Levelling the Playing Field

Maurice Richard. Wayne Gretzky. Alex Ovechkin. Each man creates an image of a time and a place in the NHL’s 105-season history. Often the subject of debate as the greatest goal scorers of all time, how can we compare their accomplishments? Enter Adjusted Hockey.

Maurice “Rocket” Richard is so synonymous with goals that the NHL issues a trophy bearing his name to its annual leader. “Maurice Richard 001” by rchdj10 is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Richard, a titanic symbol of inspiration and pride to generations of French Canadians, became the first NHL player to reach 50 goals, doing so in a then 50-game schedule. Born nearly a decade before the Great Depression, the dimensions of the “Rocket” read just five feet, 10 inches and 180 pounds – a player of solid proportions in his day. Debuting during World War II, Richard’s rookie campaign comes in only the fourteenth season in which NHL teams could pass the puck forward in the offensive zone. His debut comes at a point where the league operates in a susceptible state. Over the first quarter century of the NHL’s existence, franchises come and go readily, and major rule changes are integrated frequently. The schedule is short, the travel is by train, and the league’s talent pool is diluted by the contributions of its players in the war effort. The NHL is a six-team outfit after the Brooklyn Americans fold, grasping a limited geographic footprint outside of Canada and a handful of Northeastern states.

The Rocket, his name engraved on the Stanley Cup on eight occasions, earns those titles in a league where he suits up against just five other franchises over his 18 seasons. Surpassing Nels Stewart for the all-time goal scoring mantle in 1952-53 in only his age-31 season, Richard would blast to another stratosphere of offensive prowess. Retiring in 1960 with 544 career goals, his record is a remarkable 220 more goals than anyone had scored on the day he entered the league. In 1999, less than a year before his death, a trophy is introduced in his honour to be awarded to each NHL season’s leading goal scorer.

Wayne Gretzky shattered every NHL goal scoring record, ushering a new concept of what was possible in hockey. “Wayne Gretzky 001” by rchdj10 is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

That same year, the NHL regular season goal-scoring ledger of the sport’s first global icon closes for good at 894.  A child prodigy, a household name in Canada by his adolescent years, the “Great One” would redefine dominance in team sports, chasing down his boyhood idol Gordie Howe’s career goal-scoring feats in the process. Gretzky, born in 1961 during the first season of the post-Richard era in Montreal, is regarded more as a sleight-of-hand magician than a force of nature. Yet #99 not only exceeds the Rocket’s build, but obliterates his once unreachable scoring milestone before his 21st birthday.

In 1981-82, Gretzky pots 50 goals in his first 39 games, on his way to a 92-goal season, easily shattering Phil Esposito’s record of 76. League scoring exceeds an average of eight goals per game by the time Gretzky’s explosive Edmonton Oilers start their dynastic Stanley Cup run of the 1980s. In the two decades between Richard’s retirement and Gretzky’s rookie season, the NHL’s standings page rapidly stretches from six teams to 21; before his own retirement, the Great One sees the NHL expand to 27 teams, largely a product of his own seismic appeal in previously untapped American markets. Much has changed between the eras of Richard and Gretzky.

The electric Alex Ovechkin is in pursuit of the all-time goal record, once thought unbreakable. “Ovechkin Jumps the Glass Like The Old Days” by clydeorama is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

A few months after the Oilers breeze to their second of four Cups in a five-season span, Alex Ovechkin is born half a world away. In the mid-1980s, elite players in his native U.S.S.R. can only compete against North America’s best in international tournaments and staged exhibition series. In the NHL’s first seven decades of competition, the game is contested almost exclusively by North Americans; in fact, in 1987-88, 76.9% of players are Canadian, 15.6% are American, and less than 8% are European, without a single Russian among them. By the time Ovechkin grows to his Herculean adult size of 6-foot-3 and 235-pounds, the NHL is a 30-team outfit coming off its first lost season in history due to a bitter dispute between players and owners.

