The ultimate stat

(This post is part of a fundraiser for 826 Boston, a non-profit tutoring and writing center. For $50, readers can get me to write anything about hockey they want, so donate today to make me say stuff by clicking here. I probably don’t believe the nonsense below, which was requested by Matt Krawczyk.)

Any proponent of the predictive power of things like corsi and PDO will tell you that you tend to get a lot of pushback from idiots who don’t know anything about how these statistics actually work. Such was the case over the weekend as I wrote on Friday, correctly I might add, that the Ducks were steering themselves toward some very rocky shores given the way they’ve played since about November or so: getting outshot but continuing to win at an improbable clip because their even-strength shooting percentage is, to this day, tops in the league.

The thing you hear most from these people is, as explained to me in an email this morning, that wins are “the ultimate stat.” This is, in some respects, true, because at the end of the season all you’re really judged on is how many games you won. But that is of course not the point of corsi or PDO or fenwick or any of the other things tracked by the people who like being able to make more educated guesses about the sport. These, ultimately, boil down to winning in a number of ways, and can be largely used to guess at the likelihood of future wins.

For example, the Ducks having won each of their two games since my article was published does not invalidate my concerns about their ability to be actually competitive in the Western Conference. In fact, it lends credence to them, as Anaheim was 76-53 across those two games, and managed to outscore their opponents 8-5. This is more or less exactly what I’m talking about with why Ducks fans should be so concerned: they got 41.1 percent of the shots on goal in those games, but scored 61.5 percent of the goals. Their shooting percentage was 15.1 percent. Their save percentage was .934. These were in back-to-back games. There is no way this kind of performance is sustainable, and they’ve been extraordinarily lucky.

One Ducks fan who was real cheesed by my post wrote that I did not understand how the concept of “luck” applied in hockey. They argued that luck essentially means a bounce here or there — which I’d agree with — but that it would only impact maybe two or three wins per team per season, and that it would probably even out during that time. So essentially the argument was “between zero and two points are added or subtracted from a team’s score due to luck,” which is of course ludicrous.

The average NHL shooting percentage this season is 8.94, and Anaheim’s is currently 10.16. That’s 216 goals on 2,120 shots. If the Ducks shot at the league average, they’d have about 190 goals, or 26 less than they currently do. That means that shooting percentage, all by itself, has added an additional five wins or so for the Ducks this season alone (the latest data showing that about 5.5 goals of differential equals two points in the standings this year, down a little bit from the six or so that has been the norm for most of the BTN era). The team’s save percentage being .916, three points above the league average of .913, has saved them roughly five goals, close to another full win. So let’s say it’s 5.5 wins added on by luck this year. That’s 11 standings points. All things being equal, they should be roughly fifth in the West, rather than second. That’s how important luck is.

Again, not that it really matters. Wins are wins and they don’t take them away from you because you shot 15 percent. But we’ve seen time and again that shooting even 10 percent over a long period of time is not a thing that teams can do. It’s not controllable. And thus the point of the article — that the Ducks are going to crash and burn in the playoffs — remains unchanged by two regular-season wins on consecutive days, one of which was against the Avalanche.

Not that I expect Ducks fans to get that. Like most others, they don’t understand a thing about these stats. And they don’t bother to learn because of what they’re afraid they might find.

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Norm Bazin is good at coaching

 

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It was the spring of 2010 and things in Lowell were bad, as far as their college’s hockey team went. They had just wrapped up a five-win season, the worst in program history at the Division 1 level, and fired the coach, and were consequently on the lookout for a new one. The usual names that come up every time there’s a coaching hire to be made came up, and none were especially realistic. In the end, Lowell turned to a former River Hawk to take over behind the bench.

That coach was Norm Bazin, late of Div. 3 Hamilton College, where he’d won his conference’s coach of the year award twice in a row, following a lengthy career as an assistant at Lowell, and then Colorado College. His was not the sexiest name in the mix, and most observers thought he’d do fine, but that these River Hawks would win something on the order of eight to 10 games in the 2010-11 season.

