New Season’s Resolutions for the NHL

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Finally, NHL hockey is kind of, sort of back.

After weeks of signings and trades, offseason training updates, and fuzzily tweeted photos of rookie scrimmages, today’s the day that full training camps officially open across the league. The 2014-15 season has finally arrived.

As we count down to opening night in less than three weeks, this is a good time to make some new year’s season’s resolutions. After all, everyone who enjoys this sport, from the brand-new fans to the longtime diehards, could probably stand a little improvement. So let’s take a moment to think about the ways in which we could all become better fans.

You could probably come up with a few self-improvement ideas of your own. But if you could use a nudge, I’ve taken the liberty of making a half-dozen suggestions.

Let’s stop making everything about character

To be clear: Character matters. It matters in all walks of life, and that’s especially true in professional hockey. Some guys work hard, and others are lazy. Some guys are good in the room, and others are poison. Ninety percent of NHL players are so close in talent these days that a little extra effort here or a little bit better team chemistry there could be the difference in deciding a game or two, and those one or two games could decide who makes the playoffs.

But while character matters, it’s not the only thing that matters. And that may come as a surprise if you spend much time consuming what passes for hockey analysis these days. At some point over the last few years, it feels like character went from being one factor out of many to being the most important factor, sometimes even the only one. Every coach explaining away a loss, every columnist breaking down the action, every fan who calls in to the postgame show … these days, everyone drones on and on about character.

And that’s kind of ridiculous, because character isn’t everything. It’s not more important than talent. It’s not more important than systems. It’s not more important than using a player in the right role for his skill set. It’s not even more important than luck (more on that one in a bit).

And yet character — along with related concepts like chemistry, culture, body language, and compete level  has taken over hockey analysis. Teams don’t lose anymore because they have bad players or a flawed game plan. Now, they only lose when they don’t compete hard enough. If everyone had just worked harder, we’re told, everything would have been fine.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but this is kindergarten thinking: “Everybody can be a winner if they just try their very best.” Well, no, they can’t. Not in the NHL. It’s all well and good to be a hard worker and a good teammate, and players should certainly strive to be both. But some players are just better than others, and sometimes the coach’s X’s and O’s turn out to be a mess, and sometimes you play great and the puck just bounces the wrong way. And at some point we all just stopped talking about that stuff and decided to make it all about personality.

There’s a concept in psychology called the fundamental attribution error, which basically goes like this: When something happens to us, we consider a wide range of reasons, but when it happens to somebody else, we assume that it can only be the result of internal factors. If I cut you off in traffic, it’s because I’ve had a hard day at work and my kids are screaming in the backseat and all of this rain has reduced visibility. If you cut me off, it’s because you’re a jerk.

Once you learn to recognize it, the fundamental attribution error starts showing up everywhere in today’s hockey coverage. A star player who hits a cold streak over the course of a playoff series couldn’t have been shut down by a superior player, or put in the wrong role by his coach, or limited by an injury, or just had a run of plain bad luck over a short span of games. No, he has to have suffered a moral failure. He didn’t compete. He didn’t want it bad enough. He was mentally fragile, he’s not a winner, and he didn’t “just find a way,” whatever that means.

We’ve taken a small but important part of success or failure and made it everything. We’ve turned hockey into a modern morality play, complete with heroes and villains, where the good guy always wins in the end. Because, after all, whoever wins is by definition the good guy, since otherwise they couldn’t have won.

It makes us sound silly, and it’s time to rein it in. “Just do your best and everything will work out fine” is a cute thing to tell a nervous kid on the first day of school. But it’s not a strategy for a professional sports team, and we shouldn’t try to pass it off as intelligent analysis.1

Let’s get comfortable with the role of luck

We sort of skipped past this point in the last section, but let’s take it a little further here: Luck is a huge factor in NHL hockey, and that should be OK.

It should also be staggeringly obvious to anyone who’s ever watched a game, given how often a fluke play determines the outcome. An accidental high stick creates a power play, a bad bounce creates a scoring chance, a lucky deflection tips the puck past the goalie, and there’s your winning goal. That’s luck, all of it, and it happens all the time.

And yet hockey fans have come to view “luck” as a dirty word. When I wrote about the Rangers’ lack of puck luck during last season’s Stanley Cup final, I got feedback from plenty of readers who told me they just didn’t want to hear it. They didn’t disagree, mind you. They just didn’t want to hear it, because luck is for losers. Luck is an excuse.

Except it’s not. Luck is everywhere in the NHL, and it shouldn’t be some sort of forbidden topic. It’s true that luck is almost never the only reason why a team wins or loses; there’s too much else going on for that to ever really be the case. And it’s also true that the bounces tend to even out over a long season, so gnashing teeth over a bad break here or there can come across as cherry-picking. “They had some bad luck” should be the start of the analysis, not the end of it. But it should still be part of the discussion.

Luck is a major factor in everything from shooting rates to goalie save percentages and plenty in between. Ignoring that seems silly. Part of all this probably goes back to our grade school desire for everything in life to be fair, and for the best team to always win out in the end. It would be nice if the world worked that way, but sometimes it just doesn’t, and it should be OK to point that out.

If you really can’t handle using the word “luck,” then call it something else, like “random chance.” Just don’t pretend it doesn’t exist, and don’t be afraid to talk about it when it changes the course of a game, series, or even a whole season.

Let’s embrace streakiness

You know that one guy on your favorite team? The one who plays on the first line, has all the flashy moves, and leads the team in scoring most years? He’s great, isn’t he? Of course, he’d be even better if he wasn’t so darn streaky.

