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When Will the Leafs Run Out of Jersey Numbers?

If you’re a spiritual person and a member of the church and congregation of the Toronto Maple Leafs, then October 15, 2016 was a most holy day for you. That Saturday night, before the home opener against the Boston Bruins, the Leafs effectively canonized 17 saints, retiring the jersey numbers of 16 Leafs legends who had previously only been “honoured”, while adding Dave Keon who had been altogether absent from the rafters. And if, since then, you’ve ever sat in the Air Canada Centre and gazed towards the heavens, you might have found yourself wondering – just what is left for us down here? More specifically, just when are the Leafs going to run out of usable jersey numbers?

Buoyed by their renowned brand of optimism, Leafs fans might say “very soon”. When in the presence of, say, Senators or Canadiens or Canucks fans, they might also begin compiling a set of numbers that will soon definitely be unavailable for all time (“34, 29, 16, 43, 28, 15…”). When in the presence of these other fans and also several different kinds of alcohol, they might also note that Lou Lamoriello’s rumoured disdain for high numbers means we can almost predict the order in which the numbers will go up. But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves just yet – let’s wait until the end of the article for that.

We’re going to use historical data on the practice of jersey retirement across the NHL to attempt to project the year that the Leafs franchise will have fewer than 20 available numbers (for the 20 active players required for each game; presumably scratches will be able to give up their numbers if need be). For this exercise, we will assume that only numbers between 1 and 99 are permissible, although perhaps someday we will see triple-digit numbers for players as we already do for some referees. All the while, we need to remember that 99 itself is retired league-wide thanks to Wayne Gretzky, whose impact on the history of the Leafs is of course more infamous than famous. His number and the other 13 that have been retired by the Leafs in their first 101 years of existence leave us with 86 possibilities.

 

But just how can we make an accurate (since this exercise obviously isn’t ludicrous or speculative in the slightest) projection of the time that 86 will dwindle all the way down to 19? It’s clear that NHL teams have approached jersey retirement differently, with some teams bestowing the honour far more liberally than others. For example, the Leafs, long known for merely honouring the numbers of greatly impactful players rather than retiring them, have now retired the numbers of 19 different players, passing Montreal’s 18 for the most in the league. Meanwhile, Calgary and Pittsburgh, teams for whom it is not difficult to conjure up memories of legendary players and Cup-winning squads, have retired only 2 each. It’s fair to say that the mass retirement that took place in Toronto last season in conjunction with celebrations of the team’s centennial had the feeling of a novelty, but you would be hard pressed to find a Leafs fan who disagreed with too many of the choices – perhaps these numbers should have been retired all along. In any case, we will treat these retirements as indicative of what the Leafs organization wants to do going forward in commemorating its past players, which will be important as we look across the league.

 

A league-wide analysis is necessary in order to gather data on the rate at which jersey retirements have occurred thus far in hockey history. But just what is the best method for estimating the rate at which a franchise will retire numbers going forward? One thought in creating a projection for the future is that jersey retirements are merely a function of continuous team existence or, in essence, time. After all, even the most historically futile teams have retired numbers along the way. But another idea is that a team will retire more numbers if it experiences more success. This would seem to make sense, as winning is a natural byproduct of employing the sort of players who would be deserving of number retirement in the first place. Of course, a team that has been around for a while is more likely to have had successful seasons, so the metrics are interrelated (and this is especially true in a league such as the NHL that existed for such a long period of time with a very small number of teams). For the sake of simplicity, however, we are going to keep these two analyses separate. There are a few caveats to mention and things to note here before getting into the numbers. Firstly, we are only using franchises that are currently in existence and only looking back as far as they have continuously existed. This means that the Coyotes numbers include the original Winnipeg Jets numbers and the Hurricanes numbers include the Whalers’, but the Senators numbers do not include the original Ottawa Senators numbers (thus reducing their total retirements from 2 to 1. This is a choice that no readers of this blog are very likely to bemoan, I would think). Secondly, although the natural metric for team success in the NHL is Stanley Cups, only 18 of the current franchises have ever actually drank from Lord Stanley’s mug in their history. To be able to include more data, the metric that is therefore substituted here is appearances in the Stanley Cup Finals, which should still capture strong teams and eras for the franchises. Thirdly, we are looking at the number of players who have had their jerseys retired, not the number of numbers (got that?) that have been recognized, since some teams, including the Leafs, have in effect retired the same number more than once by honouring two players. While it’s true that ultimately we want to find out how many actual numbers are going to be left, what we’re looking at in the historical sense is the rate at which teams produce players deemed to be worthy of the honour, so each of those needs to be captured. And fourthly and finally, only fully retired jerseys are included here, as opposed to those numbers that have been merely “honoured”. Where a team says that a number has been “taken out of circulation”, it just becomes a judgment call whether the particular player fits what we are looking for. With all that in mind, below is the information and subsequent graphical representation of jersey retirements as a function of both length of existence and finals appearances:

