Friday, November 19, 2010

The Wrong Numbers, Part 2

(With about thee-quarters of this post already written, I noticed that my prior post on the wrong numbers in hockey had been linked to from the Leafs Central message boards, and in an interesting coincidence it was in a post where occasional commenter here Seventieslord was arguing exactly the same thing that I am about to claim in this post. I'll credit him where appropriate for a couple of things that I added on to strengthen my own argument).

Point totals in hockey seem to be magic numbers. The players who score the most are generally considered to be the best players, and players are routinely described to be playing well if they are racking up the points and not playing well if they aren't.

The problem is that isn't always true. There may be lots of reasons why a player is scoring or not scoring points other than his level of play, such as the type of situations his coach is putting him in, the shooting luck of his teammates, the play of the opponents he is matched up against, and just general puck luck. It is often the case that a player who outscored another in the playoffs was the better player, but this is far from always true, and that means it is a mistake to assume that a higher point total trumps all.

In my opinion, the 2009 Conn Smythe Trophy went to the wrong guy. I don't want to take anything away from Evgeni Malkin (well, other than the trophy they gave him, I guess), but I'd argue that Sidney Crosby was the Penguins' best player. There have been many Malkin vs. Crosby arguments debating which player stepped up in the Finals, which one the Red Wings focused their defensive attention on, which one carried the team in the key games in the earlier rounds, which one was the bigger leader, and so on. At the end of the day, I think there were really only two numbers that mattered: 31 and 36, the respective point totals of Crosby and Malkin. Like it or not, those numbers coloured the rest of the debate, and since 36 > 31, Malkin was the popular choice as Conn Smythe Trophy winner.

The way I see it, Crosby was the better player and the point totals are misleading. Crosby scored more goals and more even strength points than Malkin. With Malkin on the ice, the Penguins scored 41 goals and gave up 21. With Crosby on the ice, the team scored 40 and allowed just 14, in a similar amount of ice time, which indicates he and his linemates may have had a better two-way effort (which also came against tougher opposition). From those numbers and from watching the games, I don't think Malkin was outplaying Crosby, just outpointing him.

The reason that Malkin won the points race was power play scoring. Malkin scored 16 power play points to Crosby's 10. Not surprisingly, however, both stars were on the ice for the majority of the Penguins goals, given that they both played heavily on the team's first PP unit. There were 16 PPG that both were on the ice for, and Crosby and Malkin each had one additional goal where they were on the ice but the other was not.

During the regular season, both players got points on 75% of the team power play goals they were on the ice for. In the playoffs Malkin had points on 94% of his on-ice goals, while Crosby was at just 59%. It was certainly not the case that somebody else replaced Crosby's contribution (both Crosby and Malkin each scored more PPP than the rest of Pittsburgh's forwards combined). I think that the simple explanation is that puck luck worked to the benefit of Malkin and the expense of Crosby.

I watched all the power play goals Pittsburgh scored with either player on the ice on the NHL game highlights on Youtube, and noted how each goal was scored. Here is the breakdown of how they got their points:

Solo effort or good play to create the goal: Malkin 4, Crosby 3
Converting a routine rebound: Malkin 0, Crosby 2
Routine pass to a teammate who created the goal: Malkin 7, Crosby 4
Fortunate bounce: Malkin 5, Crosby 1
Third assists: Malkin 0, Crosby 3

The first Penguins' power play goal of the playoffs I counted as a fortunate bounce for both players, as Malkin's attempted pass across the crease was deflected by Martin Biron off of Crosby's skate and into the net. The other four goals counted as lucky for Malkin included: a point shot that bounced in off of Malkin's knee, a Malkin pass that was batted by an opposing defender right to Mark Eaton who promptly scored, an attempted pass to Crosby on a 2-on-1 that was deflected into the net by a defender for an overtime game-winner, and Brad Stuart knocking the rebound into his own net after Chris Osgood made the initial save on Malkin.

In all likelihood, Malkin and Crosby played at a similar level on the power play in the '09 playoffs, Malkin just ended up on the scoresheet more often. Even if Malkin did create a few extra scoring plays compared to Crosby 5-on-4, I don't think it makes up for Crosby's better overall performance.