They won 24.

It was the single biggest turnaround by a new coach from one season to the next, 19 more wins, in NCAA history, and the River Hawks finished second in Hockey East, a league in which they’d closed 10th of 10 just a year before. They made the national tournament for the first time since 1996, knocking off Miami University in overtime before succumbing to Union in the regional final.

The next year, they improved on that performance across the board: 28 wins, the team’s first regular-season and playoff titles, and a trip to the Frozen Four for the first time ever. So far this season, they have 21 wins from 34 games, and would need basically every result to go against them over the next two weeks to miss the NCAAs. Lowell had never made the tournament twice in a row, let alone thrice.

The style of play Bazin’s Lowell teams play is active, to say nothing of its effectiveness. They can cycle like madmen when they’re effective, with mobile defensemen and forwards switching off at the points regularly and scoring a ludicrous amount of second- and third-opportunity goals. But they also score almost as many in transition, and that’s where they really kill teams. When they’re getting defensemen forward, there are likely few teams in the nation more lethal.

But with that having been said, this is a team that has been accused of playing “boring” and “defensive” hockey. Which is interesting because of how wrong it is. Over the last three seasons, Lowell has outshot opponents pretty handily (3634-3302 over 113 games, or 32.2-29.2 per game, which is 52.4 percent), but the reason they have this stigma attached, if you want to call it that, is they collapse their defense extremely well at even strength, their goalies are pretty much always fantastic (.929 in 113 games),  and block a pretty decent number of shots. However, even looking at their corsi numbers — with the acknowledgement that SOG don’t reflect possession 100 percent accurately — they’re still pretty comfortably above water.

As a result of this, the list of other Div. 1 coaches to win more games than Bazin’s 73 over the last three seasons is not very long at all, and this is for a program operates on what you can bet is a relatively shoestring budget among the traditional giants of college hockey. The fact is, this is a program that gets little in the way of national recognition and. Or did until he took over, at any rate.

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Mike Gillis is having a bad go

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I don’t, in general, think Mike Gillis is a bad general manager. I really don’t. I know the Canucks  are a tire fire right now and I know they’re not going to get better any time soon and I know he had very little or even nothing to do with acquiring the recent core of this team. He didn’t acquire Cory Schneider, or Alex Edler, or the Sedin twins, or Alex Burrows, or Roberto Luongo, or Kevin Bieksa, or Ryan Kesler. He acquired Dan Hamhuis and Chris Tanev, and that’s pretty much it, if memory serves.

But the thing that makes me think he’s not a bad general manager is that he was able to keep such together, pretty successfully, for a decent enough period of time. They won the league twice, then almost won a Stanley Cup. Most everyone was on affordable contracts (and only Luongo’s really and truly flew in the face of the CBA as it existed at that time). This was a team that looked like it could have succeeded for quite a while longer.

But then Ryan Kesler started spending half the season on the IR, and the protracted goaltender drama got seriously under way, and about 18 months later, it all fell apart. I’m not sure any general manager could have straightened things out given that this result also seemed at least somewhat inexorable. But I bet a lot of them could have at least handled it a lot better.

Okay, sure, you gotta fire Alain Vigneault after you let him piss off both of your goaltenders. That makes sense. But to replace him with John Tortorella was risky to start with, and disastrous in retrospect. It essentially necessitated the blowing-up of a team that should have at least been competitive in the Western Conference playoff picture (though not the Stanley Cup conversation) for another few seasons at least while the Sedins aged out of their supreme usefulness.

Now it’s turned to ash. I know a lot of pundits are preaching patience, but it seems to me he has to go. That’s the only real solution. He’s essentially responsible for accelerating the descent into mediocrity or worse, and bringing in a coach whose approach to the game was so antithetical to what made the Canucks so successful these last few years that it predictably led to his having lost the room in, what, four months?

