Category Archives: Hockey

Leaf-ed Behind by Analytics

As you may have heard, there’s been a whole hullabaloo recently in the hockey world about the Toronto Maple Leafs. Specifically, they had a good run last year and in the beginning of this season that the more numerically-inclined NHL people believed was due to an unsustainably high shooting percentage that covered up their very weak possession metrics. Accordingly, the stats folk predicted substantial regression, which was met with derision by many Leafs fans and most of the team’s brass. The Leafs have played very poorly since that hot streak and have been eliminated from the playoffs; just a few weeks back, they had an 84% chance of making it. (See Sports Club Standings for the fancy chart.)

Unsurprisingly, this has lead to much saying of “I told you so” by the stats folk and a lot of grumblings about the many flaws of the current Leafs administration. Deadspin has a great write up of the whole situation, but one part in particular stood out. This is a quotation from the Leafs’ general manager, Dave Nonis:

“We’re constantly trying to find solid uses for [our analytics budget,” Nonis said. “The last six, seven years, we’ve had a significant dollar amount in our budget for analytics and most of those years we didn’t use it. We couldn’t find a system or a group we felt we could rely on to help us make reasonable decisions.”


“People run with these stats like they’re something we should pay attention to and make decisions on, and as of right now, very few of them are worth anything to us,” he said at one point during the panel, blaming media and fans for overhyping the analytics currently available.

This represents a mind-boggling lack of imagination on their part. Let’s say they honestly don’t think there’s a good system currently out there that could help them—that’s entirely irrelevant. They should drop the cash and try to build a system from scratch if they don’t like what’s out there.

There are four factors that determine how good the analysis of a given problem is going to be: 1) the analysts’ knowledge of the problem, 2) their knowledge of the tools needed to solve the problem (basically, stats and critical thinking), 3) the availability of the data, and 4) the amount of time the analysts have to work on the problem. People who know about both hockey and data are available in spades; I imagine you can find a few people in every university statistics department and financial firm in Canada that could rise to the task, to name only two places these people might cluster. (They might not know about hockey stats, but the “advanced” hockey stats aren’t terribly complex, so I have faith that anyone who knows both stats and hockey can figure out their metrics.)

For #3: the data aren’t great for hockey, but they exist and will get better with a minimal investment in infrastructure. Analysts’ having sufficient time is the most important factor in progress, though, and the hardest one to substitute; conveniently, time is an easy thing for the team to buy (via salary, which they even get a discount on because of the non-monetary benefits of working in hockey). If they post some jobs at a decent salary, they basically have their pick of statistically-oriented hockey fans. If a team gets a couple of smart people and has them working 40-60 hours a week thinking about hockey and bouncing ideas off of each other, they’re going to get some worthwhile stuff no matter what.

Let’s say that budget is $200,000 per year, or a fraction of the minimum player salary. At that level, one good idea from the wonks and they’ve paid for themselves many times over. Even if they don’t find a grand unified theory of hockey, they can help with more discrete analyses and provide a slightly different perspective on decisions, and they’re so low cost that it’s hard to see how they’d hurt a team. (After all, if the team thinks the new ideas are garbage it can ignore them—it’s what was happening in the first place, so no harm done.) The only way Toronto’s decision makes sense is if they think that analytics not only are currently useless but can’t become useful in the next decade or so, and it’s hard to believe that anyone really thinks that way. (The alternative is that they’re scared that the analysts would con the current brass into a faulty decision, but given their skepticism that seems like an unlikely problem.)

Is this perspective a bit self-serving? Yeah, to the extent that I like sports and data and I’d like to work for a team eventually. Regardless, it seems to me that the only ways to justify the Leafs’ attitude are penny-pinching and the belief that non-traditional stats are useless, and if either of those is the case, something has gone very wrong in Toronto.


Valuing Goalie Shootout Performance (Again)

I wrote this article a few months ago about goalie shootout performance and concluded two things:

  • Goalies are not interchangeable with respect to the shootout, i.e. there is skill involved in goalie performance.
  • An extra percentage point in shootout save percentage is worth about 0.002 standings points per game. This is based on some admittedly sketchy calculations based on long term NHL performance, and not something I think is necessarily super accurate.

I’m bringing this up because a couple of other articles have been written about this recently: one by Tom Tango and one much longer one by Michael Lopez. One of the comments over there, from Eric T., mentioned wanting a better sense of the practical significance of the differences in skill, given that Lopez offers an estimate that the difference between the best and worst goalies is worth about 3 standings points per year.

