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Changing +/- (With A Little Help From Toronto)


Some goals really count for a team. While it can be easily argued that any goal scored by a player has goodness in terms of its positive psychological effect on the individual player, it does not always translate that way for a team. And yet we tend to tout them all, to the point we have the +/- statistic to give every skater on the ice for a team at even strength a marker when the puck goes into the net.

A simple example here is a 7 – 3 win by the Toronto Maple Leafs over Tampa Bay on 3 January 2011. What goals really counted there? In this blog’s opinion, Lupul’s (TOR) goal at 03:25/1st, Grabovski’  (TOR) goal at 12:28/2nd, Kubina’s (TBL) goal at 13:26 / 2nd and Boyce’s (TOR) goal at 13:43 / 2nd. That’s four out of 10 or 40%. The rest? By the way the game played out, irrelevant.

The why is the subject of this blog.

Just What Is Wrong Here?

I don’t like the +/- statistic. I am not alone. Now I readily admit it has been a part of my Hockey pools for years, and I revel in the high number boosting my stature in the pool. But I still don’t like it.

The reason is this simple: …Drew Doughty picks up the puck behind the net and fires it to Dustin Brown. Brown’s past the defense and across the blue line! It’s Brown and the goalie, BROWN DEEKS AND SCORES!!!!! At even strength, and after the Doughty and Brown show, five total, offensive players get a “+” on their stats pack that night off of the back of two players’ efforts. My contention, as with many of you, is three guys just may have gotten something for nothing.

I propose the NHL goes to, for lack of a better term, the Key Goal, or KG, instead. A KG, instead of a +/- would be awarded for one of three reasons: 1) a Game Winning Goal (GWG) whether in regulation, OT or a SO; 2) a goal scored within five minutes of an opponents’ score and to put a team within one goal of their opponent (because it has a high potential to change a game’s momentum); and 3) a score that ties a game in the 3rd Period and gives a team a chance to win in OT/SO. It is my contention the ‘KG’ demonstrates better than +/- statistics goals with direct potential significance to a game’s outcome.

With some help from the 2011-12 Toronto Maple Leafs, the value of KG’s becomes clearer.

The 2011-12 Maple Leafs

Before discussing KG’s and the Maple Leafs, it is illustrative to pass on some key statistics:

2011-12 Total Goals = 231

2011-12 Total Team +/-  =  –144

2011-12 Team Average +/- Per Game  =  –1.75

2011-12 Team Average +/- Per Goal Scored  =  –0.623

Sounds pretty durn negative. At first glance, it just looks bad. But what does it tell us, really? Does any team go to exit interviews and say, “…Clarke MacArthur… You were our best player this past season with a +3 at the end of the year…,” or “…Matthew Lombardi, you were our worst player this year with a -19 and we simply have to see better from you than that…”?

Maybe they do. But we believe a better measurement is the Key Goal, the KG, as defined above instead. For the Maple Leafs, a month-by-month analysis of the KG’s better explains the team’s performance and exemplifies our recommendation.

October 2011 KG’s

The Leafs played 11 games in October, ending the month with a 7 – 3 – 1 / .682 Winning Percentage. Had they been able to maintain this through the season, they would have been in the Playoffs with about 111 points in the standings.

In that month, they scored 36 total goals. But in terms of KG’s, they scored 17 (47.2% of the total), or 1.55 KG’s per Game (KGpG). So less than half of their total goals scored either were potential or actual game changers. By contrast, Leafs’ opponents went 4 – 7 scoring 35 total goals with 11 KG’s for a 1.0 KGpG average. So while the Maple Leafs were only a +1 in goal differential, they were a +6 in KG’s which, we would argue, contributed to the +3.5 wins differential.