I might have overstated things when I said a week or so ago that the Schneider trade is effectively what is going to cost him his job. It’s probably the biggest thing — because if he doesn’t, the goaltending tandem for next season absolutely isn’t Eddie Lack and Jacob Markstrom — but there are so many little things he’s done wrong (like drafting never-will-be players by the boatload) and making frankly bizarre trades that the cumulative effect essentially buried the franchise he oversees.

The Canucks are bad, he’s the biggest reason why, and that’s gotta just about enough reason for anyone at this point.

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Why the Beanpot is great

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The Beanpot is a really great tournament that happens in Boston on the first two Mondays of every February, played between Boston College, Boston University, Northeastern, and Harvard. It’s great because it gives fans of all those teams a big mid-season tournament to cheer about and for which they can get really excited and add to their trophy case.

The curious observer need look no deeper as to why this is a vital and important college hockey tradition, one stretching back a whopping 62 years by the way, than the attendance figures at TD Garden. BU, Northeastern, and Harvard have had some attendance issues of late — the latter two because they almost always have attendance issues unless they’re playing BC or BU, and the former is only doing so because they were dreadful this season — but there were plenty of students in particular in attendance for their Beanpot games. (Well, “plenty” is relative in Harvard’s case, and BU’s after they lost in the first round.) The Northeastern fans and BC fans hurling dueling chants back and forth from opposite ends of the balcony for this year’s final was delightful, to say nothing of the high quality of the game played on the ice, which as I mentioned, was quite high.

That high quality, of course, comes on the heels of high-quality games between Northeastern and Boston College earlier in the season, because they’re two teams whose styles, I think, offset each other in an attractive way. BC gets forward at all costs and balances that by getting back to defend with just about as much abandon. They have the puck a lot as a consequence, and their sky-high skill threshold is usually the difference in even tight games. Northeastern, meanwhile, lets teams come at them and absorbs an illogical number of shots, but uses its skill to shoot the lights out and win more often than not as a consequence (this is, it should be noted, not a way to play that typically leads to success, but to their credit it has this year because luck and variance continue to play a big role in the average hockey game).

Not that this has a lot to do with the overall greatness of the tournament, which is considerable. Teams really do get up for it in a way that they shouldn’t; BU in particular might as well shut down the season after the Beanpot, because little else besides it seems to matter nearly as much, and that includes when they won a national title in 2009. The NU/BC game I attended back at the start of the season was a delight (BC won in overtime after erasing a late deficit), but these Beanpot clashes had a lot more urgency to them than, say, your average regular-season game between any of these clubs. That’s just how it goes when there’s a trophy on the line.

Also, I love the Beanpot because parity is bad and anything other than a foregone conclusion is worse.

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California is doing good at hockey

 

(This post is part of a fundraiser for 826 Boston, a non-profit tutoring and writing center. For $50, readers can get me to write anything about hockey they want, so donate today to make me say stuff by clicking here. I probably don’t believe the nonsense below, which was requested by Meg.)

If there’s one state that represents the single greatest threat to the hockey world when it comes to capturing the Stanley Cup, it is the one that’s hot and sunny but where people actually also go to games a lot.

That’s right, dawg, we’re talking about California, where the three resident teams currently sit ranked Nos. 2, 7, and 8 in the NHL. This despite the fact that they have to play each other more often than other teams do — the Pacific a meatgrinder of a division if ever there was one — and my general belief that unlike the Avalanche, currently occupying sixth in the entire NHL against all logic, these are all relatively good teams.

Of course, the fact that six of the eight best teams in the league play in the Western Conference means there is going to be some amount of cannibalizing of higher-quality teams in the playoffs through seven-game wars of attrition, while the Bruins and Penguins waltz to another Eastern Conference Final because the next- best team on that side of the continent is, according to the standings, the Toronto friggin’ Maple Leafs.

The Anaheim Ducks, by the way, are the best team in California right now if you go by the standings, but probably the one of the three you’d most like to play in the postseason. They have little in the way of depth up front or on defense, and their goaltending is good but not great; they are very much outperforming their underlying numbers. San Jose and Los Angeles, on the other hand, are dealing with some struggles — if you want to call them that when you have 89 and 82 points in 65 and 66 games played, respectively — or have already done so, and the Kings in particular seem poised to run around the Western Conference playoffs like Sting against the nWo circa 1997.

