Faceoff dominance: Does it help you win?

Over the last decade or so, a few players have stood out as excellent face-off men. Washington’s Bob Snider and his brother, Calgary’s Geoff Snider, are the cream of the crop right now, and in recent years Peter Jacobs, Jamie Hanford, and Jamison Koesterer have also made names for themselves in the circle. But does it really matter?

Logic says yes. When you win a face-off, you gain possession and in lacrosse, possession is everything. If you win 75-80% of your face-offs, as the Snider boys do with regularity, that’s 10-15 extra possessions per game for your team, and at least a few of those have to translate into goals, right? But do the stats bear that out? As we frequently do on this blog, let’s look at the numbers and see if they support something that “everybody knows”.

tl;dr

For those of you who don’t care to look at the actual numbers, here’s the “too long; didn’t read” version: Yes, but not by very much. Feel free to skip to the conclusion now.

The numbers

I only have sufficient stats for the 2012 season, so we’ll have to restrict the numbers to that season. There were 72 games played during the regular season, and therefore 72 winners. Three of the 72 games finished with a tie in faceoffs, so we won’t count those three. Of the 69 remaining games, the winning team led in faceoffs 39 times (56.5%). This means that in 30 of the games (43.5%), the winning team won fewer faceoffs than the losing team.

So it looks like winning the faceoff battle does give you a slight edge. But let’s look even further. If we look at games where one team really dominated the faceoffs, say winning 70% or more, we find the opposite. There were 28 such games last year, and the team that won the faceoff battle only won 13 (46%) of them. Of the 15 games where the losing team won 70% or more of the faceoffs, the teams break down like this: Washington 8, Philadelphia 3, Calgary 3, and Minnesota 1. The Stealth lost eight games (and won three) while winning 70+% of the faceoffs.

Of course, this is a strange case – the team with the best face-off man in the league and the worst record. This is also the record of one team over only 16 games. Calgary, for example, went 5-3 in games where they won 70+% of faceoffs. Even if we look at the season as a whole, that one team dominates so much that the numbers are too skewed to be meaningful. Not surprisingly, we can’t honestly say that winning 70% of the faceoffs means you’re less likely to win the game.

Conclusion

The conclusion to all of this is that during the 2012 season, teams won 56.5% of games in which they won more faceoffs than their opponents. I’ve done the calculations for the 2013 season as well (less than half over), and through 31 games (one game tied), everything is exactly 50-50 – winning teams have also led in faceoffs 50% of the time.

This tells me that winning the battle of the faceoffs does give your team a greater chance to win, but not by as much as you might think.

Veterans and goal reviews and Dave Pym is a smart guy

There have been a few things I’ve wanted to write about but they weren’t really enough for a whole post. So I came up with the completely original idea of combining them all into one post. I know, right? Brilliant!


What is a veteran?

I recently got into a conversation over Twitter with @IKnowLax (and he does know lax) after a blog posting he made where he referenced Rock forward Garrett Billings as a veteran. I said that Billings hadn’t been in the league long enough yet to qualify as a veteran, and he disagreed. So I asked my twitter followers what they thought – how do you define “veteran” in the context of the NLL? Is it strictly time played in the league, and how long? Does the player’s impact on the league change things? I used an example: Cody Jamieson is in his third season but has already led his team to a Championship – is he a veteran? I got a few varied responses:

  • IKnowLax – “a person who has had a long experience in a particular field” I’d say 2 years. You’re not considered new at a job after that. …a guy like Cody Jamieson I would consider a vet.
  • TimNThen – I’d say it’s more based on playing time and impact combined
  • HindaCozaCulp – time in the league
  • banditfan11 – I don’t think he [Billings] should be called a veteran just yet
  • StealthDragon – I think years. If you make it to your 3rd year you’re a veteran [He clarified later to say that he meant once you’ve finished 3 years, so you’re a vet in your fourth]
  • apmckay – To me a veteran is someone who’s been through enough he can guide others through it too.

I also asked on the IL Indoor forums and got a few more responses there:

  • Wings-4-Life – My cutoff is 5 full years. I do not consider Jammer or Billings to be veterans.
  • Laxwizz – I’d say 50+ games in the league. If you’ve been able to stick with the league that long you deserve to be called a vet. [50 games is a little over 3 seasons.]
  • Hollywood42 – 5 or more years IMO
  • @podcasterryan – For me it’s 3 full seasons. In your fourth year you are a vet.
  • poskid – I like four years. Might be because the Swarm are so young and lasting four years here means something.
  • swami24 broke it down even further: You are a veteran at the start of your third full year. You are a seasoned veteran in your 6th season and a grizzled veteran in your 10th.

