Empty-calorie scoring. Anyone who follows the NHL is familiar with the concept: the cliche is used to describe an archetypal player who scores lots of points but doesn’t help the team win. In theory, the concept seems plausible. But in reality, the application of the theory is a retrofitted narrative conveniently fastened to a set of inconvenient results.
The thought process goes: a team is supposed to be good. That team has a star player. That player scores lots of points. The team turns out to be not good. Therefore, the star player is a scorer but not a winner. Trade him! Replace him with someone who knows how to win.
The most common problem with this narrative occurs in the first step, because knowing which teams are supposed to be good is difficult. The simplest explanation for a team being bad despite a high-scoring player is that the rest of the not-so-high-scoring players aren’t good enough. But if the pundits mistakenly proclaim a team to be good before the season, blaming the one good player on the team serves the dual purpose of deflecting attention from their own poor analysis and manufacturing headlines.
This narrative works well for from a traditional media and analysis perspective for several reasons. First, it’s plausible enough. Second, it’s an argument starter. And third, it’s difficult to support or dismiss definitively because “knowing how to win” is hard to measure.
Measuring “knowing how to win”
Or it used to be hard to measure. The arrival of Wins Above Replacement (WAR) metrics for hockey helps us measure how much a player contributes to winning. And since we’ve always had points, we now have decent measures of both parts of this narrative.
Stats can be used in lots of fun ways. Trying to put structure around existing tropes to figure out where traditional analysis gets it right and where it gets it wrong is one of the most fun uses. For empty calorie scoring, we’re going to use two metrics: WAR and points. Both are pulled from Evolving Hockey.
We’re going to calculate how good players are at scoring relative to their peers and how much they contribute to winning relative to their peers. To do that, we’ll use percentiles so that we have both of these numbers on a similar scale. And then we’ll look at the difference between the two metrics. A player who’s great at scoring but doesn’t contribute to winning is our archetypal empty calorie scorer. And the inverse? That’s a player who contributes to winning in ways that don’t result in points.
Before we look at results, we should clarify something. WAR is the most important metric here. The traditional narrative is correct in that piling up points doesn’t matter if it doesn’t contribute to winning. Further, WAR is the metric that should be used to determine the on-ice value of the player. If we have two players with identical WAR but one scores a lot and one scores infrequently, the one who scores infrequently isn’t somehow more virtuous. They’re equal in value. They just get to that value in different ways.
As an entry point to looking at the results, we’ll start with a single team view in a single season. This year’s Lightning gives us an idea of what we’re measuring. The purple boxes are the player’s WAR. The gray boxes are their scoring. The longer the line, the bigger the gap between those two measures. The color of the line is a quick helper for seeing which direction the player leans. Blue means the player’s WAR outpaces their scoring and orange means the opposite.
Because the Lightning are a good team, we see very little empty calorie scoring. The most noticeable is Steven Stamkos. He’s scoring at a rate a bit better than his WAR. But while his gap is one of the larger ones on the team, it isn’t large compared to the rest of the league, as we’ll see shortly.
The surprising player is Anton Stralman. The idea that he would be scoring more than he contributes to winning goes against everything he’s been in his career. In his prime, he never would have measured this way. But in his early thirties and having missed time with an injury this year, his WAR is starting to drop and that results in his position on this chart.
In the other direction, we see a couple of players whose lack of scoring belies their strong WAR. Neither Erik Cernak nor Anthony Cirelli look dynamic on the score sheet. But according to WAR, they’re doing lots to help the team win. Yanni Gourde and to a lesser extent Dan Girardi also fit this profile this season.
Looking at one team is interesting, but let’s get to the fun stuff. The next view shows the thirty most extreme empty calorie scorers in the NHL at each position this season.
Now things are getting spicy. As a caveat, looking at WAR in half a season can lead to some anomalies. This particular version of WAR uses on-ice goals in its measure of skater offensive performances, making it susceptible to shooting percentage fluctuations in small samples.
There are some big names on this list. The forwards are particularly interesting. Among the list are Evgeny Kuznetsov, Phil Kessel, Ryan Johansen, Jonathan Drouin, Vladimir Tarasenko, and several other players who have, at various points in their careers, been portrayed in the media as empty-calorie scorers. We also see some surprises, because Bo Horvat, Ryan Getzlaf, and Jonathan Toews have all been lauded as leaders who contribute to a winning culture.
The next chart shows the inverse: players whose WAR outpaces their scoring by the largest margin. For lack of a better term, I called them high-calorie scorers.
For the Lightning, Cernak, Cirelli, and Gourde all make the list at their respective positions. Seeing a player like Niklas Hjalmarsson here makes sense. His primary impacts are defensive so a gap between his WAR and his scoring passes the smell test. Similarly, at forward, players like Josh Anderson and Joonas Donskoi fit the profile of players who make their teams better without dominating the score sheet.
But if we want to get the most out of this approach, we need to look at multiple seasons to get a large enough sample to help smooth some of the potential issues with fluctuations in shooting percentage. The following chart shows the most extreme empty calorie scorers over the last three seasons. Players who met the ice time requirements in at least two of those three seasons are included.
This chart is the most fun. If a player consistently scores without contributing to winning over three seasons, we know what kind of player they are. And boy are there some interesting names here. Chicago has two of the top-three empty calorie defenders (Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook), Patrick Kane, and Toews. For a team constantly lauded for their culture of winning, they sure are chock full of guys piling up points without making the team any better.
Former Bolt Jonathan Drouin comes in fifth among forwards. By this measure, he appears to be what his critics claim he is. Peter Chiarelli payed to acquire Brandon Manning a few weeks ago and he appears to be exactly the opposite of what the Oilers GM claimed he is. Wayne Simmonds is another player who goes against convention. He’s portrayed as a tough player who does things that don’t appear on the scoresheet. But here, it looks like the scoresheet is the only place he contributes at this point in his career.
And finally, in the interest of completeness, here’s the high calorie chart over the last three years.
Gourde makes the forward list again for the Lightning. Nico Hischier isn’t scoring the way some might have expected to start his career but he’s contributing in other ways. Tom Wilson’s appearance here should inspire people to feel feelings. On defense, Brett Kulak is near the top of the list. That might not seem notable, but he was available on waivers last summer and Montreal acquired him for a couple of AHL players. Seems like a player who might be a bit undervalued.
The NHL is full of narratives that spread from people inside the game to the media in a game of telephone. One of the fun things about new ways to measure player and team performance is trying to examine whether those narratives are rooted in truth — or sprouted from magical thinking to assuage frustration caused by a sport so prone to randomness.
In this case, empty-calorie scoring appears to be a real thing. Some players pile up points but don’t do as much to help their teams win as would be expected based on those point totals. The interesting thing is which players fall into that bucket. In some cases, the names match expectations. And in others, they don’t.
That’s the fun of trying to measure something like this. It points us toward examples where our eyes might be lying to us. And in hockey, that happens more than most would like to admit.