Devil’s Luck

(Andy Marlin, Getty Images)

(Andy Marlin, Getty Images)


In 2012, the New Jersey Devils made a surprise run to the Stanley Cup Final and were the only team to win more than one game in the playoffs against the Los Angeles Kings. What makes the run particularly surprising is that the Devils missed the playoffs in the previous and subsequent seasons.

The Devils finished the 2010-11 season with 81 points, jumped up to 102 points in 2011-12, then dropped down to 48 points in 2012-13, an 82-point pace. It’s a remarkable trio of seasons, as the Devils jumped from 11th up to 6th in the Eastern Conference, then dropped right back down to 11th.

It’s enough to make you wonder exactly what happened in those three seasons and what will happen in the future, with the Devils losing both Ilya Kovalchuk and David Clarkson, while also adding some significant pieces. To go from well out of the playoffs to the Stanley Cup Final and right back to being well out of the playoffs is a stunning reversal of fortune, and it’s fortune itself that I want to investigate.

Fortune, aka. luck, is a bit of a controversial topic in hockey. We have all seen luck affect a hockey game, whether it’s a centring pass deflecting off a defenceman’s skate into the net, a puck fluttering on end that causes a defender’s clearing attempt to go over the glass for a game-changing penalty, or a shot destined for the top corner hitting the knob of the goaltender’s stick and off the post. Everyone accepts that some games are partially decided by luck in some form.

Most people believe that luck washes out over time, with idioms like “Fortune favours the bold” or “You make your own luck” showing the human desire for life to fit the narrative that we get what we deserve. We want to believe that the best team wins the game or, at least, the majority of the games. But the truth is that there is still a fair amount of luck involved even over an 82-game season. Or, if the word “luck” bothers you, call it “applied chaos” or some other euphemism.

Skill trumps luck given enough time, but a dose of good or bad luck can still make a significant difference in the standings and playoff results. Consider the 2012 Kings: how did a team that finished eighth in the Western Conference steamroll their opponents in the playoffs? Were they a good team that was just unlucky during the regular season or were they a mediocre team that suddenly saw a run of good luck? Or is it one of those combined with some other factor?

Over at Hockey Abstract, Rob Vollman has a fun visualization of luck as it pertains to NHL teams. He identifies five basic ways that luck impacts a team: “injuries, shooting and save percentages (which is called PDO when added together), their power play and penalty killing percentages (which is called Special Teams Index when added together), their record in one-goal games (regulation time only), and their record in overtime and shoot-out games.”

He’s quick to clarify that many of these involve a combination of skill and luck to varying degrees, but all of these are of particular interest as they’re generally not repeatable from year to year. While something like injuries seems obviously random and wouldn’t persist from season to season, the same is generally true for these other factors that seem like they would have more basis in skill than luck. Shooting, save, power play, and penalty kill percentages tend to fluctuate wildly, however, and the same is true of a team’s record in one-goal games and past regulation. Certainly, very good teams tend to finish higher than very bad teams, but there isn’t much consistency from year to year.

Vollman has combined these five factors into a somewhat haphazard Luck Score. The visualization on his website lets you play with how each factor is weighted, depending on whether you think PDO is more or less dependent on luck than special teams, etcetera. But just looking at the basic score in relation to the New Jersey Devils over the last three seasons is interesting.

In 2010-11, the Devils were below .500 with a 38-39-5 record. Their Luck Score for that season was fourth worst in the league. The bulk of their bad luck came on the injury and PDO fronts, as they actually had a very good record in overtime and the shootout. Missing Zach Parise for 69 games was the culprit injury-wise and a league-worst shooting percentage of 6.31% at even-strength combined with a below-average even-strength save percentage gave them the second worst PDO in the league. Mediocre special teams and a slightly above-average record in one-goal games round out their Luck Score.

In 2011-12, they added 10 wins, finishing 48-28-6, the ninth best record in the NHL. Their Luck Score went from fourth worst to fourth best, with minimal impact from injuries, an improved PDO as their team even-strength shooting percentage skyrocketed to league-average (though their save percentage remained well below average), the league’s top penalty kill, a decent record in one-goal games, and the best record in the league in overtime and the shootout. The Devils went 16-6 in overtime and the shootout in 2011-12, meaning a third of their wins came past regulation.

Some will want to attribute that to the Devils being particularly clutch or determined that season, but given how overtime and shootout records fluctuate from season to season, it seems likely that there was a healthy dose of random chance involved. The Devils were a good puck possession team that season and certainly earned their success and trip to the Stanley Cup Final, but they were a good puck possession team in 2010-11 as well. Going from one of the unluckiest teams in the league to one of the luckiest certainly helped.

(Sidenote: the Nashville Predators had the highest Luck Score in the league in 2011-12, easily making the playoffs despite well below average possession statistics. They finished second last in the West this past season with still below average possession and the fourth worst Luck Score in the league.)

That brings us to the 2012-13 season, which, thanks to the lockout, was just the 2013 season. The shortened schedule meant that luck played an even more prominent role in the standings. 48 games is barely enough time for skill to win out over luck, while some might argue that it simply isn’t enough time, with randomness playing more of a factor than skill.

As for the Devils, luck was not on their side. They finished with a 19-19-10 record, good for last place in the Atlantic Division and 11th in the Conference. Their Luck Score, meanwhile, dropped from fourth best to second worst, ahead of only Florida who had truly execrable luck. While the Devils had a couple significant injuries, missing Ilya Kovalchuk for 11 games and Martin Brodeur for 10 games, they were even more unlucky elsewhere.

The Devils’ shooting percentage once again dropped down to one of the lowest in the league at 6.42% at even-strength, while their save percentage remained mediocre. Their penalty kill percentage dropped from first in the league to 16th, while their power play went from 14th to 21st. The biggest change, however, came in their record in overtime and the shootout. After finishing with the best record in the NHL in 2011-12 at 16-6, they finished 3-10 last season, easily the worst record in the league.

How does a team go from being the best in the league past regulation to worst in the league in the space of one season? Certainly, the loss of Zach Parise was significant, as he is a near-50% shooter in the shootout over his career, but that on it’s own doesn’t explain that big a shift. A large portion of it has to be considered luck, particularly with the shootout generally being little better than a coin toss to begin with.

The Devils deserved better last season, finishing with the third highest Fenwick Close in the league, a statistic that represents puck possession when the score is close and has been shown to have a high correlation with winning percentage and is highly persistent from season to season. Ahead of New Jersey in that statistic: Los Angeles and Chicago. Right behind New Jersey: Boston and Detroit.

The Devils should have been in the playoffs, if not for an aging goaltender past his prime, a terrible shooting percentage, and terrible luck past regulation. This coming season, however, with one of their best puck possession forwards gone in Clarkson and their best goalscorer gone in Kovalchuk, it may not matter how good their luck is in 2013-14. The additions of Cory Schneider, Michael Ryder, Jaromir Jagr, and Ryane Clowe may not be enough.