So we don’t have a real consensus, but it looks like most people would consider a player a veteran after they had finished 3-4 years. Personally, I’d give it a couple more years – after five full years I’d probably use the term veteran. I might drop it to four if the player had had a significant impact, so I might give Jamieson that honour next year.


The magic number

Former Roughnecks coach and current Toronto Rock scout Dave Pym tweeted recently:

Unlike Spinal Tap the magic number is not 11. It is 12. If you can pop 12 then your winning % will be 75% and better. Probably a lot higher.

Of course, that made me curious, and I jumped into action. It’s not that I was trying to prove Pym right or wrong, I was just curious as to how true that was. It shouldn’t really be that surprising that Pym’s impressions after all of his years in lacrosse were pretty accurate.

Over the history of the NLL (not including any games from the 2013 season), the the average losing score was 10.6 (the average winning score was 14.4 in case you’re wondering). The median losing score is 10, so if you want to give yourself a >50% chance of winning, scoring 11 would do it, but just barely. Scoring 11 goals would have won you 51.6% of all NLL games. Scoring 12 would give you a much higher 64.6% winning percentage, and if you wanted to hit the 75% mark, you’d need to score 13 (which would actually give you 76%).


Automatic goal reviews

While watching the Calgary / Edmonton game a couple of weeks ago (not last week’s 9-8 nailbiter, but the 18-15 goal-o-rama game the week before), I thought I was watching a basketball game: there was lots of scoring and the last few minutes of the game took forever. I wasn’t the only one either; lots of people on twitter felt the same way. The reason for the frustration was the fact that there were three goals scored within the last two minutes of the fourth quarter, the time during which no goal challenges are allowed. Instead, the referees will automatically review every goal during those two minutes. This apparently includes included empty-net goals.

I get the idea of this rule. If a coach challenges a goal and the challenge is overturned, his team loses a timeout. If they don’t have a timeout remaining, they get a bench minor penalty. But if there aren’t two minutes left in the 4th quarter, the team can’t serve the whole two minutes, so there’s less of a risk to calling for a challenge. To avoid frivolous “nothing to lose” challenges near the end of a game, they simply take away that possibility and review every goal, negating the need for a challenge. But I expected that the rule was written to say that all goals in the last two minutes of the 4th were reviewed if necessary. If there is no question that the shooter was outside the crease, none of his teammates are near the crease, and the ball went in before the whistle, shot clock expiry or final buzzer, there’s no need to review it, right? Apparently not. Even worse, both of the empty-net goals were reviewed.

The fact that these goals were reviewed at all is frustrating enough. But when the reviews take two minutes or more, we start to get into “ridiculous” territory. They showed the replay from a couple of different angles during the telecast, and there was no question that the goals were good. There’s no reason those reviews should have taken more than about fifteen seconds. I have no idea why they took so long. The fans watching on twitter, those in the stands at the game, and even the announcers calling the game were similarly stumped.

Some of the suggestions I saw on twitter were to limit the time that a review could take (i.e. if the ref can’t figure it out within 30 or 60 seconds, the call on the floor stands), or allowing the coach of the team who was scored on to waive the review. The problem with the second option is that if the losing team is gaining momentum in the last two minutes, the scored-on coach would not waive the review because he wants to kill any momentum the scoring team might have had. But momentum is being killed anyway, so they need to do something.

Thankfully the NLL announced a couple of days later that empty-net goals in the final two minutes of the fourth (or OT) are no longer required to be reviewed. While this is a great addition, I would have preferred the rule be changed to give the referees the ability to decide for themselves whether a review is necessary. A lot of people complain about the refs in the NLL, but the league has to show enough confidence in them to allow them to see a goal and make a judgment call as to whether it needs reviewing. Maybe they can err on the side of caution and say “If it’s close at all, review it”.

Either way though, kudos to the NLL for addressing this issue quickly.


Colorado’s goalies

Last year, I seem to remember some trepidation about Chris Levis being the Mammoth’s starting goalie. Was he up to the task? By the end of the year, however, there were no doubts, and Levis placed third in IL Indoor’s Goaltender of the Year race (even getting one first-place vote). It seemed that many people forgot about this over the summer, though, since I saw a lot of people remarking at the beginning of this season that Colorado’s biggest question mark was goaltending. Now maybe Levis had a bad summer in the MSL or WLA, or got injured while windsurfing or something, and I didn’t hear about it. But it seemed to me that if Levis was one of the best goaltenders in 2012, there shouldn’t be much of a question about him in 2013 before any games have been played.