After enduring the offensively stifling period of the “Dead Puck Era” of the late 1990s and early 2000s, the league hopes for an exciting return from the lockout by altering its rules. The two-line pass is eliminated, goalie equipment dimensions are reduced, and a stringent penalty standard is enacted, collectively resulting in a temporary increase in both power plays and goal scoring. By Ovechkin’s third season, however, the average NHL game features only 5.44 total goals per game – slightly less than the average nightly output Edmonton scored themselves (5.58) in 1983-84 . Despite the league’s modest rates of offence, “Alexander the Great” is an unrivaled scoring machine, earning a record nine goal-scoring trophies bearing the Rocket’s name. With 730 goals in the bank through the 2020-21 season, Ovechkin approaches his 36th birthday approaching the third most all-time, and 164 snipes away from Gretzky’s once-unthinkable perch. Much has changed between the eras of Gretzky and Ovechkin. Even more has changed between the eras of Richard and Ovechkin.

So, what to make of these feats? Three irrefutably dominant athletes in three infinitely distinct phases in the history of hockey. Transcending across radio waves, weaving toward an unmasked goaltender amidst the smoke of the Montreal Forum, the game Maurice Richard brought to life is almost unrecognizable to the one Alex Ovechkin thrives in today, the electric red lights of the Verizon Center radiating after a goal streamed via NHL Game Center anywhere on the planet.  How do we adjust for the differences? How do we contextualize their accomplishments, their best seasons, their career totals?  Does a player’s peak level of performance matter most, or does one’s total body of work best capture their contributions? Who else belongs in the many debates that straddle generations? What does a player reaching 100 points in a season, or 500 goals in a career mean decades apart? How do we filter and compare the all-time greats, their output registered under different rules, styles of play, season length and competition? Who has history overvalued and undervalued based on the era they played in? Going further, who belongs and does not belong in the hallowed plaque room of the Hockey Hall of Fame?

As far back as I can remember, these are questions I’ve wanted to be able to answer, a journey I’ve wanted to explore. I’m thrilled to have you along for the ride, shedding light on what the raw numbers of the NHL’s history pages cannot express, peeling back long-held views of players and playing environments.

A hazy idea in April 2020 during the first of many COVID-19 lockdowns in Ontario became a 100,000-word draft of a book, which ultimately evolved into this website and social media feed (@AdjustedHockey). As we move through the website’s anchored content, we’ll be highlighting context-based statistics from Hockey-Reference.com, creating new measures to evaluate and compare players, and neutralizing all eras and generations in the process. Putting it all together, I’ll unveil the Pidutti Point Share system (“PPS”) – a comprehensive methodology assigning a single figure to the value of an NHL player’s career. PPS is the first known attempt to create a Hockey Hall of Fame standard by era and position. The model has the ability to objectively assess the statistical Hall of Fame case for all players, past, present and future.

Accompanying the methodology will be PPS Player Cards, a graphic summarizing the career of each player using Adjusted Hockey’s key concepts. The sections of the cards will be introduced as we move through the site, using Hall of Fame power forward Jarome Iginla as our poster boy. We’ll gradually fill in the sections of the blank card below, unveiling its pieces like a puzzle. These cards will be a staple on Twitter and in future posts, neatly illustrating highlighted players, past and present, when their careers are up for discussion.

For now, the card starts in the top left with only the basic biographical details – name, teams played for (descending by number of games by franchise), position, career span (i.e. 1996-97 to 2016-17, for Iginla), number of seasons played in, and Hall of Fame status (Hall of Famer, Not Inducted, Active, or Not Eligible). Keep in mind a player is eligible for induction three years after their final season of professional hockey. For those enshrined, their Hall of Fame class year is noted (2020 for Iginla), and for those not inducted or recently retired, their first year of eligibility will instead be listed. In terms of images, a player’s head shot (courtesy of Hockey-Reference.com), the country they played for internationally (or, for those without international action, their birth country), and the NHL team logo during the year the player was at the peak of their powers (how this season is determined will be explained later on). Lastly, the player’s basic career NHL stats can be found at the top right (games played, goals, assists, points). The rest of the card we’ll introduce as we progress through the site.

The goal of the Adjusted Hockey project is to eliminate the noise from the numbers, creating a level playing field from the NHL’s founding 1917-18 season to its present day, and placing every one of the 8,000+ players on equal statistical footing. On top of the guiding material found in the site’s menus, you can expect regular blog posts, exploring Hall of Fame cases, all-time debates, single-season and career records, franchise and season-specific analysis, and in general, content that uses objective tools to bring perspective to hockey. Welcome to Adjusted Hockey.

PPS Player Card from Adjusted Hockey;
All other data from Hockey-Reference.com.