Carolina Hurricanes

Hockey analytics: It’s how, not just how many goals

The Department of Hockey Analytics examines NHL stats to find trends within the game. Ian Cooper is based in Toronto.

In The Gospel According to hockey commentator Don Cherry, some players are shameless stat padders.

But is it true? And if so, who are these mystery men who mark their calendars for that meaningless Tuesday-night tilt in November where they can catch the Edmonton Oilers at the end of a long road trip, and then seem to vanish into thin air during the playoffs?

The Department of Hockey Analytics looked at the top 25 goal scorers since the start of the 2011-2012 season in order to compare elite scorers. We added Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby because he would have made the list but for injuries.

Next, we looked at each team’s total goals against. During the past three completed seasons (2010-11, 2011-12, 2012-13), 17,515 goals were scored in the NHL. You might assume far fewer of those were scored against playoff teams than non-playoff teams. You would be wrong.

As it turns out, 49.5 per cent of goals were scored against playoff teams and 50.5 per cent against everyone else. The widest spread (48.6 per cent to 51.4 per cent) came in last year’s lockout-shortened season. The tightest was 2011-2012 (49.9 per cent to 50.1 per cent).

This doesn’t mean bad teams don’t give up a lot more goals. It’s just that 16 teams make the playoffs and 14 don’t. Over our three-year period, playoff teams gave up an average of 2.2 goals per game while the rest of the league gave up 2.57.

So while a player is more likely to score against a weak team than a good one, at the end of the year, he should have roughly the same number of goals against playoff teams and non-playoff teams, simply because there are two more playoff teams.

Unless Cherry’s onto something.

As it turns out, there is a significant amount of variation in which teams the top scorers victimize. Washington’s Alex Ovechkin, for example, piles up a lot of goals against bad teams.

His 102 goals over three seasons tied for second place with Anaheim’s Corey Perry, but only 38.2 percent of those were scored against teams that made the playoffs. Last season he scored only nine of 32 (28.1 per cent) against playoff teams. Perry scored 52 percent of his goals against playoff teams during the same period.

Tampa Bay’s Steven Stamkos led on total goals by a significant margin, and he also scored the majority of those against playoff teams. Particularly impressive was his 2011-2012 campaign, in which he scored 36 of his 60 goals (60 per cent) against the defensively superior playoff teams.

The only player with less success against playoff teams than Ovechkin was Chicago’s Patrick Sharp, at 35.6 percent.

Three of Sharp’s teammates (Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa) had nearly as poor a percentage, with Hossa posting the best among them at 43.7 percent.

The Penguins’ Crosby’s ranking was 43.6 percent. This is a small sample because of injuries, but of his 55 goals during this period, 32 came in 2010-2011, in which only 37.5 percent were scored against playoff teams.

That said, linemate Chris Kunitz was second highest on this list at 59.2 per cent, and we all know who gets him the puck.

So is Crosby a stat padder, or is he simply a more effective playmaker than a scorer?

The numbers, including his return to a less frantic pace of goal scoring over the past two seasons, suggest it’s No. 2.

No one statistic is going to tell you everything you need to know about a player.

But Cherry may be on to something here. Some guys score too often against bad teams for you not to question their goal totals.

Copyright 2014 by Ian Cooper, The Department of Hockey Analytics

Distributed by Torstar Syndication Services

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