Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Goal Production, Kessel, and Windows

Today I was listening to the radio on the way into work. It was a call in show, with Leaf fans discussing the looming trade deadline and what moves the team should, or shouldn’t make come February 27th. What I found interesting were the comments from one fan, who said the team was only approaching its “window” to win. His logic being that we have a young core and our star player, Phil Kessel, is still in his mid-20s.

I find myself flip flopping often when it comes to the right strategy moving forward. Part of me is content to continue building through the draft and free agency, while another part would like to see some picks and futures traded to build the team in the interim for the playoffs.

What was interesting was that this fan believes our window is only beginning to open. Kessel is only 24; we hope that he will be a Toronto Maple Leaf for the next decade and that his production will be steady over that time. However, goal scorers rarely enjoy consistent elite production, as there are inevitable ebbs and flows associated with a career.

What I’d like to do is look at how long Phil Kessel’s window as an elite player should be expected to last. We can assume that the Leafs' chances at a long playoff run will in many ways be tied to Kessel, and his ability to perform at the level he’s shown this season.

Below I’ve compiled a list of notable goal scorers from the last 10 years. Ignoring other stats, such as assist, total points, shots, plus minus...etc, I’ve decided to focus solely on goal production. This somewhat limits the scope of the analysis, but with pure goal scorers we can likely all agree that goal production is a somewhat accurate proxy for overall contribution to the team. Also, I only have so many fingers and goals are easy to count.

Ilya Kovalchuk
29, 38, 41, 52, 42, 52, 43, 41, 41, 31

Jarome Iginla
21, 13, 28, 29, 31, 52, 35, 41, 35, 39, 50, 35, 32, 43

Marian Hossa
29, 32, 31, 45, 36, 39, 43, 29, 40, 24, 25

Dany Heatley
26, 41, 50, 50, 41, 39, 39, 26

Rick Nash
17, 41, 31, 27, 38, 40, 33, 32

Martin St. Louis
33, 38, 31, 43, 25, 30, 29, 31

With apologies to generations of well studied statisticians, and with a blatant dis-regard for everything we know about standard deviation, ANOVA T-tables...etc let’s look at the results...

The top 3 goal scoring seasons for each player are bolded above. For 3 of the players the peak goal scoring seasons were clumped within a 4-year period. While the other players had their productive seasons spread over 6 to 10 years.

Admittedly, the sample size is very small and we’re only looking at a handful of the top goal scorers over the last 10 years. However, what we can surmise from the results is that there might not be a clear “window” for top goal scorers. In some cases the top season for players are found over smaller spans of seasons, like Marty St.Louis over a 4 year period with the Lightning. Then there are players like Marian Hossa and Jarome Iginla who have their top seasons spread out over 8 to 10 years.

Kessel is on pace to eclipse 40 goals this season, and appears to have taken the next step to becoming an elite scorer in the league. What the rudimentary study above tells us is that Kessel's window as a top player could be as short as 4 years, but it could just as easily be as long as 10. When Burke is weighing his options at the deadline, I hope he looks the composition of the entire line-up, and how close the team as a whole is to making the playoffs. Whether or not the Leafs are ready for a long playoff run remains to be seen, but we can take solace in the knowledge that our franchise player should continue to produce effectively for the next half decade at minimum.

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