“Torture numbers, and they’ll confess to anything.” ~Gregg Easterbrook
Hockey is a fluid and complicated game. Sabermetrics’ VORP and OPS and WAR seem to fit baseball well, if a bit coldly. Hockey doesn’t lend itself to discrete analysis the same way — for baseball, at its core, is a very individual sport when compared to hockey’s constant interaction between players on the ice, not to mention 18 players on each team changing lines on the fly.
Many have strong opinions about who among the Washington Capitals steps up (and what “stepping up” even means) when it counts. Data analysis cannot capture things like leadership, chemistry, and the myriad small-yet-crucial plays that don’t appear on the score sheet. But hockey does have tangible measures of success beyond wins and losses, and a closer look can sometimes reveal conventional wisdom to be not as wise as one thought.
Stats aren’t a panacea for sports debate, but sometimes delving into the numbers can shed a different light on an analysis. I will try to avoid, as Andrew Lang once wrote, using statistics “as a drunken man uses lampposts — for support rather than for illumination.”
With all that in mind, let’s take a look at how the Washington Capitals’ Young Guns perform in the regular season vs. the post-season—because really, as most fans will agree at this point in the team’s progression, the regular season is just a warm up. (I’ve added Brooks Laich to the mix, because of his leadership role and his new salary. Let’s call them Young Guns II… cue “Blaze of Glory“.)
What I wanted to see was which of the Capitals’ key players elevate their games when it matters most, and which players wilt in crunch time. That these Capitals have played relatively few playoff games thus far in their careers limits sampling validity somewhat; and as the investment mantra goes, past performance does not guarantee future results.
Nonetheless, let’s examine a few basic hockey stats, comparing the Young Guns’ scoring in the regular-season to the post-season.
The first three stat columns are regular season: Goals per Game, Assists per Game, Points per Game. The next three columns are those same stats in the playoffs (hence the leading “P”). 37 post-season games for all but Green, who has 36.
Despite the generally-accepted notion that post-season scoring drops due to stronger opponents and tighter play, Ovechkin and Green each see their scoring increase by about 5%. Backstrom and Semin, unfortunately, drop a significant 14% and 11% respectively from their regular-season paces.
Laich sees the biggest jump, lending credence to the idea that it’s the muckers and grinders, the ones who are “willing to get their noses dirty,” who flourish in the playoffs (c.f. Joel Ward).
What about penalties? After all, you can’t score from the sin bin, and too many penalties lead to opponent goals and exhausted penalty killers. Mike Green has a whopping 47 PIM in 36 playoff games, or about 1:20 per game—a dramatic increase from his 45 seconds-per-game regular season average.
One could argue that defensemen must be more physical in playoff hockey, so perhaps Green’s post-season penalty proclivity makes sense (Jeff Schultz, for example, increased from 1/3 PIM per game to 2/3 PIM). Unfortunately, Green’s +/- numbers plummet from regular to post season, from +.15 per game to -.17.
So while Green’s scoring climbs slightly in the playoffs, his penalties increase while his +/- drops. For comparison’s sake: Ovechkin’s average +/- rises in the post-season, so it’s not a team-wide phenomenon.
Back to penalties: Ovechkin has spent 18 minutes in the post-season penalty box. Semin has twice as many with 36 playoff PIM. Semin commits infractions at the same rate in the regular season: roughly 1 PIM per game. Ovechkin, with his “wrecking ball” reputation and hard-hitting style leading to a few 5-minute majors and 10-minute misconducts, averages 30% fewer penalty minutes than Semin in the regular season, and 50% fewer in April and May.
What does all this number-crunching suggest? The clearest conclusion is that Alex Ovechkin plays his best hockey when it matters most. Brooks Laich can say the same. The other three Young Guns, to this point in their careers, have not done so.
Bringing the Stanley Cup to D.C. will require all the Capitals to play well, of course, not just the Big 5… and even then it takes a lot of luck. But the five players who lead the team—and account for roughly half the team’s salary expense—simply must elevate their play when it’s all on the line. All of them.
They have the talent. I believe they can pull together and do what they must. But until they do, there will be no joy in Mudville. The numbers, one might say, speak for themselves.
[kudos to Greg Henesy, who started me down this path.]