That’s something I was trying to do in the previous post up above, and the comment prompted me to try to redo it. I made some simple assumptions that align with the one’s Lopez did in his followup post:

  • Each shot has equal probability of being saved (i.e. shooter quality doesn’t matter, only goalie quality). This probably reduces the volatility in my estimates, but since a goalie should end up facing a representative sample of shooters, I’m not too concerned.
  • The goalie’s team has an equal probability of converting each shot. This, again, probably reduces the variance, but it makes modelling things much simpler, and I think it makes it easier to isolate the effect that goalie performance has on shootout winning percentage.

Given these assumptions, we can compute an exact probability that one team wins given team 1’s save percentage p_1 and team 2’s p_2. If you don’t care about the math, skip ahead to the table. Let’s call P_{i,j} the probability that team i scores j times in the first three rounds of the shootout:

P_{i,j} = {3 \choose j} p_i^j(1-p_i)^{3-j}

P(\text{Team 1 Wins } | \text{ } p_1, p_2) = \sum_{j=1}^3 \sum_{k=0}^{j-1} P_{1,j} \cdot P_{2,k} + \left ( \sum_{j=1}^3 P_{1,j}\cdot P_{2,j} \right ) \frac{p_1(1-p_2)} {1-(p_1p_2+(1-p_1)(1-p_2))}

The first term on the right side is just the sum of the probabilities of the ways that team 1 can win the first three rounds, e.g. 2 goals for and 1 allowed or 3 goals for and none allowed. The term on the right is the sum of all the ways they can win if the first three rounds end in a tie, which can be expressed easily as the sum of a geometric series.

Ultimately, we don’t really care about the formula so much as the results, so here’s a table and a plot showing the performance of a goalies who are a given percentage below or above league average when facing a league average goalie:

Calculated Winning

Percentage Points Above/Below League Average Winning Percentage
-20 26.12
-19 27.14
-18 28.18
-17 29.24
-16 30.31
-15 31.41
-14 32.52
-13 33.66
-12 34.81
-11 35.98
-10 37.17
-9 38.37
-8 39.60
-7 40.84
-6 42.10
-5 43.37
-4 44.67
-3 45.98
-2 47.30
-1 48.64
0 50.00
1 51.37
2 52.76
3 54.16
4 55.58
5 57.01
6 58.45
7 59.91
8 61.38
9 62.86
10 64.35
11 65.85
12 67.37
13 68.89
14 70.42
15 71.96
16 73.51
17 75.06
18 76.62
19 78.19
20 79.76

We would expect most of these figures to be close to league average, so if we borrow Tom Tango’s results (see the link above) we figure the most and least talented goalies are going to be roughly 6 percentage points away from the mean. The difference between +0.06 and -0.06 is about 0.16 in the simulation output, meaning the best goalies are likely to win sixteen shootouts per hundred more than the worst goalies assuming both play average competition.

Multiplying this by 13.2%, the past frequency of shootouts, and we get an estimated benefit of only about 0.02 standings points / game from switching from the worst shootout goalie to the best. For a goalie making 50 starts, that’s only about 1 point added to the team, and that’s assuming maximal possible impact.

Similarly, moving up this curve by one percentage point appears to be worth about 1.35 wins per hundred; multiplying that by 13.2% gives a value of 0.0018 standings points / game, which is almost exactly what I got when I did this empirically in the prior post, which leads me to believe that that estimate is a lot stronger than I initially thought.

There’s obviously a lot of assumptions in play here, including the assumptions going into my probabilities and Tango’s estimates of true performance, and I’m open to the idea that one or another of those is suppressing the importance of this skill. Overall, though, I’m largely inclined to hew to my prior conclusions saying that for a difference in shootout performance to be enough to make one goalie better overall than another, it has to be a fairly substantial one, and the difference in actual save percentage has to be correspondingly fairly small.

Throne of Games (Most Played, Specifically)

I was trawling for some stats on hockey-reference (whence most of the hockey facts in this post) the other day and ran into something unexpected: Bill Guerin’s 2000-01 season. Specifically, Guerin led the league with 85 games played. Which wouldn’t have seemed so odd, except for the fact that the season is 82 games long.

How to explain this? It turns out there are two unusual things happening here. Perhaps obviously, Guerin was traded midseason, and the receiving team had games in hand on the trading team. Thus, Guerin finished with three games more than the “max” possible.

