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LAXMetrics Week 13: Why Rock-Seals Matchup is the Game of the Year

Rock vs. Seals. A big-time clash.

The best game of the season so far is this weekend.

After Friday night games against Las Vegas and Panther City respectively, the Toronto Rock and San Diego Seals will collide at Pechanga Arena on Saturday. Not only are both teams serious contenders at the top of the NLL standings, but they are also exceptionally similar statistically. Side-by-side, the Seals and the Rock are nearly indistinguishable, making Saturday a tremendous measuring-stick game. We’ll learn quite a bit about the impending playoff race.

If you start with the surface-level statistics like scoring average and goals allowed per game, the two teams are nearly perfectly in sync. San Diego averages 12.0 goals per game, while Toronto averages 11.9. Defensively, San Diego and Toronto have the second and third best units by Defensive Shooting Percentage. The Seals have limited opponents to 14.8% shooting, while the Rock have allowed a shooting percentage of 14.9%. It doesn’t get any closer than that. The goaltenders tell similar stories. Toronto’s Nick Rose leads the league with a Goals Against Average of 8.91 — San Diego’s Christopher Origlieri isn’t far behind in second place with a 9.97 Goals Against Average. Rose and Origlieri are the only starting goalies in the NLL with sub-10 Goals Against Averages.

The story continues into the advanced stats where San Diego ranks 8th in the NLL with an Offensive Rating of 119.66. The Rock rank 9th with an Offensive Rating of 119.49. Mathematically, it is almost impossible for the two offenses to be any closer to each other.

But is it really that simple? Both teams score a good number of goals and neither surrender many. Surely there must be something that separates the two clubs. In fact, yes there is.

Offensively, the Seals are substantially better than the Rock in a series of important metrics. Look at Production Rating, for example. The Seals rank third in the NLL with a pRating of 1.16. Only Halifax and New York slot in ahead of San Diego. Toronto checks in at 10th in Production Rating with a mark of 0.93. The Rock are closer numerically to the last-place Rush (0.71) than they are to the first-place Thunderbirds (1.20). In this respect, San Diego has produced a more effective offense overall, even though the teams have scored nearly an identical number of goals.

The story continues into the off-ball areas of the game in which the Seals have drastically outperformed the Rock in Understated Production. A metric used to communicate the value of things like pick assists and loose ball collection, Understated Production is an excellent way to evaluate the effectiveness of an offense’s auxiliary pieces. Sure, one or two players might score a lot of goals, but consulting the Understated Production data point will tell us if those goals are a team effort or an individual undertaking.

The Seals wildly overperform the Rock in this arena, illustrating a degree of team-centric offense that isn’t always prominent in Toronto. While the Rock have excellent passers, they aren’t as violent as the Seals at creating space for teammates. San Diego ranks third behind Albany and Halifax in Understated Production with a sore of 136.25. The Rock, on the other hand, rank 12th in the NLL with a score of 80.0. Only Las Vegas, Philadelphia, and Saskatchewan have less impressive Understated Production Scores. Historically, Understated Production has been an excellent predictor of the sustainability of an offense’s success. The higher the uPro score, the likelier a team is to have a resilient attack that can be counted upon throughout the full life of an 18-game season. A low uPro value, however, is reflective of an offense that relies heavily on perimeter shooting and individual efforts. In Toronto’s case, the explanation is slightly more complicated.

While Toronto is generally a very good perimeter shooting team, the Rock rely heavily on their excellent passers – Tom Schreiber and Mark Matthews – to create scoring opportunities for teammates. While the Seals are adept at pick setting and two-man games, the Rock present a pin-point passing game that shapes their offensive identity.

But projecting ahead to the second half of the season, we can expect one of these teams to enjoy an uptick in offensive production, but we can’t make that claim for both. So far this season, the Rock have converted 27.0% of their Total First Order Chances—the best scoring chances that directly precipitate from passing. That make of 27.0% is precisely in line with the league average, meaning that Toronto is converting its chances at a rate that is sustainable and likely to continue as the season progresses.

The Seals, however, rank 12th in the NLL in conversion rate, turning just 23.4% of their First Order Chances into goals. Whereas the Rock’s mark of 27% is completely sustainable, San Diego’s clip of 23.4% is completely unsustainable. Over the course of a full season, we expect the Seals to finish at or near the 27% mark that the Rock currently enjoys. Because their season-long conversion rate is currently beneath 27%, we can expect it to climb in a regression to the mean over the next eight games. The Rock can keep scoring at the same clip that they are, but the Seals are primed to see their offense produce even more goals on a game-by-game basis.

If you aren’t convinced that one team should be a slight favorite over the other entering Saturday’s collision, consider each team’s loose ball rate. Mathematically, loose ball collection and winning percentages correlate very closely, meaning that the best loose ball teams will often boast the best records. At the moment, only 3-6 Rochester and 2-8 Vancouver break this mold. Every other NLL team fits nicely into the loose-ball box.

While the Seals and the Rock rank fourth and fifth in the NLL in loose balls per game, the Seals average 6.3 loose balls per game more than the Rock. This is not an insignificant number. Only 4.8 loose balls separate first place from fourth place in the league’s loose ball rankings. For 6.3 loose balls to separate fourth and fifth place is significant. It illustrates that the Rock and the Seals are similar teams when it comes to loose ball collection, but San Diego belongs in a slightly higher tier than the Rock. Both are very good at winning loose balls, but the Seals do claim an advantage in that arena.

If all else remains equal on Saturday, look to the loose ball battle to decide who walks out of Pechanga Arena with a win. If one face-off specialist dominates the other, the loose balls will likely pile up for one side. If that happens, expect the team controlling the ball to prevail.

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