In any given NHL season, pure luck accounts for 38% of the standings. 66% of a season’s save percentage is luck. Shooting percentage? Mostly luck. Luck dominates single-season results because the sample size is so small – 82 games, a limited number of iterations to allow for the skill signal to separate itself from the noise of the season. In smaller segments, crazy things happen: horrible teams masquerade as playoff teams, terrible goaltenders look like Vezina winners, lottery teams can lead a conference. In a lockout-shortened 48-game season, expect luck to take center stage and manifest itself in wondrous ways.
Kyle Wellwood’s 2006-07 was limited to 48 games due to a sports hernia and resulting repair surgery. But in those 48 games, he tallied 42 points, or .88 points per game. Coming off of a rookie season in which he totaled 45 points in 81 games, Wellwood looked like a skilled young player on his way to an extremely productive career.
But the former Leaf has yet to come close to replicating his productivity from his shortened 2006-07 season. Outside of that year, his career points per game ratio is just .44 – half of his career high rate. Flip the ratios and Wellwood would have totaled just 21 points – 24 points fewer. It’s possible that the sports hernia slowed him and then affected the rest of his career, or it’s probably that Wellwood had a very lucky 2006.
Colby Armstrong’ was called up from the AHL in December of 2005 and totaled 40 points in the final 47 games of the season – a .85 points per game ratio. He, along with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin looked set to form a high-scoring triumvirate for the rebuilding Penguins.
But those 47 games were the high point of Armstrong’s career.
Outside of that sample, Armstrong’s career points per game rate is .42. Switch the ratios and Armstrong scores just 20 points that season. While not bad, a full-season 34 point winger is nothing to jump up and down about. Armstrong has battled injuries throughout his career, recently becoming a meme in Toronto, and it’s possible that those injuries have limited his scoring prowess. But it’s probably that Armstrong caught a heater in December and rode it through the end of the season.
Steve Bernier started his career on a tear, shooting 18.7% in 39 games and scoring 14 goals, or .36 per game. In his 378 games since, he’s scored just 63 more, or .17 per game. In that season, Bernier delivered 7 goals more than his career average – or enough to singularly account for a win for his team. In a 48 game season, an unexpected two points is the difference between April golf and May playoff games.
Vesa Toskala was a smash hit in San Jose in 2003-04. In 28 games, he posted a dandy .930 save percentage and the Sharks seemingly had the best goaltending depth in the league. Unfortunately, that season was Toskala’s best by far. Outside of that 28 game run, his career save percentage was .899 and he ended his career as a meme in Toronto. But in 03-04, Toskala was brilliant. Or, he was brilliantly lucky; he stopped 24 more shots in those 28 games than he would have over the rest of his career. Those 24 goals saved represent 4 unexpected wins in 28 games, and 8 points in a 48 game season is the difference between a team securing home ice and finishing 7th.
Brian Elliott’s 2011-12 season was nothing short of stunning. His .940 save percentage was four percentage points higher than his career .901 save percentage. Ken Hitchcock was credited with saving Elliott’s career and inflating his number’s with a keen defensive system. But that isn’t likely. What is more likely is that Elliott experienced the luckiest streak of his career, saving 38 more shots than pre-2011 Brian Elliott would have. Those 38 goals account for 6 wins, which in a 48 game season can mean the difference between 1st and 10th in the conference!
What does it all mean?
The above examples aren’t just “career years” that occurred as the peak to a long career arc. These shortened seasons were luck-driven flukes, data points that exist so far away from career arcs that it’s almost unbelievable. But it’s those luck-driven flukes that are capable of causing cataclysms in the standings. In 2013, the difference between 1st and 8th place should be between 8 and 12 points — a season similar to any of those above will create enormous surprises in April.