Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Relief Has Come to the Football Fan

As a longtime Colorado resident and sports fan, I always get a bit excited when autumn comes, and it’s not hard to understand why: the NHL’s regular season begins in October, which gives grateful sports fans a reason to ignore the smoldering wreckage that used to be the Denver Broncos organization, and instead focus on a sport that’s superior in most ways anyhow: ice hockey.

Ice hockey lacks football’s long stretches of commercials, simplistic TV analysis, and brief blinks of actual game play; NASCAR’s hours of predictable high-speed tedium (go straight, left turn, GOTO 10); baseball’s lasseiz-faire approach to physical fitness; or basketball’s general unfamiliarity with teamwork, defense, and physical contact; so it’s not hard to see why the sport hasn’t fully captured the American imagination.

No, seriously, we’re athletes. Really! We mean it! We get uniforms and everything!
I prefer to believe, though, that this is mainly because casual fans of the game aren’t watching it quite right. Sure, casual hockey fans look forward to fights (often to the point of ignoring the actual game), and usually can identify when a goal has been scored, if only because they notice the flashing red light and the accompanying arena-shaking horn blast. Casual fans do appreciate goals (as they should) and admire and even idolize goal-scorers (which is cool), and that’s a good start.

What the casual fan is less likely to pick up on, though, is how often it’s a passer, rather than a shooter, that makes a goal happen, and by missing or disregarding this fundamental facet of the game, they’re missing out on much of the excitement the sport has to offer, and a great deal of the skill it puts on display.

Without the puck movement that sets up the goal—without players who can draw defensemen and goaltenders out of position —scoring would be virtually nonexistent, rendering the game of hockey slow, pointless, and boring . . . like some other sports I could mention.

And while it’s almost surely true that a good shooter will make his linemates look good, it’s as or more often the reverse, that a first-class passer will turn a middling player into a good one, and a gifted player into a star. To show the importance of the playmaker, let’s take a look at five shooters—one flash in the pan, two All-Stars, and two Hall of Famers—and see how they’ve done with and without the first-class passers with whom they’ve played.

Jonathan Cheechoo of the San Jose Sharks was officially crowned the Luckiest Guy in the World when Joe Thornton joined the team as Cheechoo’s center early in the 2005–2006 season. Cheechoo won the Maurice Richard Trophy—awarded to the league’s top goal scorer—that year, probably postponing his return to the AHL by at least a couple of years:
Jonathan Cheechoo Games Goals GPG
With Thornton (2005-2006) 82 56 0.683
Every other year:
419 114 0.272

Milan Hejduk, a three-time All-Star for the Colorado Avalanche—and perhaps the team’s best-ever player to look just a tiny bit like a ferret—had his best year in 2002–2003 as a right wing for Peter Forsberg—not just one of the league’s best setup men of the last two decades, but one of its best overall players. While the two played together for several seasons, Forsberg’s struggle with injuries limited his playing time—at one point he played only 56 regular-season games in a three-year span—so the 2002–2003 season is the best example of Forsberg’s effect on Hejduk’s production.

Milan Hejduk
Games Goals GPG
With Forsberg (2002–2003) 82 50 0.610
Every other year:
765 289 0.378

Simon Gagne followed Milan Hejduk as the winner of the Forsberg Lottery when the Swede joined the Philadelphia Flyers for the 2005–2006 season. While Forsberg missed just over twenty games that year, he skated with Gagne most of the time he was healthy, and it shows in Gagne’s career-high total of 47 goals.

Simon Gagne
Games Goals GPG
With Forsberg (2005–2006) 72 47 0.653
Every other year:
598 212 0.355

Jari Kurri’s 601 career goals are good for eighteenth in league history, and he was the first Finn to be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame. Wayne Gretzky assisted on 364 of Kurri’s goals, or right around 60% of the total. While Kurri may have made it into the Hall of Fame with somebody else as his center, it’s safe to say that Gretzky—not just the league’s all-time leading goal scorer but also its most gifted playmaker—helped nudge him in that direction. The two played together for the Los Angeles Kings for several years, but their chemistry and Gretzky’s playmaking effect were most evident in their years with the Oilers:

Jari Kurri
Games Goals GPG
W/ Gretzky (Oilers) (1980–1988) 600 397 0.662
Every other year:
651 204 0.313

Brett Hull ended his career known for more than just his big mouth, which is in itself a hell of an accomplishment. He retired with 741 goals in nineteen seasons (1,269 games), more than all but two players in league history. However, nearly a third of those goals (228, to be exact) came in just three seasons, from 1989 to 1992. In those seasons, Hull’s center was Adam Oates, one of the most gifted passers of his era, and Hull’s 86 goals in 1990–1991 set a league record (which still stands) for goals by a non-Gretzky.

Brett Hull
Games Goals GPG
With Oates (1989–1992) 232 228 0.983
Every other year:
1037 513 0.495

Without Oates, Hull still scored just under a goal every two games, a pace that likely would still have gotten him into the Hall of Fame. Had he played a couple more seasons with Oates, though, and maintained anything approaching that ludicrous .983-goals-per-game pace, he could have finished his career as the league’s all-time leader.

Based on this admittedly very small sample—in a half-assed study that is almost certainly rife with illogical assumptions, mathematical mistakes, and incomplete or misused data—these truly gifted playmakers appear to be able to add somewhere around one third to one half of a goal per game to a good shooter’s scoring average. In a sport where one out of every seven or eight games ends in a tie—and probably nearly as many end with a one-goal difference in score—an extra one-third to one-half goal per game is a huge.

So the mostly mundane and fairly obvious point I’m trying to make here is that the next time you’re going wild about the goal your favorite player just scored, take a good long look for the guy who got the puck to him, because he’s doing a lot of work to make that favorite player look good. Not to mention adding a couple of zeros to the end of the guy’s next contract.

. . . the other point I’d like to make is that Adam Oates looks a little bit like Ray Liotta. Like if you were to take Regular Ray Liotta and make him about 90% less intense and scary, you’d have Adam Oates:

Left: the Ray Liotta of the NHL. Right: The Ray Liotta of pretty much everything else.


  1. I admire hockey for its particular brand of thuggery. It's like soccer in that the game is played by sweaty mullet-coiffed Europeans (Canadians are Europeans). It's unlike soccer in that when a dude goes down in hockey, he's not only been touched, but touched hard.

    "The Whalers were fly, my brother. The Whalers were fly."

  2. Great stats, but how about looking at how each of those passers you mentioned did without their superstar shooters? You assert that the passers made the scorers great, but it could just as easily go the other way... perhaps Gretzky was that good because he was paired with Kurri?

    ...Well, no. Bad example. But you know what I mean; has Thornton made superstars of anybody else, for example?

  3. Dr. Brainsmart, that's a valid question (except for the Gretzky part, but of course you abandoned that crazy notion right away). I'll get cracking and let you know what I find out.

    The monkey wrench here is that the main reason I picked these particular players is that I knew they played together, which means I don't really know who else Joe Thornton (for example) played with, and haven't been able to find anywhere that tracks that kind of information.

    So about the best I can do is see whether these passers' statistics show a similar decrease when they haven't been paired with their respective shooters. Better than nothing, I guess.

  4. "scoring would be virtually nonexistent, rendering the game of hockey slow, pointless, and boring . . . like some other sports I could mention."

    I certainly hope you were still talking about baseball and not suggesting that soccer was slow, pointless or boring.

    Go Wings.

  5. Heaven forbid! With all the rabid soccer fans out there, I wouldn't even dream of describing their sport so accurately.