Ahh, luck. The title in and of itself may seem a little confusing, because how can you track something that is, by human nature, mostly subjective and not objective? I will start off by immediately saying that there is no 100% definitive answer. In the end, everyone will have a differing opinion on if a team was unlucky or lucky over the course of 82 regular season games, because everyone views things a little differently. To that end, I do not claim to offer absolute, undeniable answers here.
However, there is some data out there that can make tracking luck somewhat more tangible. Some of the best information on the impact of luck can be found in the book Hockey Abstract, written by Rob Vollman (Twitter: @robvollmanNHL). In his initial release of his analytical dive into hockey, he claims that there are five measurable areas in hockey where luck can have a definitive impact. If you combine all of these together, you can get a decent gauge of a team’s luck over the course of a season. The five statistics are:
· Shooting and Save Percentages (PDO)
· Special Teams (STI)
· Injuries (CHIP)
· Post-Regulation Record
· One-Goal Game Record
The first stat may seem somewhat familiar to you, and has been used quite often as a general baseline for luck. PDO is a stat that combines a team’s shooting and save percentages into one stat. There are many times where fluky bounces and other lucky plays happen on the ice that can have an impact on a team’s shooting percentage or save percentage. Both of those stats are skill based to a degree, but no one can deny that there is some luck involved. I mean just look at John Moore’s shooting percentage this past season as compared to his career sh% and tell me that luck wasn’t involved. When you add a team’s shooting and save percentages together, anything over 100% indicates a team was lucky, while anything under 100% indicates a team was unlucky. The further away from 100% you get, the more lucky or unlucky a team was. This stat is also generally only tracked at 5 on 5 play, although you could theoretically calculate it for all situations as well.
For the New Jersey Devils in 2016-17, their 5v5 PDO was at 98.9, good for 24th in the NHL. That is a fairly unlucky number. The luckiest team in terms of PDO, Washington, was at 102.9, while the unluckiest team in this stat, Colorado, was at 97.1. Again, there is some skill involved, and generally the team’s with the highest PDO were the teams in the playoffs, and that isn’t all because of luck, but take it for what you will.
The next luck-based statistic is the STI, or special teams index. Since hockey is generally not played on a power play or penalty kill, their respective percentages can be somewhat influenced by luck. A team can get a fluke goal here or there which can boost up their power play percentage, despite having what looks like a pretty poor attack with the man advantage. I feel like the Devils have fallen under the category of not being a great PP team recently, but they do get lucky runs here and there. STI works similarly to PDO. It takes a team’s PP and PK percentages and adds them together. Over 100, the team is lucky, and under 100, the team is unlucky. The closer to 100, the more luck neutral the team was. According to nhl.com, New Jersey had a power play percentage of 17.5% (22nd in the league) and a penalty kill percentage of 79.6% (23rd in the league). Add that together, and NJ’s STI was at 97.1, a pretty unlucky number. The luckiest team in terms of STI, Boston, was at a whopping 107.4, while Colorado was again at the bottom with a STI of 89.2.
The third stat for luck here involves tracking injuries. Injuries are almost wholly luck-based. Yes, there are players who are injury prone, there is no denying that. However, there is no real way to quantify that, and when and for how long a player is injured is almost totally dictated by luck. The way to track how lucky or unlucky a team was in a season with regards to injury is to total up the team’s cap hit of injured players. This works in multiple ways. Tracking the cap hit on injuries is great because it tracks the importance of players who are hurt (generally). So if Taylor Hall gets hurt, his absence will affect the team way more than if someone like Miles Wood gets hurt. Since Hall makes way more than Wood does, tracking his cap hit against the team helps to quantify this. The higher a team’s CHIP (cap hit of injured players), the worse luck they had with injuries.
CHIP was tracked here during this past season by Springing Malik, the creator of the stat. For this, we find that the Devils were in fact quite lucky this past season in terms of injuries. They had the 7th smallest CHIP of any team in the NHL, with an overall CHIP of $4.65 million. In comparison, the unluckiest team in this area, Tampa Bay, had a CHIP over $16 million, while the luckiest team with injuries, Washington, had a CHIP of $1.81 million. The Devils were not crushed with injuries, so they can’t blame it on that.
As a quick aside: another way to track injuries and their effects on NHL teams is done by the twitter account @ManGamesLostNHL. He tracks the number of man games lost to injury for each team, and has a metric to track the total number of points lost in the standings due to injury. He then graphs the whole thing. His analysis also shows New Jersey as being relatively unaffected by injury this past season, the chart of which can be found here.
Our fourth luck stat tracks a team’s post-regulation record. Shootouts are obviously quite lucky, as was written about by Winnipeg’s SBN blog. And since overtime is so short at only 5 minutes, many overtime goals can be considered lucky as well. All it takes is a weird bounce in 3-on-3 hockey to spring someone loose for a breakaway after all. This year, the Devils played 24 games that went beyond regulation. Of those, they went 7-11 in overtime, and another 3-3 in the shootout. The final tally of that is then 10-14, a 0.417 winning percentage. That is a low number and definitely unlucky. A 0.500 win percentage in post-regulation games would be your luck neutral, and the Devs were way below that.
Finally, we also have to look at the team’s record in one-goal games. As the Devils used to do often but have since forgotten about, a team can dominate in possession and control the flow of play, but lose 1-0 or 2-1 in regulation thanks to unlucky bounces. Therefore, one-goal games can be decided by luck many times, especially if that game winning goal was fluky. Just like with the team’s post-regulation record, a 0.500 win percentage in one-goal games would be luck neutral. This year, the Devils played in 17 games that ended in regulation but were decided by only one goal. Of those, they went 7-10, for a 0.412 win percentage. Again, this is fairly unlucky, and in fact quite similar to their win percentage from post-regulation games.
As a quick recap, here is how the Devils performed in all 5 luck categories:
· 5v5 PDO of 98.9, a decently unlucky number.
· STI of 97.1, another unlucky number.
· CHIP of $4.65 million which was very lucky.
· Post-regulation win percentage of 0.417, an unlucky number.
· One-goal regulation win percentage of 0.412, equally unlucky.
So of those five stats, four showcase New Jersey as having an unlucky season last year, with only injuries giving the team some semblance of luck. Again, it should be noted that these statistics are not entirely based on luck. A high STI can be partially attributed to a real strong penalty kill, or a strong PDO can be attributed to an all-star goalie having a great save percentage. More often than not, teams that are really good will perform well in these 5 categories, while teams that a really bad will look quite unlucky as well. I mean just look at Colorado. They were downright atrocious this past year. They also had the league’s worst PDO and STI. Were they unlucky? Probably. But they were also just plain bad.
I think with the Devils, you have to take some of this with a grain of salt as well. I do not want to imply that they were a good team that was simply unlucky. I do not believe that at all. They were a bad team that deserved to finish as low as they did. What this does show, however, is that luck really was not on their side either. It is not like they were a lucky team, but were so bad that they lost despite their luck. No no, not only were they a bad team, but luck was against them as well, making their jobs on the ice that much tougher.
In the end, take it for what you will. Tracking luck is definitely something that is up for debate, and I cannot say that I am a true 100% believer. However, we can all agree that luck plays a part in any team’s season, and I think anyone would like the idea of being able to quantify that. Rob Vollman’s system may not be perfect, and there may never be a perfect system, but each of the five stats discussed here today are luck-based to a degree, and when added together, can show whether or not a team had some luck or not over 82 games. And with the Devils in 2016-17, lady luck was not smiling down on them.