Of note, Toronto scored 11 / 64.7% of their KG’s in the 3rd period of October games, four of which were Game Winning Goals (GWGs). They scored one each in OT and in a lone SO win. In contrast, four total goals / 23.5% and only one GWG were scored in the 2nd and 1st periods. What does this mean? In their first 11 games, Toronto was most dominant in the 3rd Period of play, particularly from the 9th minute onward when they scored nine of 17 / 52.9% of the month’s KG’s. You might have also noticed three of their four losses’ GWG’s came before the 8th minute of the 3rd Period. Bottom line here? This team was at its best with a high compete level when the game was on the line and was drawing to a close in October.

The individual KG leader for October? Phil Kessel notched 5 / 29.4% of all KG’s in the month, to include leading the team with three GWG’s. So in terms of the KG, Phil’s goals won 40% of the Maple Leafs’ victories while he also directly contributed to the outcome, or potential outcome, of another two / 11.8% of their games. (Over that same period of time, Kessel was listed as a +6 for his total of 10 goals and eight assists. In my calculator, that means he was nearer a +18 for the goals and assists, but being on the ice at even strength for a goal against or drawing those scores on the PP knocked about 2/3 of the credit off. This stat is counting and then taking away from itself for several reasons. Wouldn’t it be less, let’s just say, muddy, if it were simple math where a KG just counts?)

So the Leafs come out of October 7 – 3 – 1 / .682 with more than a KG per game. That is a good omen, one that starts Maple leaf fans talking about a return to the Playoffs.

November 2011 KG’s

If October was a picture of ‘what right looks like’ for Toronto, November was a slip off the mark. What? This month ended 7 – 6 – 1 / .536!

In three more games played than in October (14), they only scored 14 KG’s in 46 goals (30.4%) for a 1.0 KGpG and a 33% drop in KG production. Their dominant KG period was the 1st Period this time with a total of five, and the 2nd and 3rd Periods trailed off at four and three respectively. The 1st Period also held three of the Leafs’ five, regulation GWGs for the month. (Two games were won via the SO.)  It is as if the switch flipped and the Leafs came in tired and pissed, beating teams in the 1st Period and wanting to get on the bus and go home.

By comparison, opponents went 7 – 7, scoring 13 KG’s off of a similar 46 goals (28.3%). However, nine of 13 KG’s / 69.2% and six of seven GWGs (including one in a SO) came after the 11th minute of the 2nd Period. This was more like the October Maple Leafs.

Phil Kessel dropped from five KG’s to two with a SO GWG in November. Joffrey Lupul was the KG leader with four tallies, half of which stood as GWGs.

While Toronto ends November at an overall +1 goal differential, they are still a +7 in KG’s and now a +4 in wins. But had they been able to score KG’s like in October, they would potentially be a +7 in wins differential heading into December.

And yet, Toronto is an overall .600 team (14 – 9 – 2), a number that is still good for entry into the Playoffs.

December 2011 KG’s

Ouch. While the team played 13 games and scored 36 goals / 15 KG’s / 1.15 KGpG, their efforts went into momentum-changing, and not game-winning, goals. The Leafs were a 4 – 6 – 3 / .423 team, dropping to 18 – 15 – 5 / .540 overall. (Remember at season’s end in 2012, a .561 record is what an Eastern Conference team was looking for.) Their 2nd Period was dominant with two GWG’s on seven KG’s (46.7%).

Opponents were 9 – 4 with 44 goals scored / 18 KG’s / 1.39 KGpG. Teams playing the Leafs showed up for the 2nd Period in KG terms, scoring 7 KG’s / 4 GWGs in the 2nd and 8 KG’s / 5 GWs between the 3rd Period, OT and the SO. Interestingly, however, Toronto fans were treated to a higher competitive level by their team. Three times in the 3rd Period opponents (WSH, VAN and FLA) had to score a KG within five minutes of a Leafs’ goal because Toronto had pulled within one score of tying the game and did not yet know they were beaten.

Five Leafs tied with two KG’s (including Kessel and Lupul), and five others tied with one each GWG. Swaying in character once more, the dominant period was the 2nd where seven / 46.7% of the KG’s were scored. Two of the team’s four GWG’s came before mid-2nd Period, again implying the competition was not as competitive as it could have been that night.

