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Let’s Experiment in EHM: The WAR-Optimized Team Results in 2019-20

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This post has the results of the first Eastside Hockey Manager experiment, a WAR-optimized roster replacing the 2019-20 Devils. In a word: dominance. Read more about how they did and to see what the next EHM experiment will be.

The Magnificent Six from a Magnificent Team
The Magnificent Six from a Magnificent Team

Last week announced the first of what should be many experiments in Eastside Hockey Manager. With CJ’s guidance, the experiment was to see how a 23-man roster optimized for Wins Above Replacement, WAR, in real life would do in the game. You can read up on the methodology and restrictions in last week’s post. This one is all about the results of the experiment. CJ predicted at least 60 wins and felt 70 was possible. I predicted 50+ wins and at least a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals. The board in the game looked at the roster and expected a championship contender. Let’s find out how the team did.

Experiment Results: The 2019-20 Regular Season

CJ was right. This team utterly crushed the competition during the 2019-20 season. All I did was put the roster together, gave all four lines an offensive mindset, and off they went constantly out-shooting teams by 20 shots per game and lighting the lamp repeatedly. Here are some quick points:

  • They opened the season with an 18 game winning streak. They did not take any kind of loss until November 16, where they failed to make a comeback in a 4-5 loss to Montreal. This winning streak started with a 5-0 smackdown of Winnipeg in the season opener, a 6-0 thrashing of Philly, a 6-1 steamrolling of Our Hated Rivals, 7-1 wins over Boston (who fired their head coach twice in this season) and Arizona, and ridiculous 8-5 win in Edmonton.
  • Believe it or not, the WAR-optimized Devils were not in first at the end of this streak. Up until the 2020 portion of the season, Washington hung with them in the standings. They were an inferno as well. It did not help that in later November and in December (the low point was a 3-8 loss in Colorado) there was a lull where Connor Hellebuyck and Darcy Kuemper struggled to make saves and the offensive machine ran up shots but not goal. That ended, though. The Devils did have games in hand on Washington and once those were used up, the Caps were left in the dust along with everyone else.
  • Injuries were fortunately kind enough to the WAR-optimized Devils roster. I only had to call up Gilles Senn when Hellebuyck and Kuemper had minor injuries. While Miro Heiskanen was out for a few months and Pavel Buchnevich suffered a multi-week injury, I never had fewer than six available defensemen or eleven forwards.
  • The biggest blowout of the season: a 10-2 destruction of the Flyers in their own building. It was 4-2 going into the third period. Nathan MacKinnon completed a hat trick to start the scoring, David Pastrnak had one entirely in the third, and Buchnevich converted a power play to complete the six-goal glory of making Philly fans wish they were anywhere else that night on February 6. Five Devils had a ‘10’ rating: Vince Dunn, Artemi Panarin (1 goal, 4 assists), MacKinnon, Pastrnak, and Buchnevich. Brian Elliott ended his game with a ‘3’ and Alex Lyon got a ‘5’ in letting in three out of seven shots.
  • The only areas where the Devils were not dominant was in their penalty kill success rate, which was at 79.9% for 14th in the NHL; their team save percentage, which was 90.52% and 7th in the NHL; and shootouts, where they went 2-3.
  • Did Brad Marchand get suspended? Yes. He was given a game misconduct for a cross-check and his suspension was bumped up to 2 games. That was it, though.
  • Our Hated Rivals were expected to finish last but ended up making the playoffs. Ottawa cratered worse than Detroit and Carolina really, really, really stunk. The West was very different than reality. San Jose - somehow put together a 106 point season - and Anaheim made the playoffs and Los Angeles missed out on it by two points. Arizona missed out by four. Minnesota, Vancouver, and Calgary brought up the rear. Chicago won the West in the standings with a sizable lead over Nashville in the Central.

The 2019-20 WAR-Optimized Devils finished the season with an incredibly nice 69-9-4 record with a seven-game winning streak. CJ was right.