Now, is this the most anyone’s racked up? Like all good questions, the answer to that is “it depends.” Two players—Bob Kudelski in 93-94 and Jimmy Carson in 92-93—played 86 games, but those were during the short span of the 1990s when each team played 84 games in a season, so while they played more games than Guerin, Guerin played in more games relative to his team. (A couple of other players have played 84 since the switch to 82 games, among them everyone’s favorite Vogue intern, Sean Avery.)

What about going back farther? The season was 80 games from 1974–75 to 1991–92, and one player in that time managed to rack up 83: the unknown-to-me Brad Marsh, in 1981-82, who tops Guerin at least on a percentage level. Going back to the 76- and 78-game era from 1968-74, we find someone else who tops Guerin and Marsh, specifically Ross Lonsberry, who racked up 82 games (4 over the team maximum) with the Kings and Flyers in 1971–72. (Note that Lonsberry and Marsh don’t have game logs listed at hockey-reference, so I can’t verify if there was any particularly funny business going on.) I couldn’t find anybody who did that during the 70 game seasons of the Original Six era, and given how silly this investigation is to begin with, I’m content to leave it at that.

What if we go to other sports? This would be tricky in football, and I expect it would require being traded on a bye week. Indeed, nobody has played more than the max games at least since the league went to a 14 game schedule according to the results at pro-football-reference.

In baseball, it certainly seems possible to get over the max, but actually clearing this out of the data is tricky for the following two reasons:

  • Tiebreaker games are counted as regular season games. Maury Wills holds the raw record for most games played with 165 after playing in a three game playoff for the Dodgers in 1962.
  • Ties that were replayed. I started running into this a lot in some of the older data: games would be called after a certain number of innings with the score tied due to darkness or rain or some unexplained reason, and the stats would be counted, but the game wouldn’t count in the standings. Baseball is weird like that, and no matter how frustrating this can be as a researcher, it was one of the things that attracted me to the sport in the first place.

So, those are my excuses if you find any errors in what I’m about to present; I used FanGraphs and baseball-reference to spot candidates. I believe there’s only been a few cases of baseball players playing more than the scheduled number of games when none of the games fell into those two problem categories mentioned above. The most recent is Todd Zeile, who, while he didn’t play in a tied game, nevertheless benefited from one. In 1996, he was traded from the Phillies to the Orioles after the O’s had stumbled into a tie, thus giving him 163 games played, though they all counted.

Possibly more impressive is Willie Montanez, who played with the Giants and Braves in 1976. He racked up 163 games with no ties, but arguably more impressive is that, unlike Zeile, Montanez missed several opportunities to take it even farther. He missed one game before being traded, then one game during the trade, and then two games after he was traded. (He was only able to make it to 1963 because the Braves had several games in hand on the Giants at the time of the trade.)

The only other player to achieve this feat in the 162 game era is Frank Taveras, who in 1979 played in 164 games; however, one of those was a tie, meaning that according to my twisted system he only gets credit for 163. He, like Montanez, missed an opportunity, as he had one game off after getting traded.

Those are the only three in the 162-game era. While I don’t want to bother looking in-depth at every year of the 154-game era due to the volume of cases to filter, one particular player stands out. Ralph Kiner managed to put up 158 games with only one tie in 1953, making him by my count the only baseball player to play three meaningful games more than his team did in baseball since 1901.

Now, I’ve sort of buried the lede here, because it turns out that the NBA has the real winners in this category. This isn’t surprising, as the greater number of days off between games means it’s easier for teams to get out of whack and it’s more likely than one player will play in every game. Thus, a whole host of players have played more than 82 games, led by Walt Bellamy, who put up 88 in 1968-69. While one player got to 87 since, and a few more to 86 and 85, Bellamy stands alone atop the leaderboard in this particular category. (That fact made it into at least one of his obituaries.)

Since Bellamy is the only person I’ve run across to get 6 extra games in a season and nobody from any of the other sports managed even 5, I’m inclined to say that he’s the modern, cross-sport holder of this nearly meaningless record for most games played adjusted for season length.

Ending on a tangent: one of the things I like about sports records in general, and the sillier ones in particular, is trying to figure out when they are likely to fall. For instance, Cy Young won 511 games playing a sport so different from contemporary baseball that, barring a massive structural change, nobody can come within 100 games of that record. On the other hand, with strikeouts and tolerance for strikeouts at an all-time high, several hitter-side strikeout records are in serious danger (and have been broken repeatedly over the last 15 years).

