Is Don Cherry right about stat padders?

Not all goals are created equal — some of the NHL’s elite scorers tend to feast on weaker, non-playoff teams.

By Ian Cooper, Published in The Toronto Star, Friday January 24, 2014

In The Gospel According to Don Cherry, some players are shameless stat padders. Cherry can even tell you what kind of passports they carry.

But is it true? And if so, who are these mystery men who mark their calendars for that meaningless Tuesday-night tilt in November where they can catch the Oilers at the end of a long road trip, and then seem to vanish into thin air sometime around April Fools’ Day?

Cherry never lets facts get in the way of a good argument, but we at The Department of Hockey Analytics had to look deeper.

We looked at the top 25 goal scorers since the start of the 2011-2012 season in order to compare elite scorers — and if you’ve potted a lot of goals over 2 1/2 years, you’re elite in our books (sorry Alexander Steen, we’re going to need you to do this a couple more times before we’re convinced).

We added Sidney Crosby because he would have made the list but for injuries.

Next, we looked at each team’s total goals against. During the past three completed seasons (2010-11, 2011-12, 2012-13), 17,515 goals were scored in the NHL.

You might assume far fewer of those were scored against playoff teams than non-playoff teams. You would be wrong.

As it turns out, 49.5 per cent of goals were scored against playoff teams and 50.5 per cent against everyone else. The widest spread (48.6 per cent to 51.4 per cent) came in last year’s lockout-shortened season. The tightest was 2011-2012 (49.9 per cent to 50.1 per cent).

Now, let’s be clear. This doesn’t mean bad teams don’t give up a lot more goals. It’s just that 16 teams make the playoffs and 14 don’t. Over our three-year period, those playoff teams gave up an average of 2.2 goals per game while the rest of the league gave up 2.57.

So while a player is more likely to score against a weak team than a good one, at the end of the year, he should have roughly the same number of goals against playoff teams and non-playoff teams, simply because there are two more playoff teams.

Unless Cherry’s onto something, that is.

As it turns out, there is a significant amount of variation in which teams the top scorers victimize.  Alex Ovechkin is one of those who piles on a lot of goals against bad teams.

His 102 goals over three seasons tied for second place with Coery Perry, but only 38.2 per cent of those were scored against teams that made the playoffs. Last season he was particularly bad, scoring only nine of 32 (28.1 per cent) against playoff teams.

Interestingly enough, it’s this 32-goal performance (a 55-goal pace over 82 games), that led many to conclude Ovi has returned to his former scoring form.

Meanwhile, Steven Stamkos led on total goals by a significant margin, and he also scored the majority of those against playoff teams. Particularly impressive was his 2011-2012 campaign, in which he scored 36 of his 60 goals (60 per cent) against the defensively superior playoff teams.

The only player who did worse than Ovechkin was Patrick Sharp, at 35.6 per cent. More surprising, three of Sharp’s teammates (Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa) had nearly as poor a percentage, with Hossa posting the best among them at a paltry 43.7 per cent.

We’re reluctant to write off guys (two of them Conn Smythe winners) who were key ingredients on two of the past four Stanley Cup winners, but the fact that Chicago has four guys on this list tells us what we already know: This is an incredibly deep team that scores lots of goals and doesn’t rely on any single player to do it.

Equally surprising was Crosby’s low ranking (43.6 per cent). Admittedly this is a small sample because of injuries, but of his 55 goals during this period, 32 came in 2010-2011, in which only 37.5 per cent were scored against playoff teams.

That said, linemate Chris Kunitz was second highest on this list at 59.2 per cent, and we all know who gets him the puck.

So is Crosby a stat padder, or is he simply a more effective playmaker than a scorer? The numbers, including his return to a less frantic pace of goal scoring over the past two seasons, suggest it’s door No. 2.

No one statistic is going to tell you everything you need to know about a player. But — as much as it pains us to admit it — Cherry may be on to something here. Some guys score too often against bad teams for you not to discount their goal totals.

The Department of Hockey Analytics employs advanced statistical methods and innovative approaches to better understand the game of hockey. Its three founders are Ian Cooper, a lawyer, former player agent and Wharton Business School graduate; Dr. Phil Curry, a professor of economics at the University of Waterloo; and IJay Palansky, a litigator in Washington, D.C., former high-stakes professional poker player and Harvard Law School graduate.

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