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The changing relationship between goals and winning in Gary Bettman's NHL


In the course of researching for my ongoing (trust me!) series on Shot Quality vs. Quantity, I have attempted to identify successful regular season teams. For this purpose I have singled out three considerably-overlapping groups: President's Trophy winners or equivalent (first overall, or OV), teams with the best Goal Differential (GD = GF - GA), and teams with the best Goal Ratio (GR = GF:GA). It stands to reason that the teams which are most successful at scoring and preventing goals will have the most success in the standings, right?

Not so fast. This is Gary Bettman's NHL, where logic and reason take a back seat to forced parity and imaginary goals and standings points. In my research - which is ultimately directed towards playoff success - I filtered out the ersatz goals that are credited for shootouts, however those results still have their effect in the standings since 2005. I didn't even try to filter out overtime goals against, which affect GD and GR but have not been punished in the standings since 1999. Therefore the study period of 1983-2009 can be broken down thusly:

  • 1983-1999: Goodness, normalcy, and logic prevail (every game worth two (2) points)
  • 1999-2004: Bettman Point Ver 1.0 (third point awarded in some overtime games)
  • 2004-2005: No fucking hockey
  • 2005-2009: Bettman Point Ver 2.0 (third point awarded in all overtime games)

It's an interesting exercise to see how GD and GR have translated to standings success over those 25 years. The graph up top shows how the President's Trophy winners have fared over the study period. The Y axis is rank in the league in each category, with all teams by definition being #1 in the standings (green pyramids).

The divergence between Real goals and standings success has been, predictably, growing during the Bettman Era. Here's the average rank in each category for the regular season champions:

Period OV GD GR
1983-1999 1.0 1.19 1.25
1999-2004 1.0 1.4 1.6
2004-2005 0 0 0
2005-2009 1.0 2.0 2.75


Here is the same data sorted by (Real) Goal Ratio. From 1983-99, The team leading the league in this department had never finished worse than second overall with the vast majority (13 of 16) finishing first. In the Bettman Point era, just 3 of 9 teams that led the league in Goal Ratio won the President's Trophy.


Finally, above is the same information for Goal Differential. It's very similar to the previous diagram because in 22 years of the 25 the same team led the league in both categories. Just the '86 Oilers, '91 Kings (both Gretzky teams) as well as the '03 Senators muscle their way to the top in GD despite having a (slightly) inferior GR. That relationship remains rock solid. What is changing/diminishing is the effectiveness of outscoring w.r.t. the standings.   

Here's the average rank in each category for the league leaders in goal differential:

Period GD GR OV
1983-1999 1.0 1.13 1.25
1999-2004 1.0 1.2 2.4
2004-2005 0 0 0
2005-2009 1.0 1.0 3.5

Of particular note, the Ottawa Senators led the NHL for FOUR consecutive seasons 2002-07. The Sens are an interesting case, a mammoth outlier with one measly President's Trophy (and zero Stanley Cups) to show for their outscoring ways. Bizarre to see them lead the league in both GD and GR in '04, '06, '07, yet finish sixth, second, and a shocking ninth in the overall standings in those seasons. Not surprisingly, their overtime record was a poor 7-12-26, and their shootout mark an abysmal 4-12 over the last two of those years. What's more surprising is their inability to produce better results in the postseason, in which Real Hockey is played until games are decided. In handicapping for playoff pools I have always preferred the team with the better goal differential regardless of standings, but it seems the Ottawa Senators have somehow managed to underachieve in both the regular season and the playoffs.

In each of the graphs we see increasing instability in the relationship between goal scoring/prevention - the staples of successful hockey - and results in the regular season standings. Winning strategies increasingly rely on playing the system, as opposed to simply playing hockey.