 

Players with Retired Jerseys Years of Existence Stanley Cup Finals Appearances
Anaheim Ducks 1 25 2
Arizona Coyotes/Winnipeg Jets 6 46 0
Boston Bruins 10 94 19
Buffalo Sabres 7 48 2
Calgary Flames 2 46 3
Carolina Hurricanes/Hartford Whalers 6 46 2
Chicago Blackhawks 7 92 13
Colorado Avalanche/Quebec Nordiques 9 46 2
Dallas Stars/Minnesota North Stars 4 51 4
Detroit Red Wings 7 92 24
Edmonton Oilers 7 46 7
Los Angeles Kings 6 51 3
Montreal Canadiens 18 109 34
New Jersey Devils/Colorado Rockies/Kansas City Scouts 4 44 3
New York Islanders 6 46 5
New York Rangers 8 92 11
Ottawa Senators* 1 26 1
Philadelphia Flyers 6 51 8
Pittsburgh Penguins 2 51 6
St. Louis Blues 7 51 3
Tampa Bay Lightning 2 16 2
Toronto Maple Leafs 19 101 21
Vancouver Canucks 4 66 3
Washington Capitals 4 44 1

 

 

 

The Leafs, thanks to last October’s 950% increase in their total of players with retired numbers, sit well above the line of best fit for either measure. The second metric sticks out to me on the eye test, and also since the first chart shows us something interesting and revealing: the clear disparity in retired numbers even between teams that have existed for the exact same number of years (the glut of teams added in 1967 is the most glaring example of this). Obviously neither of these approaches is perfect thanks to the extreme subjectivity of what warrants number retirement as well as the team-by-team differences in determining this, and as mentioned earlier it’s likely best to try to use both functions. But, for today, we’re going to go ahead with the success-based approach.

Remember that renowned optimism we talked about earlier? For the purposes of this analysis, we’re going to have to set it aside for a second and assume that, thanks to the NHL’s golden age of parity in which the Leafs and all other teams reside, the Leafs are going to, on average, make the Cup finals every 16 years (if the Eastern Conference remains with 16 teams). That might still mean twice or three times in the next 5 years if we’re lucky (the optimism has returned), but if the salary cap and league structure remain as presently constructed, then over the long time period we are looking at, things will have to eventually even out. Great players and great seasons can cluster together under strong management and drafting – there appears to be a good chance that this is what we are seeing now in Toronto – and this no doubt has the effect of creating eras with clusters of number retirements as well. However, this is an exercise of averages, and the assumption of one finals appearance every 16 years is one that we will proceed under, going forward.

So, here comes the math. As noted in the table, the Leafs have vied for the Cup 21 times (winning 13!), and that success has resulted in 19 different players having their numbers raised to the rafters. This equates to 0.905 retired numbers per finals appearance; looking to the future of the Leafs, this is the rate that we will use. Recall that we are looking to get from the 86 currently available numbers down to 19, or one fewer than the 20 players on the ice and the bench. How long will it take to lose 67 numbers?

If the Leafs make the finals an average of once every 16 years starting this season, then we should expect them to retire one number every 17.679 years. Multiplying this by 67 (a number that never seems to leave the Leafs alone) gives us 1,184.53 seasons until 67 more numbers are retired. We’ll round up to 1,185 – the team might struggle for a season in there somewhere, after all. What this all comes down to, then, is that before you shell out for a jersey for your favourite Toronto Maple Leaf prior to the 3202-3203 season, you might want to double-check that he still has a number.

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