Thrower. You can't hold a fire sale in a Memorial Cup year.

There may be some talk about what the Blades did that prompted the turnaround, but being forced to stick to the course helped them along, since Saskatoon have a very good roster that just wasn't getting the bounces early in the season. Here's a graph I mocked up with Saskatoon's shot rate and goal rate (the percentages is the amount of events that went "for" Saskatoon, i.e.: if they out-shot their opponent 75-25, their 'percentage' would be .750. If they out-scored their opponent 6-3, their 'percentage' would be .667).

Notice how the shot rate stays relatively constant throughout the year as the goal-rate constantly changes:

Blades chart

(I generated the information from the WHL game logs)

This isn't anything new if you dabble at all in hockey analytics. It's easier to predict shot rates than goal rates over a small stretch of games. There's a lot of variance in shooting percentages, but usually it stabilizes and while there's a bit of team-shooting talent at the major junior-level, I'd doubt that the Saskatoon Blades are a team that could have expected to turn less than 7% of their shots into goals. Now they're shooting at a much more acceptable 10.1%, and their goaltending has improved from .850 in the early going to a reasonable .905 after 46 games. Those changes were just going to come with time or small adjustments to the system, and not a large personnel overhaul that was being called for back in October.

Andrey Makarov, who struggled in the first half of the season. has a .933 save percentage and a 2.10 goals against average in his last 23 games, as well as five shutouts and a 15-6-2 record.

So, put the culture problems to bed when it comes to the Blades. Now that they're getting scores that are better reflections of their play, they're one of the hotter teams in the Western Hockey League, and are first place in the division with 16 games to go.

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