Kukla's Korner Hockey
by George Malik on 11/14/06 at 04:39 PM ET
A Monday newspaper report says the business team studied success at the National Hockey League level between 1999 and 2004 -- before the so-called "New" NHL -- and was able to determine that major fighting penalties had a direct payoff. For each penalty minute served by a fighter, the team would pick up .07 points, while at the same time decreasing their opponents' scoring by .24 points. The analysts say this is telling. Some of us would argue it might not be telling at all, perhaps just coincidence. Some might even say that fighting has the opposite effect -- that had there been no fights at all the winning team might have done even better and the losing team scored even less. Who, after all, can really tell? That's the beauty of hockey: Stuff happens. And so much of it gloriously defies analysis.
No matter how hard people like this, invariably American, work on the baseball-ization of hockey, it just doesn’t work.
The NHL, for example, compiles statistics on such matters as faceoffs lost and won without realizing that a good many faceoffs are neither won nor lost—but since that reality doesn’t translate into a handy statistic, the no-decision faceoffs are ignored.
A major five-minute penalty, these number crunchers are claiming, has an overall “positive” effect on team performance, while a minor two-minute penalty can have a “negative” effect.
Throw the nationalist smarm out of the equation for a minute. While we’re at it, let’s give MacGregor’s grousing about fighting a five-minute major as well. Let’s re-examine the kernel of his argument:
That’s the beauty of hockey: Stuff happens. And so much of it gloriously defies analysis.
The Globe and Mail hired übergeek stats guy Alan Ryder to help prop up their newly-christened Globesports.com among the crowd that believes there’s a sabermetric secret to owning their hockey pools. As the business of hockey pools has blossomed into a multi-billion-dollar industry, every hockey website seems to have endless reams of statistics ready to “give you the edge” over your fellow poolies.
But what do hockey stats really tell us?
A team that scores more goals than it allows is more likely to not only win in the regular season, but also win in the playoffs, because you can sneak into a top-eight spot with a negative goal differential, but you sure as heck won’t last.
Teams that score more goals than they give up, consistently, will consistently make the playoffs.
Winning special teams battles give you a huge edge, especially on the PK, but teams like the Wings can make do, at least for a month or two, without a superb power play. All that being said, staying out of the box is even more important in terms of rolling lines and sustaining momentum.
Teams that put more shots on the opposition’s net than they give up tend to win more often.
Teams that win or “tie” more faceoffs tend to win more often than not.
Superb goaltending, balanced scoring and defence, the presence of a few guys who can generate momentum-changing hits, maintaining puck possession, spending more time in the opposition’s end than your own, standing up at the blue line, having a good break-out, mucking it up along the boards and grinding it out down low to get screened shots, rebound chances, and tip-ins while keeping your own slot clear, etc. etc.
The adages are endless, but teams that play crap hockey and manage to “hang around” can steal wins from teams that are playing fundamentally perfect hockey because they get a garbage goal, an “earned” bounce, or a plain-old lucky shot off.
Maybe they’re dominated territorially, but they manage to change the momentum by killing off a 5-on-3, and they suddenly capture the ever-ethereal and immeasurable momentum of the game for a crucial few seconds while a dominant team makes a mental mistake, loses a key face-off, or botches a line change…
Before you can blink twice, the underdog’s tied things up to force overtime, a shootout, or they’ve scored three goals, and are suddenly making the opposition look lost, frustrated, and confused.
That’s the beauty of hockey. It’s an inherently unpredictable game where hard work, grit, skill, lucky bounces, and capturing momentum can sway the game in your favour, no matter who you’re playing.
What if the endless repetitions of the words “with the salary cap, there’s so much parity, teams are so even now” have more to do with the fact that the league’s talent level—and depth—at every position has rebounded from the on-and-off-again expansion that dominated the 90’s?
What if advancements in digitally capturing and processing video have helped reveal player and team tendencies that would have gone unnoticed even four or five years ago, when video coordinators had to comb through tapes instead of marking important plays on digital video recorders in “real time?”
What if the proliferation of goalie coaches, special teams coaches, assistant coaches who now manage groups of players (such as forwards and defencemen) so that coaches can observe more and manage the bench less see and analyze more thanks to a delegation of tasks and authority have all had bigger roles in evening things up than imposing a salary cap upon team spending?
What if team chemistry and line mate chemistry can even out talent disparities between teams, and even between players on the same team?
We fans keep on hearing about the concept that “anybody can win” in the “cap era,” but we’re only in our second year of salary cap hockey.
Isn’t it a bit premature to declare dynasties “dead” and parity in place?
It’s not like the Blue Jackets are as likely to win the Cup as the Hurricanes, Sabres, or Oilers at the beginning of the season—unless, of course, they rebound from Gallant’s firing and start playing up to their talent level, or a small but savvy acquisition changes everything…
The “oddball” Cup finalists over the past decade or so tell you as much about “parity” as you need to know. The Canucks pushed the Rangers to 7 games in 94, the upstart Devils beat the Red Wings in 95, the Florida Panthers pushed the Avs in 96, the vaunted Flyers lost to the Wings in 97, the Capitals of all teams made the finals in 98, the Sabres made the dance in 99, after a few Avs-Stars-Devils years, the Canes made the finals in 02, the Ducks pushed the Devils to seven in 03, and the Flames and Bolts played for Lord Stanley at the zenith of the $70-80 million payroll era!
Were the Canes and Oilers really that different from the Kings vs. Canadiens match up in 1993, when the Leafs and Pens seemed destined to battle for the Cup?
For that matter, should the Ottawa Senators be struggling this much with an all-star cast of forwards and a solid, if unspectacular, defence?
There are a few statistics that really do tell the story of a team’s fortunes, but there are just as many unmeasurables at play over the course of each and every NHL game. In the end, the game behaves as unpredictably as a frozen piece of vulcanized rubber that spins, rolls, dips, and flip-flops end over end, off dead spots in boards, stanchions, skates, butts, and rounded goalposts as much as it predictably slides along the ice.
Parity or no parity, cap or no cap, you and I can’t say for sure whether the Ducks and Sabres destined to play for the Cup. It’s November. We don’t know who’ll get hurt—and injuries play a huge role in determining a team’s fortunes—who will get traded, whether an underdog team will get on a roll, etc. We could very well see the Kings play the Bruins, and the only safe bet—right now, anyway—is that we probably won’t see the Coyotes play the Panthers next June.
Hockey’s greatest quality is its inherent unpredictability. No matter what the “experts” proclaim as “bet-the-farm” certainties, the season’s storylines are authored on the ice, by the players, and you just never know if capturing momentum, capitalizing on mental mistakes, or scoring a fluky goal will end up forging the identity of a Cup-winning team.
If you ask me, that’s game’s most telling statistic.
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