Thursday, March 12, 2009

Lee, damned lies and statistics ... nice try at hosing Tavares, you hosers

You know what they say, great at history, bad at math.

There is no reason to doubt Ottawa historian Jim McAuley's claim that former 67's star Peter Lee is still the Ontario Hockey League's all-time leading goal scorer, ahead of John Tavares. McAuley did his due diligence, having "poured" — or pored, as it were — "through game summaries of every game Lee played for the Ottawa 67's in the two disputed seasons (1972-73 and 1973-74), and determined that Lee actually scored 216 goals." (Ottawa Citizen, March 10.) The OHL did its own review and says Lee scored 213, meaning Tavares, now up to 215 with two games left in his season with the London Knights, is the record holder.

However, there is a difference between giving the facts and being truthful. It's fine to take what McAuley's evidence at face value (he's a historian, they don't have the imagination to make stuff up). Giving it without context is the equivalent of publishing the results of an opinion poll without adding that it's plus or minus 3.2 points, accurate 19 times out of 20 and all that jazz. It's irritating, especially when some crude cross-multiplication reveals Tavares might have scored in the neighbourhood of 300 goals in the OHL if he had played junior in Lee's day.

It's a mild irritant when the media give facts but not the truth. There is a difference, especially when you compare across eras in sports.

Let's set aside all the advances made in hockey in between Lee's final season with Ottawa in 1976 and today (short list: The use of video analysis in preparing for opponents, better coaching and equipment for goaltenders, more attention paid to defensive play, more physical play, bigger and faster players). Most of the changes in hockey, starting from the mid-1980s until after the 2004-05 NHL lockout, worked against players putting up gaudy goal totals.

The big matzo ball hanging out there with McAuley's research is that presumes that a goal in 2009 was easily achieved as it was in 1976, or that conversely, goals were equally hard to come by 30-plus years ago as they are in the modern game. Most of you who follow hockey could establish that simply isn't the case without benefit of a quick check over at

Here's a quick table of each player's season-by-season totals (games played, goals, total goals per game in all of his team's games and per-game average for the whole league; shootout goals weren't counted, but there wasn't time to factor out 4-on-4 overtime, so the averages for Tavares' area are actually higher than they should be, not lower). Just to be sporting, Lee gets credit for the two missing goals from 1972-73 that McAuley unearthed and the one tally from '73-74 (he scored one in '71-72, when he played a handful of games as a 15-year-old).
’72-73: 63 27 10.06 9.74
’73-74: 69 39 8.13 8.34
’74-75: 70 68 10.87 9.18
’75-76: 66 81 9.42 9.43

’05-06: 65 45 8.19 6.94
’06-07: 67 72 8.97 7.34
’07-08: 59 40 7.97 6.80
’08-09: 32 26 7.14 6.70 (with Oshawa)
’08-09: 23 32 7.08 -- (with London)

Tavares' feats came in a era of much tighter-checking defence. Those per-game totals from the past four seasons are probably a bit on the high side, since you would have to factor out goals scored in 4-on-4 overtime, which didn't exist when Lee played for the 67's (I subtracted shootout goals from team totals). Tavares has put up numbers in a lower-scoring era.

For anyone wondering, the 67's were not the highest-scoring team in the OHL. In '75-76, they scored 331 goals, fourth-most in a 12-team league. The previous season, '74-75, under a rookie coach named Brian Kilrea, they scored 379, second in the league, but allowed a league-worst 382.

This doesn't mean 67's owner Jeff Hunt was wrong to ask McAuley to look into Lee's totals. Hunt was trying to do right by all concerned when he noticed a discrepancy between his franchise's records and the official league book.

Facts are facts, but they're trumped by the truth that Tavares' 215 goals in the 2000s are harder-earned than Lee's 215, 213 or 216 more than three decades ago. There were a lot more goals in the typical major junior game of Lee's era than in Tavares'.

Just for kicks, here's how each player would have done in the other guy's era, taking his goals per game and plugging into the league average.
’72-73: 65 63 10.06 9.74
’73-74: 67 81 8.13 8.34
’74-75: 59 54 10.87 9.18
’75-76: 55 81 9.42 9.43

’05-06: 63 19 8.19 6.94
’06-07 69 34 8.97 7.34
’07-08 70 50 7.97 6.80
’08-09 66 58 n/a 6.70
Tavares' total comes out to 279 goals. (Please bear in mind that this is purely hypothetical and just for fun.)

As an add-on, keep in mind that top-end junior phenoms such as him always take a hit on their stats since they usually miss about nine or 10 games while they're off defending Canada's honour at the world junior hockey championship. That scenario didn't exist for Lee. Tavares could have scored another eight goals in his third season, when he missed nine games, and popped in another 16 during the 11 he's sat out this season.

That brings Tavares up to 303. How many he would have had is inconclusive, but his goals-per-game totals, put into context, surpass Lee's by a fair margin.

This is not about who was the better hockey player as a teen, since it's fairly obvious who comes out the winner in that argument (January-born Lee would have been 16 years, eight months old when he began his first full season in '72-73, while Tavares' debut in the league came on the eve of his 15th birthday).

Granted, there's a lot of assumptions being made (hence the use of "crude cross-multiplication" and "in the neighbourhood" up top). It's also doubtful Brian Kilrea would have been putting Tavares out on the power play with one minute left in a 7-2 game, but that was another post.

Regardless, doing some crude number-crunching beats "pouring" over microfiche any day of the week. In sports, it's absolutely essential to put a player's stats into a historical context before you present your case. No disrespect, but that should not be lost on someone who's a historian.

Tavares record in question? (Patrick King,
Lee unsure if Tavares broke goal-scoring record (Joe O'Connor, National Post)
Ottawa historian challenges Tavares' goal-scoring record (Wayne Scanlan, Ottawa Citizen)

No comments: