NHL Playoff Performers: Who is Really Showing Up “When it Counts”?

It’s a common refrain among color commentators and hockey fans alike, noting when a player is or is not “showing up” for the playoffs. Numerous otherwise-HOF players have received the “playoff bust” label for simply not winning the Stanley Cup (despite the fact that a team’s path through the playoffs is fraught with randomness). Players like Alex Ovechkin and Joe Thornton have grappled with media narratives about their postseason futility for a long time, so I figured I would see if the data supports this argument, and what’s more if maybe there are some more-deserving players for these criticism — and what the heck, let’s find some true “playoff heroes” as well.

For the analysis below, I am comparing regular season scoring and penalty minute data to the same measures in playoff games, and focusing on a pool of players who exceed the sample-size threshold we need for assessing player performance through these measures (50+ playoff games played). This gives us a pool of 1,135 players from the 1917-18 through 2018-19 seasons. All data was drawn from hockey-reference.com.

First of all, it’s worth noting that we should expect all players to score a bit less in the playoffs–logically, the competition will be more difficult because you’re essentially shaving away the bottom-performing half of the league. Sure enough, if you look at the scoring rate per game across these NHLers:

SituationGoals/GPAssists/GPPoints/GPPenalty Mins/GP
Avg Regular Season0.210.340.550.88
Avg Playoffs0.180.300.490.99

Stretch those performances out across an 82-game season, and the 17-goal, 28-assist, 45-point regular-season player becomes a 15-goal, 25-assist, 40-point player. It’s also interesting to note that this same average player commits more penalties in the playoffs, which means referees are not necessarily swallowing the whistle in these competitive, high-stakes games. If you split forwards from defensemen, you can see that most of the difference is coming from the forwards:

Player/SituationGoals/GPAssists/GPPoints/GPPenalty Mins/GP
Avg Def Reg Season0.090.290.381.00
Avg Def Playoffs0.090.270.351.07
Avg Fwd Reg Season0.270.380.650.82
Avg Fwd Playoffs0.240.320.560.94

While the defensemen hardly move a blip, a 53-point forward in the regular season becomes a 46-point forward in the playoffs. The fact of this playoff scoring regression should be kept in mind when it comes to playoff critiques: a player performing on-par with the rest of the league — even a superstar — will score fewer points in the playoffs. Someone looking to place blame could level their criticism against a star player who was scoring less simply because the level of competition had increased.

So, which players demonstrated the highest increase in their scoring come playoff time? First, among forwards (n=744; the asterisk [*] indicates a Hall of Fame player):

PlayerPlayed From-ToPts/G Above Reg Season Rate
Jude Drouin196819810.26
Fleming MacKell194719600.23
Craig Simpson198519950.23
Steve Payne197819880.23
Daniel Briere199720150.22
Joel Ward200620180.21
Kevin Stevens198720020.20
Bob Probert198520020.18
Bryan Bickell200620170.18
Mark Messier*197920040.18

Well, not a lot of Hall of Famers on that list. Kevin Stevens was among the few forwards to log a 50-goal, 50-assist, 200-penalty-minute season, and Craig Simpson scored 56 goals at age 20 — only to never do it again — but otherwise we’re looking at a lot of 2nd-line forwards. Bob Probert was far better known for his pugilism than his playoff prowess. The lone exception, Mark Messier, has been justifiably revered for his playoff accomplishments, and tough play when it mattered…but I wonder who sees a just-as-important hockey story in Steve Payne, our mystery player in the lead image for this post? Payne never won a Cup, though he did lead the underdog Minnesota North Stars to a Stanley Cup Final in 1981, and was considered by his general manager of the time, Lou Nanne (a legend of North Stars hockey) “the best clutch goal scorer we ever had.” Despite his skills, his career was cut short while he was still in his 20s, the victim of significant head and neck injuries.

Turning to defensemen (n=391), we get a bit similar amalgam:

PlayerPlayed From-ToPts/G Above Reg Season Rate
Pat Stapleton196119730.22
Trent Yawney198719990.22
Brad Maxwell197719870.17
Brian Leetch*198720060.17
Jason Woolley199120060.16
Dustin Byfuglien200520190.15
Bob Dailey197319820.15
Pierre Pilote*195519690.15
J.C. Tremblay195919720.15
Kevin Haller198920020.14

Two Hall of Famers on this list, neither of whom matched the celebrated defensive defenseman (and current assistant coach of the Edmonton Oilers) Trent Yawney. Much like Messier, though, Brian Leetch was a renowned playoff performer and Conn Smythe Trophy recipient, and Pierre Pilote was the first, crucial building block in a Chicago franchise that finally shrugged off its perpetual-floormat reputation. It’s also worth noting that, with better health, Dustin Byfuglien might also have a shot at an asterisk.

