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.

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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.

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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.

  • Hippy

    I personally would say that success in the play offs is based on the team who has the hottest 3rd and 4th lines. The 06 Oilers and this years Blackhawks being just 2 examples

  • Hippy

    Well it looks like the Canucks broke the streak of Canadian teams making the finals. Is it just me or was Luongo very ordinary, perhaps he is as over rated as Kipper

  • Hippy

    Jonathan Willis wrote:

    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.

    Hitting the post doesn't count as a shot on goal.

    And why is it luck when a shot hits the post, compared to a shot that hits the outer edge of a pad. A shot that hits the outer edge of the post is still close to two inches from going in.

    So when a player scores is that luck or is the goalie unlucky?

    Many would argue you have to work hard to get the bounces.

    Lucky to be good, good to be lucky.

  • Hippy

    Thank you very much for taking the time to post this. Everyone should know about these things. I enjoy learning new things so I subscribe to blogs like yours. Craig

  • Hippy

    @ Jonathan Willis:

    Jason Gregor wrote:

    Many would argue you have to work hard to get the bounces.

    Exactly.

    JW you may be right that there is the odd case where a team hits an unusual number of posts, I haven't really looked at the numbers. However the number of posts hit will correspond, in the vast majority of situations, to the number of shots taken.

    That would suggest that looking at goalposts as a luck factor is really only useful in situations where the numbers are contradictory.

    In general I'm with you on the luck proposition, but it's difficult to buy goalposts hit as part of that equation except in some very unusual circumstances.

    I wonder how often a teams goalpost ration doesn't correlate with their total corsi. Almost enough to look into it, but probably not quite.

  • Hippy

    @ kingsblade:

    All of the numbers data is here. It's ugly to sort through, but the goal posts don't match up with outshooting/getting outshot much at all.

    I was browsing through some of Vic's articles and I'm sold that the goalposts have a lot of luck attached to them. I have however had enough beer not to try and work through the math again tonight 😉

  • Hippy

    Jason Gregor wrote:

    Many would argue you have to work hard to get the bounces.

    That's a fun argument, and of course from a professional viewpoint I firmly believe that I make my own luck – I can't allow myself to believe anything else for fear of making excuses.

    That said, looking at something where my performance isn't on the line, the bounces matter and aren't controlled by hard work. When Lidstrom blew the puck by Cloutier in that Detroit/Vancouver series ages ago, that was a big helping of luck; nothing more. Cloutier should have had it, yes, but he would have anyway if not for a fluke bounce and it had nothing at all to do with exceptional hard work on Lidstrom's part.

    There's countless examples in every single game; and instead of them evening out over the course of the year you get a distribution, with some teams at one end of the curve, some in the middle and others at the far end. That's how life works; I'm sure you remember looking at Bell curves in school and while the average is comforting and it's nice to pretend that we're all getting the same chances, all grouped along the middle, it simply isn't the case because some of us fall at one end of the scale and some of us fall on the other end, randomly.

  • Hippy

    Jonathan Willis wrote:

    That’s a fun argument, and of course from a professional viewpoint I firmly believe that I make my own luck – I can’t allow myself to believe anything else for fear of making excuses.

    I've explained this badly, but I'll try one more time here.

    A professional athlete, given the choice between taking responsibility and offering up a (legitimate) excuse, should always take responsibility. It's irrational, but it also pushes towards excellence.

    A general manager, watching his team struggle, has to strike a balance in his public comments; taking responsibility and pushing people to be their best while at the same time allowing for all of the flukey things (injuries, posts, bad refs) that actually occur in the games.

    In private though, that G.M. needs to be rational – needs to take into account the fact that Player X was hurt or that he hit four posts in a seven-game series, or simply for the fact that performance varies and sometimes you roll ones. He needs to be as detached as possible and try to give fair value – no more, no less – to the luck that plays a part in sports.

    Analysts should do the same, but it's much easier and much more popular to pile on guys, and if there's one thing TV personalities no how to do it's pander to the crowd. People don't want excuses, they want scapegoats, and that's a tendency that a good G.M. (or analyst) needs to try to get away from.

  • Hippy

    The beauty of Sport: call it luck; call it a pivitol play; but well all remember specific incidents that changed the course of Oiler franchise history. Was it bad luck when Steve Smith banked a series winning goal off Fuhr; or just poor judgement to throw a pass up the middle from behind his own net? Was it bad luck that Roli was injured in game one of the 06 SCF; or a bonehead play by MAB to push Ladd into the crease? Each individual play can be debated seperately, but the fact remains, some degree of human error is at the heart of every instance big or small. That said, the outcome can be subject to human error by the officials (Remember Mcgough?)… And to this day, every time there is a goal crease collision I marval at how often the goalie ISN'T injured… it just figures…grumble…grumble…

  • Hippy

    I never understood why hitting the goal post isn't considered a shot on net. I mean come on!!! You can't get any closer to a shot on goal when it actually hits the goal.

  • Hippy

    Does it make sense to count it as a shot on goal if it wouldn't have gone in the net? To simplify, a shot on goal is basically defined by a shot that would otherwise go in the net if there was no goalie. Therefore a shot that hits the post is not a shot on goal.