Wednesday, October 05, 2005

How Good Was Lester Patrick?

In my posts about sabermetrics and hockey, I have written about a comparison of the top 10 defencemen of all time according to Daryl Shilling's hockey project rating system and Pnep's hall of fame monitor. I have written several posts about interesting sabermetric questions regarding various defencemen in these rankings. There are posts about Bobby Orr, Doug Harvey, Ray Bourque, Eddie Shore and Didre Pitre. I think there is one more interesting player to highlight in Lester Patrick.

Most people know Lester Patrick as a builder. He was a long time New York Ranger coach and general manager. He is the person the old Patrick Division was named after. The Lester Patrick trophy for outstanding service to hockey in the United States is also named after him. Before his career as an NHL builder, he was a successful hockey player.

Patrick played all seven positions at one point in his career (including rover which was a mid-field type position in hockey's early days). He is best known as an offensive defenceman. Patrick's first major league play was in 1903/04 playing for Brandon in the North Western Hockey League. He played well enough to get himself a spot in the more major leagues in eastern Canada. He went to Montreal and played a year for a Westmount team. The next year 1905/06, he jumped to the Eastern Canada Amateur Hockey Association Montreal Wanderers. They won the Stanley Cup and Patrick was one of their key players scoring 17 goals from (primarily) defence. Montreal repeated as Stanley Cup champs again in 1907 with Patrick in their lineup again. Patrick would much rather live in Western Canada and jumped there the next year. He played for the Nelson (B.C) Senior team. He split his next season between Nelson and an Edmonton Pro team. In 1909/10 he went back to Eastern Canada (upset that the Western Canada hockey scene was not as developed). He played for the Renfrew (Ontario) Creamery Kings. The next year, he jumped back to Nelson B.C. giving the west another try.

Then, in 1911, Lester Patrick did something significant to change the hockey scene in Western Canada. He and his brother Frank started up the Pacific Coast Hockey Association. They were financed by their father Joseph Patrick, who was a millionaire lumberman. Patrick played with the Victoria Aristocrats in his new league. He preceeded to make the PCHA First team all star in four of the first five PCHA season (missing in 1913/14 when injuries limited him to only 9 games - or half the short season). In 1916, Patrick moved onto the Spokane team in his league and in 1917 he moved again to Seattle. In 1918, he returned to Victoria where he finished out his active playing career. In 1918 and 1920, Patrick made the PCHA second team all star. He retired in 1922 to coach his Victoria team (now called the Victoria Cougars). Patrick attempted a comeback in the 1925/26 season with Victoria when the league was failing financially. Much like Mario Lemieux's return, it was hoped that his star power would raise attendance in the league. The PCHA folded at the conclusion of the season.

The Patrick brothers decided that instead of selling their players directly to the NHL, they would sell them to American teams that soon expanded in to the league (at the time these teams also considered starting their own league). Patrick was hired to coach the expansion New York Rangers. Patrick played one game as a Ranger that season before retiring again. In the 1928 Stanley Cup playoffs, Ranger goalie Lorne Chabot was injured. Patrick the general manager, now 44 years old donned the pads as the Ranger goalie as an injury replacement. The Rangers won the playoff game 2-1 and Lester Patrick was the winning goalie.

So how good was Lester Patrick? Clearly, he was one of the better defencemen of his time. He was dominant in the PCHA, the league in which he founded. For the most part, he lost the first several years in his twenties trying to play in Western Canada before there were legitimate teams. Daryl Shilling ranks Patrick as the 9th best defender of all time. Since Pnep does not rank pre-NHL players, he does not rank Patrick at all.

Patrick is exactly the kind of player that will benefit the most from Shilling's rating system. He was an offensive defenceman who played a bit of forward, but is ranked as a defenceman. He played short seasons and will gain a significant number of goals when his points are adjusted. It is much easier to score at (for example) point per game rates win an 18 game season that Patrick played then it is in a modern day 82 game season. Since Patrick lost a lot of his career trying to find a place to play in Western Canada, he has a large amount of undocumented time - which Shilling credits him for at the average rate he played in his career. Most of the success in the documented portion of Patrick's career came in the early years of the PCHA. This was an expansion league and took a few years to get established. The league competed for the Stanley Cup against the best Eastern Canada had to offer. It took three years of failure before the Vancouver Millionares won the Stanley Cup in 1915 - I would consider this the point where it becomes logicla to assume the PCHA is roughly the equal of the eastern leagues. Patrick's highest goal scoring season in the PCHA occurred in 1912-13 before this happened. There are questions about how good his calibre of opposition was. That is one major missing feature in these sabermetric systems. They need an adjustment for the calibre of opposition. Likely, players who dominated lesser opposition, as Patrick does will benefit significantly.

In the end, the question of how good was Lester Patrick is hard to answer. When he left the Montreal Wanderers at age 23, he bounced around until age 27 playing for the most part in lesser Western Canadian leagues. Quite possibly the best season of his career was lost in this time frame. It is hard to evaluate him since he played against very qeustionable opposition. Even at age 27, when he started the PCHA, he was playing in an expansion league that grew quickly. By age 30, it was probably as good as any league in the world. However, Patrick's career in his prime years were either undocumented or against lesser opposition in an expansion league. I am not convinced that he definitely belongs in any top ten ranking. Probably he does not, although the undocumented nature pf his career makes this rating defensable - mostly by assuming he would have been truly outstanding in these missing years. I don't agree with this technique. I believe players should be judged based on what it is documented that they accomplished and not by what we assume they might have accomplished. I do agree that players should get some credit for losing key years of their career for reasons outside their control, but I don't think that they should make a top 10 defenceman list based largely on this credit for undocumented time. I think the choice of Lester Patrick in this top 10 list is a poor one, but it is possible to defend.

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