Wayne Gretzky vs. Bobby Clarke, December 1981: A Micro-Analysis

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Left image by “Centpacrr“, Right image by “Hakandahlstrom” via Wikimedia Commons, both altered by author

On December 30th, 1981, Wayne Gretzky’s Edmonton Oilers and Bobby Clarke’s Philadelphia Flyers met in a Wednesday night tilt rich with symbolism. Clarke, 32, was a couple of years away from retirement; two of his three remaining teammates from the Cup years, Reggie Leach and Bill Barber (defenseman Jimmy Watson was the third), were themselves out of the league in two years (Leach due to talent drop-off, Barber due to injury). Ironically, there was little indication in 1981 that this was going to happen – all were around 30, all were near point-per-game scorers playing all minutes. Whatever the case, they were the last of the Broad Street Bullies, and were now mentoring a new generation of “Bullies” like Ken Linseman, Tim Kerr, and Brian Propp, who seemed at times more annoying than dangerous. Though in transition, Philadelphia was still a great possession team (4th in the league in 2pS%, an historical possession metric), but fought the percentages all year to squeak into the playoffs. Edmonton, on the other hand, was romping through the league at record pace, and by December 30th held a comfortable lead over 2nd place Minnesota in the old Campbell Conference. Gretzky, of course, was at the heart of this surge, and by game 39 he had 45 goals.

The 1980s Oilers were the next step in NHL offense, really a Canadian version of the 1970s Soviet style of hockey. They didn’t need to bully their way to victories – they let the other team take the penalties, and skated all over them. I should say, that’s what Edmonton would eventually do; on this night they lined Gretzky up with Dave Lumley and Dave Semenko, as they had done most of the year. More on that later.

As I said before, though, the Flyers were a great possession team, as they always had been when Clarke and Barber were in their prime (they averaged, averaged, 55% 2pS% in the years 1973-74 through 1981-82, placing them consistently among the top 5 in the NHL). They were fast and calculating with their puck movement; the grit was just extra work – and who knows, maybe it contributed to Clarke, Barber, and Leach’s early retirement. The Bully when met with the Oilers, though, learned that the box was the bigger enemy.

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Friday Quick Graphs: When did “Score Effects” Emerge in NHL History?

Back in 2009, Tyler Dellow first elaborated on the idea of what we now call “score effects,” or how teams with a lead will go into a “defensive shell” and purposely withdraw from the possession battle to preserve their score. Score effects are the primary reason the go-to possession stat is “Fenwick Close” today – the “close” implies the importance of looking at possession measures when teams still have a reason to engage. The limits of historical shot recording, and the possibility of score effects, are precisely why I’ve advocated the use of 2pS% (shot-differential percentage from the first two periods) as an historical possession measure.

The one thing I never completely took for granted was that score effects had always existed in the NHL. To test this, I broke down each game into individual period shot battles, and looked separately at the correlation* of 1st, 2nd, or 3rd period shots-for percentages to final goals-for percentages. The result above clearly shows that the 3rd period SF% begins to drop away drastically after 1977 or so, after a quarter-century of running pretty close to the others. It does seem possible, then, that the re-introduction of overtime in 1983-84 (gone since 1943-44) had an impact on the growth of score effects (although I’m not sure how); on the other hand, the introduction of the “loser point” in 1999-2000 doesn’t seem to have had any effect. We can also do a similar graph of correlations to goals-for percentage to validate the use of 2pS%:

As you can see, score effects have essentially become the norm, much to the detriment of overall shot differential. At any rate, whomever put two-and-two together back in the 1970s probably had the right idea; I’d forward the hypothesis that the 1970s NHL was ripe for change and innovation (a lot of competition; growth of league = increase in decision-makers and opportunities to exploit market inefficiencies). In that kind of environment, protecting the lead quickly became a best practice, and it steadily grew to a league-wide practice by the mid-1990s or so.