The Dominant WAR-Optimized Devils in 2019-20
The Dominant WAR-Optimized Devils in 2019-20

To put this in perspective, this would not only be the best Devils regular season in history. It would be the most successful in the modern era. According to the NHL Records’ site, the 1976-77 Montreal Canadiens earned 132 points in 80 games and the 1995-96 Detroit Red Wings took 131 points in 82 games. This Devils team in EHM out-earned Montreal by ten. The Devils’ 86.6% point percentage would be the best in the modern era - the 76-77 Canadiens had a 82.5% point percentage. It would be the second-best all-time, finishing behind the 1929-30 Boston Bruins that had a record of 38-5-1 in 44 games for a point percentage of 87.5%. In terms of goals scored, this team would have placed eighth all time.

NHL Leading Scorers, led by the WAR-Optimized Devils top line
NHL Leading Scorers, led by the WAR-Optimized Devils top line

David Pastrnak’s season would have made Devils history as the first Devil to earn over 100 points and score more than 50 goals in a season. The first line of Marchand, MacKinnon, and Pastrnak absolutely wrecked teams. Marchand also broke the triple-digit mark with MacKinnon falling just short. Panarin was kept to a second line and the first power play unit and came close to the fated 100 mark. The highest non-Devils scorer, Stamkos, finished 14 points behind Panarin.

It is of note of who else is among this list. Brayden Point finished tied with Connor McDavid in points. Cale Makar led all defensemen and all rookies in points and shots in addition to cracking the top-twenty among leading scorers. Andrei Svenchikov finished in 29th in the NHL with 30 goals and 69 points; and Buchnevich finished 34th with 68 points. Roman Josi was the closest defenseman to Makar; he had seven goals and 59 points. A lot of leaders. Including in net.

This team even had a Very Good goaltender.
This team even had a Very Good goaltender.

Connor Hellebuyck had a rough patch where he nearly fell into 90% range. He responded with a huge second half to his season. While others finished with a higher save percentage, his 48-3-2 record, 8 shutouts, and high rating of 7.83 should see him get some consideration for the Vezina. (Spoiler: he would.) He finished eleventh with a 92.1%, which would really be sixth if you ignore the one-gamers at the top. All this offense and a very good goaltender means a lot of wins.

The WAR-Optimized Devils players by Rating
The WAR-Optimized Devils players by Rating

Having a player in the mid-to-high seven range in average rating is impressive. Having someone in the eight-range means they are among the best in the NHL. This team had six players in that range: Marchand, Pastrnak, Josi, Panarin, Makar, and MacKinnon. Buchnevich was close and Svechnikov and Hellebuyck had wonderful seasons. The depth part of the lineup was led by Bryan Rust and Valeri Nichushkin, who had great seasons on their own. This team did have plenty of younger players and the game seemed to replicate a common issue with young players: consistency. While Point and Elias Pettersson put up great numbers, they would follow up great games with bad ones. Same with Miro Heiskanen and John Marino.

That stated, there was not anyone who really struggled. Darcy Kuemper posted a sub-90% save percentage for the season (89.5%) and barely got ahead of the six-range. Jared McCann and Anthony Cirelli constantly rotated in and out of the lineup for their consistently “meh” performances. Then again, if your fourth liners and the #2 goalie are the weaker parts of the lineup, then you can live with it. You can also live with relatively low rankings for Point and Petterson given their 25 and 30 goal seasons, respectively.

In terms of players of the month awards, they were frequently awarded to the Devils.

  • Four players of the month: Point (October), Marchand (February), Panarin (April, May)
  • Seven rookies of the month: Makar had six, John Marino got it in January, and only one non-Devil won it in November.
  • Six offensive players of the month: Point (October), Marchand (January, February), Panarin (December, April, May)
  • Four defensive players of the month: Hellebuyck (October, March), Josi (November), Makar (April)

The WAR-Optimized Devils were titans in a land of normal-sized people in the season. But what about the playoffs?