Much was also made of the Stanley Cup Final scoring differential, but I'm still not sure that Crosby was any worse than Malkin in the Finals, even discounting the fact that the Red Wings obviously targeted Crosby as their #1 defensive priority. Crosby and his linemates were simply snakebitten that entire series. Bill Guerin and Chris Kunitz, Crosby's most frequent linemates, combined to score 0 goals on 32 shots. Guerin missed several point blank chances, and Crosby himself hit several posts and was robbed repeatedly by either Chris Osgood or Henrik Zetterberg. Guerin and Kunitz had almost the same shot rate against Detroit as they did in the other three rounds, yet nothing was going in. By my eyes, that certainly wasn't Crosby's fault. I think the hockey gods deserve at least as much credit for "shutting down" Crosby as Lidstrom and Zetterberg.

In contrast, Malkin's most frequent linemates Ruslan Fedotenko and Max Talbot combined to shoot 17% in the Finals. Malkin himself scored 8 points, but again it was a case of him being on the right side of some puck luck. Two of Malkin's routine power play assists came in that series on goals by Letang and Gonchar, and two more assists came on lucky breaks, one a horrible rebound by Osgood left for Fedotenko to bang in, and the other a bounce off of a forechecking Malkin's skate right to Talbot, who promptly scored. Malkin also got credit for the Brad Stuart own goal mentioned above.

There are two additional arguments for Crosby that I'm stealing from Seventieslord at Leafs Central. First, Crosby shouldered a heavy load with faceoffs, leading all players in the playoffs by taking a 37.7% share of his team's draws while winning a respectable 53% of them. Secondly, Malkin cost his team quite a bit of time spent on the penalty kill by taking 18 minor penalties, nearly double the number of any other player in the playoffs, while Crosby was only whistled for 7 minors.

While I think Crosby was superior, Malkin did play very well. Malkin also hit his share of posts and created chances where the puck luck wasn't on his side, which means it perhaps wasn't so unrighteous that he got some of the bounces along the way. It is also incorrect to completely discount routine plays, as the ability to consistently make routine plays under pressure is part of what differentiates a great player. Not every goal is an amazing end-to-end rush, after all. That said, the rate that those routine plays get turned into goals can certainly vary quite a bit in the short term.

In nearly every other playoff season, Malkin would have been a very deserving Conn Smythe winner. I just don't think he was in 2009, as the evidence supports Sidney Crosby. Unfortunately, many hockey observers have a tendency of looking at the wrong or the simple numbers and ignoring the importance of context. Even to self-professed stats-hating hockey observers, the power of a single number can be very strong indeed, and at the end of the day 36 points were just too much to ignore.


Anonymous said...

No way you would consider Chris Osgood as having been a Conn Smythe candidate? Yes he had a lousy regular season but he stood on his head all playoffs and almost carried a Detroit team that was worse than the '08 one to a second Cup.

Penguins outplayed Detroit for most of the series and Osgood kept Detroit in it.

The Contrarian Goaltender said...

There's no way that Osgood's performance compared to a 30+ point performance by a skater.

I disagree that Pittsburgh outplayed Detroit for most of the series. See this for one numerical attempt to quantify the relative rate of chances. And even when Pittsburgh did have the upper hand, I thought the posts and Bill Guerin missing every chance kept Detroit in it just as much as Osgood, to be honest.

Agent Orange said...

CG - Would your opinion of Osgood as a Conn Smythe winner change if the Wings had scored 2 more goals in game 6?

16-7 1.85 GAA 92.7 sv%

Thats a pretty tough stat line to argue with.

I watched every minute of those Red Wings that playoff season and more than any other player Osgood was responsible for that teams success.

Round 1: Columbus
Sans one period Osgood was very good against the Blue Jackets. That said he didn't have to be great (Detroit never trailed). Because Detroit ended up scoring a lot of goals in all of the games against Columbus the play of Osgood early in games is considered largely irrelevant. It did however give Detroit a chance to get their game together and hammer an inferior team.

Round 2: Anaheim
Osgood was as good as he needed to be against Anaheim. He was mostly overshadowed by Jonas Hiller/Wings lack of offense. He was tagged with 2 2-1 losses which caused the series to go 7 (It likely would have been over in 5 if Detroit could have scored 3 in game 3).

Round 3: Chicago
This was where Osgood earned the paycheck. Osgood was steller in 4/5 games including 2 overtime games. He sported a 93.2 sv% over the series.

