Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Alexander the Great-est?

Wendel Clark led the NHL in sheer awesomeness every year he played. And even most years that he didn’t play. We can all agree on that, and if you don’t – go move to Edmonton. But my point is that you can’t prove I’m wrong because awesomeness is something that can’t be weighed or measured on any scale (in Wendel’s case maybe by moustache quality). But what about statistics that can be?

Now I don’t want to bore anyone with an economics lesson, but we all know that money doesn’t have the same value over time – John Rockefeller had a personal wealth of about a billion dollars when he died in 1937, but that was at a time when $1,000 would have bought you one of the Muskoka Five’s cottages. In today’s money, Rockefeller would have $660 billion – more than the Ontario Teacher’s Pension Plan could mismanage in several lifetimes.

So as we can see, comparing the wealth of billionaires from different eras requires that their wealth be adjusted to reflect the changing value of money over time. So I ask you: why should hockey stats be any different? Of course it’s easier to just say that Wayne Gretzky has the most goals in history and leave it at that - few will argue with you if you say he was the greatest goal scorer of all time anyway. But consider the changes to the game that have occurred since the NHL was formed in 1917.

In the early years snipers faced goalies who weren’t allowed to fall to the ice to stop a puck, and if they got hurt (and they didn’t wear masks after all) forwards might find themselves trying to score on a defenseman in pads, or as happened famously with Lester Patrick, on the other team’s coach. More recent examples include the transition from the all-offense-all-the-time style of play and primitive goaltending techniques of the ‘80s to the Michelin Man goalie equipment and *shudder* neutral zone trap of the ‘90s to the composite sticks and offense-minded rule changes of the 2000s. So should a goal scored in the ‘80s really count for the same as a goal scored against the ’94 Devils?

We at BCP say no. And to try to account for these differences, we selected six snipers from different eras – Rocket Richard, Gordie Howe, Phil Esposito, Wayne Gretzky, Brett Hull and Alexander Ovechkin. Each player (except Ovie) is a Hall of Famer and averaged around 0.5 goals per game over a reasonably long career. To reflect the era in which each of these goal-scorers played, we adjusted their average goals per game total to according to the average number of goals scored in an NHL game over the course of their career. As a result, players who played in high-scoring eras had their score adjusted downward and players who played in comparatively low-scoring eras had their score boosted. These scores were expressed as the percentage of total goals in an average game that each player would have accounted for.

Using Gordie Howe as an example; Mr. Hockey got 801 goals in 1767 NHL games, which is an average of 0.45 goals per game. In the years Howe played (1946-71 and 1979/80) there was an average of 5.95 goals scored in an NHL game. That means Gordie Howe accounted for about 7.6% of the average total number of goals scored in every game that he played.

So without further delay, here are our results;

Click the chart for a full-sized image.

Not surprisingly, Ovechkin came out on top as a result of being in the peak of his career and enjoying the benefit of playing in a more low-scoring era. But among players whose careers are over, the Golden Brett edged out the Rocket to take the title as the greatest goal scorer of any era. We also compared the first five years of Ovechkin’s career with Hull’s and found that Ovie came out with a slight edge – 11.7% vs. 11.5% - which puts him on pace to become the greatest goal scorer of any era by our measure. That leaves us with a final depressing thought – does the title of the greatest goal scorer of any era really come down to a Cold War standoff between a Russian and an Canadian-traitor-turned-American? Sidney Crosby, time to up your game – your country needs you.


Anonymous said...

How is Sid a Canadian traitor??

Anonymous said...

He was referring to Hull.

Anonymous said...

I think you forgot to include Mike Bossy. And Lemieux. And Jagr. But should likely have looked at something like GPG over a six to ten year stretch of their career; Oveckin's stat's are only for what is essentially the prime of his career, making this not a particularly valid comparison.

Brendan T said...

I noted that Ovechkin is still in the peak of his career - What I was saying is that he is just on pace to beat Hull based on where they both were at this point in their careers.

I concede that Lemieux or Bossy would have fared better, but I did not forget them, I omitted them because their careers were comparatively short. Bossy played just over 700 games and Mario only played 900. Other than Ovechkin, whose career isn't over, the only player I included who played fewer than 1,000 games was Richard, and that was because he played in an era when there were far fewer games in a season.

As for Jagr, he wouldn't have even been close - only 0.50 GPG and his career ran pretty parallel to that of Hull, who got 0.58 GPG.