Gauntlet Sportspinions: NHL stats galore

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It's the end of September and time to take that shotgun out of your mouth--the NHL season is almost here. The coming of the NHL season also means the arrival of another reason not to kill yourself: hockey pools. The annual tradition of engaging your friends, co-workers or fellow transients in a game of who can pick the player who will score the most points for their hockey-based corporation is as old as the game itself, but it also brings a problem: who do you pick? Rather than telling you who to pick, I took on the task of looking at the statistical probabilities of using the best tool available to you: who finished on top of the league last year.

After analyzing the last 10 seasons of the top-25 point-getters I've come to a simplistic conclusion: it's mostly random. On average, 56 per cent of the players in the top-25 scorers drop out the next year. Last year, only 13 players returned to the top-25. But don't put the shotgun back in your mouth just yet as there are still a few general guidelines you can follow.

In an obvious conclusion, older players fall out of the top-25 scorers more frequently. Players older than 35 drop out at a rate of 70 per cent, players between the ages of 30 and 35 drop out 64 per cent of the time and players younger than 25 have the highest staying power with only 45 per cent of them dropping out of the top-25 the following season. This makes picks from last year's top-25 like Ray Whitney, who turned 35 this year and finished 23rd last season, Rod Brind'Amour, who turned 37 and finished 24th, and even Joe Sakic, who turned 38 and finished sixth, risky bets. In the last ten seasons, only eight per cent of top-25 point-getters have been over the age of 35 and only three players have managed to make it into the top-25 at the age of 38 or older: Adam Oates, Brett Hull, who both did it twice, and Ron Francis.

What may help Sakic, but not Brind'Amour or Whitney, is his position on last year's list. Players who finished sixth to 10th dropped out 64 per cent of the time, players who finished 21st to 25th faired worse and dropped out of the top-25 69 per cent of the time, where as players in the top-5 only dropped out of the top-25 31 per cent of the time. Barring serious injuries, Joe Thornton, Dany Heatley, Sidney Crosby and Vincent Lecavalier, who are younger than 30 and finished in the top-5 last year, are great picks. Martin St. Louis, who finished fifth last season and turned 32 this year, is not as good because of age and consistency issues.

Unlucky positioning may hinder a few top-25 first-timers from last year. Thomas Vanek, who finished 19th in the league last year with 84 points, sits in one of the worst positions. Players in the 19th position have dropped out 89 per cent of the time in the last 10 years. The pressure is on Vanek because of the massive contract he was sidled with in the off-season and the departure of Sabre-teammates Daniel Briere and Chris Drury might also hinder his performance. Vanek's ex-teammate Briere might also be concerned after finishing tenth in the league last year. The tenth place player has dropped out of the top-25 89 per cent of the time as well. On the opposite side, the player in second place has successfully brought themselves back into the top-25 each of the last ten seasons.

Though there aren't any completely safe bets, the top-3 players offer your best chances. The top-3 dropped out of the top-25 only 30 per cent of the time in the last ten seasons and, if they break the top-25 again, average 94 points the next season.

Beyond these guidelines, there are a few other decently safe bets. Jaromir Jagr has been in the top-25 in each of the last 10 years and finished eighth last year. Daniel Alfredsson holds the longest current streak after Jagr. Alfredsson finished in the top-25 each of the last five seasons.

With these trends and statistics on your side, you'll be unstoppable--or so you think. Because of the nature of the game, the top point-getting seasons are as much a mix of luck with skill as it is anything else. So, after following these statistics, hedge your bets and pray to God, Allah or Buddha--they may offer you and your team of sweaty puck-movers their blessing. Or, y'know, not.