by PuckStopsHere on 08/30/11 at 04:32 PM ET
I have been looking at the offensive portion of the point share system as developed by Justin Kubatko of hockey-reference.com. The idea is to determine how many points a team gained in the league standings because of the offence of an individual player. The top season by this method is Mario Lemieux’s 1988/89 season. This was Lemieux’s best offensive season of his career by raw numbers. He played 76 games and scored 85 goals and 114 assists for 199 points. This is the highest scoring season ever by somebody other than Wayne Gretzky and it was done in a lower scoring era than Gretzky’s prime.
While Lemieux was the top scorer that season, he did not win the Hart Trophy which went to Gretzky who finished 31 points behind Lemieux and was in his first year with the Los Angeles Kings. He also did not win the “players’ MVP” the Pearson Trophy went to Steve Yzerman of the Detroit Red Wings who was 44 points back of Lemieux. While it can be argued that Lemieux should have won both of those awards, it is not our emphasis here. We are looking only at offensive contributions and while Lemieux clearly had the biggest offensive contribution in 1988/89, if he lost MVP awards to lower scorers it must have been because of contributions that made that were not offensive or because voters made poor choices.
This 199 point season was the fifth highest scoring season in NHL history. Wayne Gretzky exceeded it four times between 1982 and 1986 with a maximum of 215 points scored in 1985/86. In order to call Lemieux’s 88/89 season the best offensive season ever, we must show that although it was not the best by raw numbers it was better due to other external factors and we must show that no other lower scoring season was better than it was.
I think it is clear that earlier seasons when scoring was lower were not as good offensive seasons in part because there were fewer games player per season so they had lesser overall value. There are a couple good offensive years by Phil Esposito in the early 1970’s that were not too bad but they don’t compare to the biggest years of the 1980’s.
The big problem is arguing that Lemieux’s season was better offensively than the higher scoring Gretzky years. The argument is that goals per game in the league was higher in Gretzky’s seasons. Looking at the chart in the goals per game link, Gretzky’s highest scoring seasons were in the peak in scoring in the first half of the 1980’s. This was the highest sustained scoring rate in NHL history. By the time Lemieux’s season occurred, the scoring rate had dropped by nearly half a goal per game. This drop in scoring rate might be enough to show that Lemieux’s season was better.
In fact Lemieux was involved in 57% of Pittsburgh’s goals in 1988/89. This is a modern day record in the NHL. That does not show that Lemieux had the best offensive season ever as much as it shows that Gretzky had better teammates during his prime with the Edmonton Oilers.
A big part of the reason that the offensive point shares picks Lemieux’s season as being the best offensive one ever is because it treats goals as being more important than goals by an arbitrary amount. It uses goals plus half the assist total when calculating goals created in the offensive point share system. The half value is entirely arbitrary and should probably be dependent upon how the assist is produced. In some cases an assist is worth far more than half a goal and in some cases it is worth far less. There is no clear formalism to differentiate between these cases and there probably isn’t sufficient statistical data to implement such a system even in as relatively recent times as the 1980’s. The idea that goals are more important than assists at the arbitrary rate chosen is merely an assumption in the system and it has no logical reason to support it.
In general, Gretzky is more of an assist man than Lemieux is. That said Lemieux’s 85 goals in 1988/89 is the fourth highest total ever achieved. One of the three better seasons was Brett Hull in 1990/91, but Hull had on 45 assists and 131 points, so he is not a candidate for a better overall offensive season. The other two seasons were Gretzky years. Gretzky scored 92 goals in 81/82 when he scored 212 points and 87 goals in 83/84 when he scored 205 points. The other years where Gretzky outscored Lemieux in points, were not as high goal scoring seasons. In fact when Gretzky set an NHL record with 215 points in 85/86, he only scored 52 goals. Thus Lemieux beats the Gretzky seasons with a combination of more goals in a lower scoring league according to this system. It is not conclusive that it was a better offensive season. It is because of the assumptions in the system that Lemieux comes out ahead.
If we wanted to make a more conclusive argument to show that Lemieux’s 199 point season was the best offensive year ever, we need more numbers. How does his ice time compare with Gretzky in his best seasons? What about his quality of opposition and linemates? What about puck possession numbers such as Corsi? We do not have sufficient data to answer any of these questions and they might give us the data we need to make a better comparison. It may be that even if we did have sufficient data to answer these questions, the answer still would not be clear. It may be that we need a better formalism to for example show the value of assists relative to goals to satisfactorily answer this question.
I think the answer to the title of this post is that it is inconclusive whether or not Mario Lemieux’s 199 point season is the best offensive season ever. It might be. We do not have sufficient data to separate it from Wayne Gretzky’s best seasons. We may not have sufficient statistical understanding of hockey to be able to do it even if we had the statistics that we can get from more modern games. The result that Lemieux has the most offensive point shares in a season is a result of the assumptions behind the system. It isn’t clear if it is a meaningful difference.
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