You have to think the Blackhawks, especially with the coming addition of Teuvo Teravainen, are the team to beat not only in the West, but the entire league. With that having been said, the road to the Cup Final almost certainly runs through at least one and probably two of these Californian giants and that has to be a terrifying prospect, especially with Corey Crawford between the pipes. Jonathan Quick can steal a series. Antti Niemi can steal a series. Crawford probably can’t.

It’s a shame that one of these three teams will be eliminated after the first round thanks to the NHL’s idiotic new playoff system, because having them plus the Blackhawks playing in the Conference Semifinals would be just about the best thing you could ask for. Hockey in California, and the NHL itself, will be poorer for having lost one so soon. (Let’s hope it’s the Ducks though).

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How can you spot a lazy hockey analyst?

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A lot of digital ink has been devoted in recent years to the war between The Mainstream Media and Bloggers, and whether it’s all pointless (it is). A lot of this has been driven, though, by two things: A perceived laziness on the part of the former, and their insistence on antagonizing the latter when they could just not acknowledge them at all.

That laziness of which I speak, and the subsequent antagonism that goes with it, is of course a product of the system under which it operates, not necessarily from which it springs. I also think that blogs arose largely as a means of bringing the point of view of those theoretically disconnected from the sport — i.e. those without the access enjoyed by the mainstream media — still wanting to participate in the conversation about it. They have largely been successful, or at least the best of them have. James Mirtle, Tyler Dellow, et al, went from getting shout outs on Hockey Night in Canada to either full- or part-time jobs in the mainstream media by peddling a new way of writing and thinking about the game, and it is people like them who were shouted down so often as writing from their mothers’ basements, often in their underwear.

First, anyone who would say this about bloggers is by definition a lazy and over-generalizing idiot because most bloggers are either doing it professionally or have regular-ass day jobs that shouldn’t be demeaned regardless of situation. Second, even if that were true, it doesn’t mean their views are any less valid.

I don’t know what it is about the emergence of new statistics that prompts people who are in a position of the kind of power enjoyed by major sports columnists in their local markets to turn up their noses and write them off as useless; hockey is now in the nascent stages of the statistical analysis revolutions already seen in baseball (close to a decade and a half ago), and basketball (seven or eight years ago), and even football (far more recently). It’s not a coincidence that the best teams and players in these categories are also, on an historical basis, the best teams and players by the older stats too. Those who dismiss these stats as being without value are doing so for reasons I find it difficult to understand; is having your existing perceptions challenged really so offensive?

So I guess what I’m saying is that if you’re sitting there wondering whether a writer isn’t good, you should check for the following things: Is what he writes predicated upon knowledge or beliefs he or she has held since he took his first newspaper job in 19-dickety-2?

IF YES: Then sure, the concept of people writing analyzing hockey from home, while not actually talking to players, is going to seem weird and bad and threatening, as are the new ways to evaluate games and player and team performance they bring with them, because they can be a little confusing and involve more than “going hard to the net” and “playing hard hockey.” They are, by definition, hacks.

IF NO: Then even if they don’t always look at the game in the best way available to them, they maybe haven’t dismissed it out of hand, they just haven’t learned. They’re probably pretty good, all things considered.

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Some stuff about women’s hockey

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I was asked to give a quick primer on women’s hockey by someone who lives in Boston, i.e. “What do I need to know?” The long and short of it is that the women’s season, excluding the NCAA tournament, has now ended, with Minnesota, BU, Cornell, and Mercyhurst having won the WCHA, Hockey East, ECAC, and CHA titles, respectively. Two of those — BU beating BC and Cornell beating Clarkson — could be considered upsets, though the former far more so than the latter; Cornell and Clarkson are currently fifth and third in the national polls, while BU is No. 11 to BC’s No. 4. The title was, I believe, BU’s third straight in Hockey East.