Round 4: Penguins
The meat of the discussion it would seem. The finals always garner more attention for the Conn Smythe than the other rounds. Osgood was pretty up and down in this series.

Games 1, 2 and 6 Osgood was very good.

Game 5 Osgood was there which was all they really needed from him.

Game 3 and 4 his performance was mostly forgettable. The Wings were a whole lot better in front of him but if he could have brought the same level of performance from Games 1 and 2 they likely still a game in Pitt.

Game 7: This game will be argued for a long time. The 2nd goal was a bad one that Osgood shouldn't have allowed. The team defense/goaltending together should have been good enough to win this game and the cup but the offense just didn't produce.

I don't know that the Wings had any other players that could have taken the Conn Smythe away from him but I agree he did have the kind of performance Giggy did in 03 to get the Conn Smythe in a losing effort.

Anonymous said...

Osgood was stellar for the first period of game 5 of the finals, when Pittsburgh utterly dominated. After the first period he didn't need to do any work as Pittsburgh spent the entire time in the box, but he was huge when it counted.

The Contrarian Goaltender said...

Even though this is a goaltending blog, I'd be more interested in talking about Crosby or Malkin in 2009 than about Osgood, to be honest, as I feel I've already gone through this debate a few times.

In case you haven't heard my view, Osgood was similar to Malkin in that the bounces went his way for most of the playoffs, meaning that his numbers in all likelihood exaggerated his true performance. I'd say the Smythe should have gone to Crosby over Malkin regardless of who won the Cup.

Agent Orange said...

"I don't know that the Wings had any other players that could have taken the Conn Smythe away from him but I agree he did have the kind of performance Giggy did in 03 to get the Conn Smythe in a losing effort."

Sorry I meant to say he did NOT have the kind of performance to steal the conn smythe in a losing effort.

Unknown said...

The host post is right on - the colour of Crosby's performance almost certainly means that he was the more valuable performer. The problem of the "36 points" is what Player Contribution ( is all about. As it is focussed on results, it does not directly address the question of luck. But it pays a great deal of attention to colour and circumstance. For instance, PC takes the view that power play offense is more of a team effort than even (or especially short) handed offense.

Cognition said...

Very great insights that people often leave out of the discussion. I especially like how you looked at each goal and categorized them.

My issue with Crosby winning it is that Detroit was by far the hardest opposition Pittsburgh faced defensively the entire playoffs and that's where Crosby only scored 3 points. I think one of the more valid sense of the word "clutch" is strength of opposition. Outscoring Crosby 8 points to 3 in the finals, I think, is too much to adjust for even granted that Crosby had the tougher match-ups and the worst luck. Malkin showed a consistency and patience that Crosby lacked.

And, remember that a shooting percentage can be improved by a good playmaker.

nightfly said...

CG - good points, but there's also a bit of psychology going on as well. To wit, Crosby has been astoundingly successful at every level, and his NHL career is still relatively short. He already has a World Juniors championship, an Olympic gold medal (and he scored the golden goal), a Stanley Cup, a Hart, and a Ross Trophy. This helps fuel an undercurrent of resentment, and possibly a subconscious resistance to simply vote for him for the Conn Smythe - if ANYONE else was plausible as a winner.

It's childish-sounding, but makes sense from a certain POV. If they honor Crosby when Malkin outscored him, especially given their results in the Finals, you deal with a lot of "They just gave it to Crosby because they didn't bother to really look at the games." "He just wins because he's Sid Crosby." "Hockey media don't know anything." In this case, ironically, that would be incorrect (as you illustrate), but that would be the thought.

The Contrarian Goaltender said...

Nightfly: Good point, that likely had something to do with it.

Cognition: Once again, my point is that scoring totals do not accurately represent true offensive contribution over a short sample size of games. Your memory may be telling you that Malkin was much better than Crosby in the Finals, but I'd guess that if you sat down and watched the games, or even just the highlights, you'd find that the gap is much less than you remember it to be.

Having said that, it is certainly possible that Malkin outplayed Crosby in the Finals. I don't think I would argue that Crosby was better against Detroit, merely that he was either equal or not much behind Malkin. Sid was also creating chances against tougher opposition, but they weren't going in at the same rate.

If you want to put a huge weighting on the Finals then there may be justification for choosing Malkin. I don't put huge weighting on the Finals, which is why I'd choose Crosby for the reasons discussed.