Sunday, February 03, 2008

Lack Of American Top Scorers

When a study of NHL players by nationality is done one of the main findings is that the number of players in the league from USA is increasing, but this does not translate to an increasing number of American players at the top level. In fact, there are less All Star level American players than would be expected by their percentage of players in the league.

One way to look at this is to notice the lack of top scorers from USA. A look at the highest scorers in the NHL this season shows Russians (Alexander Ovechkin, Ilya Kovalchuk), Canadians (Jarome Iginla, Vincent LeCavalier), Swedes (Daniel Alfredsson, Henrik Zetterberg), but no Americans at the top of the scoring list. Here are the top ten American born scorers in the NHL with their positions in the overall scoring race:

Top 10 American Born Scorers in the NHL
>PlayerTeamGamesGoals AssistsPointsPosition in Overall Race
Scott GomezNYR5411395026th
Zach PariseNJD5119264545th
Patrick KaneChi5212334549th
Brian RafalskiDet5410354551st
Dustin BrownLAK5224174158th
Matt CullenCar449303968th
Brian RolstonMin5219193870th
Keith TkachukStL5116223871st
Mike ModanoDal5615223775th
Chris DruryNYR5415213680th

There are ten American players in the top 80 scorers in the league. That is 12.5% of the list. So far this season 180 American born players have played one or more NHL games, in a league where 861 people have played one or more NHL games. That means 20.9% of players in the NHL are American born. The top scorers are underrepresented. The fact that no American appears on the list before Scott Gomez of the New York Rangers and he is 26th also shows a significant underrepresentation of Americans at the top of the scoring race.

Why is this? Why are the Americans who are increasingly entering the NHL not its biggest stars? Is this a fluke? Is this something that will fix itself in time when young players like Patrick Kane move up the scoring ranks? Does it show something more significant?

The best American athletes tend to get into other sports (football, baseball, basketball) and not hockey. Did the NHL lose a potential superstar to the other sports? In order to sell the NHL to Americans it is helpful to showcase American stars, except for the large part these don't exist. America produces lots of role players but not as many stars as would be expected.

I think all you really have to do to explain this is look at the age of the USA Hockey rosters for the Olympics and World Cups for the last few years. The data you find there will serve as a fairly accurate predictor of the current situation.

We have been seeing the "old guard" players (guys who were around during the Nagano debacle all the way up to winning Silver in SLC) with very little change for a long time. There didn't seem to be a whole lot of young guns in USA Hockey, at least not in terms of pure scorers. Now that Modano, Guerin, Tkachuk and those boys are long in the tooth, this translates to a gap in American scoring.

It will also translate to a gap in American results in international competitions for the next cycle or two, until the generation being led by Kane comes to the fore.

Here are some specifics. Here's the forward roster for the World Cup in 2004:
Tkachuk, Amonte, Blake, Konowalchuk, Halpern, Rolston, Weight, Modano, Smolinski, Conroy, Guerin, Hull, Roenick, Drury, Langenbrunner, Gomez.

Of that group, here are the players that also participated in the 1996 World Cup victory: Amonte, Guerin, Hull, Kono, Modano, Rolston, Smolinski, Tkachuk and Weight.

The newcomers in 2004 were/are decent players but they're not often going to make the scoring charts in the NHL. I think once you see that gap emerging, it's fairly easy in hindsight to see that American scoring was going to take a hit over the course of the next five to eight years.
That doesn't really answer the question other than to make the question why didn't USA produce any significant young scorers in between the Modano, Guerin, Tkachuk group and now assuming the current group with Kane, Dustin Brown, Zach Parise etc. are ready to pick up the slack (which is a big assumüption), while at the same time produce an increasing percentage of NHL players.

If USA is producing more players for the NHL, why are they not producing top players?
I agree; it really only changes the question. I guess I'm just trying to say we shouldn't really be surprised.

As for the answer to the new question, I could really only speculate. I'm sure some of it is because the NTDP and USHL are only now coming into their own.

Which deflects the question again: what precipitated the high level of players that emerged during Modano's generation?

There may have been a whole generation of young athletes whose careers were influenced towards hockey by the events in Lake Placid in 1980. In the absence of The Miracle on Ice, perhaps someone like Guerin (nine years old at the time) might have become a baseball player instead of a hockey player.

That would only be a part of the answer, of course. Perhaps some of it is the lack of effective leadership in USA Hockey. I'd say some of it is due to the rise of other sports in the US at hockey's expense.