* Or a -1.0 to +1.0 relationship of the variance in one variable to the variance in another; positive means as one goes up, the other tends to go up, suggesting a positive relationship or correlation. A negative correlation suggests that, as one goes up, the other tends to go down. The closer to 0.0, the less likely the variables have any relationship at all.

Friday Quick Graph: Possessing the Puck in 1969, 1981, and 2013

Hextall OnIce.jpg

Photo by Jim Tyron, via Wikimedia Commons

Just finished tracking possession times in a November 15th, 1969 game between the Flyers and the Leafs. This game, when compared to the games from this post, fits virtually in-between them, which is interesting because, unlike with the other two games, the Flyers and Leafs were two teams on the lower end of the spectrum in the league (8th and 9th in 2pS% in a 12-team NHL). Maybe that also contributes to their average possession time of 6.08 sec (n=349) compared to the 1981 game’s 6.15 (n=364) and 2013 game’s 6.17 (n=360). Another observation among these games: the standard deviation for the 1969 and 1981 games is right around 4 seconds, where it’s right at 5 seconds for the 2013 game. I’ll save any deeper ruminations until I have a larger sample, but it’s food for thought.

Not too long ago, I decided I wanted to try out tracking time of possession in historical games, with the hope of eventually having enough data to look into things. I realized it’s going to be a little difficult to get large enough samples of singular teams, but I also realized that we could potentially compare the game as a whole in different eras. I’ve always been of the mind that the game has evolved somewhat, but at its core there are a number of best practices that have kept it pretty much the same game from around the time that the red line was introduced in 1943. I wanted to test that as far back as I could go, though, so with this possession tracking I actually tracked each individual possession rather than just a total time of possession. For this chart, I displayed all those individual possessions as a distribution, longest possessions to the shortest. These three games, the Philadelphia Flyers vs. Toronto Maple Leafs in 1969 (Toronto won 4-2), Edmonton Oilers vs. Philadelphia Flyers in 1981 (Edmonton won 7-5), and Los Angeles Kings vs. St. Louis Blues (St. Louis won 4-2), had some surprising results when compared. As you can see above, the distribution is actually quite close, with the 1981 game seeming to have shorter possessions but then moving above the others in the middle of the line. The 1969 game actually seems like a trendline of the 2013 and 1981 games. The average possession time? 1969: 6.08 seconds, 1981: 6.15 seconds, and 2013: 6.17 seconds. Obviously, I need (and want) more data, but it is a really intriguing start.

The “possession battle” results?

All Situations Possession

  • PHI (47.1%) vs. TOR (52.9%), 1969
  • EDM (53.4%) vs. PHI (46.6%), 1981
  • LAK (51.7%) vs. STL (48.3%), 2013

Possession, Score Close

  • PHI (41.3%) vs. TOR (58.7%)
  • EDM (48.7%) vs. PHI (51.3%)
  • LAK (51.2%) vs. STL (48.8%)

NHL Team History, Possession, and Winning the Stanley Cup

Photo by “JulieAndSteve”, via Wikimedia Commons

Gabe Desjardins dropped a comment over at my Tumblr awhile ago, asking me if I could put together a graph expanding on a metric I came up with, 2-Period Shot Percentage (or 2pS%). 2pS% is an historical possession metric that takes shots-for and shots-against in just the first two periods of a game and expresses it as a percentage for the team being analyzed. The idea was that I was trying to get a rough possession measure from the period that would avoid score effects, or the tendency for teams with a lead to sit on the lead and thus give up shots late in the game. Having recently completed a database of period-by-period shot data going back to 1952-53, I have been able to test this metric a bit and the results were good for 2pS% as a possession measure. Returning to Gabe’s request, he wanted to know if I could chart the 2pS% data from year-to-year, with one line following the league leader in the metric and the other line following the Stanley Cup winner. I’d been curious about this myself; certainly there are a number of different ways to express the value of the metric, but this particular one could be interesting because it toes the line between what the Old and New Guard feel is important in this kind of analysis.

Well, I was right that it would be interesting:
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