I study decision theory,” the man standing in front of me at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference was saying. “I advise NHL teams on the draft.”
His research, which he had presented in one of the conference’s earlier years, suggested what beleaguered fans of a great number of NHL teams have long felt they’ve known: Outside of the earliest picks of the draft, teams don’t really do a much better job of selecting the best players using all their scouting and research than they would if they just closed their eyes and threw darts at random.
I began making a sad joke about Claude Giroux and Bobby Sanguinetti, but the man dismissed it with a wave. “I don’t know anything about that,” he said impatiently. “I don’t care or know who any of these players are.”
I tried to imagine the man, Simon Fraser University professor Peter Tingling, in a room with a typical NHL front-office crew, there to “advise them on the draft.” The “bottom line” of his research, according to a university press release? That “scouting may not win you the Cup if you do it well, but it will lose you a lot of games if you do it poorly. That said, good scouting is necessary, but not sufficient.” This is the stuff all good management consulting is made of: You’re doing it wrong, and it’ll be helpful to you to start doing it right.
Tingling’s research is noteworthy in its conclusions (although — and just for starters — one could quibble with whether total career games played is the best proxy of draft success), but talking to him made me think about something Toronto Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke had said at Sloan earlier that morning. That hockey analytics panel was comprised of Burke, Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli, former NHL player and current Thayer Academy coach Tony Amonte, NBC analyst Mike Milbury, and statistical researcher Michael Schuckers. (The NHL Network’s excellent Kathryn Tappen was the moderator.)
It was a nuanced discussion about the iterative processes through which huge, hundred-million-dollar franchises select, analyze, project, and develop the assets that are the cornerstone of their businesses. The panel explained how, given the advances in all aspects surrounding the sport — ranging from training equipment to camera technology to the rise in statistical analytics — they’ve been able to add all sorts of new tools to the work they do in evaluating their players’ performance on (and off) the ice.
Oh wait, no it wasn’t! It was an hour of phrases like, “You can’t measure heart,” and, “I only needed to see him play one shift,” and the money line, “Statistics are like a lamppost to a drunk: useful for support, but not for illumination.” At times it was impossible not to flash to the scene in the Moneyball film with the old scouts sitting around the table. Burke allowed that he’s not against considering anything that might help — that at least 30 graduate students send him papers with analytical ideas every year, and that someone (not him) takes the time to read them, but that none of them have ever provided any sort of advantage.
I thought about that as the professor in front of me handed me his card. This was one of those papers, essentially, and from a GM’s perspective I can understand the reaction: “Yeah, so? You say our scouts suck. Who should we be drafting? The answer would be what the guy said to me: “I don’t know anything about that.”
The issue, more so than anything, seems to be one of miscommunication. When you tell a guy that statistically, over huge sample sizes, it takes 100 face-off wins to generate a goal, and his response is “Oh yeah? I’ve seen it take one,” you’re not speaking the same language and you may not even be using the same alphabet. From what I saw,1 the stats guys can rely on numbers without context, while the old-timers can tell (wonderful) stories without relevance. The researchers have their trend lines and correlations and have run the numbers and are excited about adjusting in new ways. The teams have the best scouts in the world and have won the draft and are excited about sticking to the time-honored system. At one point, panelists praised the Detroit Red Wings as being successful because “they’re just so hard to get off the puck.” Tell them about how possession metrics are some of the most widely used in hockey analytics, though, and they’ll look at you like you’re nuts.2
The Sloan Conference had many great panels, hockey analytics among them. (I particularly liked one feverish presentation about changing the system so teams can’t tank for the no. 1 pick.) If I could create a new panel at Sloan for the future, though, I think it would be called Lost in Translation. It would feature some of the most patient editors from places like Wired or Popular Mechanics to help lead a collaborative effort between those on both sides of the analytical divide to work together to understand the same story. The test case would be Brian Burke’s own re-signing of Mikhail Grabovski this week, a five-year, $5.5 million-per deal that has been criticized as being too expensive, given a glance at the center’s top-line production.
The move has been defended, however, by those who have looked past
Grabovski’s “boxcar statistics” — his simple goal and assist totals — and dug
into some of the possession and shot-generation numbers he puts up. Through these adjusted metrics, Grabovski’s seemingly “intangible” contributions to the team become more quantifiable and
clear. It may still only qualify as support, but I happen to think it
can still be pretty illuminating.
The example above has always been the public Brian Burke: old-timey, a hockey guy’s hockey guy, quick to anger, sincere with praise, a lost Kennedy brother, a real son-of-a-gun. (“I try to be a prick all the time,” he said of himself in another Sloan panel, this one on negotiation.) Which is why, when his teenage son Brendan came out to his family and the hockey team at Miami University of Ohio and, later on, to the broader world through a column by John Buccigross, he seemed, however superficially, like an essential ally in the drive toward acceptance; a recognizable and respected face in the crowd, as he was at the 2009 Toronto Gay Rights parade that he attended along with his son.
Burke’s initial comments to Buccigross were classic: bracing in their honesty, and unwavering, even ferocious, in their support.
I would prefer Brendan hadn’t decided to discuss this issue in this very public manner. There will be a great deal of reaction, and I fear a large portion will be negative. But this takes guts, and I admire Brendan greatly, and happily march arm in arm with him on this.
I wish this burden would fall on someone else’s shoulders, not Brendan’s. Pioneers are often misunderstood and mistrusted. But since he wishes to blaze this trail, I stand beside him with an axe!
Twenty-one-year-old Brendan Burke was killed in a snowy car accident in February of 2010, just months after Buccigross’s article was published. The U.S. Men’s Olympic Hockey team, of which his father was the GM, wore dog tags with his name throughout the tournament. The Chicago Blackhawks’ Brent Sopel used his day with the Stanley Cup to bring it to the Chicago gay pride parade in Brendan’s memory. And Brendan’s brother, Patrick, a scout with the Philadelphia Flyers, wrote a long and funny essay in honor of his brother on OutSports.com in which he described the earliest reaction from his colleagues around the NHL as both “universally positive” and, this being hockey, charmingly goofy.
“There were some moments of touching awkwardness from guys who have never really been exposed to homosexuality before,” Patrick wrote, “but wanted to make it clear that they did not have any issues with it. (‘Hey, Burkie just so you know, the guy who cuts my hair is gay so, I’m you know. On board.’)”
On Sunday, the day after the Sloan conference, I met Patrick in the press box of Madison Square Garden, where the Rangers were in the first intermission against the Bruins. His BlackBerry was lighting up: A minute-long PSA had just aired nationally on NBC announcing the You Can Play project, an initiative supporting gay athletes that Burke has been working on over the last year. Produced and aired gratis by HBO and NBC, it features a dozen NHL players, ranging from the Blackhawks’ Duncan Keith to the Ducks’ Corey Perry to the Rangers’ Henrik Lundqvist, all repeating the mantra “If you can play, you can play.”
“It’s been bigger than we dreamed of,” Patrick said when I asked him how the launch had gone. It was Wednesday, days after the initial airing of the PSA (the first of two produced by HBO, which will be followed by many more spots done in conjunction with CBC), and he was still participating in so many phone calls and interviews that he’d almost forgotten to eat lunch.3 “We were prepared for a big response, and we did not prepare for a response this big — from fans, from players, from teams, from media, from leagues everybody wants to get onboard, and get onboard in a hurry.”
Burke said that in addition to the 30 NHL players the YCP project had signed up, he’s been fielding phone calls from at least another seven guys eager to be involved. “We still have players and teams left to film” for further spots, he said. “And we’re getting more interest from players, so we’ll probably have to go back and re-film some teams.” The publicity and awareness campaign, which so far has been spread by voices ranging from Khloe Kardashian to Ellen DeGeneres,4 is the first phase of the project, Burke said. The next phase will come this fall, when YCP releases what it’s calling “The Playbook,” a guide giving players, teams, administrators — “even arenas,” Burke said — a blueprint for creating a safe and positive environment for a gay athlete.
