In the NHL playoffs, scoring is at a premium. Conventional wisdom says goals are harder to come by in the playoffs, and the conventional wisdom is correct: Over the past 10 seasons, scoring has averaged 2.74 goals per game per team during the regular season, but only 2.39 in the playoffs, good for a 13 percent decrease. In addition, teams play against each other multiple times in a row, which allows them to develop strategies to shut down the opposition's top lines. Because of all these factors, it is acknowledged that teams must get contributions from their grinders in order to succeed in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Many grinders have made their reputations in the playoffs. One of the most famous is Bobby Nystrom, a member of the four Cup-winning New York Islanders teams in the early '80s, who developed a reputation by scoring four overtime goals in the playoffs, despite averaging less than half the offensive output of teammates Mike Bossy and Bryan Trottier. More recently, Kris Draper and Kirk Maltby have been members of four Stanley Cup-winning teams with the Detroit Red Wings from 1997 to 2008, and formed the "Grind Line" with Joey Kocur and later Darren McCarty. Just last season, Maxime Talbot became a hero for the Pittsburgh Penguins as he followed only 12 regular-season goals with eight in the playoffs, including two in Game 7 of the Final.
So the question lingers: Are grinders the key to the Cup?
To go beyond anecdotal evidence, I have analyzed the past 10 seasons of NHL data (1998-99 is the first year I used) and divided players into scorers and grinders. For players to be eligible, they needed to play at least 50 games during the regular season, so I could have a good idea of their role. For forwards, scorers were players who averaged 0.5 points per game or more; the rest were deemed grinders. For defensemen, given that their scoring levels are lower, the cutoff was 0.25 points per game.
Here's what I found: Because scoring in the playoffs is lower, and because playoff teams are typically above-average scorers, overall points-per-game totals for all players were down 17.5 percent across the board. Among forwards, the scoring drop was almost identical between scorers and grinders: down 20 percent for scorers and 19 percent for grinders. What's more interesting is that defensemen scorers saw their scoring drop by 17 percent, less than both groups of forwards, while defensemen grinders had the best performance, falling only eight percent.
Improvement When It Counts
The 22 biggest regular-season-to-playoffs improvements since the 1998-99 season/postseason, as measured by percent increase in points per game. Players with an asterisk (*) are considered grinders.
Player Team Year PPG % +
Alyn McCauley* TOR 2001-02 11.88
Marian Hossa PIT 2007-08 11.33
Johan Franzen DET 2007-08 11.24
Brett Hull DAL 1999-00 10.26
Keith Primeau* PHI 2003-04 10.13
Evgeni Malkin PIT 2008-09 9.54
Fernando Pisani* EDM 2005-06 9.12
Greg de Vries* COL 2001-02 8.90
Scott Niedermayer NJD 2002-03 8.76
Gary Roberts TOR 2001-02 8.43
Brad Richards TBL 2003-04 8.27
Jamie Langenbrunner NJD 2005-06 8.23
Alexei Zhitnik BUF 1998-99 8.16
Jaromir Jagr NYR 2007-08 8.07
Johan Franzen DET 2008-09 7.71
Travis Moen* ANA 2006-07 7.70
Brent Seabrook CHI 2008-09 7.69
Doug Weight STL 2002-03 7.64
Sergei Zubov DAL 2002-03 7.56
Chris Pronger EDM 2005-06 7.56
Todd Marchant* ANA 2005-06 7.49
Maxime Talbot PIT 2008-09 7.37
The players who really step up their game are truly defensive defensemen, players like Brad Stuart, Mark Eaton and Sean O'Donnell, who are not exactly the playoff heroes envisioned by the grinder myth. However, the total offensive contribution of these players is minuscule: They contributed only 3.2 percent of all playoff goals and 5.3 percent of all playoff points.
Another factor minimizing the importance of grinders is games played. While scorers represented 54.5 percent of all games played during the regular season, they played 56.4 percent of the games in the playoffs. There are two reasons for this: Some enforcers who have a spot in the lineup during the regular season are healthy scratches during the playoffs, when you can't afford to dress anything but the strongest lineup, and teams with more scorers tend to get deeper into the playoffs. As a result, scorers actually increased their share of total offense from 75.5 percent of the points during the regular season to 76.4 percent in the playoffs.
On the whole, it's defensemen who become more important in the playoffs, not grinders. In part, this is because the ratio of power-play goals increases in the playoffs: Over the past five seasons, power-play goals have represented 29.2 percent of all regular-season goals, but 30.7 percent of all playoff goals. Defensemen get a large fraction of their points on the power play, so their offensive importance increases. Anecdotally, we know that the teams with high-end defensemen -- players like Scott Niedermayer, Sergei Zubov, Chris Pronger, Nicklas Lidstrom, Brian Rafalski and Sergei Gonchar -- have done particularly well in the playoffs.
OK, those are the statistics, but what about heroes? Aren't there some players who really elevate their game in the playoffs, the hard-working players who might not have the gaudiest regular-season numbers but know how to get it done? Here is the list of the most improved players in the playoffs since 1999. Check the chart in this article. It details the 22 biggest improvements from regular season to playoffs since that 1998-99 season, based on percentage increase in points per game.
I was going to make this list a top 20, but extended it to 22 so my readers could see where Maxime Talbot ranked. These are certainly many of the players we think of as the playoff performers of the last decade: Evgeni Malkin and Brad Richards won the Conn Smythe, Pronger and Niedermayer could have (Niedermayer eventually did in 2007), and Johan Franzen's two appearances aren't surprising given the Mule's playoff reputation. Of these 22 players, only seven are grinders, one of which is Keith Primeau, a skilled player who had a poor regular season. There are a few of the traditional "grinder-heroes" on this list: Fernando Pisani and Travis Moen are exactly what people think about when they think of non-scorers raising their game, and McCauley's numbers are impressive. But for the most part, these were already talented players.
So when you're rooting for your team in the playoffs, instead of thinking of how important your grinders are, you might be better served to recall another hockey cliche: "We need our best players to be our best players." There might be slightly more truth to that one.
A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider .
Tom Awad is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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