Experiment Results: The 2020 Playoffs

Sometimes a great regular season team gets stunned and upset in the playoffs. They could draw an opponent who just had their number or eventually face a hated rival or a team of similar quality. A lot can happen in the playoffs. Like just continuing to run through opponents like a hot knife through butter.

In the first round, the New Jersey Devils drew Our Hated Rivals. They were one of the nine games that handed this team a regulation loss. There was no such threat of a repeat of that. The WAR-Optimized Devils swept them with decisive scores: 5-2, 5-2, 5-1, and 3-1. Nikita Gusev and Blake Coleman were in a prominent position for Our Hated Rivals (I did take Panarin and Buchnevich, I had to give them something that was not Taylor Hall) but they had no answer. Igor Shestyorkin was injured in the third game so this team did see the False King of New York. They demonstrated that he will never be as good as Martin Brodeur to complete the sweep.

In the second round, the Devils drew Washington. Washington had one heck of a season of their own. Ovechkin had the highest average rating among all non-Devils players; Backstrom and Vrana were stupendously productive; and Holtby was about as good as Hellebuyck. This could be close. It was only close in Game 1, which went to overtime. That ended with Panik taking a major for clipping (seriously, EHM loves the clipping calls) and Point converting the power play for a 4-3 win. The remainder of the series went 5-1, 5-3, and 6-3 to complete the sweep.

The Eastern Conference Finals was a showdown between the WAR-Optimized Devils and a Buffalo team that Buffalo fans wished was real life. Their best players were Rasmus Dahlin, Rasmus Ristolainen, and Jeff Skinner; their goalie tandem of Hutton and Ullmark performed well; and they got plenty out of Kyle Okposo, Sam Reinhart, and Victor Olofsson in addition to Jack Eichel. The Sabres were coming off a sweep of their own against Tampa Bay and they beat Philly in five games in the first round. Perhaps this was the team to slow down the WAR Machine from Newark. Perhaps not. It was more of the same in the game: 5-2, 5-2, 4-2, and 5-2. The Devils won the Prince of Wales Trophy and while I do not know if Roman Josi touched it, I know it did not matter. They were on a mission.

Their final opponent was Chicago. While the Devils pulled a Moses Malone on their way to the Cup, Chicago did overcome some challenges. They were the #1 seed in the West as Patrick Kane went off on opponents throughout the postseason with plenty of support from Toews and Saad. Lehner was a wall and Crawford was very steady. After a 4-1 series win against Colorado, they prevailed in a seven-game, knock-down, drag-out series with Nashville to go to the WCFs. They swept Anaheim, who also endured a seven-game series with Las Vegas, to go to the Cup. Lehner was on. Kane was scoring at a clip similar to Panarin & Co. The final challenge could be one.

It was closer to start. Game 1 at the Rock featured just four goals in the first two periods and required overtime. MacKinnon took advantage of a roughing call on Shaw to convert a power play to win the first game of the finals. Game 2 put the home fans on the edges of their seats when Pavelski (yes, he became a Blackhawk in this season) tied it up 1-1 minutes after Pastnak’s goal. Those fans rose up when Svechnikov broke the tie in the third period and sighed a relief when Hellebuyck stopped everything else. While the Devils were still out-shooting Chicago by at least 20 shots, it only takes one shot to make a difference in a close game. Still, the WAR-Optimized Devils were on top.