I don’t know what team you root for, but chances are you’re nodding along, because every team has a guy or two like that  the offensive superstars who rack up big goal and point totals over the course of a season. And almost without fail, they all get labeled as streaky players. In modern hockey, “streaky” means the guy is inconsistent, lighting it up for a few big games in a row but then disappearing for stretches. “Streaky” is not good. It’s considered an insult.

But it shouldn’t be. There’s nothing wrong with being streaky. And it’s time we started accepting that.

First of all, everyone is streaky. Look at last year’s very best offensive players. Sidney Crosby scored one goal in his last 18 games. Ryan Getzlaf had two goals over a 21-game stretch. Claude Giroux basically took the first six weeks off. The list goes on and on, because sometimes the puck is going in and sometimes it’s not, and that’s just how the math works.

But beyond that, think about what it would mean if a top offensive player wasn’t streaky. Imagine a guy who went out and performed with total consistency, putting up point-per-game numbers by literally scoring a point every game. How would we all react to this mythical unstreaky player? “Nice numbers, but not an elite guy,” we’d say, shaking our heads. “He just can’t elevate his game when it matters.”

Streaky is normal. It’s time to stop using it as a put-down.

Let’s let the Great Analytics War die

I’m old enough to have been arguing about sports online since the BBS days, so I enjoy a good flame war as much as the next guy. And when it comes to online pissing matches, the whole stats vs. old school thing was fun for a year or two. But it’s over now. The stats guys won, the old school is in the midst of a reluctant retreat, and everyone else should have already moved on to figuring out what comes next. The war is done. Let it go.

That doesn’t mean there won’t be flare-ups over the coming season, because old habits die hard. Old-school types will still occasionally pick up a sharp stick and try to poke the hornets’ nest, and it will inevitably work because analytics fans are the easiest people in the world to troll. Somebody on one side will say or write something, the other side will sound the alarms, and everyone will man the Twitter battle stations for another round of the same old tired slapfight.

Ignore it. It’s tired shtick, and at this point it’s not even entertaining tired shtick. Whichever side you’re on, the next time you see someone across the aisle throw out a chunk of obvious and uncreative flamebait, don’t take it. Shrug your shoulders, scroll down the page, and find something else to yell about.

And on a related note …

Let’s stop rewarding bad sportswriting

It’s become a common part of the modern sports fan experience: You turn on your computer, have a sip of your morning coffee, and then fire up Twitter or Facebook or your favorite message board to see what everyone’s talking about today. And you’re immediately plunged into a whirlwind of spittle and rage and loud noises, because the entire online hockey world is flipping out about that article.

You know the one. It was written by that longtime sportswriter at the local paper, or maybe that annoyingly clickbaity website, or maybe some random blogger nobody has ever heard of. It was a column, or a list, or a throwaway one-liner at the end of a 3,000-word post. And it tried to make an argument that was obviously wrong, spectacularly wrong, so wrong you can’t believe the author could sincerely believe it.

Which, of course, the author probably didn’t, because most of the time this stuff is just engineered to get a reaction. Other times, it may be a sincere but misguided opinion. But it doesn’t really matter, because the Internet is already forming a kick circle around it, and you want to make sure you elbow your way to a good spot up front.

Stop it. Life is too short to worry about hackish sportswriting.

So how about this: The next time you read something that’s dumb, don’t rush off to post a link so that everyone else can rage about it. Instead, go find some good writing, and post that link instead. Even better, don’t grab that link from one of the big sites or papers that everyone already knows. Find some struggling blogger with a little bit of talent and some good ideas but no real audience, or a young sportswriter hustling on a new beat even though his stuff always winds up getting chopped up and buried 10 pages in. Find that story, and then post that link instead.

If everyone did that, we’d all wind up reading better content. The incentive to write lazy hot takes would eventually drop. And maybe a few of those no-names would start down the long road to building enough of an audience to push the worst of the hacks out of a job someday.

It probably wouldn’t work. But it might be worth a try.

Let’s stop playing along with the loser-point lie

The loser point is dumb and the league should get rid of it. We’ve covered this already, and we don’t need to make the argument again because all good and decent-minded people already agree on this point.

The loser point is also here to stay, because it achieves its main goal of inflating point totals and creating a false sense of parity by letting almost everyone in the league finish above .500. As ridiculous as the whole thing is, there doesn’t seem to be any traction within the NHL to change the current points system.

So we’re stuck with the loser point, and we might as well accept it. What we don’t have to do is play along.

A team that has 20 regulation losses and 10 more in overtime and shootouts has lost 30 times. Teams that lost more games than they won don’t get to claim to have had a winning season, no matter how many points they finish with. We can argue over what it means to be “.500” these days, but we probably shouldn’t bother because the term has been rendered meaningless.

And, most importantly, teams that are six points out of a wild-card spot with two weeks to play are not still in the playoff race. They’re done. Especially when there are four other teams ahead of them, all of whom are playing three-point games every night. The loser point hasn’t made the playoff races better; it’s made them worse, at least if you’re the team trying to gain ground. Creating a false sense of drama by pretending otherwise is just dishonest.

The loser point may be ridiculous in terms of competitive integrity, but it makes complete sense as a marketing tool. It’s perfectly understandable for the league to want us all to go along with the con. It’s even tempting to buy in, since it can be fun to pretend your terrible team is better than it really is. But the loser point is a scam. And we’ll never get rid of it until we start calling it one.

There … don’t you feel better? And you’ve even got a nice list of resolutions to start breaking, oh, sometime tomorrow. Happy new season, everyone.

Filed Under: NHL

Sean McIndoe ’s work can be found at Down Goes Brown. When he's not writing, he makes hockey jokes on Twitter at @downgoesbrown.

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