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

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.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

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.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

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.


  • Hippy

    canucklehead wrote:

    Jonathan:
    Where are you pulling the “a goal has .2% impact on the regular season” and “3.6% effect on a playoff series” figures from?

    1/478 = 0.2%
    1/28 = 3.6%

  • Hippy

    Is it just me or are the playoffs this year probably the most entertaining in years? (Since '06 anyway).. Whether it's lucky breaks or the good teams winning, either way, hockey fans are definitely winning this year.

  • Hippy

    @ Cory Dakin:

    Yeah, I'm enjoying them (particularly the Pittsburgh/Washington series). Lots of really good storylines.

    Of course, I'd enjoy them more if Edmonton were involved.

  • Hippy

    I was having some trouble digesting your article and after some thought I finally figured out why. You're assuming that goalposts are a signifier of luck, no? Do you really believe this to be the case? Wouldn't better teams be simply better at tucking pucks inside the posts?

  • Hippy

    I'm not sure what I'm more surprised by..

    Vancouver repeatedly snatching defeat from the jaws of victory with Luongo behind them…

    Or, Crosby tied with Ovechkin in goals, but trailing him in assists.

  • Hippy

    Hitting a goalpost isn't bad luck. It's missing the net.
    Should we chalk a shot that misses the post by 1 cm as "bad luck" too? What about 2 cm? 3 cm? 1 foot?

    With that said, I still agree with your post 100%.
    Luck definitely plays a part. But things tend to even out usually, thankfully.

  • Hippy

    If you ask any goaltender, I guarantee you they will tell you that hitting the goal post has nothing to do with luck. It's all about cutting down the angles, that's just quality goaltending!

  • Hippy

    marconius E wrote:

    I was having some trouble digesting your article and after some thought I finally figured out why. You’re assuming that goalposts are a signifier of luck, no? Do you really believe this to be the case? Wouldn’t better teams be simply better at tucking pucks inside the posts?

    The 2007-08 Edmonton Oilers hit 7 goal posts and had their opposition hit 19. Even assuming that they were incredibly good at making their shots (which I don't buy), why was their opposition so bad? Did they have the easiest schedule in the league? Was the Dwayne Roloson/Mathieu Garon tandem that good?

    I think luck is the more obvious explanation.

  • Hippy

    Cory Dakin wrote:

    If you ask any goaltender, I guarantee you they will tell you that hitting the goal post has nothing to do with luck. It’s all about cutting down the angles, that’s just quality goaltending!

    Of course, than you're relying on the judgement of someone who has chosen to stand in front of pucks for a living 😉

  • Hippy

    kingsblade wrote:

    Those goalpost numbers don’t reflect luck, they correspond quite nicely to shots on goal.

    To some degree, yes, but there's still quite a bit of variation from the shooting/outshooting curve. As examples, in 2007-08 Washington was getting a ton of help from this metric (despite being an outshooting team, IIRC) while Phoenix was on the unpleasant side of things (despite being not so good).

    There's too much variation to be explained away by outshooting, I think, although you're absolutely right that it plays a significant role.