Sure enough though, Levis didn’t have a great start to the season and was released. Matt Roik, who had been brought in during the off-season as Levis’ backup, was given the starting job. But when the Mammoth signed Dan Lewis to back up Roik, I saw tweets from people talking about how the Mammoth had solved their goaltending problems. Really? Dan Lewis is the answer? Nothing against Lewis, about whom I know very little, but his entire NLL career consists of nine minutes during which he allowed 4 goals and made 10 saves. That’s not much to go on.

That said, as of now Lewis has played 8 minutes. He’s got a 9.25 GAA and 87.5% save percentage. Not bad at all.

Hyperbole

As they say, hyperbole is just the worst.

Over the 12 years I’ve been “involved” with lacrosse (involved is in quotes since I don’t play or coach – my sole involvement is watching it and writing about it), I’ve heard a lot of claims about the sport and the league. Some are true and some are not, but many are opinions presented as fact. Let’s take a look at some of them and see which ones actually stand up.

 

Bring someone to a lacrosse game once and they’ll come back again and again.

Truth: Nope. If that were true, attendance would continually be increasing. NLL attendance goes up and down just like every other sport, depending on the team’s success, the economy, other sports and entertainment offerings in the city, and a bunch of other factors. The Wings and Rock are drawing far less than they used to. Buffalo had huge crowds, then they dropped off significantly, and now they’re back up. This year, Washington’s first home game had an attendance of 7,023. About 2,000 of those were Native Americans for whom Rochester owner Curt Styres bought tickets. Washington’s second home game was seen by 3,766, a drop of almost 50%.

Some people see a lacrosse game for the first time and are immediately hooked, myself included. Many others are not.

 

Lacrosse players play for the love of the game and not for money, unlike greedy NHL/MLB/every-other-sport players.

Truth: Tough one. Yes and no. It’s definitely true that lacrosse players make far less money than in the NBA, NHL, MLB, or NFL. While we see NHL players flying first class and staying in 5-star hotels and fighting for $8 million per season instead of a measly $7½ million (and baseball players fighting over double that amount), lacrosse players seem happy to take vacation days from their real jobs to fly coach (or take buses), play a game, and then travel home again before going back to work, all for an average of less than $15,000 per year.

At the same time, it’s not like there have been no labour issues in the NLL:

  • The 2005 season was almost cancelled because of labour difficulties, and last-minute negotiations resulted in a deal that saved the season.
  • The 2008 season was cancelled because of a players strike (not a lockout) over money. Again, some last-minute heroics saved the season.
  • That 2008 strike cost the league the Arizona Sting.
  • They are playing the 2013 season under the previous (expired) CBA because they couldn’t negotiate a new one in time for the season to start. Kudos to both the league and the PLPA for agreeing to do this.

It sounds like more hyperbole, but because of that strike in 2008 we almost lost the season and I’m not sure the league as a whole could have survived it. This was pre-Twitter, but those of us on the NLL message boards were quite convinced that we’d seen the last of the NLL. That event really soured me on the whole “players play for love of the game” thing, and whenever I hear someone say that, I immediately think “well mostly, but…..”

 

NLL teams that play games on back-to-back nights do better in the second game.

Truth: Nope. Last season, I looked at the back-to-back game stats over the history of the league (up to 2011 since 2012 was in progress at the time) and did the math. The numbers tell us that there is no pattern – playing two games on consecutive nights is no different from playing two games a week apart.

I think the confusion here is that it seems like common sense that a team playing on back-to-back nights would be tired on the second night and so one might expect that they lose those games more often. Since teams don’t have a terrible record in those games (on average, their records in those games aren’t any better or worse than their records in any other games), people think “they win more often than they should”, and that ends up translating to “they win more often than they lose”.

 

Lacrosse is the fastest-growing sport in North America.

Truth: Yes and no. I’ve been hearing this claim for ten years, and if lacrosse had been the fastest growing sport every year for 10 years, it’d be freakin’ huge by now. And I was right, sort of. Lacrosse has not been the fastest-growing sport in each of the last ten years; between 2007 and 2009 it was rugby.  But over the last ten years as a whole, lacrosse is indeed the fastest-growing sport in the US. From that article, “Lacrosse participation is up 218.1 percent over the last 10 years.

