A Quick And Dirty Look at the Value of a Goal, Or Alternately: Luck Matters

Jonathan Willis
May 11 2009 07:53PM

Bowman and Babcock

Scotty Bowman said something more than thirty years ago that occasionally seems to be at odds with conventional wisdom, but meshes well – even obviously – with reality.

“I believe when you get down to the short series of a playoff or the last game for the Stanley Cup, breaks are going to play a big part and you have to be lucky to win. If you are the best you should win , but from one season to the next intangibles will enter into it and you will not always win. An injury here, a lucky shot there.”

Bowman said that in 1976; it’s something that should be obvious based on how hockey games have unfolded over the years, but all too often it seems that the role of injuries, bounces, refereeing and all other manner of luck is ignored.

Luck is reduced in the regular season, because of the large number of games played, but it isn’t entirely eliminated. Consider goalposts as an example. Last season in November, the Rangers had hit 8 more goal posts than their opposition. Meanwhile, the Oilers had seen their opposition hit 12 more goalposts than they did. Imagine what an effect switching those numbers would have had on each team’s season – that’s a 20 goal swing, by November! Checking in again in February, we have an expected outcome – the margin has increased, albeit at a slower rate. Now the Rangers have hit 14 more goalposts than their opposition, while the Oilers have seen their opponents hit 16 more than they’ve hit themselves – a 30 goal swing. That’s a 6% impact on the outcome of the season at the extremes right there; the difference between making the playoffs and missing them, or the difference between making the playoffs and winning the division. Of course most teams fall into the middle of the spread, so this effect is minimized, but in certain rare instances could result in massive swings with precisely the same amount of talent and level of opposition.

In any case, those are groups of goals, and a single lucky goal has virtually no impact on the regular season. The average NHL team this year saw 478 goals scored for and against, meaning that a single goal on average had a .2% impact on the outcome of a season.

Now, consider a playoff round – it’s a completely different story. Here are the playoff series from the first round, with total goals scored for and against in each of them:

  • Boston over Montreal (17-6)
  • Washington over New York (19-11)
  • Carolina over New Jersey (17-15)
  • Pittsburgh over Philadelphia (18-16)
  • Anaheim over San Jose (18-10)
  • Detroit over Columbus (18-7)
  • Vancouver over St. Louis (11-5)
  • Chicago over Calgary (21-16)

In each series, on average, a total of 28 goals were scored. That means that a single lucky goal, or a bad call leading to a goal, or a goal post, or whatever would have roughly a 3.6% effect on every series. It would only take three good bounces to have a greater than 10% sway on the outcome of each series, on average.

All of this tells me that what Scotty Bowman had figured out more than thirty years ago is absolutely correct – luck has a huge outcome on the result of a single playoff series. Since it requires four series to win the Stanley Cup, that level of luck is compounded. The best team should win, but with a couple of bounces one way or the other a team that should have won the Stanley Cup can end up ousted in the first round.

I’d even argue that there’s no such thing as a “team of destiny” any more; every year there are a half-dozen good teams with legitimate shots at the Stanley Cup, and with a little bit of luck any of them could win it all.  These aren't the days of the Original Six.

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Jonathan Willis is a freelance writer. He currently works for Oilers Nation, the Edmonton Journal and Bleacher Report. He's co-written three books and worked for myriad websites, including Grantland, ESPN, The Score, and Hockey Prospectus. He was previously the founder and managing editor of Copper & Blue.
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#51 Jonathan Willis
May 12 2009, 12:28PM
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MattL wrote:

I absolutely agree, but what does “ability” have to do with the price of rice when the Stanley Cup is handed out?

Nothing. But as a G.M. you can control the ability of your team but not its success; in other words, sometimes (rarely) a team can get knocked out in the first round but not need to make any changes. It's important that a G.M. makes the distinction, or he ends up sending Phil Esposito to Boston for the sake of change.

Is there anything that links (posts vs. shots) and wins? Do the teams who hit an abnormally high or low number of goal posts compared to total shots over the season have a related increase or decrease in wins?

Vic estimates that three posts one way or the other is roughly equal to a win (although the better or worse the team the more posts required per win/loss, since that's how the curves match).

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#52 Archaeologuy
May 12 2009, 12:38PM
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Ogden Brother wrote:

Archaeologuy wrote: @ Ogden Brother: If a rookie in the NHL isnt enthused about playing at the highest level of the game then he shouldnt be there. I agree, but I’d still bet alot of fans take the wins and losses harder then some of the players.

As dense as JFJ seems I'm not about to pick up my pitchfork and start a 3 man protest outside of Rexall because of some lightweight answers to some lightweight questions. It just makes me shake my head more than anything.

