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.
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:
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:
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:
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.