The Toronto Maple Leafs swept the Edmonton Oilers in their three-game series ending March 3, to everyone’s surprise. It was announced soon after that this was officially the Leafs’ best start in team history. That’s great for the team and their fans – and also completely irrelevant, just like all other 2020-21 NHL season statistics. Here’s why.
Hockey is Inherently Weird
This shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone, right? Look at the expression of anyone who hasn’t seen a game before and you can tell 90% of their thought process is “But, WHY?!” Hockey is, after all, a ridiculous game: we play it on ice, require vital equipment that can suddenly fail, and have a truly stupid, wildly unpredictable shape for the puck. And we call it a puck. Body checks are allowed, taking players out of the play as in football. Offence and defence happen at the same time as in basketball. Players constantly change on the fly as in lacrosse. While there are positions, players can move anywhere as in soccer.
It’s weird, is what we’re saying. Best game in the world, but still weird. And MASSIVELY luck-driven, which isn’t something talked about enough but has really come to the fore this season. Think about how many goals happen because of a weird bounce? You don’t see basketballs getting lost in a player’s equipment and accidentally put into the basket. That’s because basketballs are shaped like balls, not like slices cut from a Pringles can.
In short, luck plays an outsized role in determining hockey results. Stretched out over 82 games, that luck generally balances out. Having seven-game playoff series every round generally lets the better team’s skill beat a few bad bounces or one player getting hot/cold. But not always, which keeps it interesting. The 2011-12 Los Angeles Kings were the first team to go from the eighth-seed to Stanley Cup Champions in North American pro sports, showing how difficult that is. But in hockey, there’s always that risk.
The first thing to look at when comparing this season to others is the length. With a total of just 56 games, the erratic bounces of luck stand that much higher in importance. Now, it’s not comparing apples to motorcycles as the game itself remains the same. The important thing is that the proportions are changed. Missing a player for six games takes them off the team for over 10% of the season. That smaller sample size is what makes statistics fun at the beginning of every year. Josh Anderson being on pace for 112 goals really puts the Max Domi trade in perspective!
Some teams may not be able to reach the 56-game mark. While there are reasons for optimism that the pandemic can be brought under control in the coming months, not every jurisdiction will be the same. The Dallas Stars have managed to squeeze in most of their eight postponed games into an already-tight schedule, but if there are any more delays? It could be that their position in the standings will be determined by win percentage rather than total points. Add to that the increased risk of injury when players have shortened rest periods and Alexander Radulov‘s injury looms far larger than normal.
Even if teams don’t miss games, their players have. There are teams playing games while missing one, three, or up to six players from the lineup. It’s impossible not to consider them much weaker opposition during those games, but you still get two points to beat them. The league doesn’t want to lose games, of course, but at what point is a match considered too unbalanced to play? What’s the tipping point for rescheduling? Inquiring minds – and the Detroit Red Wings, who played six straight games down five players – want to know.
Be The Best by Avoiding The Best
Welcome to Whose League Is It, Anyway? Where the divisions are made up and the stats don’t matter! That’s right, the stats don’t matter. Joining us today is the entire Scotia North Division! Not to be picking on them, but it isn’t regarded as the strongest competition in the league. Correction: good competition, but not with the best teams. And we can actually use the Edmonton-Toronto series as a perfect example of why the 2020-21 NHL season statistics can’t really be compared to any other year.
It’s easy to look at the standings and say which is the best team in each division. Almost every team has played a couple of dozen games, so the sample size is reasonable. Not great, but almost halfway through a shortened season is acceptable. Still, a three-game losing streak dropped Edmonton from second in the division to third. Toronto, on the other hand, massively increased their lead atop that same division. As of the end of play on March 4th, the Maple Leafs have a seven-point lead on the Winnipeg Jets. Which is fine – if you leave it at that.
With 38 points in 25 games, the Leafs are behind only the Tampa Bay Lightning in win percentage. They have 88 goals for and just 59 against, a goals-differential again second only to Tampa Bay. So: Toronto is the second-best team in the league. Right? Well… Maybe not if the teams they play against kinda suck.
Total Commitment to Absolute Quality!
As we mentioned back in October, the record of each team against their Canadian opponents varied widely. Going by accumulated records before the league paused for dramatic effect, the standings would have been:
What they actually were:
Edmonton Oilers (with the 9th best record in the league)
Toronto Maple Leafs (12th)
Winnipeg Jets (15th)
Calgary Flames (17th)
Vancouver Canucks (20th)
Montreal Canadiens (24th)
Ottawa Senators (30th)
Even taken by points percentage rather than total points accumulated, Edmonton finished 12th in the league-wide standings. Which begs the question: how much does winning the division mean if that division doesn’t have a single top-ten team? Teams made a lot of moves to get better in the off-season, of course, and some growth from within systems is always expected. Those moves don’t always work, and the growth doesn’t always happen, though. The only way to be sure is to compete against the rest of the league. Which no one is.
In Short (Season)
The bottom line is that some media folks – and the fans – have gone a bit mad. The fact that seven of the top-ten goal scorers are on Canadian teams doesn’t mean there’s a sudden revival for them. It means they are playing each other. The Canucks had a “Four-Game Win Streak!” that somehow didn’t mention their “opponents” were Winnipeg once and an Ottawa team who had yet to find their legs three times. It was followed by five straight losses to Toronto and Montreal. While the Leafs and Habs aren’t that much better than the Canucks, they are enough so that beating them should be a pleasant surprise for Vancouver, not an expectation.
The same holds true for individual stats. The North Division is filled with teams who give up a lot of goals. That means a bunch of scoring. So sure, Tyler Toffoli has as many goals as Connor McDavid. But does that mean as much when eight of his 14 goals came in four games against Vancouver? Toffoli’s a good goal-scorer, certainly. But that evaluation is from his entire career. He’s not 14-goals-in-22-games good any more than he was a 50-goal scorer during his 10-game tenure with the Canucks. Even when looking at the best player in the league, you have to take his stats with a grain of salt. McDavid has never hit 130 points or anything close – but this year he’s on pace for it.
Lies and Outliers
Okay, so it is a bit of an exaggeration to say the 2020-21 NHL statistics are totally useless. They are useful to compare players or teams within a division, for instance. Maybe taking a look at the days of the Original Six. But league-wide? Not a lot to go on, there. Not until there’s some kind of balanced schedule again.
The real statistical curiosity after this season is going to be seeing what was a statistical curiosity. We really won’t know how weird the numbers are until we can bracket them with a “normal” year before and after. Who is going to get signed for way too much – or for pennies on the dollar – because of the 2020-21 season? Which teams are better than they think, which ones are worse? Who was unlucky enough to be caught in a newly-minted division with a player or team who just owned them for a year?
All questions for the future. For now, let’s revel in the weirdness without forgetting that’s just what it is.
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