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

    Luck plays a part, but not so much in hockey as other sports due to long series. I think least luck amount needed would be baseball, then basketball/hockey. In a 7 game series the better team will normally win, or the harder working… but in Football 1 nervous running back with sweaty hands can cost you your season in 1 play. In hockey, you need consistent lasting luck – which rarely happens.

  • 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.

    Try working for 3 places that shut down either whole company or Edmonton location, within 2 months of you being promoted at each of those companies. If I can't blame bad luck, Im a multi-million dollar causing failure. I could live with that, but I know I wasn't the faulty cog in the machine.

  • Hippy

    That is interesting. I'm too lazy to work it out right now, but I think I will later.

    A side note on some previous threads discussing Bouwmeester…

    I just now noticed on behindthenet that Bouwmeester led his team in quality of competition. Of all players mentioned as being better than him only Chara and Lidstrom led their own teams in that category. Certainly not conclusive of anything, but does add a bit to the opinion that he is a top defenseman.

    There are some pretty interesting names on that list actually,(of players who led their teams) including a few I would not have guessed.

  • Hippy

    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.

  • Hippy

    Hemmertime wrote:

    If I can’t blame bad luck, Im a multi-million dollar causing failure.

    I wouldnt put that in your resume or cover letter if i were you. Just avoid anything that makes you look like the 4th horseman of the corporate apocalypse.

  • Hippy

    On a completely different point…Did anyone see the 5 questions with JFJ on the Oilers site? He puts visiting Paris and the DR ahead of winning the Stanly Cup. Does anyone else think that there may be a committment problem in our current player group?

  • Hippy

    @ Boris:
    Ooo I just read that, I cant knock him for wanting a Family over the cup, but Paris? and Europe? listed above the cup! lets hope thats just written like that and not in order of priority. But hell, there is even "5 places Id like to visit" and Paris still made it as a goal in life. And someone should tell him he has the money and ample time to go right now so that he can focus on the things that matter =)

    Side note: Ya, it would be hard to play in Edmonton, little Danny Tencer asks you 5 questions and you get ripped on MSG boards for the order of your answers lol

  • Hippy

    The Oilers and Hawks were two teams that mirrored each other for the past 7 years in draft positions and thier goal to emulate the Wings. It looks like the Hawks beat Edmonton to it. They even got Bowman. The Oilers had a plan but the wrong person was in charge. Lowe and Company can't see talent if it bit them in the arse. Now with Tambel in charge it looks like we are back where we started 7 years ago, only in worse shape because of contracts like HORC, Penner, Pissani, etc. So I say 3 more years before we can emulate the Hawks, who are playing Oilers hockey. J.W. your a stats man. can you please compare the draft picks and postions of the Hawks and Oilers for the past 7 years? Why is K.P. still around, Lowe is the "token" of the past so he is safe as a baby in a mothers arms. Pouliout for Captain with Brodzaik and JFJ as assitants, for next year.

  • Hippy

    @ Boris:

    OMG it was #4 on a list of five. Winning the Cup just edged out meeting U2. Perhaps someone should have mentioned to him that he is employed by a NHL team. The guy makes half a Mill a year and he places more importance on seeing the friggin Eifel tower than he does winning the hardest championship to win in pro sports. HE HAS 4 MONTHS OFF A YEAR! I think he can go to Paris any time he wants. #1 on the list was have a family. HE IS A PRO HOCKEY PAYER IN CANADA. I cant imagine that finding willing ladies is that hard either. He might as well have put "eating a good sandwich" ahead of winning the Cup.

  • Hippy

    The way I see it:

    There are two types of shots, ON NET, and NOT ON NET. I don't think there is such thing as luck, only unexpected bounces off players, posts, ice, end boards, dashers, and Tommy Salo's head. Every post is just another shot not on net. In the end, no matter how it happens, good teams score more goals than bad teams. I think you're looking at a chicken and egg scenario backwards. The only way to gauge success is by results. Goals, and wins.

    If you try to figure out the stats of every single angle, vector, velocity of puck movement, your head will smoke and explode like a hilarious robot.

    Saying "luck" (when it comes to goal posts) has an effect on success is like saying, "putting more goals in the net correlates with winning."

  • Hippy

    Sandra wrote:

    The Oilers and Hawks were two teams that mirrored each other for the past 7 years in draft positions and thier goal to emulate the Wings. It looks like the Hawks beat Edmonton to it. They even got Bowman. The Oilers had a plan but the wrong person was in charge. Lowe and Company can’t see talent if it bit them in the arse. Now with Tambel in charge it looks like we are back where we started 7 years ago, only in worse shape because of contracts like HORC, Penner, Pissani, etc. So I say 3 more years before we can emulate the Hawks, who are playing Oilers hockey. J.W. your a stats man. can you please compare the draft picks and postions of the Hawks and Oilers for the past 7 years? Why is K.P. still around, Lowe is the “token” of the past so he is safe as a baby in a mothers arms. Pouliout for Captain with Brodzaik and JFJ as assitants, for next year.

    Are you delusional? In the last 7 years the Hawks have drafted 1st overall once and 3rd overall twice.

    With three, top three picks you should be walking away with 2 stars and a solid NHL…which the Hawks have.

  • Hippy

    Archaeologuy wrote:

    @ Boris:
    OMG it was #4 on a list of five. Winning the Cup just edged out meeting U2. Perhaps someone should have mentioned to him that he is employed by a NHL team. The guy makes half a Mill a year and he places more importance on seeing the friggin Eifel tower than he does winning the hardest championship to win in pro sports. HE HAS 4 MONTHS OFF A YEAR! I think he can go to Paris any time he wants. #1 on the list was have a family. HE IS A PRO HOCKEY PAYER IN CANADA. I cant imagine that finding willing ladies is that hard either. He might as well have put “eating a good sandwich” ahead of winning the Cup.

    I'd be willing to bet his mindset isn't that uncommon. "Work" isn't top priority for most people.

  • Hippy

    MattL wrote:

    The only way to gauge success is by results. Goals, and wins.

    True, the only way to gauge success is results. On the other hand, you're assuming a 100% correlation between success and ability, which simply doesn't happen.

  • Hippy

    Sandra wrote:

    The Oilers and Hawks were two teams that mirrored each other for the past 7 years in draft positions and thier goal to emulate the Wings.

    I'm not going to defend Lowe (who has made his share of blunders) but that statement is wrong. Here are the first round picks of each team over the last seven years

    Edmonton: 13th, 15th, 22nd, 14th, 25th, 25th, 6th, 22nd
    Totals: 8 picks, 18th overall average

    Chicago: 9th, 29th, 21st, 14th, 3rd, 7th, 3rd, 1st, 11th
    Totals: 9 picks, 11th overall average

    Chicago had 5 top-10 picks over that span; Edmonton had one (and he's turned out pretty well). The two aren't remotely comparable.

    And as for emulating the Wings, Chicago hasn't even been close to doing it. For one example, compare Chicago's money spent on goalies with Detroit; it isn't even close, because Detroit builds a good team and saves money in net, while Chicago went after Khabibulin with money and term and then after Huet when that didn't work.

  • Hippy

    @ Jonathan Willis:

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

    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?

    I think what I'm trying to say is that goal posts are part of a backwards correlation, a result, not something that can predict future events. It's just a missed shot on net, remarkable for the sweet, sweet noise it makes, and nothing more.

    To quote my favourite philosophical zen moment from the Mighty Ducks, "Two inches the other way, and you would have missed completely."

  • Hippy

    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.

  • Hippy

    Jonathan Willis wrote:

    Sandra wrote:
    The Oilers and Hawks were two teams that mirrored each other for the past 7 years in draft positions and thier goal to emulate the Wings.
    I’m not going to defend Lowe (who has made his share of blunders) but that statement is wrong. Here are the first round picks of each team over the last seven years
    Edmonton: 13th, 15th, 22nd, 14th, 25th, 25th, 6th, 22nd
    Totals: 8 picks, 18th overall average
    Chicago: 9th, 29th, 21st, 14th, 3rd, 7th, 3rd, 1st, 11th
    Totals: 9 picks, 11th overall average
    Chicago had 5 top-10 picks over that span; Edmonton had one (and he’s turned out pretty well). The two aren’t remotely comparable.
    And as for emulating the Wings, Chicago hasn’t even been close to doing it. For one example, compare Chicago’s money spent on goalies with Detroit; it isn’t even close, because Detroit builds a good team and saves money in net, while Chicago went after Khabibulin with money and term and then after Huet when that didn’t work.

    Also, I'd add that top 3 picks are FAR superior to 8th/12th/19th … or whatever picks (ie so the average position probably isn't that relavant)

  • Hippy

    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).

  • Hippy

    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.

  • Hippy

    @ 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.

  • Hippy

    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.

  • Hippy

    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?

  • Hippy

    @ 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).