*shrug* I have no data and I don't really know anything about Billy Guerin's youthful decisions. Just idle speculations to fuel the discussion. I don't think Parise et al can pick up the slack, which is unfortunate for the near future of USA Hockey.
1) Of the 180 US born players, how many are forwards? If you remove the goaltenders and defensemen does it alter the % used here?

108 of 520 forwards in the NHL this season are American (20.8%). Basically its the same percentage if you include goalies and defencemen or if you do not.

And just for the record one of the 10 highest scoring American players is defenceman Brian Rafalski.
1) 520 forwards for 30 teams comes out to roughly 17 forwards/team. Seems a bit high. Teams usually dress 12 forwards on most nights and might carry an spare or two in the press box
2) Which means quite a few of those 520 aren't playing too many games. Not sure if that'll change your stats any. May even decrease the American %?
Some of those forwards in the press box are Americans. Some are from other countries. I don't imagine adding some arbitrary cutoff to only include players who play regularly (as opposed to everyone who has played one or more games so far this year) changes anything. If you disagree feel free to do your own study.

I think the result is quite robust. USA is producing more players for the NHL then ever before and there are less than would be expected American players among hte NHL stars. That makes me think something is wrong (or at least up until recently has been wrong) with the American system of producing NHL players.
1) As with most of these kind of snap-shot studies the trends are cyclical. We can recall not too long ago many up north were bemoaning a lack of Canadian born players among the top scorers.
2) Boom, a few years later and we have a renaissance from the great white north and all is well with the world again. LOL
3) We'd guess based upon the impressive pipeline of incoming US born players that the next generation of top flight offensive talent is about to become evident

Your "cyclical" line is not born out by history. At least 2 of the top 5 scorers in the NHL have been Canadians every season in the history of the NHL.

When is this time period when there was a lack of Canadian born top scorers that you talk about?
I overlooked a season 1997/98. In that season only one of the top 5 scorers was Canadian. Wayne Gretzky. Ron Francis who I was counting as number two was in a tie for fifth with 87 points, but he had less goals then John LeClair so technically was not in the top 5. That would really consistute a lack of Canadian born top scorers would it?

Even with the one overlooked year, it hardly bears out your point. Can you link to a couple articles that were bemoaning the lack of Canadian top scorers? Or is this some way to try to pass the buck to deflect a perceived attack of US hockey?
1) We don't 'pass a buck' or care about any percieved or real 'attacks' on US hockey.
2)JUst the facts maa'm:
2003-2004 A mere 5 Canadiens in the top 15: 30%
2002-2003: Only 7 in the top 20 35%
3) Last year 10 of the top 15 were Canadien born! 67% Now THATS a difference.
It is interesting that you change your sample size from year to year to "proove your point".

2003/04. NHL top scorer Martin St Louis was from Canada. Joe Sakic was #3 Were people complaining about the lack of Canadian top scorers at the time? I must have missed it. For the record 6 of the top 15 were Canadians (40%). Cory Stillman, Brad Richards, Alex Tanguay and Mark Recchi being the others.

2002/03 7 of the top 15 were Canadian. Thats 47% (its also 7 of the top 20 as the next five were not Canadians).

And last year 10 of the top 15 were Canadian.

Statistically there is no big change. Its only a difference of a player or two from say 8 of 15 being Canadian each season.

This season we are back to 8 of the 15 top scorers being Canadian.

My conclusion is your signal is for the most part random fluctuations. And this complaint that there were not enough Canadians among the top scorers is not something I remember happening - I do remember complaints that Canada didnt win a medal in the 1998 or 2006 Olympics - but that is a different complaint.
1) The years we cited were when the trend was going back to Canada. However a diference of 40 to 67% is VERY significant!
2) Here are a series of stories we found discussing the crisis of 'Canadian hockey'
3) Evidently in the late 90's early 2000s the folks up there were a bit alarmed at the increasing number of Euros dominating the scoring.
4) Its all cyclical. In another decade we'll probably see yet another shift one way or another.
5) What is for certain is the days of Canadian dominance of having 95%+ of the NHL is never coming back, and a continued shrinkage is more likely.
40% to 67% is not significant when its only difference of 4 players.

The story was after Canada failed to win a medal in the 1998 Olympics that the sky was falling and something must be wrong with Canadian hockey. The numbers do not support that case very well when looking at the top scorers in the NHL. It was an overreaction. And it didn't occur in the years you attempted to cite (2003 and 2004)

However, with American hockey right now there is a real situatrion where the number of players in the league are up and the number of top scorers are down. Maybe that will turn itself around given time, but its far more significant than anything that occurred with Canadian hockey and thus may have a more meaningful reason behind it.
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