What about the other end of the spectrum, the true “playoff busts”? Again, the forwards first, then defensemen:

PlayerPlayed From-ToPts/G Below Reg Season Rate
Lorne Carr19331946-0.38
Nels Stewart*19251940-0.37
Dave Lumley19781987-0.36
Kent Nilsson19791995-0.36
Tyler Seguin20102019-0.35
Wilf Paiement19741988-0.35
Sweeney Schriner*19341946-0.35
Alexander Mogilny19892006-0.35
Pat Hickey19751985-0.34
Bill Clement19711982-0.34
PlayerPlayed From-ToPts/G Below Reg Season Rate
Norm Maciver19861998-0.32
Reijo Ruotsalainen19811990-0.22
Andrei Markov20002017-0.22
Marc-Andre Bergeron20022013-0.22
Pavel Kubina19972012-0.20
Pat Price19751988-0.20
Mark Howe*19791995-0.19
King Clancy*19211937-0.19
Tomas Kaberle19982013-0.19
Jerry Korab19701985-0.19

Pretty much the same number of Hall of Famers, and Cup winners for that matter, along with at least a couple who were/are elite NHLers over a considerable amount of time (Mogilny, Seguin, Markov). Kent Nilsson’s best years were spent in the breakaway World Hockey Association of the 1970s…and then there’s a guy who built a more-successful career as a color commentator (Bill Clement)!

How about the two stars I mentioned above, Joe Thornton and Alex Ovechkin, both implicated as underperformers in the playoffs?

PlayerPlayed From-ToPts/G Below Reg Season Rate
Joe Thornton19972019-0.20
Alex Ovechkin20052019-0.13

Thornton comes in 629th out of 744 forwards, and Ovechkin 497th, so…not good. That said, they performed better than some hockey media favorites: Steve Yzerman (-0.22), Pavel Datsyuk (-0.24), Mike Bossy and Pat LaFontaine (-0.26), and — if you can believe it — Mario Lemieux (-0.28). Nevermind Bryan Trottier (-0.29) and Teemu Selanne (-0.33). You cannot help but notice, all those hallowed names that underperformed Thornton and Ovechkin are Stanley Cup winners, which seems the cure for all ills. Good thing Ovi got his.

It’s also fair to point out that, on average, NHL forwards averaged -0.09 Pts/G below their regular season rates, which, plus the balm of finally winning the Cup, pretty much absolves Ovechkin.

In any case, playoff performance is clearly tricky when it comes to commentator’s narratives, and elusive to even the greatest of NHLers. Winning a Cup might adjust these narratives, for the most shallow of reasons, but I think it’s fair to say that the players who ought to really be celebrated for their playoff performance suffer a similar fate to those who never win: they are mostly forgotten.


Since I had the data, one other juicy tidbit: who was taking more or fewer penalties in the playoffs? I’ll spare you the position split, and just do top and bottom 5:

Top PlayersPlayed From-ToPosPIM/G Above/Below Reg
Willi Plett19751988F2.53
Lindy Ruff19791991F1.96
Derek Sanderson19651978F1.82
Jim Nill19811990F1.81
Jim Peplinski19801995F1.80
Bottom Players
Mike Peluso19891998F-2.53
Warren Rychel19881999F-1.77
Bryan Marchment19882006D-1.26
Jim McKenzie19892004F-1.23
Bob Boughner19952006D-1.16

This almost seems an interesting, subtle evolution, where the fame and idolatry of the Broad-Street-Bullies-like approach in the playoffs, starting in the mid-1970s and flourishing across the 1980s, met some pragmatism in the 1990s and 2000s. In short, you don’t want to take penalties in the playoffs. Hence, Warren Rychel and Bryan Marchment’s playing times were cut down a full minute when their teams went to the playoffs, and Jim McKenzie’s by two minutes till he got the message in New Jersey. Considering Peluso’s pugilism rivaled Probert’s, I can only imagine the conversations between Peluso and the Devils’ management that resulted in him going from 64 penalty minutes in 17 games of the 1994 playoffs, to only 8 penalty minutes in 20 games of the 1995 playoffs. Perhaps he set the precedent for McKenzie’s treatment.


The dataset for you: