Rick Nash Is Streaky, And That’s Okay

In Bill James’ “Whatever Happened To The Hall of Fame?” he attempted to tackle the debate over long-term consistency versus high peak performance among baseball pitchers, and more specifically which is more conducive to team success. He wanted to see whether “consistent” pitchers like Don Sutton or “hot-and-cold” pitchers like Don Drysdale – with high peaks but also poor displays -would, with everything else being equal, lead to more pennants over time. You can bore yourself with the details and methodology and specifics here if you so choose, but here’s the takeaway. The, as Bill James described it, “almost shocking” result was that the teams with the streaky, hot-and-cold pitcher would win more pennants over 20-year cycles than the team with the pitcher who was “consistently” good for long stretches.

Now, it would obviously be a major stretch to directly apply this study to a completely different sport, much less how Rick Nash’s short-term performances affect the team. The fundamental point here, however, concerns the ideas of streaky players and consistent ones, and questioning the stigmas we apply.

Rick Nash is currently the hot hand for the New York Rangers, as he has five goals in the last seven games; a streak in which the Rangers are 6-1-0. That is very good. Prior to this streak, Nash only had one goal in his previous nine games. That is not very good. This is a miniature model of how this season has largely been for Nash; stretches of missing production followed by stretches where he’s lighting the lamp every night. While this might be frustrating visually, is it actually an indictment against Nash? For some reason, general perception is that a “clean” and “consistent” performance of scoring abut a goal every three games is somehow superior to a player who scores two or three over that stretch and then comes up empty for the next three-game stretch. The Bill James model from before shows a convincing example of how this isn’t inherently true. Does this mean it isn’t true in this case? Would a player who consistently bags a couple goals every five or six games lead to more success than one who scores in bunches? I have no idea, and I have no idea if anyone has done a study which indicates either way.

Here is what we can do, though. We can acknowledge that Nash is scoring in bunches and question whether that is normal. Watching Nash go on hot streaks only to soon after hit some cold streaks is aggravating, but is it something that should actually be held against Nash? Is that atypical of an elite goal scorer? Should we expect more consistency?

I decided to chart Rick Nash’s shooting percentage in 10-game intervals and compare it to the league average shooting percentage for this season. For those unaware, shooting percentage is the percentage of shots on goal that go in. So if Rick Nash takes four shots and one goes in, his shooting percentage would be 25 percent. Here is his shooting percentage in groupings of 10. As in, the first point is his shooting percentage in games one through 10 this season. The next is through games 11 through 20. And so on.

Nash vs League Average

As one might anticipate, it’s all over the place. Nash has had 10-game stretches where almost 15% of his shots go in, and he’d had two stretches where he is well below league average. That is unacceptable. Or is it?

Here is the same graph, only this one includes three other players for comparison. Alexander Ovechkin, who is probably the media’s favorite target for “streakiness” and inconsistency (hello Mike Milbury!), Sidney Crosby, who is the complete opposite and is the poster-boy for consistent production, and Patrick Kane, who is perceived somewhere in-between.

Screen Shot 2014-03-31 at 1.34.00 PM

If someone wants to spend the time calculating the actual dispersion he or she is free to. I’ll also acknowledge that this isn’t perfect data in part because Nash hasn’t played 70 games and because generally larger sample sizes would be desired. Nonetheless, this should be sufficient in getting the general point across, and I’m confident that further testing would only further the cause. Some might point out that Kane, Ovechkin, and Crosby’s shooting rate is better than Nash’s, but we’re not measuring Nash’s ability compared to theirs. In fact, I purposely picked three guys superior to Nash. What we’re trying to put into context here is “consistency,” and it appears that Nash is just as “streaky” as arguably the three best offensive players in the NHL; if not more consistent. The best goalscorer in the NHL today, Ovechkin, managed to drop more than 12 percentage points from games 21-30 to games 31-40. And most recently barely squeaked about league average. Patrick Kane, he of two Stanley Cups, has both the highest shooting percentage in a given stretch, 24 percent, and the lowest, 2.8 percent. Sidney Crosby – the best player in the world and Mr. Reliable – has the biggest range in consecutive months of any of the four players and has fallen below league average twice this season already; the same number as Nash has.

I’m not trying to convince you that Rick Nash is having a perfect season because I don’t think he is. I think, at his absolute best, he can and should challenge for the goalscoring title. But if Sidney Crosby can see his production nosedive multiple times over the course of a single season then perhaps Rick Nash can be forgiven for his own problematic stretches.

We as humans like to diagnose things and find cause and effect. This player is/is not doing well because of an injury, or because of linemate changes, or because he’s not trying, or he changed his stick, or anything else. We’re seeing this right now with Martin St. Louis, with people using this sample size as a basis for second-guessing the trade and whether he fits on this team. Sure, there are tangible reasons why a player might slump or get hot, and I’m sure the transition for St. Louis is factoring into his lack of production, but the above graph shows that a terrible 12-game stretch in the goalscoring department could happen to any player for no good reason; St. Louis is no exception. The reality, which some seem to be afraid of, is that hockey is a sport with a lot of variability and a lot of luck. Sometimes players have good or bad stretches just because of random chance. Over time, it corrects itself. Rick Nash is in a great stretch right now while St. Louis is in probably the worst of his career. The next 10 games could see these two guys reversing roles. It doesn’t automatically correlate to anything. Instead, we should broaden are expectations and evaluate players on greater scales, where a roll of the dice can’t skew perception. In the big picture, Rick Nash has 25 goals in 59 games; a pace of 35 goals over a full 82-game season. He has the seventh highest goals/60 minutes in the NHL (minimum 56 GP); higher than Crosby, Kessel, Kane, and Iginla, among others. Rick Nash is providing the exact kind of goalscoring production he was brought in for. The fact that it has come in bunches instead of some uniform, equal distribution over the whole season is irrelevant. If he hasn’t met your standards, then instead of questioning Nash, maybe question how realistic those expectations actually are and what actually constitutes “consistent” in the National Hockey League.

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