This one seems a little harder to predict, because there are factors pointed in different directions. On the one hand, players are theoretically in better shape than ever, meaning that they are more likely to be able to make it through the season, and being able to play every game is a basic prerequisite for playing more than every game. On the other, the sports are a lot more organized, which would intuitively seem to decrease the ease of moving to a team with meaningful games in hand on one’s prior employer. Anecdotally, I would also guess that teams are less likely to let players play through a minor injury (hurting the chances). The real wild card is the frequency of in-season trades—I honestly have no rigorous idea of which direction that’s trending.

So, do I think someone can take Bellamy’s throne? I think it’s unlikely, due to the organizational factors laid out above, but I’ll still hold out hope that someone can do it—or at least, finding new players to join the bizarre fraternity of men playing more games than their teams.

Do Low Stakes Hockey Games Go To Overtime More Often?

Sean McIndoe wrote another piece this week about NHL overtime and the Bettman point (the 3rd point awarded for a game that is tied at the end of regulation—depending on your preferred interpretation, it’s either the point for the loser or the second point for the winner), and it raises some interesting questions. I agree with one part of his conclusion (the loser point is silly), but not with his proposed solution—I think a 10 or 15 minute overtime followed by a tie is ideal, and would rather get rid of the shootout altogether. (There may be a post in the future about different systems and their advantages/disadvantages.)

At one point, McIndoe is discussing how the Bettman point affects game dynamics, namely that it makes teams more likely to play for a tie:

So that’s exactly what teams have learned to do. From 1983-84 until the 1998-99 season, 18.4 percent of games went to overtime. Since the loser point was introduced, that number has up to 23.5 percent. 11 That’s far too big a jump to be a coincidence. More likely, it’s the result of an intentional, leaguewide strategy: Whenever possible, make sure the game gets to overtime.

In fact, if history holds, this is the time of year when we’ll start to see even more three-point games. After all, the more important standings become, the more likely teams will be to try to maximize the number of points available. And sure enough, this has been the third straight season in which three-point games have increased every month. In each of the last three full seasons, three-point games have mysteriously peaked in March.

So, McIndoe is arguing that teams are effectively playing for overtime later in the season because teams feel a more acute need for points. If you’re curious, based on my analysis this trend he cites is statistically significant, looking at a simple correlation of fraction of games ending in ties with the relative month of the season. If one assumes the effect is linear, each month the season goes on, a game becomes 0.5 percentage points more likely to go to overtime. (As an aside, I suspect a lot of the year-over-year trend is explained by a decrease in scoring over time, but that’s also a topic for another post.)

I’m somewhat unconvinced of this, given that later in the year there are teams who are tanking for draft position (would rather just take the loss) and teams in playoff contention want to deprive rivals of the extra point. (Moreover, teams may also become more sensitive to playoff tiebreakers, the first one of which is regulation and overtime wins.) If I had to guess, I would imagine that the increase in ties is due to sloppy play due to injuries and fatigue, but that’s something I’d like to investigate and hopefully will in the future.

Still, McIndoe’s idea is interesting, as it (along with his discussion of standings inflation, in which injecting more points into the standings makes everyone likelier to keep their jobs) suggests to me that there could be some element of collusion in hockey play, in that under some circumstances both teams will strategically maximize the likelihood of a game going to overtime. He believes that both teams will want the points in a playoff race. If this quasi-collusive mechanism is actually in place, where else might we see it?

My idea to test this is to look at interconference matchups. Why? This will hopefully be clear from looking at the considerations when a team wins in regulation instead of OT or a shootout:

  1. The other team gets one point instead of zero. Because the two teams are in different conferences, this has no effect on whether either team makes the playoffs, or their seeding in their own conference. The only way it matters is if a team suspects it would want home ice advantage in a matchup against the team it is playing…in the Stanley Cup Finals, which is so unlikely that a) it won’t play into a team’s plans and b) even if it did, would affect very few games. So, from this perspective there’s no incentive to win a 2 point game rather than a 3 point game.
  2. Regulation and overtime wins are a tiebreaker. However, points are much more important than the tiebreaker, so a decision that increases the probability of getting points will presumably dominate considerations about needing the regulation win. Between 1 and 2, we suspect that one team benefits when an interconference game goes to overtime, and the other is not hurt by the result.
  3. The two teams could be competing for draft position. If both teams are playing to lose, we would suspect this would be similar to a scenario in which both teams are playing to win, though that’s a supposition I can test some other time.

