This season Johan Franzen had a breakthrough season, scoring 59 points in 71 games, a huge increase in the 38 points he scored in 2007-08. Having scored 18 points in 16 games for the Red Wings in last season's Stanley Cup championship season, should we have seen that coming? The season before, Ryan Getzlaf brought home 82 points in 77 games, an even more dramatic increase from the 58 points he scored in the previous season. Given his 17 points in 21 games to lead the Anaheim Ducks in scoring during their Stanley Cup championships season, should we have seen that breakthrough too? If we truly can use NHL postseason performances to predict how a player will perform the following season, who will next year's big stars be?
To answer this question, I gathered all the information I could for the past few seasons, including every player's regular season performance, their playoff performance, and how they did the following season. Reviewing all of these numbers, I looked for certain patterns. If there is a link between players that exceed scoring expectations in the playoffs, or fail to meet expectations, and their performances in the following season, there should be some clear correlations shown in the data.
Of those who met or exceeded scoring expectations in the playoffs, 51% improved their scoring the next season, compared with only 41% of those who failed to meet expectations in the playoffs. That's not very compelling because that comparison includes not just Franzen and Getzlaf, but also those who exceeded expectations by less than a point. Since most of the insight to be gained in this study is likely to be found by those who exceeded scoring expectations by a wider margin, we should be looking primarily at players who exceeded playoff scoring expectations by at least 2 points. On that basis, 55% of those who exceeded scoring expectations improved their scoring the following season, compared to only 14% of those who failed to come within 2 points of expectations in the postseason. Based on this, today's playoffs might not tell us who is going to have a good season next year, but it sure can tell us who won't. The following table breaks this down into even more detail.
IMP-0: Percentage of players scoring at same rate or better in the subsequent season
IMP-10: Same as IMP-0 except scoring 10 points more than expected
IMP-20: Same as IMP-0 expect scoring 20 points more than expected
AVG: Average improvement/decline in scoring
Post-Season Results IMP-0 IMP-10 IMP-20 AVG
Exceeded by 4+ Points 62% 27% 8% +2.9
Exceeded by 3-4 Points 57% 23% 13% +3.8
Exceeded by 2-3 Points 48% 20% 17% +1.1
Exceeded by 1-2 Points 53% 23% 6% +2.3
Exceeded by <1 Points 46% 15% 3% -0.5
Missed by <1 Points 51% 10% 2% +0.2
Missed by 1-2 Points 36% 9% 2% -2.7
Missed by 2-3 Points 28% 9% 2% -5.1
Missed by 3-4 Points 23% 3% 0% -7.1
Missed by 4+ Points 27% 8% 0% -4.6
The data shows that players who significantly exceed scoring expectations in the postseason generally scored 3-4 more points the following season on average. That may not sound like much, but they are also several times more likely to have breakthrough seasons and improve their scoring by 10 or more points than those that failed to meet playoff scoring expectations. In short, if you spot someone failing to meet playoff scoring expectations, don't predict them to improve dramatically next season, if at all.
Turning the matter around, among those who had breakthrough or comeback seasons and had been in the playoffs the season before, were there any players with similarly good postseasons to Franzen and Getzlaf? Surprisingly, only 48% of those who had improved their scoring had exceeded expectations in the previous postseason, compared with 39% of those whose scoring had decreased. However, of those who improved their scoring by at least 20 points (adjusted for games played), 73% had met or exceeded expectations in the previous postseason, and only one player (Thomas Vanek, in 2005-06) failed to come within 2 points of expectations. Similarly, of those whose scoring was at least 20 points lower than expected, only 28% had met or exceeded scoring expectations in the previous postseason.
EE: Exceeded scoring expectations in preceding postseason
EE2: Exceeded scoring expectations by at least 2 points in preceding postseason
ME2: Missed scoring expectations by at least 2 points in preceding postseason
AVG: Average scoring in preceding postseason relative to expectations
Next-Season Results EE EE2 ME2 AVG
Improved by 20+ Points 73% 43% 3% +1.5
Improved by 10-20 Points 54% 14% 10% +0.4
Improved by 0-10 Points 42% 14% 8% +0.2
Declined by 0-10 Points 42% 12% 15% -0.2
Declined by 10-20 Points 31% 10% 26% -0.8
Declined by 20+ Points 28% 14% 36% -0.9
This data paints a picture of what next year's breakthrough players will look like. Next season, drawing back on our memories of the playoffs we're witnessing today, we won't recall them having missed their playoff scoring expectations by 2 points or more. In fact, there's almost a 50/50 chance that we'll remember these players exceeding expectations by at least two points. Likewise, of the players that will disappoint us next season with dramatic reductions in scoring, there's only about a 2 in 7 chance that we will have been content with their playoff scoring, but better than a 1 in 3 chance that we will have remembered them missing the target by at least 2 points.
Who will be next year's Franzen or Getzlaf? Predicting future outcomes requires insightful data, and the more data you have, the more accurate your future predictions will be. By studying this year's playoff performances, we're being offered valuable clues as to who next year's breakthrough players will be. There may be one or two Thomas Vaneks among these players who will miss the mark this postseason, but have great seasons next year. If you really want to find next year's breakthrough players, study only those who exceed scoring expectations. Chances are, a quarter of them will see improvements of 10 points or more.
Robert Vollman is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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