Note that all the stats I could find were American, and were likely talking about field lacrosse.

 

Offense wins games, defense wins championships.

Truth: Mainly false. Again, I’ve done the math and if we look at all of the champions in the 25-year history of the NLL, more often than not they’ve ranked higher in the league on offense than they did on defense. The Les Bartley era in Toronto (1998-2003) was a six-year anomaly.

 

Do you know of other similar statements about lacrosse? Want to know if they’re true? Post a comment and let me know.

Home field advantage

As I’ve mentioned before, I have a database of every NLL game played between 1987 and 2011 (now 2012). When I started looking over the data, the thing that jumped out at me the most was when I looked at individual game score records such as highest scoring games (total score), lowest scoring games, biggest goal differential, that sort of thing. I looked at the top ten of each, and three of them had a very obvious pattern. At first blush, one of these didn’t seem to match the other two, but I’ll get to that later.

The first two that I saw were these:

  • Of the top ten games with the biggest goal differential, nine of them were won by the home team.
  • Of the top ten games with the most goals by one team, eight of them were won by the home team.

Why would this be? Could it be that the crowd is indeed the extra man on the floor and their cheering really does provide a boost to the home team, like the players always say in interviews? I have always assumed that players say that because that’s what they have to say, but in truth they are so focused on the game itself that they are able to tune out the fans, whether cheering or booing. I’m sure that’s at most partially true, since it’s hard to tune out 10,000 people cheering for or against you. (Indeed, Edmonton Rush player Jarrett Toll admittedyou don’t hear “normal” crowds but the loud ones make an impression every time‘.) But if your team is scoring tons of goals and the fans are really loud, it appears that this can push you to keep scoring, even if the other team is scoring a ton as well.

A couple of other similar numbers that I found later:

  • The home team has won 53.4% of regular season overtime games (87-76)
  • The home team has won 70% of playoff overtime games (7-3)

Former NLL player, coach, and serious dreadlocks owner Tom Ryan (pictured at right) wrote a piece on IL Indoor last year about Home Field Advantage in the NLL, where he did a lot of work analyzing how teams performed at home vs. on the road. His conclusion was that over the last three seasons, Toronto and Minnesota have enjoyed the best home field advantage.

The outlier?

The one pattern that was obvious from the data but didn’t seem to match the rest was this:

  • Of the top ten games with the lowest total score, seven of them were won by the away team.

But when you think about it, the crowd could explain this as well. If the home team has only scored 3 goals in the game and it’s the fourth quarter, the barn is likely to be pretty quiet. For the home team, not hearing the crowd just reminds them that they’re not playing well, while being able to silence the crowd in your opponent’s barn is likely a huge confidence booster for the other team.

Long story short? If you’re a fan, cheer loudly for your team. It really can help.

Success vs. attendance

This one should be obvious. If a team is winning, what happens to their home attendance? Goes up, right? In general, yes. But how much?

I was having a conversation with someone about attendance at lacrosse games, and he said that attendance had dropped at games in Philadelphia ever since the league started cracking down on hitting and fighting. It certainly hasn’t been eliminated from the game, but many think it’s down from where it used to be. He said that this is a bad thing for the league and this could be seen by looking at the attendance numbers. I pointed out that the fact that Philadelphia has had a playoff team only twice in the last decade may have something to do with declining attendance, so it’s pretty close to impossible to say that the drop in attendance was due entirely (or even partially) to the drop in hitting.

Hitting is something we don’t have accurate stats on, so we can’t really do any kind of analysis on how that correlates with attendance. But we do have won-loss records and attendance numbers, so let’s look at those.

What we’re looking for is how a team’s attendance correlates with that team’s success on the floor. To measure attendance (and factor out the number of games per season), we’ll use the average attendance at home games. To measure success, we’ll use the winning percentage, number of wins divided by number of games played. In this case, we are ignoring playoff games. I then calculated what’s called the correlation coefficient for each team. I won’t describe the math since if you know what it is you don’t need the description, and if you don’t know what it is you likely don’t care. Suffice it to say that a value of 1 means the attendance always goes up as success goes up and drops when the team is less successful. A value of -1 means it’s exactly backwards – attendance goes up as success goes down and vice versa. The closer the number is to 1 or -1, the stronger the effect – a value of 0 means that attendance and success are unrelated.

