A common-held assumption is NHL teams that rely on a single scorer for the majority of their goals are not successful during the season in which their leading scorer provides the most scoring for the team. That's a particularly troubling assumption--if held to be true--for the Tampa Bay Lightning this season: Steven Stamkos, while leading the NHL with 37 goals (as of Thursday afternoon when I computed the stats herein) supplies nearly a quarter (24.18%, to be specific) of the goals scored by the Bolts this year. To explore the validity of this assumption, I explore goal-scoring statistics for the past five seasons (including the present season), and the results were surprising to me.
First, let me orient you to my tables. Each table is formatted identically. The Lightning's row in each table is blue with silver font. For every table except the one for 2011-2012, the eventual Stanley Cup winner is highlighted in Yellow. For the columns labelled "Goals," "Individual Goals," and "NHL Standing," the red outline shows the bottom three in each category, a green outline denotes the top three in each category. For example, thus far in 2011-2012, the three teams with the lowest scoring are the Wild, the Kings, and the Blue Jackets (121, 120, and 130 goals, respectively) and the Flyers, Red Wings, and Bruins have scored the most goals this season (181, 178, and 181 goals, respectively). On the column labelled "% of team goals scored," the percentage shown is the percent of team goals provided by the team's leading scorer in the third column. Red highlight with dark red text show the top three teams most reliant on their team's leading scorer, and the green box with dark green text represent the teams least reliant on their team's leading scorer. Lastly, all teams with a reliance on their leading scorer more than the league average is in bolded and italicized text. The charts below are arranged, from the left, current season, 2010-2011, 2009-2010, 2008-2009, and 2007-2008.
To be honest, I fully expected the teams that relied most on their individual goal leader to do the worst in the regular season. The tables I've compiled do not paint that picture at all. Over the past five seasons, there is little to be drawn from the relative reliance of a team on its leading scorer as to the team's regular-season success, or lack of it. From the 2007-2008 season through and including the current season, the 3 most reliant teams on their leading scorer (those teams, remember, that are shown with red boxes with dark red text) average finishing in the league between 14th and 15th place (14.6 on average), with the best regular season finish as #1 in the league (2010-2011 Vancouver Canucks) and the worst finish being #28 in the league (2007-2008 Atlanta Thrashers). Similarly, a team relying less on their particular goal-scoring leader can't expect to necessarily finish at the top of the league. For the same time period (2007-2008 through now), the three teams least reliant on their leading scorer averaged a *lower* finish in the regular season than those that were most reliant (average finish of 16.6)--the best position in the standings being this season's Boston Bruins (5th place overall), and the worst finish being the 2008-2009 New York Islanders, who relied on Kyle Okposo for only 9.09% of their season goals, but finished dead last in the league nevertheless.
So, if we can't draw any solid conclusions between reliance on individual scorers and team placement in the regular season, what about team goal scoring compared with the individual scoring? There's not a significant difference there, either. Over the five-year period in this study, the three most reliant teams on their team scoring leader averaged scoring 216.8 goals per season (high of 268 goals in 2008-2009 by the Washington Capitals, and low of 130 goals this season by the Islanders). By contrast, the three least reliant teams scored on average almost 10 goals more per season (226.7--high of 242 goals in 2008-2009 by the Montreal Canadiens, and a full-season low of 189). That 10-goal difference may not seem significant at the outset, but consider the goal difference between the playoff teams last year--if the Bolts had scored 10 goals fewer through the course of last season, they would have matched the goal total for the Carolina Hurricanes, who as we all remember didn't play hockey past the second week in April.
Let's now look at the reliance in the past five seasons of the winners of the Stanley Cup (including the #1 team in the league this season). Through the period of this analysis, the team that went on to win the Stanley Cup relied on their leading scorer for 12.2% of their team goals (from a high of 17.06% by Zetterberg and Detroit in 2007-2008, to a low of 6.15% by Lucic and Boston last year). Comparitively speaking, the league-wide team reliance percentages range between 16.04% (2007-2008) to 14.39% (2009-2010).
The surprise conclusion to the look at five years of scoring leaders and team reliance on those scoring leaders is any correlation is neither solid nor absolute. While team reliance on an individual scorer seems to point to a lower number of overall goals scored for the team, that difference (less than 10 goals over an 82-game season, or a mere 4%) is small and potentially insignificant.