So, it seems to me that, if there is this incentive issue, we might see it in interconference games. So our hypothesis is that interconference games result in more three point games than intraconference games.

Using data from Hockey Reference, I looked at the results of every regular season game since 1999, when overtime losses began getting teams a point, counting the number of games that went to overtime. (During the time they were possible, I included ties in this category.) I also looked at the stats restricted to games since 2005, when ties were abolished, and I didn’t see any meaningful differences in the results.

As it turns out, 24.0% of interconference games have gone to OT since losers started getting a point, compared with…23.3% of intraconference games. That difference isn’t statistically significant (p = 0.44); I haven’t done power calculations, but since our sample of interconference games has N > 3000, I’m not too worried about power. Moreover, given the point estimate (raw difference) of 0.7%, we are looking at such a small effect even if it were significant that I wouldn’t put much stock in it. (The corresponding figures for the shootout era are 24.6% and 23.1%, with a p-value of 0.22, so still not significant.)

My idea was that we would see more overtime games, not more shootout games, as it’s unclear how the incentives align for teams to prefer the shootout, but I looked at the numbers anyway. Since 2005, 14.2% of interconference games have gone to the skills competition, compared to 13.0% of intraconference games. Not to repeat myself too much, but that’s still not significant (p = 0.23). Finally, even if we look at shootouts as a fraction of games that do go to overtime, we see no substantive difference—57.6% for interconference games, 56.3% for intraconference games, p = 0.69.

So, what do we conclude from all of these null results? Well, not much, at least directly—such is the problem with null results, especially when we are testing an inference from another hypothesis. It suggests that NHL teams aren’t repeatedly and blatantly colluding to maximize points, and it also suggests that if you watch an interconference game you’ll get to see the players trying just as hard, so that’s good, if neither novel nor what we set out to examine. More to the point, my read is that this does throw some doubt on McIndoe’s claims about a deliberate increase in ties over the course of the season, as it shows that in another circumstance where teams have an incentive to play for a tie, there’s no evidence that they are doing so. However, I’d like to do several different analyses that ideally address this question more directly before stating that firmly.

Or, to borrow the words of a statistician I’ve worked with: “We don’t actually know anything, but we’ve tried to quantify all the stuff we don’t know.”

Is a Goalie’s Shootout Performance Meaningful?

One of the bizarre things about hockey is that the current standings system gives teams extra points for winning shootouts, which is something almost entirely orthogonal to, you know, actually being a good hockey team. I can’t think of another comparable situation in sports. Penalty shootouts in soccer are sort of similar, but they only apply in knockout situations, whereas shootouts in hockey only occur in the regular season.

Is this stupid? Yes, and a quick Google will bring up a fair amount of others’ justified ire about shootouts and their effect on standings. I think the best solution is something along the lines of a 10 minute overtime (loser gets no points), and if it’s tied after 70 then it stays a tie. Since North Americans hate ties, though, I can’t imagine that change being made, though.

What makes it so interesting to me, though, is that it opens up a new set of metrics for evaluating both skaters and goalies. Skaters, even fourth liners, can contribute a very large amount through succeeding in the shootout, given that it’s approximately six events and someone gets an extra point out of it. Measuring shooting and save percentage in shootouts is pretty easy, and there’s very little or no adjustment needed to see how good a particular player is.

The first question we’d like to address is: is it even reasonable to say that certain players are consistently better or worse in shootouts, or is this something that’s fundamentally random (as overall shooting percentage is generally thought to be in hockey)? We’ll start this from the goalie side of things; in a later post, I’ll move onto the skaters.

Since the shootout was introduced after the 2004-05 lockout, goalies have saved 67.1% of all shot attempts. (Some data notes: I thought about including penalty shots as well, but those are likely to have a much lower success rate and don’t occur all that frequently, so I’ve omitted them. All data come from NHL or ESPN and are current as of the end of the 2012-13 season. UPDATE: I thought I remembered confirming that penalty shots have a lower success rate, but some investigations reveal that they are pretty comparable to shootout attempts, which is a little interesting. Just goes to show what happens when you assume things.)