To avoid small sample sizes, we’ll only look at teams with 10 or more seasons in the NLL. The teams involved are the New York Saints, Baltimore Thunder, Philadelphia Wings, Colorado Mammoth, Calgary Roughnecks, Toronto Rock, Rochester Knighthawks, and Buffalo Bandits.

AttendanceVsSuccess

What this tells us is that the New York Saints attendance numbers were very dependent on their success – as their win-loss records started to decline, their attendance dropped. This effect was similar in Philadelphia, Rochester, and Colorado. The rest of the teams had much smaller coefficients, meaning that their attendance didn’t depend very much on their success on the floor.

Calgary’s value was negative, implying that as Calgary’s numbers go up, their attendance numbers actually go down. But this is a bit misleading – especially since I tweeted about it saying that it was depressing. The actual value is –0.019, which is close enough to zero that it’s fair to say that Calgary’s success on the floor is unrelated to their attendance numbers. The numbers for Toronto and Baltimore are slightly higher but still low enough to imply no correlation, and Buffalo is right at the bottom end of “low correlation”.

The definition of “bandwagon jumpers” or “fairweather fans” would be those who show up to support their team when they’re doing well and abandon the team when they’re not. Would it be unfair to refer to the numbers for the top four as being indicative of this? I’ll leave that determination as an exercise for the reader.

Upcoming NLL milestones

Here are some statistical milestones that may or may not be reached during the 2013 NLL season. Of course, all of these numbers are completely arbitrary – does anyone discount Tom Marechek’s achievements because he “only” scored 399 goals in his career and didn’t get the elusive 400th? Of course not, but people seem to like nice round numbers, so here are a few that we may see this coming season.

Players

John Tavares (photo: Larry Palumbo)A few players are close to some significant targets this season. Nobody will hit 1000 points unless a new single-season points record is set – Gavin Prout needs 119 points to reach 1000, and Dan Dawson needs 129. The closest points milestone would be 800, which only ten NLL players have ever reached, and which Mike Accursi will reach with only 15 more points.

John Tavares has reached more than his share of milestones over the years, and 2013 may feature yet another height to which nobody else has climbed. JT is already the only player in NLL history with 700 goals, and with 35 this season, he would reach 800. Tavares had 41 in 2012 so this is not out of the realm of possibility. To put this milestone in perspective, John Grant is the only other active player with over 500 goals, and Junior would need six more 50-goal seasons to reach 800.

Colin Doyle could join Tavares and Grant in the 500-goal club by scoring 42. Doyle has only reached 42 goals in one season three times and not since 2006 so this is a bit of a long shot.

Potential candidates for the 400-goal club include Lewis Ratcliff (needs 20), and Josh Sanderson and Mike Accursi, each of whom needs 32. Tracey Kelusky needs 43, but seeing as he’s only scored 32 in the past two seasons combined, this is even more of a long shot than Doyle.

A few almost-sure things are the three likely new members of the 300-goal club: Aaron Wilson needs 3, Blaine Manning needs 4, and Gavin Prout needs 7.

Just as John Tavares is the only player to reach 700 goals, he is also the only player to have reached 800 assists, and Tavares needs just 38 more to reach 900. Colin Doyle would need an 80-assist season (which has only been done once, right Mr. Billings?) just to reach 800. But only four players have ever reached 600 assists, and both Gavin Prout and John Grant are likely to join that club this season. Prout only needs 12 to get there, while Grant needs 26.

In terms of loose balls, no previously unobtained milestones will be reached this season. Or the next. Or even the one after that. Jim Veltman’s record of 2417 is safe for quite some time – John Tavares is the only player within eight hundred of Veltman, and Tavares would have to play for 3 1/2 more seasons (at his career average of 97 LB) to get there. But if anyone can reach Veltman’s astronomical total, Brodie Merrill and Geoff Snider are the most likely candidates, and each of them could reach the 1500 loose ball total this season. Merrill only needs 129 (he’s never had fewer than 157), and Snider needs 208, a figure he’s only failed to reach twice in six seasons. But assuming Merrill and Snider keep up their current paces (12.4 per game for Merrill, 14.5 for Snider) and play 16 games a year, Geoff Snider will become the new all-time leader 13 games into the 2017 season. I wrote about this once before and stated it wouldn’t be until 2018, but Snider’s 232 LB in only 14 games last year increased his average.

The 1000 loose ball mark is reachable by a few players: Gavin Prout only needs 27, Josh Sanderson 57, and Bill Greer 76.

Teams

The Colorado Mammoth have three upcoming team milestones, two of which are very obtainable while the third will be close. The easy ones first: the Mammoth are 43 goals away from 2000 regular season goals, and they are 80111 people away from a total of 1.5 million in attendance, including both regular season and playoff games. An average of just 10013 per game in their 8 home games will attain that mark – and the Mammoth’s smallest crowd ever was 12537. The slightly more difficult milestone: 10 regular season wins will give them 100.

The Philadelphia Wings’ first loss of the 2013 season will be their 150th regular season loss in their history. This is far and away the most losses for any NLL team, and nobody else is even close. Of course, they’ve played at least five more seasons than anyone else. But consider this: in the last ten seasons, the Wings have only reached .500 three times (and only exceeded it once). The fact that they are still above .500 all-time is a testament to how good they were in the 1990’s. There were only 8-12 games per season, but the Wings had seven straight seasons over .700. In fact, regardless of how they finish this season, they will still end up above .500. Even going 0-16 this season will put them at 169-165.

The Calgary Roughnecks’ first home game will be their 100th, and the Riggers could reach one million in regular season attendance this season as well. They are 66896 away from that mark, an average of 8362 per game. The ‘Necks averaged 8313 per game in 2012, so just an extra 50 people per game will do it.

The Edmonton Rush should have a much easier time reaching their attendance milestone than the Roughnecks. The Rush only need 19201 to reach the half-million mark. Other than a slight bump from their first season (2006) to their second, the Rush’s average attendance has dropped every season. But unless it drops by over 30% from 2012 to 2013, they should hit the half-million target in game 3.

League

This is a fact that I first pointed out on my personal blog back in 2008, and then reposted on The NLL Blog in 2010 (and have since seen mentioned elsewhere as well): The last time the NLL began a season with the same teams in the same cities as the previous season was 1993. Barring last-minute foldings like the Ravens in 2005, 2013 will end the 19-year streak. If you’re looking for stability in a league that’s shown anything but for almost two decades, this might be the biggest milestone of all.

Goals per game in the NLL

When hearing someone describe the NLL to a non-lacrosse person, you tend to hear the same things over and over:

  • played in a hockey rink with the ice covered with artificial turf
  • similar rules to hockey, but with the shot clock and over-and-back rules of basketball
  • high-scoring, average of about 25 goals per game

But how accurate is that “25 goals per game” number? On the surface, it seems about right – games like 14-10 or 13-12 are pretty typical, 18-15 is a little on the high side, and 11-7 is a little low. But if we actually crunch the numbers, what do we find?

Amazingly, we find that this number is almost exactly correct. Taking into account the 1,633 games (regular season and playoffs) from 1987 up to and including the 2012 season, the average number of goals scored per game is 24.99. But the breakdown by season is surprising:

AvgGoals

The first ten years or so were pretty unpredictable, ranging from 22.6 in 1990 to 29.1 only two years later. The extremes: the highest scoring season was 1992, when 29.1 goals were scored per game. 2011 was the lowest scoring season, with an average of only 21.7 goals per game. The first six seasons were interesting – two seasons in the mid 27’s, two low-scoring seasons of 24 and 22, then the two highest ever, 28.2 and 29.1.

The obvious trend is that from 2000 until 2011, the number of goals scored dropped pretty steadily, from 28.2 in 2000 to a low of 21.7 in 2011. The NLL increased the width of the nets from 4’6″ to 4’9″ in 2002, and one of the first games of the 2002 season featured the Montreal Express defeating the Calgary Roughnecks 32-17. Fans wondered if that would be the norm with the new nets, but in the end it made little difference; the average actually dropped about half a goal from 2001 to 2002, and then down over a full goal the next year as goalies adapted. However in 2012, a number of rule changes were made in an attempt to speed up the game, and seemed to have the (possibly unintentional) effect of increasing scoring as well. After the lowest-scoring season ever in 2011, scoring rebounded in 2012, jumping 2½ goals per game to 24.2.

Why did the rule changes increase goal scoring? Here’s why:

  • The 8 second rule (instead of 10), the “immediately drop the ball on possession changes” rule, and the fast starts all meant that there were more transition chances, and many of those were converted.
  • In addition, the faster the transition, the more likely that an offensive player will get stuck on the floor playing D, and some offensive players are just not the two-way players of old. They’re not all as skilled at their own end of the floor as at they are the other end, and so playing five top offensive players against four defenders and one O guy playing D gives the offense a bit of an advantage.
  • Defenders were also forced to give up their longer 46″ sticks for 42″ sticks, obviously making it harder for them to stop the John Grants and Dan Dawsons of the league.
  • Finally, on a five-minute power play, three goals are now required to allow the penalized player out of the box instead of two. I don’t think this rule came into effect all that often, but it did mean that some 5-on-4’s lasted longer in 2012 than they would have in 2011.

Will the NHL lockout affect the NLL?

When it became clear that an NHL lockout in 2012-2013 was inevitable, many NLL fans, writers, players, and executives seemed to believe that while this is a big drag for hockey fans (which many lacrosse fans are), it could be a good thing for the NLL. The obvious logic is that without hockey to watch, hockey fans may look for other places to spend their sports event dollars. What better place to spend it than on a league that plays in many of the same arenas, with a similar sport, featuring some of the best athletes in the world, and with tickets that cost a fraction of NHL tickets? The NLL can’t lose! Can it?

Of course, this has happened before. The NHL missed the entire 2004-2005 season due to a lockout, and so the entire 2005 NLL season was played while there were no NHL games being played. How did the NLL do attendance-wise that year? Let’s have a look.

The overall average attendance for the NLL in 2005 was 10237, which was up 3.6% from 9885 in 2004. Looks promising so far. But 2004’s attendance was up 14.3% from 8649 in 2003, so attendance was already increasing. In 2006 the attendance was 10703, which was up 4.6% over 2005. Overall attendance did increase in 2005, but less than it had in 2004, and less than it would in 2006.

Here is a graph showing the average home attendance for each team as well as for the entire league (the black line in the middle).

Attendance 03-08

Do you see any peaks in 2005? Toronto has a little one, but they won the Championship with a powerhouse team. 2005 was the last year of the Rock’s early-2000’s dynasty so the increase makes sense. Buffalo was right in the middle of their impressive resurrection from only 7002 in 2003 to the mid-15000’s only 4 years later. Arizona was up 13.9%, but that’s all of 800 people. Other teams showed no significant increase, if any. Calgary was up 2.1%, but grew 15.4% the next year. Anaheim, San Jose and Toronto were up less than 2%, and Rochester less than 1%. Colorado was down 3% and Philly was down almost 14%.

The obvious but unfortunate conclusion is that the 2004-2005 NHL lockout had little to no impact on NLL attendance.

Unfortunately, I don’t have any TV numbers, so I can’t look at whether more people watched the NLL on TV in 2005. If the NLL approached TSN or Sportsnet or the CBC (Anyone for “Lacrosse Night in Canada”? Could it happen?) with the opportunity to televise NLL games, that could be a ton of exposure for the league. I don’t pretend to have the faintest idea on how the finances of such a deal would work; it could be that the NLL would have to pay for that privilege rather than receive money from the networks. I know the Rock paid to have some of their games televised over the last couple of seasons.

Could the NLL benefit from the NHL lockout? Attendance-wise, it doesn’t seem likely without the league doing a fair bit of work (and possibly spending a fair bit of money) to advertise the hell out of the league and bring new people in. After that, it’s up to the league to continue that push to make sure all those first-timer’s come back once hockey starts again.

Defense wins championships – or does it?

Offense wins games. Defense wins championships.

I’ve heard that quote in relation to lacrosse, football, and basketball, and it’s probably been applied in other sports as well. I know that a lot of Toronto Rock fans from the early 2000’s believed it, but is it generally true? Let’s take a look at the NLL Champions from 1987 to 2011, covering 25 seasons. Don’t worry, this isn’t nearly the propeller-head stats-fest that my article on back-to-back games was.

I went through each Championship team and calculated their rank in the league that year in terms of both goals scored and goals against. Just so we’re clear, “first” in goals scored is the highest amount, while “first” in goals against is the lowest. That’s fairly basic and obvious stuff, but I wanted to spell it out to avoid any misunderstandings. I’m going to ignore the absolute value of goals for and against, mainly because a different number of games were played in different seasons. Using the rank rather than the value factors that out, as well as other differences like rule changes. I’ll look at goal scoring trends in the NLL in a future article.

The “rank” I’m using for a given team is “1 plus the number of teams that are ahead of the team in question”. So if two teams scored more goals than the team I’m looking at, they are ranked third. If another team scored the same number of goals, then the team I’m looking at was actually tied for third, but I’m ignoring that – tied or not, they still had the third-highest total.

