Thursday, January 10, 2008

Kovalchuk's Goal Scoring

Ilya Kovalchuk of the Atlanta Thrashers is having a very good offensive season. He leads the NHL with 35 goals in 44 games played. That projects to 65 goals if he keeps scoring at this rate the entire season. That mark would be the highest single season goal scoring total since Mario Lemieux scored 69 goals in 1995/96. That would be the most goals anyone has scored in a season in twelve years. That is quite an impressive feat. This feat is all the more impressive because he lacks a good setup man on his Atlanta team. In fact, Kovalchuk's 25 assists make him the team leader in assists as well as goals (and obviously his assists were not on his own goals). The top setup men who might have contributed to Kovalchuk's goals are Marian Hossa and Tobias Enstrom who have 22 assists each. Kovalchuk's goal scoring is also impressive because scoring is down in the NHL. It has been dropping each year since it peaked in 2005/06 after the lockout ended. While scoring goes down, Kovalchuk's scoring has gone up. When Kovalchuk's goals are adjusted for the leaguewide scoring rate, this result will look very impressive.

Despite Kovalchuk's offensive success, he is not a player I would seriously consider for MVP (right now I pick Vincent LeCavalier of the Tampa Bay Lightning). This is because Kovalchuk has not done so well defensively. In fact, among players with a significant number of games played, he leads the league in goals against per minute played at even strength. This does not mean he is the worst defensive player in the NHL. Goals against is a team related statistic. While it is telling that more goals are scored against Atlanta when Kovalchuk is on the ice than when any other player is, this does not necessarily make him the worst defensive player on the Atlanta Thrashers, as he is often played in situations where the team is behind and needs to press offensively to have a chance of catching up and winning the game. In short, the circumstances behind his poor goals against number make it likely not as bad as it first looks.

Even without looking at statistics, one would expect the worst individual goals against number per minute of ice time to go to an offensive player who is often used in situations where defence is not stressed on a bad team that gives up a lot of goals. That description fits Ilya Kovalchuk perfectly. This shows some of the problems when analyzing sabermetrics in a hockey context. Numbers all must be taken into context of how a player is used. While it is bad that there are more goals per minutes scored against Atlanta per minute of even strength play when Kovalchuk is on the ice than when any other player is on the ice, it is hard to judge just how bad it is. It is a function of the team Kovalchuk plays for and the way he is used. Likely several other players are worse defensively but are not in situations that will show up as well with this metric.

Ilya Kovalchuk is scoring goals at a remarkable rate this season. Should he continue to score at this pace, this will be one of the best goal scoring seasons in a long time. It is remarkable that he can do this in a season of declining scoring leaguewide and without any significant setup men on his team. Usually, a year with as many goals as Kovalchuk is having would be a strong candidate for MVP. It would be were it not for some defensive lapses.

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