Phantom Stats?

On January 31, 1920, Joe Malone of the Québec Athletics scored seven goals against the Toronto St. Patricks. Ninety-five years later, it remains the greatest single-game output by any player in NHL history.

The record doesn’t show whether he celebrated in a fashion suggested by San Jose Sharks centre Joe Thornton. Jumbo Joe, who is a likely Hall of Famer, has been more of a playmaker than a sniper in his career. In October 2013 he mused, in much more explicit language, that if he had a four-goal night he’d drop his pants and… well, there’s really no polite way to put it, even if one uses the euphemism “pull the goalie.”

Chances are, Malone—whose deep-set eyes and bemused expression suggest he’d seen it all—took the game in stride. As hockey historian Eric Zweig wrote for The Hockey News in 2010, it wasn’t unusual for Malone to score in big bunches. In 1917/18, he had a trio of five-goal games, and later in 1919/20 he’d unload on Ottawa for six goals. Before the National Hockey Association gave way to the NHL, Malone had scored seven for Québec in a game in 1913 and eight in another in 1917. In a 1913 Stanley Cup game, he even managed nine.

Joe Malone, looking like not even a seven-goal game could surprise or impress him much.

Goals were easier to come by in the NHL’s early days. In 1919/20, teams combined for an average of 9.58 goals per game. That doesn’t tell the whole tale, mind you; in the first half of the bifurcated schedule, when Ottawa and Montréal were battling for a playoff spot, games between the two front-runners were fairly competitive and relatively low-scoring. And in the second half, as Toronto briefly challenged the Senators for first-place honours, games were comparatively tight, including a 1–0 Ottawa win in early March. At the other end of the spectrum stood Québec, who allowed at least ten goals in five of their twenty-four games, and managed to score in double digits on two occasions (the January 31 meeting with Toronto and a 10–4 win over Ottawa late in the season when the Senators had the second-half title well in hand–Malone’s other six-goal night).

Malone’s seven-goal game was the last for each of the two teams in the first half. And with Toronto at 5–6 and Québec at 1-10, there wasn’t much on the line except bragging rights.

It actually took nearly seven minutes for a goal to be scored. After that, all bets were off. By the second intermission, the score was 6–4 Québec; Toronto applied pressure early in the third, pulling to within 7–6, but then Malone put away three in a row to make it 10–6.

Zweig quotes a contemporary news report: “The lanky forward had his biggest night of the year, setting up an individual performance that has not yet been equaled this year. He scored seven tallies and played a great game.” The hyperbole just leaps off the page, doesn’t it? And the game was only witnessed by about 1,200 fans at the Québec Arena on what was an uncomfortably cold night.

So at the time, the accomplishment was noteworthy, but there appears to have been little expectation it would be one for the record books. The longer the record has stood, the more its legend seems to have grown.

A present-day blogger takes note of Malone’s season—39 goals in 24 games—and calculates that, “[had] the NHL played an eighty-two-game schedule in 1919/20, Malone would have been on pace for 133 goals.”

Well, that’s true, if you just take his goals per game and multiply by eighty-two. But that doesn’t take into account the ways in which hockey strategy has evolved, virtually ensuring that Malone’s single-game mark will never be matched.

First, there’s that 9.58 goals per game. That’s roughly 75 percent more offence than in the present-day NHL. On the face of it, that places Malone’s seven goals on a par with Joe Thornton’s mythical four-goal night. Even in a league that boasts goal scorers of the calibre of Alexander Ovechkin or Steven Stamkos or Sidney Crosby, there hasn’t been a five-goal game in the NHL in four years.

We also have to recall, as Zweig reminds us, that players in Malone’s day played the full sixty minutes, or close to it. Substitutions were rare. Add up the man-games played by Québec skaters that year, and you get 180 (and that includes two in which defenceman Harry Mummery played the full sixty minutes in goal—he also was between the pipes for part of a third). Divide by twenty-four, and you get 7.5. Considering that there are a maximum of five skaters on the ice at any given time, that doesn’t leave much ice time for the spares.

In the present day, if you count the games played by all skaters, you’ll usually get 1,476 (assuming we’re not looking at the 2008/09 Calgary Flames, who played with a short bench late in the season because of salary-cap issues). Divide by eighty-two, and you get eighteen, which is the maximum number of skaters a team is allowed to dress for a game. Four forward lines and three defence pairs.

