Impact of changing teams on a player's point total

Eric T.
October 22 2012 01:38PM

 

Hey, remember the Rick Nash trade? From back when we talked about something other than HRR and escrow? Give it a minute, it'll come back to you -- he's on the Rangers now.

There was a lot of debate back then about what we should expect from him on the Rangers. I took a stab at it myself, and while there is a lot of uncertainty (points go up and down quite a bit from year to year, after all), I came up with something in the neighborhood of 35 goals and 31 assists in 78 games as a reasonable expectation. Some people disagreed vociferously, arguing that going from a bad team to a good team would have a huge effect, and that we should expect 80 points or more.

I didn't see a single person making that argument cite historical examples to support their point. As far as I could tell, it was so obvious to them that it didn't require even anecdotal evidence.

So I've decided to do a little legwork for them and ask how point totals have been affected by a change in teams over the last couple of years.

Trendspotting

I had to make a lot of decisions about who to include in the study and how to analyze the data. Do we include all forwards, or just top-9 types, or just first liners? Are we looking at whether their point total increased or factoring out injury by looking at points per game? Are we looking at the net increase or the percentage increase? Are we looking for an impact of moving to a better team or to a better offense? I tried to cut across the data several different ways, but in general, I came up with the same answers each time.

For starters, let's look at the impact of a 25+ point guy moving to a better (or worse) team. On the x-axis of the plot below is the change in team points -- so if the player was on a team that had 81 points in year 1 and went to a team that had 103 points in year 2, that would be recorded as +22. On the y-axis is his improvement (or drop) in points-per-82. So if we saw players' point total being tied to the quality of their team, we would expect to see the dots fall in a diagonal line from bottom-left to top-right. But that's not really what we see:

No relationship between points per 82 and team quality

In theory, we could see a different outcome looking at percent improvement rather than raw increase in points -- maybe it's more meaningful if a 30-point player gains 15 points than if a 70-point guy does it. However, in practice the percent-improvement approach looks virtually identical, and again there is no apparent trend:

No change in points as a function of quality of team

Nor is the relationship significantly more compelling if we look for guys who specifically move to a team with a better offense, putting the team's goals scored on the x-axis instead of the team's place in the standings:

No relationship between quality of team's offense and player's point total

Obviously, players' point totals fluctuate substantially from year to year, which would weaken the correlation in this kind of single-year data. So it is premature to conclude that quality of team has no impact on a player's point total, but it seems fair to conclude that any boost a player gets from going to a better team is much less than the normal year-to-year fluctuations.

When top players move

One way of explaining this is that going to a better team doesn't necessarily mean playing with better linemates. Maybe we see a bad team's second line player joining the third line of a good team -- and maybe the resultant reduction in ice time actually leaves him with fewer points at the end of the year. But first-line players should be less subject to this effect; they'll get their minutes on either team, so the team quality should shine through more clearly.

So let's focus on some first line players who moved to much better or worse teams in recent years:

  • Ilya Kovalchuk went to a team with slightly fewer goals but far more wins and saw a slight decline in his point total.
  • Brad Richards went to a team with a comparable number of goals but far more wins and saw a sharp decline in his point total.
  • Martin Havlat went to a team with far fewer goals and far fewer wins and saw a sharp decline in his point total.
  • Dany Heatley has changed teams twice and has seen his points steadily declining, but the sharpest drops were in years that he didn't change teams.
  • Similarly, Ryan Smyth didn't see any change in either of his recent team changes, but saw a sharp drop in the year he stayed with the Kings.
  • Phil Kessel went to a team with far fewer goals and far fewer wins (a bigger drop-off than the difference between the Rangers and Blue Jackets) and saw a very slight decline in his point total in year one, followed by an increase to career highs.
  • Jeff Carter went from a 106-point, 259-goal Philadelphia team to Nash's Blue Jackets. He saw a significant drop, from 0.83 points per game to 0.64 - although at least some of this might be attributable to suffering through several injuries last year.