Before we get to the general trends, here are the extremes. In the 25 years of the NLL, only once has the Championship winner been both #1 in goals scored and #1 in goals against – the 1994 Philadelphia Wings. At the other end of the spectrum, the 2003 Rock were ninth in goals scored (they scored 36 fewer goals than the #1 Bandits that year), but first in goals against. The 2007 Knighthawks were the exact opposite – first in goals scored (scoring 30 more goals than anyone else) but ninth in goals against.

If defense wins championships, then it stands to reason that most Championship teams would rank higher in goals against than they would in goals scored. But we don’t find that to be the case. Out of 25 seasons, 12 of the Champions (or 48%) ranked first in the league in goals scored, but only 8 (32%) ranked first in goals against. The average rank for goals scored is 2.6 while the average rank for goals against is 3.1. This means that on average, the Championship team is closer to the top of the league in goals scored than they are in goals against, i.e. most Championship teams are better offensively than they are defensively. Defense does not win championships.

But there was a period where it did. From 1998 to 2003, the Rock won four titles and the Wings won two. Only one of those teams – the 2001 Wings – was not first in the league in goals against, and only those same Wings were as high as third in goals scored. The Rock Championship teams in 1999-2000 and 2002-2003 were 5th, 6th, 7th, and 9th respectively in goals scored. But before that period, the top defensive team had only won the Championship once, the 1994 Wings, and it’s only happened once since, the 2009 Roughnecks. On the other hand, from 1988 to 1996, every Champion except one (the 1990 Wings) was first in goals scored. It didn’t happen again until the 2005 Rock, but then it happened in five of the next seven years.

Here’s a graph of the ranks of the Championship teams in both goals scored (blue) and goals against (red). Notice how the blue line stays low until about 1997, then jumps up for a few years before dropping back down again. At the same time, the red line is higher during the 90’s, then drops down to the bottom while the blue line is high, then grows again when the blue one drops. That inversion was the Les Bartley era in Toronto.

GF-GA

Generally, the NLL Champions have been better offensively than defensively. But as we’ve seen, from about 1998 to 2003, that trend was reversed. Of those six seasons, the Toronto Rock under Les Bartley won four Championships – and lost a fifth to the Wings in a low-scoring defensive game. This is one reason Bartley was so well-respected – not only because he led the Bandits to the only undefeated season in NLL history, but because he bucked the trend and built a team that was a defensive powerhouse rather than offensive, and was exceptionally successful doing it.

This is not to say that you don’t need a good defense to win, of course you do. And it’s not to say that you can’t win with a great defense and adequate offense. It’s just happened far more often in the past the other way around.

Could happen…

As of now, three teams have already clinched playoff berths: Colorado, Calgary, and Philadelphia. But given the parity in the NLL this season, it’s far from settled who else will make it. Here are a few scenarios that could still happen:

Bandits win the East

Buffalo is having one of the worst seasons in its history but unbelievably, they could still win the East Division. If the Bandits win their four remaining games, they end up at 8-8. They already own the tiebreaker with the Rock and if they win out, they’ll own the Knighthawks one as well. As long as the Rock win no more than twice and the Knighthawks don’t win out, the Bandits finish no worse than second. The Wings own the tiebreaker with the Bandits so if they win even once more, the Bandits can’t catch them. But if they lose out, the Bandits win the east outright. Not bad for a pathetic stupid team with no heart.

Knighthawks win the East

If the Knighthawks win out and Philly loses twice, they end up tied at 9-7, with Rochester owning the tiebreaker. As long as the Rock don’t win three times, the Knighthawk win the East.

Rock miss the playoffs

If the Rock lose their last four, they end up 6-10. As long as Buffalo and Rochester each win twice, the Rock finish last in the East. If Minnesota beats Philly twice, Edmonton beats Toronto twice and Calgary once, and Washington beats Minnesota, Toronto, and Buffalo, they all finish at 7-9 and the Rock are out.

Philly finishes last in the East

If Philly loses out, they end up 7-9. If the Rock beat Edmonton twice, they have 8 wins. Rochester will get a win against Philly and if they beat Calgary twice, they’ll also have 8 wins. If Buffalo wins out, they finish with 8 wins too, and the Wings are last. As I said, the Wings have already clinched the playoffs; in this scenario, Edmonton will lose three more games, putting them at 6-10.

The Wild Wild West

Calgary and Colorado have locked up first and second in the West – each has 10 wins and nobody else can end up with more than 9. But I think there are scenarios where each of Edmonton, Minnesota, and Washington can come in third, fourth, or fifth, and in some of those cases, fifth place will cross over and make the playoffs.