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July 16, 2009
Behind The Net
Fighters Prosper, But Just Barely

by Gabriel Desjardins

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Hockey analysis is still in its infancy, and we’ve only just begun to make use of scouting information in our statistics. What we haven’t done yet is integrate fan opinions into statistics. Over at Inside the Book, Tom Tango conducts an annual fan poll of MLB fielding performance that attempts to evaluate players in numerous categories. The process isn’t perfect, but, owing to the likely wisdom of crowds, the result is not substantially different from what analytical fielding statistics come up with.

There is one major hockey site that makes extensive use of fan opinions: hockeyfights.com. Admittedly, they only ask fans to vote on who won each fight, but the site generates ostensibly objective data using subjective opinions. So I wondered if there were any questions that fan input about hockey fights could answer, and I came up with one: does winning a fight in hockey boost your team’s scoring?

Players and coaches – not the best judges of these things – certainly seem to think so. Like Barry Melrose in this interview: “There is no way they win that game without that fight.” Then there's Maxime Talbot, who said of his fight against Daniel Carcillo in the playoffs: “I know I'm not the type of player who's going to score three goals, so I had to do something else, and I tried to do it with my fists.”

To test this notion, I looked at every fight during the 2008-09 season where one player received was voted the winner by at least 50% of fans. Since many people vote that a fight was a draw, this picks out only the fights with a clear winner. I then looked at how many goals the winner’s team scored and allowed over the next 10 minutes and over the rest of the game. I compared this goal differential with how an average NHL team did given the same initial score and time on the clock. That is, if a team was down 2-1 at the midway point of the 2nd period and won a fight, I compared their performance to all teams that were down 2-1 midway through the second.

We see a very small benefit to winning the fight, which occurs primarily in the next ten minutes:

Relative Improvement                         After 10 Minutes 
In Goal Differential     Next 10 Minutes     Through End of Regulation
All Games	             0.0762	             0.0134
Down 1 or 2 Goals	     0.0710	             0.0042

Now before you get excited about your favorite team signing a new goon, remember that an NHL team needs to improve its goal differential by approximately six goals to win one additional game. So winning a fight is worth a little more than 1/80th of a win in the standings; given that the best fighters might win at most ten fights in a season, the direct benefit is probably on the order of having the equipment guys make sure nobody’s playing with an illegal stick. This is not to say that aggressive and physical play won’t win games – but “upgrading” their main fighter from Colton Orr to Donald Brashear won’t do anything for the New York Rangers.

Gabriel Desjardins is a contributor to Puck Prospectus and runs the statistical hockey website behindthenet.ca

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The Offseason 2009 (07/16)

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