Overall, it looks to me like the trend is less about the quality of a player's team than about the general downward arc of a player's point total after he peaks at about 25 years old. Whether players moved to better teams or worse teams, the players who moved after this age all showed a gradual decline that seemed unrelated to the move -- and the one young player on the list is the only one who eventually exceeded his previous numbers.

Obviously, every individual situation is different; one obvious omission is that we still aren't directly gauging linemate quality. And there's lots of variance from year to year, so even a much more complete model could still leave us surprised. But when we can't find a single recent example of a top player's point total improving as he moves to a better team, that's cause for concern.

It's certainly possible that Nash will have a great season in New York, but it's also certainly not obvious that we should be expecting it.

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Eric T. writes for NHL Numbers and Broad Street Hockey. His work generally focuses on analytical investigations and covers all phases of the game. You can find him on Twitter as @BSH_EricT.
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#1 Scott Reynolds
October 22 2012, 03:37PM
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Really interesting article Eric. One thing that you raised, which I think is pretty critical in this kind of analysis, is what kind of situations a player gets used in on their old and new teams. I wonder, for instance, if there would be something closer to a pattern if we limited the analysis to even strength and used points/60 instead of points/game. A lot of these guys will be impacted significantly by how much ice time they get and especially by how much PP time they get.

It might also be interesting to see what comes out if, in addition to that, you looked at EV Fenwick percentage to judge team quality. Does individual scoring increase as players move to a superior Fenwick environment? If there is a relationship, that would allow you to estimate Nash's EV point totals if the Rangers end up as a 48% or 50% or 52% type team.

I think that there would probably still be a lot of noise, but controlling for some of these variables might make things look less than completely random.

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#3 Les Comber
October 22 2012, 10:44PM
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Seems like a significant portion (maybe 2/3's or so?) of those data points (on all graphs) is below the x-axis, which might suggest a bit of an adjustment period for players on a new team (and for their coaches learning how best to use them). With respect to Nash, this aspect might be a little (very little) more evidence in favor of tempering point expectations a bit.

On a side note, I wonder if goalies demonstrate a tendency for a slight performance dip after a trade (maybe not as much since their performance is more individual and not related to usage).

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#5 Ben Wendorf
October 23 2012, 12:26AM
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That was a really good point about the moving players typically moving towards the wrong side of their prime (in many cases).

Just thinking aloud: have we ever really determined that, outside of extreme examples, the talent of linemates does a whole lot for you? Best I can recall, goal events are rare enough and fraught with luck to the point of having minimal predictive effect outside of joining a Crosby or Thorburn. And presumably, the person being put alongside such players would already be top 6 material, so the adjustments to their boxcars would rarely be as drastic so as to move beyond luck anyway. Damn boxcars.

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#6 clrkaitken
October 23 2012, 07:48AM
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"•Phil Kessel went to a team with far fewer goals and far fewer wins (a bigger drop-off than the difference between the Rangers and Blue Jackets) and saw a very slight decline in his point total in year one, followed by an increase to career highs."

Worth noting that in Year One of Kessel in Toronto, he also missed the first month of the season recovering from shoulder surgery, which factored into his slight decline in points.

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#8 Scott Reynolds
October 23 2012, 12:01PM
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@Ben Wendorf

I think you're being a bit of a homer here Ben. Chris Thorburn might be a first-line talent, but I definitely wouldn't put him in the same class as Crosby.

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#9 Ben Wendorf
October 23 2012, 12:58PM
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@Scott Reynolds

Surely you know I mean Thorburn be the opposite extreme of Crosby. But I definitely flubbed the "top 6" part. I was between coffees.

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#10 Scott Reynolds
October 23 2012, 01:14PM
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@Ben Wendorf

Oh. I'd assumed that you meant Thornton, but had the Jets on the brain.

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