Assessing randomness here is pretty tricky; the goalie in my data who has seen the most shootout attempts is Henrik Lundqvist, with 287. That might seem like a lot, but he’s seen a little over 14,000 shots in open play, which is a bit less than 50 times as many. This means that things are likely to be intensely volatile, at least from season to season. This intuition is correct, as looking at the year-over-year correlation between shootout save percentages (with each year required to have at least 20 attempts against) gets us a correlation of practically 0 (-0.02, with a wide confidence interval).

Given that there are only 73 pairs of seasons in that sample, and the threshold is only 20 attempts, we are talking about a very low power test, though. However, there’s a different, and arguably better, way to do this: look at how many extreme values we see in the distribution. This is tricky when modelling certain things, as you have to have a strong sense of what the theoretical distribution really is. Thankfully, given that there are only two outcomes here, if there is really no goaltender effect, we would expect to see a nice neat binomial distribution (analogous to a weighted coin). (There’s one source of heterogeneity I know I’m omitting, and that’s shooter quality. I can’t be certain that doesn’t contaminate these data, but I see no reason it would introduce bias rather than just error.)

We can test this by noting that if all goalies are equally good at shootouts, they should all have a true save percentage of 67% (the league rate). We can then calculate the probability that a given goalie would have the number of saves they do if they performed league average, and if we get lots of extreme values we can sense that there is something non-random lurking.

There have been 60 goalies with at least 50 shootout attempts against, and 14 of them have had results that would fall in the most extreme 5% relative to the mean if they in fact performed at a league average rate. (This is true even if we attempt to account for survivorship bias by only looking at the average rate for goalies that have that many attempts.) The probability that at least that many extreme values occur in a sample of this size is on the order of 1 in 5 million. (The conclusion doesn’t change if you look at other cutoffs for extreme values.) To me, this indicates that the lack of year over year correlation is largely a function of the lack of power and there is indeed something going on here.

The tables below shows some figures for the best and worst shootout goalies. Goalies are marked as significant if the probability they would get that percentage if they were actually league average is less than 5%.

Player Attempts Saves Percentage Significant
1 Semyon Varlamov, G 71 55 77.46 Yes
2 Brent Johnson, G 55 42 76.36 Yes
3 Henrik Lundqvist, G 287 219 76.31 Yes
4 Marc-Andre Fleury, G 177 135 76.27 Yes
5 Antti Niemi, G 133 101 75.94 Yes
6 Mathieu Garon, G 109 82 75.23 Yes
7 Johan Hedberg, G 129 97 75.19 Yes
8 Manny Fernandez, G 63 46 73.02 No
9 Rick DiPietro, G 126 92 73.02 No
10 Josh Harding, G 55 40 72.73 No
Player Attempts Saves Percentage Significant
1 Vesa Toskala, G 63 33 52.38 Yes
2 Ty Conklin, G 55 29 52.73 Yes
3 Martin Biron, G 76 41 53.95 Yes
4 Jason LaBarbera, G 77 43 55.84 Yes
5 Curtis Sanford, G 50 28 56.00 No
6 Niklas Backstrom, G 176 99 56.25 Yes
7 Jean-Sebastien Giguere, G 155 93 60.00 Yes
8 Miikka Kiprusoff, G 185 112 60.54 Yes
9 Sergei Bobrovsky, G 51 31 60.78 No
10 Chris Osgood, G 67 41 61.19 No

So, some goalies are actually good (or bad) at shootouts. This might seem obvious, but it’s a good thing to clear up. Another question: are these the same goalies that are better at all times? Not really, as it turns out; the correlation between raw save percentage (my source didn’t have even strength save percentage, unfortunately) and shootout save percentage is about 0.27, which is statistically significant but only somewhat practically significant—using the R squared from regressing one on the other, we figure that goalie save percentage only predicts about 5% of the variation in shootout save percentage.

You may be asking: what does all of this mean? Well, it means it might not be fruitless to attempt to incorporate shooutout prowess into our estimates of goalie worth. After all, loser points are a thing, and it’s good to get more of them. To do this, we should estimate what the relationship between a shootout goal and winning the shootout (i.e., collecting the extra point) is. To do this, I followed the basic technique laid in this Tom Tango post. Since shootouts per season are so small, I used lifetime data for each of the 30 franchises to come up with an estimate for the number of points that one shootout goal is worth. Regressing goal difference per game on winning percentage, we get a coefficient of 0.368. In other words, one shootout goal is worth about 0.368 shootout wins (that is, points).