Game 3 in Chicago was close despite the final score. Chicago made it 2-2 by the end of the first. They limited the Devils to one goal in the second period and Pavelski provided an equalizer early in the third. It held until Point broke the tie with less than two minutes left. Panarin and Rust sank in empty net goals shortly after that goal since Chicago obviously pulled Lehner for an extra skater. It was the closest 6-3 game of the playoff run. Game 4 was more of the same. Despite Marchand scoring 19 seconds in, despite a 30-shot differential, Chicago had an answer for every one of New Jersey’s goals. And for the first time in a while, a lead. Dach made it 3-5 early in the third to put the Devils really on their heels. Pastrnak closed the gap to one but despite the barrage of shots, Lehner held on to hand New Jersey their first playoff defeat and their first loss since March 21, 2020, which was a 2-3 shootout loss to the Isles. Would the Devils crumble? No. Despite giving up the first goal, the offensive machine rolled up on Chicago and rolled through them like so many others in Game 5. Bryan Rust scored his playoff-leading 14th goal to make it 2-1 early in the second, MacKinnon converted a power play later, and Point scored in response to a Toews goal to end the second period at 4-2. Hellebuyck would not be bested. Panarin sank in the empty net goal to seal the game. And as one final exclamation point, with Lehner back in the crease to close out the loss, Panarin went in on him for a shot. After the freeze, Point won the draw, Jaccob Slavin went D-to-D with Makar, Makar sent it down to Panarin, Panarin found Point open in the slot, and Point one-timed it in with 31 seconds left to make it a 6-2 win in Game 5. The WAR-Optimized Devils won the Stanley Cup with a staggering 16-1 playoff record.

The WAR-Optimized Devils path of playoff power.
The WAR-Optimized Devils path of playoff power.

Beautiful. Just beautiful.

Devils playoff performers by Average Rating
Devils playoff performers by Average Rating

Panarin led the entire league in scoring, with P. Kane coming the closest at 24 points. Rust blew up for 14 goals to lead the entire league in goals, followed by Pastrnak (11) and Panarin and P. Kane (10). Panarin was utterly fantastic night-in and night-out in the 17 games the Devils would play in this post season. An average rating of 8.94 represents an all-time great postseason performance. EHM, for some reason, does not name the Conn Smythe winner until their season awards show. Spoiler: He wins it.

The players who were great in the regular season were great in the playoffs with Panarin and Rust notably turning it up to that proverbial next level. Everyone contributed to some degree except for Ryan Pulock, who could not unseat Heiskanen or Vince Dunn; and McCann, who was kept in as Cirelli did get hurt in the postseason. Kuemper had to come in for two instances of in-game minor injuries to Hellebuyck (cut hands), who held up his end of the bargain throughout the postseason.

Hellebuyck kept the #1 spot in the postseason.
Hellebuyck kept the #1 spot in the postseason.

Experiment Results: The 2019-20 Awards

The WAR-Optimized Devils rampaged through the regular season and were nearly undefeated on their way to the Stanley Cup. The last remaining question: How much additional hardware did they take home? The answer: Almost all of it.

  • Art Ross Trophy (highest scorer) - Pastrnak - 116 (2nd: Marchand - 110, 3rd: MacKinnon - 98)
  • Rocket Richard Trophy (leading goalscorer) - Pastrnak - 61 (2nd: MacKinnon - 48, 3rd: Tarasenko - 43)
  • Ted Lindsay Trophy (most outstanding player by the players) - Pastrnak (2nd: Josi, 3rd: MacKinnon)
  • James Norris Trophy (best defenseman) - Makar (2nd: Josi, 3rd: Hedman)
  • Georges Vezina Trophy (best goalie) - Hellebuyck (2nd: Holtby, 3rd: Murray)
  • William Jennings Trophy (fewest team goals) - Hellebuyck & Kuemper
  • Calder Memorial Trophy (best rookie) - Makar (2nd: N. Suzuki, 3rd: Olofsson)
  • GM of the Year - Tom FitzGARald (2nd: Bowman, 3rd: MacLellan)
  • Lady Byng Memorial Trophy (most gentlemanly) - Pastrnak (2nd: Makar, 3rd: MacKinnon)
  • King Clancy Memorial Trophy - Marchand (2nd: Pastrnak, 3rd: Josi)
  • Jack Adams Trophy (best coach) - John Hynes (2nd: Reirden, 3rd: Krueger)
  • Conn Smythe Trophy (playoff MVP) - Panarin (2nd: Pastrnak, 3rd: Hellebuyck)
  • Hart Memorial Trophy (MVP) - Pastrnak (2nd: Marchand, 3rd: Makar)

That is a lot of accolades. The only awards that the Devils did not win were the Selke, which went to Ryan O’Reilly; and the Mark Messier Leadership Award, which went to Mark Schiefele. Panarin and Pastrnak finished second and third, respectively, for the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy, which went to Erik Karlsson. Even Nathan Bastian received an award: the Fred T. Hunt Memorial Trophy for most sportsmanlike player in the AHL.