First-line forwards typically play between twenty and twenty-four minutes. Heck, during the Caps–Canadiens telecast yesterday, they were apoplectic because Alexander Ovechkin logged a five-minute shift.

So, would Malone score 133 goals over an eighty-two-game schedule? Not likely. To use a brute-force approach, take his 1.625 goals per game, adjust for the scoring environment, and you get 0.931 goals a game. On the face of it, that suggests he’d score 74 goals in a season, putting him on a par with Gretzky, Brett Hull, or Lemieux in their prime. Ah, but wait a minute. That assumes he’s playing fifty-five to sixty minutes a game. Remember, he’d be playing about twenty-five minutes, tops. Make that adjustment, and you get 31 goals.

Now, I don’t think that’s the definitive result, either. I’d have to leave a more refined analysis to friends and colleagues like Iain Fyffe. Malone led the league in 1919/20, so in a modern environment he’d probably score about as often as today’s Maurice Richard Trophy winners—somewhere between forty-five and fifty-five goals.

Unless he had the misfortune to sign with the Peter Horachek–coached Maple Leafs.

Looking through the same prism, but in the other direction, we might attach greater significance to the six-goal outings by Red Berenson of St. Louis in 1968 or by Darryl Sittler in 1976. They played in an era where between six and seven goals a game was typical, and their ice time might’ve ran into the high twenties.

That’s the fun, and the devilry, of cross-era comparisons.

3 thoughts on “Phantom Stats?

  1. I can refine it a bit for you, Lloyd. First, I would say that the estimate of 55 to 60 minutes per game is too high. Malone more like played something like 50 to 52 minutes per game that season, probably one of the highest figures in the league due to the lack of depth on the Quebec roster. So let’s say 51 minutes, which would adjust your result to 37 goals.

    Then, you would have to consider the relative quality of the players in the NHL in 1919/20 versus today. There’s no easy answer to this one. You’d have to consider that there were far fewer teams in Malone’s time (even remembering that you have to consider the PCHA as well), and there were far fewer players on each team. But you’d also have to consider the much greater pool of players available today, creating more competition for the available jobs. Of the whole, I have to conclude that the average quality of player in the NHL was higher in 1920 than today, because of the very small number of players involved then. I won’t put a firm number on it, but this might bump his equivalent goals up to maybe 40 to 50.

    There’s another more subtle factor to consider as well. Adjusting for ice time is valid, but you would also have to consider the distribution of said ice time. In Malone’s day, players went off to rest, and as far as I know there wasn’t really any effort to assign specific players to specific manpower situations. That is, in today’s game the best offensive players receive a much higher proportion of their team’s power-play time than they do their team’s even-strength time. Malone probably had roughly the same proportion of each, so this again is an advantage to modern players, which might bump Malone up to the 45 to 55 goal range.

    I agree with your ultimate conclusion that the equivalent of Malone’s goals that season would be something in that range, I just thought I’d add some explanation as to why you can’t get there with the simple adjustments you made. 39 goals in 24 games seems really impressive to modern eyes, but since that’s not even close to Malone’s best output (he beat it in 1912/13, 1916/17 and 1917/18), it would be foolish to suggest it’s equivalent to some huge number of goals today.

  2. Thanks, Iain. As noted, I was taking a brute-force approach, probably not much better than x times 82 divided by 24.

    I took a look at the last ten years’ worth of Richard Trophy winners (13 names, when you consider the Stamkos–Crosby tie in 2010 and the Nash–Kovalchuk–Iginla dead-puck dead heat in 2004) and noted that they accounted, on average, for 22.5% of their teams’ offence. Malone in 1919/20 scored 43% of his team’s goals.

    Give or take a few points, the modern-day elite goal scorers probably saw about a third of the available ice time. As you note, Malone probably was on the ice 80-85% of the time. Which I think reinforces your point that today’s best players are systematically used in situations where they are most likely to succeed, and as a consequence are (for want of a better term) being used more efficiently. And that a “points-per-60-minutes” approach is wanting.

    Finally, before speculating about Malone’s offensive output in the present day, we’d have to consider that he’d be 125 years old.

    • Your last comment is reminiscent of the story told about Babe Pratt musing on how many goals Cyclone Taylor would have scored in the modern NHL. I’ve seen it quoted, but I won’t go so far as believing that it was actually said until Eric Zweig has investigated it.

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