Two quick asides about this: one is that there’s an endemic flaw in this estimator even beyond sample size issues, and that’s that the skipping of an attempt when a team is up 2-0 (or 3-1) means that we are deprived of some potentially informative events simply due to the construction of the shootout. Another is that while this is not a perfect estimate, it does a pretty good job predicting things (R squared of 0.9362, representing the fraction of the variance explained by the goal difference).

Now that we can convert shootout goals to wins, we can weigh the relative meaning of a goaltender’s performance in shootouts and in actual play. This research says that each goal is worth about 0.1457 wins, or 0.291 points, meaning that a shootout goal is worth about 26% more than a goal in open play. However, shootouts occur infrequently, so obviously a change of 1% in shootout save percentage is worth much less than a change of 1% in overall save percentage. How much less?

To get this figure, we’re going to assume that we have two goalies facing basically identical, average conditions. The first parameter we need is the frequency of shootouts occurring, which since their establishment has been about 13.2% of games. The next is the number of shots per shootout, which is about 3.5 per team (and thus per goalie). Multiplying this out gets a figure of 0.46 shootout shots per game, a save on which is worth 0.368 points, meaning that a 1% increase in shootout save percentage is worth about 0.0017 points per game.

To compute the comparable figure for regular save percentage, I’ll use the league average figure for shots in a game last year, which is about 29.75. Each save is worth about 0.29 points, so a 1% change in regular save percentage is worth about 0.087 points per game. This is, unsurprisingly, much much more than the shootout figure; it suggests that a goalie would have to be 51 percentage points better in shootouts to make up for 1 percentage point of difference in open play. (For purposes of this calculation, let’s assume that overall save percentage is equal to a goalie’s even strength save percentage plus an error term that is entirely due to his team, just to make all of our comparisons apples to apples. We’re also assuming that the marginal impact of a one percentage point change on a team’s likelihood of winning is constant, which isn’t too true.)

Is it plausible that this could ever come into play? Yes, somewhat surprisingly. The biggest observed gap between two goalies in terms of shootout performance is in the 20-25% range (depends on whether you want to include goalies with 50+ attempts or only 100+). A 20% gap equates to a 0.39% change in overall save percentage, and that’s not a meaningless gap given how tightly clustered goalie performances can be. If you place the goalie on a team that allows fewer shots, it’s easier to make up the gap—a 15% gap in shootout performance is equivalent to a 0.32% change in save percentage for a team that gives up 27 shots a game. (Similarly, a team with a higher probability of ending up in a shootout has more use for the shootout goalie.)

Is this particularly actionable? That’s less clear, given how small these effects are and how much uncertainty there is in both outcomes (will this goalie actually face a shootout every 7 times out?) and measurement (what are the real underlying save percentages?). (With respect to the measurement question, I’d be curious to know how frequently NHL teams do shootout drills, how much they record about the results, and if those track at all with in-game performance.) Still, it seems reasonable to say that this is something that should be at least on the table when evaluating goalies, especially for teams looking for a backup to a durable and reliable #1 (the case that means that a backup will be least likely to have to carry a team in the playoffs, when being good at a shootout is pretty meaningless).

Moreover, you could maximize the effect of a backup goalie that was exceptionally strong at shootouts by inserting him in for a shootout regardless of whether or not he was the starter. That would require a coach to have a) enough temerity to get second-guessed by the press, b) a good enough rapport with the starter that it wouldn’t be a vote of no confidence, and c) confidence that the backup could perform up to par without any real warmup. This older article discusses the tactic and the fact that it hasn’t worked in a small number of cases, but I suspect you’d have to try this for a while to really gauge whether or not it’s worthwhile. For whatever it’s worth, the goalie pulled in the article, Vesa Toskala, has the worst shootout save percentage of any goalie with at least 50 attempts against (52.4%).

I still think the shootout should be abolished, but as long as it’s around it’s clear to me that on the goalie end of things this is something to consider when evaluating players. (As it seems that it is when evaluating skaters, which I’ll take a look at eventually.) However, without a lot more study it’s not clear to me that it rises to the level of the much-beloved “market inefficiency.”

EDIT: I found a old post that concludes that shootouts are, in fact, random, though it’s three years old and using slightly different methods than I am. The three years old portion is pretty important, because that means that the pool of data has increased by a substantial margin since then. Food for thought, however.