The Maple Leafs had to improve after December or ensure they made it to the post–season. As January began, they stood at –7 goals / +4 KG’s / –1 Wins differential and were on a downward slippery slope.

January 2012

It was indeed a new year in January. Players’ resolutions must have been to key on success as Toronto came back with a 7 – 4 – 1 / .625 record in 12 games. This gave them an overall 25 – 19 – 6 / .560 and a pathway more in the proper direction toward the Playoffs.

But hidden in this success are truths told by the KG’s. Toronto won the 1st Period with 6 – of – 10 KG’s scored, to include 4 – of – 7 GWG’s for the month, and all before the 9th minute passed. Over the following two periods, they only deposited four regulation and one OT goals. Their total numbers were 10 KG’s / 0.83 KGpG, what would be the second lowest KGpG monthly average of the season.

January Leafs’ opponents went 5 – 7 / 10 KG’s / .833 KGpG. Three of five KG’s stood as GWG’s in the 3rd Period and SO. But in comparing Toronto with opponents, differentials are +3 Goals / +4 KG’s / +1.5 Wins. That is a mixed bag but should tell you two key things: despite outscoring their opponents by 10 goals, they did not gain any KG differential so many of those goals were ‘insignificant’; and for a 7 – 4 – 1 record, they lost a relative +2.5 wins.

Individually, Matthew Lombardi and Lupul tied with two KG’s each and seven different players scored the seven GWGs. If the message was ‘…Beat them early and let’s get on the bus…,’ the message was heard. But it takes a combined and concerted overall effort to get the right goals up on the scoreboard. Flat out, Toronto needs at this point to do more to end up on the right side of the Playoff seeding.

February 2012

The problem here was February was not a ‘do more’ month.

These 14 games came across similar to December, only worse. The 4 – 9 – 1 /.321 record with an almost standard 36 goals / 14 KG’s / 1.0 KGpG did not exactly help them out. The dominant Maple Leaf period was the 2nd where they potted seven KG’s with one GWG. Each of the other periods and OT carried another GWG, but no more than three, quality KG’s.

Their opponents went 10 – 4 / 48 goals / 17 KG’s / 1.2 KGpG. That made the deficits for Toronto –9 Goals / +1 KG / –4 Wins. Interestingly, teams in February beat Toronto mostly in the 2nd Period with 10 KG’s / 6 GWG’s. Either way you slice it, this was Toronto’s worst month of the season and likely the one that did the most damage to their Playoff hopes. (They were only at 29 – 28 – 7 / .508 when they woke up on 1 March.)

Two players (Kessel and Lupul) tied with three each KG’s, but there were four separate players with the GWG’s. No clear cut team leader in KG’s was now present for the 39th game or almost half of the season.

March 2012

These 15 games for Toronto, based on previous play, were crucial to a proper season-ending celebration with Playoff ticket sales. Instead, they produced 5 – 8 – 2 / .400 play, dropping them to an overall 34 – 36 – 9 / .487 record. If the season was not over in February, it definitely was in March.

The team only scored 31 Goals and 10 KG’s in those 15 games for a season worst 0.67 KGpG. They did not show up well in the 1st Period with only one KG to show for that 20 minutes’ efforts. Improving somewhat in the 2nd Period, they notched three KG’s and one GWG. And most like their October, the 3rd Period finally came back as something of a long lost friend with five KG’s, three of which were GWG’s. But it was all for naught.

The opposition took them to task in March with 52 Goals / 16 KG’s / 1.07 KGpG in a balanced effort that stretched across all three periods of play relatively evenly (5/4/5 + 2 SO KG’s) and was strong on GWG’s in the 1st and 3rd Periods (three each).

Mikhail Grabovski led the group with three KG’s and Kessel had another two, but the other five were scattered across the roster.