In terms of the All-NHL teams, Makar made the All-Rookie Team. No Devil made the NHL Second All-Star Team because six of them made the First All-Star Team. There are indeed only six spots on the team. All of them were Devils. Hellebuyck, Makar, Josi, Marchand, Mackinnon, and Pastrnak. The funny thing here is that I rarely put Makar and Josi together. It is yet another additional and massive sign of how dominant the WAR-Optimized Devils were in this season of EHM.

Experiment Conclusions

The purpose of this experiment, other than killing some time in what will be a very long offseason for the real-life Devils, was to see how a team optimized for Wins Above Replacement would perform in a league setting. It remained cap compliant, trades were not allowed to help the team, and there were further restrictions for call-ups. While Eastside Hockey Manager may be only a game, it at least lets us test the idea whether a team built to optimize WAR as much as possible is a reasonable one.

The results are undeniable: the WAR-optimized Devils was a dominant force not seen in the NHL since Canadiens dynasty of the 1970s. The team ended up being one of the greatest teams ever with a level of regular season dominance not seen in nearly 25 years, a postseason run that was nearly perfect in results, and a near-boatload of awards and accolades. It is true that the team was fortunate with the timing and severity of most injuries as well as some other breaks of good fortune, such as Cale Makar putting in one of the greatest rookie seasons ever and Connor Hellebuyck rebounding from an “OK” first half of the season. While WAR or GAR (Goals Above Replacement) may not hold up for all individuals. Even in EHM, Leon Draisatil had a way better season than Nichushkin. However, that is missing the forest from the trees. The GAR model that CJ used did identify the better players in the league and put together a legit all-star squad to reign in pucks all over the league.

This experiment was a resounding success.

The Next Experiment

In the comments in the first post for the EHM Experiment, acasser had this suggestion that I will be taking on next:

And if you wanted to do something really silly, just to have an interesting exercise? How about a team where no player is allowed to have the letter ‘E’ in his name, first or last. That would take guys like Auston Matthews and Alex Ovechkin out of the equation, Leon Draisaitl and Steven Stamkos too (because first names), but the first three eligible forwards that come to mind would be Nathan MacKinnon, Taylor Hall, and Connor McDavid.

Silly ideas to try out are definitely worth trying out. It will be a long offseason so we might as well get creative. The plan is to put together a roster of players who do not have the letter ‘e’ in their name. The suggestion does have some further groundwork laid into it. Instead of using Tampa Bay, acasser suggested just renaming the Devils to the e-less Kansas City Scouts. CJ re-ran the methodology that used to put this roster together to provide a 23-man roster without the most common vowel in anyone’s name. We even went back and forth about doing the same for the AHL squad. So, next week, we shall see if a team can get a lot of ‘W’s without having an ‘E’ in their names.

I encourage you all to keep giving me your ideas for future EHM Experiments in the comments. One of the pluses of EHM is that we have access to other leagues. So if you want to suggest something like how 18-year old Jack Hughes would do in a European league or what would happen if you put Kevin Rooney on the Manchester Storm of the Elite Ice Hockey League in England, then I can make that happen. Feel free to come up with whatever idea and if it is interesting enough, then we will do it.

Your Take

In the meantime, please let me know what you thought of the first EHM Experiment. How did you react when you found out how much they won and how dominant they were in the postseason? Does this change your mind about GAR/WAR in terms of effective it could be? Do you want to see the inverse; how a team would do that has minimal GAR value? Please let me know your answers and other ideas for EHM Experiments in the comments. Thank you.