Any hockey fan interested in cross-era comparisons has come across at least one and possibly a handful of iterations of adjusted statistics. While no adjusted stat can ever be perfect – and can certainly never please everyone – they exist for good reasons. The NHL has changed immeasurably since it began 101 years ago with only four teams (and just three after the Montreal Wanderers’ Jubilee Arena burned down), and a goal scored in 1920 just doesn’t mean the same thing as one scored in 1940, 1960, 1980 or today.
Many great attempts at adjusted regular-season NHL scoring have been made in recent years, but we still don’t have a mainstream adjusted playoff scoring system. There are good reasons for that. For starters, all the same reasons that regular-season scoring doesn’t translate across eras – the NHL’s seasonal goals-against average has ranged from 1.46 to 4.79, roster sizes have steadily grown from seven to 20, the number of assists awarded per goal has gone from below 1.0 up to 1.75, and so on.
But even more factors make adjusted playoff scoring uniquely difficult to accomplish. They include:
- There are differing schools of thought on whether to adjust playoff scoring based on the regular-season average or on that specific playoff year, and complicating matters further, at a few times in history, offense has dropped drastically from the season to the playoffs, and in other eras it actually spiked.
- The number of series needed to win the Cup is now four, but it was two for a long time (and in some seasons, due to byes, it was more for some teams than others). How do you adjust the games from the Original Six era? Just doubling everything doesn’t work. You’d end up with everyone playing either two or four series.
- The number of victories needed to win a series has ranged from one (in a two-game, total-goals series, for example), two, three and the more modern four, and prior to 1987, different in earlier rounds.
- Some seasons, despite being played in the exact same offensive environment, saw the scoring leaders compile drastically different point totals. But those totals shouldn’t be considered significantly different in terms of how much they contributed to the goal of winning the Cup.
- Since the Second World War, we’ve seen as many as 76 percent of the NHL’s teams qualify for the playoffs in one season, and as few as the current 52 percent. In 1925-26, just three of the NHL’s seven teams qualified – 43 percent.
- The above two factors, coupled with the average career lengths of star players from decade to decade, mean that some eras were loaded with opportunities to rack up points in the post-season, while others were relatively stingy.
- How can one possibly account for all that in one formula? The simple answer is you can’t. Even if you could successfully account for one factor, the solution would cause another problem to pop up, and soon you’re playing statistical whack-a-mole.
So I took an extremely simple approach, somehow so simple that it manages to adequately address (or, you might say, ignore) the majority of the complex conundrums affecting playoff scoring. Using a methodology similar to VsX (the regular-season scoring adjustment developed in the history of hockey section at HFBoards), every player’s point total in each season is compared to a benchmark. This benchmark is the point total of the player at the top of the pack – not necessarily the leader, just the player at the top of where the cluster of point totals starts in the playoff scoring race. This is done to allow exceptional point totals to earn extra credit when applicable. This gives us a percentage, which we then multiply by 24. We use 24 because in the 33 playoff seasons since the NHL moved to four best-of-seven series, it’s the average annual benchmark. What that gives us is a representation of what each player’s point total might have looked like in a completely average post-1986 season.
Beneficiaries are older players who didn’t play in a league that gave them games to rack up high totals
Lastly, in order to achieve greater fairness to all eras, only the best six scores are tallied for each player – this is the playoffs we’re talking about; you can’t “compile” your way to greatness with a bunch of six- or seven-point playoffs. The object is to win the Cup, and your adjusted points should be a reflection of meaningful contributions to multiple deep playoff runs.
The system appears to work as intended. Based on raw, unadjusted career playoff points, 17 of the top-30 highest scorers of all-time did almost all their damage between 1980 and 1994. That’s 57 percent of the list accounting for just 15 percent of the NHL’s history. Under adjusted playoff scoring, just seven of the top 30 are from that particularly fruitful time.
This formula has its limitations, however. Despite including all playoff and Stanley Cup challenge scoring from 1893 and beyond, only one pre-1926 merger player makes a dent in the list: Frank Nighbor, who is 36th. Along with Nighbor, the highest pre-WW2 players are Frank Boucher (11th) and Toe Blake (28th), plus Sid Abel (31st) and Syl Apps (42nd), both of whom had careers that straddled the war. For that, we can blame shorter careers, shorter playoffs and a brutal format that pitted the best teams (and, often, players) against each other in Round 1.
The top 27 features five players whose exploits came mostly or all from the 12 years following expansion (1967 to 1979) but only two you’d identify as post-lockout players – what is now a 14-year period. This highlights the obvious differences in league parity between those times and the modern day. In the 1970s, it was the same teams going deep and winning year after year, while only 12 of 31 teams have failed to reach a Cup final since 2006.
The biggest beneficiaries of this adjustment process are older players who didn’t play in a league that gave them enough games to rack up high totals. Frank Boucher, 516th all-time in NHL playoff points, rises to a tie for 11th all-time, partially on the strength of his 1928 playoff – perhaps the most dominant of all-time. He had points on 10 of the Cup-winning Rangers’ 16 goals, while no other player had more than five points. Gordie Howe, Maurice Richard, Jean Beliveau and Bernie Geoffrion, first to fourth all-time as of the 1967 expansion, find themselves now second to fifth, behind only Wayne Gretzky.
On the other side of the coin, the most dominant players who took advantage of the high-flying 1980s tend to be the ones who take the biggest hits. Aside from Gretzky, who is first no matter how you look at it, the 14 1980s players who rank from Nos. 2 to 25 in unadjusted points, find themselves scattered between ninth and 91st, making room for skaters who were just as dominant in other eras. Jaromir Jagr is the player most affected by reasons not related to era, as fifth all-time in playoff points, he is nonetheless short on signature playoff runs. He topped 10 points 10 times but 20 only twice. He falls to 47th in adjusted points.
The tables on the sideshow the all-time leaders in six-year adjusted playoff points: 30 forwards and 10 defensemen. It’s a prestigious list – Patrick Kane is one strong showing away from the top 30, while consistent performers David Krejci, Logan Couture, Jonathan Toews and Patrice Bergeron are still two or more good playoffs from getting there.