The NHL was a totally different game when players scored 70 goals a season. Dynasties existed. Fans were guaranteed to see star players dominate every game.
Was it better back then? It depends on perspective. The game today is so fast. The players so good. The skill level so high. But its puzzling when a team like the Dallas Stars with all that obvious skill, is inferior to the Vegas Golden Knights, a fresh expansion team. Why are players not scoring 70 goals a season anymore? How can a seemingly less talented team beat an loaded team? Why is this happening?
There is a simple explanation. It’s a deadly mixture of two elements, 1) Hockey being a ‘luck sport’ and 2) the steady increase in skill across all players.
Let’s break it down.
HOCKEY. A ‘LUCK SPORT’.
First, you need to be on-board with the fact that the outcomes of your favourite sport has a lot to do with luck. It’s hard to swallow considering Don Cherry has been saying for years that winning is directly linked to mucking, banging and grit.
Vox produced a great little video explaining luck and skill in sports. With the help of research by Michael J. Mauboussin, they plot various sports along the spectrum of luck vs skill. Outcomes in the sport of Hockey are closer to the luck side of the spectrum than other major sports.
EXHIBIT #1: The Luck / Skill Spectrum
image source: Michael J. Mauboussin, The Success Equation
Generally, Mauboussin explains that skill has more opportunity to influence outcomes in sports that have more chances to score and more possession for the highest skilled players. Think basketball versus hockey. LeBron James has the ball often (possession) with numerous occasions to score, compared to Sydney Crosby who is on the ice for less than 1/3 the game, and only a few occasions to score. His impact on the outcome is much less than James’. Exhibit 2 illustrates this point. Comparing 18 championship finals for various sport; 20 different NHL teams made appearances, with 2 teams making 4 appearances. Whereas the NBA had only 13 unique team appearances, including 7 by a single team. Hockey outcomes are more random than basketball.
EXHIBIT #2: Number of Unique Appearances in 18 Championship Finals
source: waveintel.org with data from wikipedia
The luck thing is definitely not a recent revelation. The analytics community talks about it all the time, and it’s possibly the Achilles heel to unlocking predicative analytics in the NHL as it is played today. “Hockey people” and players know all too well their fate is greatly tied to luck. You may cringe at the clichés, excuses and rituals, but they are historically-steeped answers to outcomes of this game of luck.
Heck, if you were paying attention in 1989, Ken Dryden was well ahead of his time explaining that hockey is a lot about luck in the documentary Home Game Episode #1. At 28:10, he explains the fortune of a single play, a microcosm of the game itself. Check it out! This video is a gem, with many behind-the-scene clips of heroes of the past including the late Pat Burns and a nice interlude with the late Red Fisher (45:30).
Exhibit #3: Ken Dryden's Home Game Episode #1 (1989)
THE SKILL PARADOX
Now that you are depressed knowing your favourite sport is a lot about luck, the ‘Skill Paradox’ is here to punch you in the gut. It goes like this: the increase in skill across all players has the paradoxical effect of decreasing the impact of skill in deciding outcomes. This theory has been studied by many including author Michael J. Mauboussin in the book The Success Equation. He explains the theory in an interview with the Wall Street Journal:
“The key is this idea called the paradox of skill. As people become better at an activity, the difference between the best and the average and the best and the worst becomes much narrower. As people become more skillful, luck becomes more important.
The reason that luck is so important isn't that … skill isn't relevant. It's that skill is very high and consistent.
In the short term you may experience good or bad luck [and that can overwhelm skill]…”
source: Farnham Street https://www.fs.blog/2012/11/the-paradox-of-skill/
Exhibit #4: Skill Gap
source: by author for illustration purposes
This not only has ramifications for game outcomes, it has a cascading impact across all parts of the game including the business side.
Think about it this way: If every player was equal, – say as good as Sidney Crosby – then what is left in deciding a game? A bounce here and there. A bad penalty. The stomach flu. Coaching tactics. And so on.
Years ago, the impacted of a bad penalty call can be undone by an overpowering of skill. Today, luck can overwhelm skill; non-skill factors are playing a bigger role in determining outcomes.
Exhibit #5: Skill Relative to Other Factors (Impacting Performance)
source: by author for illustration purposes
“Anyone can win game 7”. This cliché perfectly describes the sport. It offers a soothing, acceptance of fate for players, coaches and fans; the outcome is in the hands of the hockey gods; luck.
How does this impact the business side of the NHL? Aside from having to pay more attention to non-skill elements of the game such as psychology, mental health, chemistry, injury prevention, scheduling; the business-side of things, done poorly *think contracts* can cripple a team.
Player personnel decisions are becoming more and more challenging. With a shrinking skill gap between top and bottom players, management’s ability to differentiate between a star and a good player, or a good player and an average player is becoming increasingly difficult. Teams assess and commit big dollars and long term to one player over another with razor-thin difference in skill. Factors for these decisions are less and less linked to skill assessment, and more explained by timing *think Collective Bargaining Agreement contract provisions* or other factors such as loyalty.
Exhibit #6: Life Cycle of an Elite Goal Scorer
source: waveintel.org with data from hockey-reference.com
Just like gambling, a game of chance has you coming back for more, even if the odds are against you. Under Bettman’s watch, the NHL focused on creating parity *hello hard cap and extra point for OT loss* to ensure every fan feels like their team can win. Keep hope high for all teams, at all times. That is smart business. But what’s good for business, is not necessarily good for the game. At least if you are interested in seeing skill prevail over luck.
Dave Lozo, Vice Sports, wrote a story How to Fix the NHL, a League That's Broken, and offers:
“Get rid of the salary cap. The salary cap unfairly depresses salaries and creates parity, the most boring thing in sports. I used to be a very big proponent of salary caps so everything would be "fair," but I was an idiot. “
The cap has flattened the skill level across all teams and exacerbated the impact of a narrowing skill gap, pushing NHL outcomes increasingly into a game of chance.
LAS VEGAS GOLDEN KNIGHTS
It is telling that a team with a “clean slate” has an advantage over teams that have been "building" for years. Existing teams are weighed down by bad contracts, poor player evaluation, poor choices that leave lasting negative impact on the ice. Even the best managers can't avoid this because a shrinking skill gap means business decisions have an increasingly razor-thin threshold for success and failure.
This alone should not have made Vegas better than most of the league. Agreed. There’s something else the skill paradox impacts. The on-ice performance.
The shrinking skill gap makes the impact of other factors an increasingly important determinant of outcomes. Factors such as no clicks in the dressing room, no expectations, no stress, confidence, rested players, “something to prove”. All these factors – and you can think of more – impact the result on the ice, more now than in the past.
Take "rest" as an example. Over the course of the two previous seasons, the best players on the expansion team - Marchessault and Karlsson - played many fewer minutes than stars on other Championship-hopeful teams. Do you think this an impact on outcomes this year?
Exhibit #7: TOI Totals for Expansion Team versus Established Teams
One of my favourite sports sayings is: “players win despite management”. The Golden Knights greatest advantage is their relative freedom from management interference. The GM – George McPhee – and his crew haven’t had enough time to pollute the innocence of this team of misfits. Not enough time has passed to weigh the team down in hierarchy, expectations, clicks, favourtism and so on. Oh, but it will happen Vegas fans. Trust me.
That’s the best I’ve got. If you don’t believe in this theory, then maybe you can buy into Vice Sports Dave Lozo's theory who describes the Golden Knights success “… with one simple answer—this is all bat shit.”
The NHL is a different beast now than it was 10, even 5 years ago. The Golden Knights are proof that conventional hockey thought is broken. That the game is not what it seems. Its definitive proof that individual skill has less impact on outcomes than we all thought.
Is it possible the NHL didn’t understand their own game's business dynamic? That it could lead to this: an expansion team with better championship odds than most other teams?
No. No chance. Gary Bettman is a very smart man. The theory that the league got it wrong, is definitely way off. Let's try again. The NHL got it right. The Golden Knights win the cup. The NHL owners can charge even more money for an expansion team next time and split the bounty. Aha! Don't forgot the first rule of the NHL. It’s not a sport. It’s a money-making venture. There’s your answer. The sport may be worse, but the bank accounts are flush. It is all bat shit!