Now out of the Playoff picture, Toronto’s deficit numbers were –30 Goals / –5 KG / –9 Wins. When they needed it most, an 11 – 2 – 2 record to stay closer to the hunt was too far a reach.

April 2012

Of the three KG’s scored for Toronto’s last three games, one was in the 3rd Period and one was in OT with Dion Phaneuf’s as the only GWG. At 1 – 1 – 1 / .500, the team ended the season out of the Playoffs with an overall 35 – 37 – 10 / .488 record.

Their three opponents to close out the season went 2 – 1 / .667. They were also 12 Goals / 3 KG’s / 1.0 KGpG. This made Toronto’s total 2011-12 deficit numbers –33 Goals / –5 KG / –9.5 Wins.

Out of the three games, three different individuals netted KG’s while Dion Phaneuf got the lone GWG.

Toronto’s faithful were left waiting for next year again.

The Wrap Up

The use of Toronto to exemplify the utility of KG’s over ye olde +/- system was not to specifically pick on the Maple Leafs as an organization. They were, after all, one of the 96.7% majority of NHL teams not hoisting the Stanley Cup in 2012. Instead, they serve to illustrate how analysis of KG’s as a statistic better indicates overall team performance than +/-. Here are some of the ways in which it does so:

  1. KG’s are a positive statistic as compared to +/- calculus which counts both for and against each player.
  2. While the season’s comparative performance indicates Toronto lost the Playoffs in the February/March timeframe, KG’s indicate they had issues brewing as early as November.
  3. If KG’s are indeed ‘Key’ what was learned by the numbers? How about that Toronto scored 83 KG’s out of 231 total goals for 35.9% and 1.01 KG’s per game. At the same time, their opponents netted 264 total goals with 88 KG’s for 33.3% and a 1.07 KGpG. Toronto, in effect, was more economical in its scoring with a higher percentage of goals that either changed momentum or ensured victory from the total they scored than they gave up.
  4. What was not specifically covered in the text above is the interesting fact that Toronto scored 1.35 KG’s per Win and only 0.69 KG’s per loss. This suggests two things:

a. Firstly, if Toronto’s numbers are representative, they suggest most games require a team to first score a KG that establishes momentum in their favor before scoring a GWG for victory.

b. And second, 83 KG’s did not equal 83 victories. It equaled 40. So more than half of Toronto’s KG’s, while they seemed at game time to actually be ‘key’ toward achieving victory, actually represented a failed attempt to change game momentum in their favor. The math therefore indicates if 35.9% of goals scored were KG’s and only 48.2% of those goals actually led to victory, then somewhere between 17 and 18% of scores defined victory. (Interestingly, CBJ’s goals that directly equated to victory were 16.1% of their total. STL was high at 26%.)

Said in another way, KG’s represent the effort that equals a game’s outcome. This fact by itself makes them a more representative statistic than +/-.

And we cannot end this without asking how KG’s might affect fantasy hockey pools. If you are going to do away with +/-, can you add a Key Assist to the equation? I would say that is a distinct possibility. The question there becomes do you want to give the KA the same pool and salary negotiation weight as the KG? I would say no. But in the meantime, what we have in stats packs that are close to the KG are GWGs and OT Goals. Ever been in a pool that does not count Goals and Assists, but instead counts GWG’s and OTG’s? Your top five GWG scorers last year would have been:

Vrbata (PHX)  – 12

Stamkos (TBL) – 12

Franzen (DET) – 10

Malkin (PIT) – 9

Callahan (NYR) – 9

Your top five OTG scorers last year would have been:

Stamkos (TBL) – 5

Gaborik (NYR)  – 3

Ebbett (VAN) – 2

Hall (EDM) – 2

Connolly (TOR) – 2

Not as exciting as adding up goals and assists, no? But might we suggest not carrying +/- in your pool stats pack and putting in GWG’s and OTG’s instead?

At least until we begin counting the KG…

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