Yanni Gourde hasn’t scored a goal in a long time. Not since November 25th against the Sabres has he seen the puck go in the net. Twenty four games and so many good chances have come and gone since then. Every time, the puck confounded his efforts.
Hockey is a sport that divorces results from process so severely that nihilism is one of its natural products. At this point in a slump, most people would be deep into the Nietzche but to Gourde’s credit, he continues to plug away regardless of the results. That work was rewarded with an assist on Carter Verhaeghe’s goal on Saturday night. But an assist isn’t a goal. The drought continues.
Goal scoring droughts are a part of hockey. Every player goes through them from time to time. Typically, we measure them in the way that I did in the opening above. How many games has it been since the player last scored? But that doesn’t tell the whole story. A 24 game drought isn’t the same for Yanni Gourde as it would be for Steven Stamkos or Cedric Paquette. Games can also be a misleading measure. Maybe the player isn’t generating as many chances as they normally do and so the drought isn’t as unlikely as it seems.
Just as we have better ways of measuring lots of things in hockey nowadays, we have better ways to measure droughts. We can be more precise in determining how far a player has crossed into the realm of misfortune. Trying to determine how bad a goal drought is sits at the intersection of measurement and superstition, which is where I enjoy spending my time as a hockey fan. Lots of people are doing good work trying to measure things that matter in determining the outcome of NHL games. I’ll leave them to it and instead try to measure just how angrily Yanni Gourde should be shaking his fist at the sky.
In service of that ignoble purpose, we can devise a new approach to measuring goal droughts. To start, instead of counting the games since a player’s last goal, we can count the number of expected goals they’ve accumulated between actual goals. In Gourde’s case, he would’ve been expected to score 4.7 goals in the time since he last tickled the twine. In a vacuum, that’s not a particularly terrible drought. It ranks in the top 500 goal droughts since 2007-2008 but that hardly seems worth getting worked up over.
But as noted above, players experience droughts relative to their own typical performance. So in order to meaningfully measure how Gourde’s drought feels, we have to compare that 4.7 expected goals since his last goal to his career average. As it turns out, he typically scores a goal for every 0.75 expected goals he accumulates meaning he’s been an above average finisher in his four NHL seasons. That number includes the current drought.
Using some arithmetic, we can adjust the raw drought number to account for Gourde’s typical production and consider that to be a reasonable measure of drought severity. Instead of looking at the number of expected goals since the last goal, we can look at how many times more expected goals than his career average Gourde has accumulated since he last scored.
The following plot is a histogram that shows all goal droughts, defined as an instance where a player goes longer than their career average between goals, plotted by their severity. The data set begins in 2007-2008 and is made possible by the play by play query feature at Evolving Hockey, which is well worth subscribing to their Patreon to access. Each orange line on the plot represents two standard deviations above the average drought.
I’ve labeled the four most extreme droughts. The Riley Sheahan one from the 2016-2017 season is probably familiar. That one got national attention because it lasted almost the entire season and he was a regular player for the Red Wings. During that drought, it took him almost eight times longer than his career average to score a goal.
As wild as Sheahan’s run was, it doesn’t measure up to the one Alex Burrows went on from 2012-2014. He experienced a drought in which he went nearly 10 times as long between goals as his brain was calibrated to expect during his career. Imagine something you accomplish once per week that gives you a feeling of success. Then imagine that despite following a similar process as you always have, that thing suddenly didn’t happen for ten weeks. Frustrating!
We came here to talk about Yanni Gourde though so the following plot is the same but shows where Gourde’s current drought, which is sitting at a 6.2 on our severity scale, ranks.
Folks, it’s almost time to call a priest. If you can’t see Gourde’s line, it’s almost directly on the separator between “Not funny anymore” and “Call a Priest.” And if he goes another game without scoring, he’ll almost certainly cross over that six standard deviation line. As of now, he’s already in extreme drought territory. This current stretch ranks 62nd in the data set meaning only 61 times in the last 13 years has an NHL player had a more frustrating run of goalless hockey.
While he hasn’t quite broken into to the top 50 yet, let’s take a glance at who has. You’ll notice Steven Stamkos had a drought in 2010-2011 that just cracks the bottom of this chart.
A goal scoring drought isn’t a good thing. But it also isn’t inherently an indication of a player not playing well. Hockey is a game with extreme variance in outcomes and even the best players go through extended cold streaks relative to their career average. In fact, most the of these notable droughts happened to good players because they’re the ones who get the time to work out of the slump.
The encouraging thing about this run of bad luck for the Gourde is that he hasn’t let it affect his play. In each of the last two seasons, he’s generated 0.77 expected goals per 60 minutes of ice time in all situations. This year, that number is 0.76. So despite the increasingly absurd misfortune, he continues undaunted. He’s playing with faith that this dam will eventually break if he keeps doing the right things.
Hockey is an Old Testament sport. It tests its participants with undeserved fates just to see if they stick around. Right now, Yanni Gourde is being tested. And if this test goes on much longer, he’ll quickly become one of the most tested members of the flock over the last decade plus of NHL hockey.
So when that goal finally comes, and it will, think of it not just in terms of what it means for the score line of whatever game in which it happens to occur. Think of it as the rewarding of good faith. As a sign that the Hockey Gods are temporarily appeased. At least until their whims shift and they once again demand some unsuspecting player prove themself a true believer.