What you also need to know is that this is a weird year in women’s college hockey because some of the best players in the age group are not actually playing this season; most took the season off to concentrate on the Olympics. That includes some of the best young players in the world like Amanda Kessel (Minnesota/USA) and Marie-Philip Poulin (BU/Canada), among many others.

Anyway, the NCAA tournament starts next Saturday, with BC at Clarkson, Mercyhurst at Cornell, BU at Minnesota (in a 2013 national championship rematch) and Harvard at Wisconsin. The winners of those games move on to the Frozen Four at Quinnipiac the following weekend, which kind of sucks because it comes the day after all the NCAA men’s conference final games and thus probably won’t get the attention it deserves.

As to the second question asked: “What do these players do after college?” The answer when it comes to continuing their hockey careers is, unfortunately, not much. For example, 24-year-old Finnish netminder Noora Raty, who played at Minnesota and is widely considered the best at her position in the world, recently announced her retirement from the women’s game but wants to catch on with a low-level men’s pro team in her native country. Likewise, Shannon Szabados, who won gold for Canada in Sochi, recently signed a contract to finish out a season in the low-level SPHL here in the U.S., having played men’s hockey in college in Canada, as well as men’s juniors. Beyond that there is a women’s “pro” league in North America, the five-team Canadian Women’s Hockey League, which pays equipment expenses but not salaries. Many of the better athletes in the sport can also continue to play with their national teams in the Women’s World Championships and so on, but that, too, is about it.

Until the NHL is in a position to support a women’s hockey league of its own — one that actually pays players — this is going to continue to be an issue. Unfortunately, Gary Bettman doesn’t believe it’ll happen any time soon. Until such time, USA/Canada national team games should be a regular feature — schedule a seven-game series every year, have one of them at the Winter Classic, etc. — and college games should be on TV more. But they won’t be, because that would be cool and easy to do, and sadly no one has any interest in that kind of thing.

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There is a werewolf in the NHL

(This post is part of a fundraiser for 826 Boston, a non-profit tutoring and writing center. For $50, readers can get me to write anything about hockey they want, so donate today to make me say stuff by clicking here. I probably don’t believe the nonsense below, which was requested by Claire.)

If you have ever seen the Underworld movies, and I have not, you know that there is and perhaps always has been a war between vampires and werewolves raging just on the periphery of human knowledge. Like, it’s happening and every once in a while something major takes place in the world that was caused by this war, and normal humans have to make up non-vampire-and-werewolf-related rationalizations for why it took place. At least, I think so. Again, I have not seen the movies. That’s my understanding from the trailers.

So with this in mind, it stands to reason that in a National Hockey League that’s home to perhaps the most powerful of all living vampires (Sidney Crosby (RIPD to Dracula)), there must somewhere exist a werewolf who is likewise extremely powerful, to act as a counterbalance against Crosby’s influence. There are, of course, numerous candidates for such a position, because it’s never supposed to be entirely clear exactly who said werewolf is; that would, of course, undermine the entire point.

But I have done some digging in hopes of finding out exactly who is this secret lycanthrope and the answer was so obvious as to be ludicrous. It had to be someone who hasn’t played against Crosby many times in his career, but who has been around for a while — because he should have been monitoring the situation but not engaging in open combat with the NHL’s head vampire so frequently as to arouse suspicion. It also, according to my near-nonexistent knowledge of the Underworld films, would need to be someone who is regularly torched by Crosby because, as I understand it, vampires always win.

And so I found him: A goaltender who’s only good once in a blue moon, and who, in just four career games against Crosby, has never won, and has given up lots and lots of points to him. In these four games, Crosby is 3-5-8 and scored a shootout winner. In those games, this goaltender has a save percentage of .891. His superiors on what I’m sure is some sort of grand Werewolf Council also engineered a trade to the Flyers so he could keep closer tabs on Crosby going forward.

I’m speaking of course about Steve Mason, who has hereby been definitively uncovered as a werewolf. Until someone proves to me otherwise.

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The Sabres might be good someday

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The one thing you can definitely say about the Sabres and how they’re approaching their rebuild is that they have their vision and they are mega-committed to it. Dump anyone with any trade value at all, stockpile first-round picks, and see if you can draft a half dozen long-time NHLers. This is a strategy that gets a lot of discussion (i.e. “Does it work?” and “How long does it take?”), and it really boils down to luck.

The Penguins, for example, picked in the top five for what felt like the entire early 2000s, and in the end pulled Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby, among other long-time NHLers out of the bargain. The Blackhawks got a similar deal out of their years of tanking than that: Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane.

We’ve also seen it not work, of course, and one need look no further than the team chasing down Buffalo for dead last in the league (Edmonton) to see that, though with that having been said I’d argue Edmonton’s is still a work in progress.

So that is to say, the jury is still out as to whether there is any efficacy in “tanking” to get high draft picks. Usually it takes getting a generational talent, which hasn’t been available in the draft in the few years for which Buffalo happened to have been bad. That will change for the 2015 draft, however, as if they’re still 29th or 30th in the league they’ll get Jack Eichel or Conor McDavid, respectively, and either player is likely to get a lot of goals for whichever team is lucky enough to draft him over the following 15 years or so.

This is the road they’re going down, for good or ill, which is interesting because in the meantime they seem to be hitching their wagon to Ted Nolan as coach. Which is something I do not understand. Nolan has had a decent amount of success in the NHL just once, when he won the Jack Adams in 1997 for guiding the Sabres to a 40-30-12 record, and first place in the Northeast Division, as well as third in the East. A decade on, he squeezed the Islanders into the playoffs with the same record. Those are the only two seasons in what is now a five-year NHL coaching career in which he has earned a winning record. The thing people say about him now is that sure the Sabres lose under him — what else could they possibly do? — but they try hard. I’m not sure the kind of stuff he pushes maximizes development, and certainly it’s only gotten him to a .503 career record with some admittedly dismal clubs.

So no, Ted Nolan won’t be the coach whenever McDavid or Eichel suit up alongside Zemgus Girgensons and Rasmus Ristolainen, and that’s a good thing. But it’s also not a sure thing that the team will succeed any time soon regardless of who’s coaching it.

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Why would anyone want Tim Thomas?

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Yesterday the Florida Panthers took a pretty big step forward in net, trading for Roberto Luongo and then 86ing Tim Thomas to Dallas. This was a shrewd move by Dale Tallon because as average as Luongo has been this season, Thomas has never really looked like the guy who won those Vezinas and so on since coming back from his self-imposed one-year hiatus to live like one of the Wolverines from Red Dawn.

That much hoped-for buddy comedy between Luongo and Thomas is now certainly not going to happen, obviously, because as content as Thomas seemed to be getting shelled every night playing for the Panthers (and look, being a goaltender behind a team that bad is going to depress your stats for sure), it’s not like he’s going to be afforded much of a chance to play in Dallas, not behind Kari Lehtonen. He’s on a .909 save percentage this year which is respectable, given the circumstances, at only four points below the league average and that’s likely to improve in Dallas, where he’ll be backup and thus play some of the softer teams on the Stars’ remaining schedule. Their being a half-decent possession team also helps. He’s also certainly an upgrade for Jim Nill and Co. over Dan Ellis.

But really, why do you go out and get Tim Thomas of all the goalies on the market yesterday? The number of quality guys who were right there for the taking was pretty high, and asking prices were, well, commensurate with a Dan Ellis-type asset. Low-value, easily parted-with, and mostly inconsequential.

It likely won’t end up mattering, of course. Thomas is going to get into probably three to five games for the remainder of the year, which won’t have any kind of significant impact on the Stars’ chances of making the playoffs one way or the other (they’re currently in, for the record). Then he goes free in the summer, probably signs as a 1b somewhere if he can, a backup if he can’t, and he’s mediocre for the rest of his career. Good way to run it out if you’re Thomas, maybe not so much if you’re, say, a team looking to get anywhere in particular.

At least he’s not Martin Brodeur.

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