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#53 Ogden Brother
May 12 2009, 12:50PM
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@ Archaeologuy: I'm actually somewhat suprised.

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#54 Archaeologuy
May 12 2009, 12:52PM
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@ Ogden Brother: I dont rage out every day. This is my day off. Tomorrow it's back to the grindstone.

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#55 Jonathan Willis
May 12 2009, 01:32PM
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Archaeologuy wrote:

some lightweight answers to some lightweight questions

How dare you imply that the Oilers' official site deals in trivialities!

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#56 Archaeologuy
May 12 2009, 01:47PM
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@ Jonathan Willis: Sorry Jon, I'm sure that it took the team of Pulitzer Prize winning journalists all night to come up with questions like, "Where would you like to visit?" and "Who would you like to have dinner with?"

I'm sure someone is being paid handsomely to come up with the most trivial questions to ask someone like JFJ.

At this point I'd like to give Jason Gregor a big Ol' thumbs up on his interviews, which I find try to go into much more depth than a lot of the fluff out there.

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#57 The Menace
May 12 2009, 02:15PM
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Zdeno Ciger wrote:

Luck definitely plays a part. But things tend to even out usually, thankfully.

I think what Willis might be suggesting is that they even out for the league, and over a whole season; they do no nessesarily even out for each team in each playoff series. I don't mean to put words in your mouth if that's not right JW.

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#58 The Menace
May 12 2009, 02:22PM
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kingsblade wrote:

Hemmertime wrote: I think least luck amount needed would be baseball… I would thing the opposite. The luck involved in getting a base hit vs. an out is incredible. There is certainly a lot of skill involved, but every single hit is decided by a matter of millimeters, forget even about inches. A tiny bit of dirt on the ball can change the trajectory just enough…catching the ball on the laces with your bat instead of the leather can change the results just enough… There is a huge amount of luck in every sport though, I have to agree with that.

If it's luck, then why do the same guys lead the league in average every year?

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#59 Archaeologuy
May 12 2009, 02:27PM
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@ The Menace: sounds like that Poker commercial

If luck has so much to do with, then why are there so many familiar faces at the final table.

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#60 The Menace
May 12 2009, 02:34PM
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@ Archaeologuy: OK - those do sound similar. But does that make it less true-er? if it was luck, then it should be a random sampling of guys with the top batting averages every year (or at the final table).

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#61 Archaeologuy
May 12 2009, 02:40PM
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@ The Menace: Oh i agree with you. Luck is one thing, but I think playoff success has a lot more to do with the mental ability of some people to recognize opportunities under the most stressful of situations. The playoffs are where the cream rises to the top.

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#62 Mike L
May 12 2009, 02:43PM
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Archaeologuy wrote:

At this point I’d like to give Jason Gregor a big Ol’ thumbs up on his interviews, which I find try to go into much more depth than a lot of the fluff out there.

I totally agree. Gregor is the best interviewer in Edmonton, and one of the best on radio. He clearly does his homework before. I also like that he adds a few lighthearted questions now and then. His interview with Steve Ott about four months ago was the best I'd heard. Keep it up Gregor...

And it was great to see you and Willis battle yesterday...Willis is strong in stats, but yesterday Jonathon I'd say Gregor won the debate. Staal is a force.

Love the site guys. I read often, but rarely post. Archaeology and Dakin and Odgen, do you guys ever work? I enjoy the back and forth stuff.

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#63 kingsblade
May 12 2009, 02:44PM
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The Menace wrote:

If it’s luck, then why do the same guys lead the league in average every year?

Did you read the part where I state that a lot of skill is involved? I never even implied that it is all luck.

We are talking about hitting a post as being a luck factor. Hitting a post means essentially missing by only a little bit. Hitting a ball I consider to be the single most difficult act in all of pro sports. To connect solidly you need to hit a spot on the ball about an inch in diameter with the right part of the bat which is even smaller because if you hit it too high, too low, or to the left or right of the sweet spot, you will not get a hit. Then you have to still make sure no fielders get to it.This is why the best hitters in the game cannot get a hit even 40% of the time.

The most skilled players can hit the ball correctly more often, meaning they have more opportunities for the ball to do what they want it to do...get lucky in other words. If hitting a post in hockey is bad luck then hitting the ball off the sweet spot is bad luck as well, and guess which happens about a million times more often?

I never meant to imply that hitting is pure luck, I was trying to explain that you need more luck for success in Baseball than in Hockey. Even if your skill level makes you better than the others to begin with.

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#64 Archaeologuy
May 12 2009, 02:50PM
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@ Mike L: I work at night, so my days are open for innane babble.

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#65 Mike L
May 12 2009, 03:32PM
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Archaeologuy wrote:

@ Mike L: I work at night, so my days are open for innane babble.

I was just kidding. I like the conversations/arguments...If I could type faster I might participate more.

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#66 Archaeologuy
May 12 2009, 03:48PM
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@ Mike L: I didnt take offense to anything, I try to keep a pretty good sense of humour about my web-geekery.

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#67 The Menace
May 12 2009, 03:56PM
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kingsblade wrote:

The most skilled players can hit the ball correctly more often, meaning they have more opportunities for the ball to do what they want it to do…get lucky in other words.

My high school coach also told me that the most skilled players would get lucky more often. ;)

I don't think anyone has disagreed with you about how difficult it is to hit a baseball; if luck is such a large componant though, why are the same guys "lucky" every year? If hitting a baseball is the most difficult task, requiring the most skill, that would leave the least amount of room for luck to play a large role. It might be luck at a rec league slo-pitch game, but not at the major-league level where the best hitters have spent thousands of hours practising.

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#68 Matt
May 12 2009, 03:58PM
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instead of using goalposts shouldn't we account for the fact that teams don't all take the same number of shots? Posts/(Shots on goal + Posts) seems easy enough. But if Detroit has twenty more posts in a year than another team do we say that they are simply unlucky or does it mean that they take more shots than other teams?

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#69 Ogden Brother
May 12 2009, 04:15PM
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Mike L wrote:

Archaeologuy wrote: At this point I’d like to give Jason Gregor a big Ol’ thumbs up on his interviews, which I find try to go into much more depth than a lot of the fluff out there. I totally agree. Gregor is the best interviewer in Edmonton, and one of the best on radio. He clearly does his homework before. I also like that he adds a few lighthearted questions now and then. His interview with Steve Ott about four months ago was the best I’d heard. Keep it up Gregor… And it was great to see you and Willis battle yesterday…Willis is strong in stats, but yesterday Jonathon I’d say Gregor won the debate. Staal is a force. Love the site guys. I read often, but rarely post. Archaeology and Dakin and Odgen, do you guys ever work? I enjoy the back and forth stuff.

I'm paid to be here :)

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#70 kingsblade
May 12 2009, 04:17PM
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The Menace wrote:

kingsblade wrote: The most skilled players can hit the ball correctly more often, meaning they have more opportunities for the ball to do what they want it to do…get lucky in other words. My high school coach also told me that the most skilled players would get lucky more often. I don’t think anyone has disagreed with you about how difficult it is to hit a baseball; if luck is such a large componant though, why are the same guys “lucky” every year? If hitting a baseball is the most difficult task, requiring the most skill, that would leave the least amount of room for luck to play a large role. It might be luck at a rec league slo-pitch game, but not at the major-league level where the best hitters have spent thousands of hours practising.

You do understand that I was comparing the relative levels of luck in different pro sports don't you?

You can't take the statement that hitting a baseball for a base hit requires more luck than hitting a hockey net and extend it to mean that I'm saying great hitters are just lucky. It just doesn't follow in any way.

Compare it to blackjack. a player who plays the proper way has a better chance of winning than a guy who doesn't. He is still lucky when he wins though, even though he will win way more often than the other guy.

In baseball a guy who is a great hitter will get hits way more often because of relative skill levels, but he is still lucky when he does. Especially considering the odds of a base hit are lower than the odds of winning at blackjack.

You think I am discounting skill with my statement, but the opposite is true.

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#71 The Menace
May 12 2009, 04:56PM
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@ kingsblade: OK - maybe I did misunderstand what you were getting at. Are you saying that a baseball player would require more luck to get a hit then a hockey player would to score a goal? If so, I would agree with that.

I'm saying that may be true for 1 hit, or 1 goal. However, if you are getting hits 1/3 of the time over 500 at bats that is a large enough sample size that luck is no longer playing as significant a role.

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#72 MattL
May 12 2009, 05:38PM
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Where does a person find goal post stats for a team over the regular season anyway?

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#73 Archaeologuy
May 12 2009, 06:31PM
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Ogden Brother wrote:

I’m paid to be here

Oh man, I need to get me that deal.

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#74 RossCreek
May 12 2009, 07:23PM
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OilersNation.com has been behind on their paychecks recently which is why I haven't been posting as much lol. Rumor has it Gary Bettman has stepped in with some financial support and the checks are in the mail. Anyways, WILLIS, what would the comparison of % be from regular reason to playoffs from certain clutch playoff performers? Say Claude Lemieux and Peter Forsberg off the top of my head (amongst others).

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