Hockey is, maybe more than any other sport, a team sport. A hitter in baseball can be evaluated based on a series of one on one battles with pitchers which are largely independent of the ability of the hitters teammates. In hockey this is not the case. Jaromir Jagr may be a great goal scorer but if he didn’t have quality teammates around him the number of goals he scores would be significantly impacted. A great defensive play by Marek Malik causing a turnover in the defensive zone followed by a great breakout pass might be just as important in scoring a goal as Jaromir Jagr being in the right spot at the right time to chip in a rebound. Conversely, a good forcheck by Peter Forsberg might be just as important for keeping the puck out of his teams net as a poke check by Antero Niittymaki taking away a shot and a scoring opportunity. As some say, the best defense is a good offense. But there is no stat that “adequately” rewards either Malik’s great defensive play resulting in an offensive opportunity nor Forsberg’s great offensive play limiting the number of offensive opportunities against.
I say “adequately” because +/- attempts to do that and though it has some use as a statistic it is seriously flawed because it doesn’t isolate a players worth independent from his teammates. Conceptually it is a good statistic. Winning games is all about scoring more goals than you give up and +/- measures how many goals are scored by your team while you are on the ice in relation to how many goals are scored by the opposition while you are on the ice. Problem is, if you play on a really good team you are likely to have a decent +/- regardless of how good or bad you actually are. Conversely, if you play on a really bad team you are likely to have a poor +/- regardless of how good or bad you really are. Was Vaclav Varada at +21 really significantly better than Sidney Crosby at -1? No, of course not. There is a reason why Varada is no longer in the NHL.
So the question is, how best can we isolate a players individual ability in such a team oriented sport like hockey. Is it even possible? I believe that this can be done and I believe that I have developed an algorithm that does so adequately. Tomorrow I will describe in more detail what I have done and present some player rankings from last season and Thursday I’ll post this seasons player rankings. I am sure the results with be both surprising and controversial but most of all I hope that are thought provoking and make you think about certain players a little differently.