Hockey can be a brutal, angry sport, and its agitators will likely not instantly cease using homophobic remarks, however unoriginal they may be. But they’ll think twice if they know they’ll be paying for it, whether in the league offices or, one hopes, right there on the ice. For now, You Can Play is an impressive next step forward, and a strong signal to the league of the importance on taking a leadership position against what Burke calls “casual homophobia.”
“I think from everyone we’ve talked to, it’s pretty clear that when the first NHL player is ready to come out, he’s going to be getting a lot of love,” Patrick said.
Hockey players are accustomed to protecting their own, to sticking up for their teammates regardless of who may have started it, deserved it, or asked for it in the first place. But since he wishes to blaze this trail, I stand beside him with an axe! The best “glue guys” and enforcers do their bruising jobs with a shrug: They’re just doing things, they say, the way they’re supposed to be done. What Brendan Burke did, what Brian and Patrick Burke and the rest of their family continue to be doing, and what so many NHL athletes now hope to help do, is to tap into the very instincts that already make for the best type of hockey player — loyalty, bravery, teamwork, the willingness to go out there and kick that mouthy punk’s ass — and use them to create an environment in which anyone, anyone, can become one.
Lighting the Lamp: The Week’s Sickest Snipes
Since Valentine’s Day, when a 3-1 loss to Detroit dropped the Dallas Stars to a middling 28-25-3 record, the Stars have gone 8-1-2 and now stand two points ahead of the Phoenix Coyotes atop the Pacific Division. In Sunday’s 3-2 shootout victory over the Calgary Flames, Dallas’s Loui Eriksson — a player so frequently declared underrated that he’s become very healthily rated indeed — showed why he’s one of the league’s top talents with this featherweight deke to himself through the legs of Calgary’s Alex Tanguay, which resulted in this backhand goal.
Not to be outdone, Calgary’s Mike Cammalleri tried for a between-the-leg highlight of his own, setting up Jarome Iginla with an incredible pass for the game-tying goal.
Elsewhere in the offensive zone, Claude Giroux scored on a breakaway and set up a goal on another one, this time shorthanded; this Henrik Zetterberg backhand really tests the laws of geometry; for all the miserable things that have happened to the Carolina Hurricanes this season, it has to be some consolation for fans to see a stud 23-year-old feed a stud 19-year-old in overtime to defeat the Washington Capitals; Zdeno Chara is a beast, doo-dah, doo-dah; Corey Perry earned the 200th goal of his career; and Steven Stamkos netted his league-leading 48th goal with this precision short-side shot.
Piling On the Pylons: The Week’s Worst Performers
The Wild trailed the Canadiens 4-1 with less than four minutes to play last Thursday night in Montreal, but that was enough time for Minnesota to wage a comeback. Matt Kassian scored his second of the year (the first had come in the first period) to narrow the Habs’ lead to 4-2, and Dany Heatley and Devin Setoguchi added goals (the latter with just 10 seconds to play in regulation) to give the Wild the tie and a point.
But in the shootout, with the Wild needing a goal to stay in the game, Setoguchi — who had also assisted on Heatley’s third-period goal — lost control of the puck and then of his skates, a woeful finish that was an unfortunate microcosm of the Wild’s 2011-12 season.
“After all we’ve seen tonight, I can say that that didn’t surprise me one bit,” said the CBC’s Jim Hughson.
He sounded a heck of a lot like some of the hockey pundits who have covered the Wild this season. The team’s unexpected — and, many argued, unsustainable — play over the first several months of the season turned the Wild into a centerpiece in the debate over the usefulness of statistics. Stat-minded skeptics looked beneath the Wild’s impressive record and saw that it was built on a shaky foundation, with the team among the worst in the league in most measures of shot differential.6 Minnesota was, in the short term, benefiting from both out-of-their-minds goaltending and rather-be-lucky-than-good rates of shooting, both categories that over a large sample size have a strong tendency to smooth out to a predictable mean. At some point, these writers argued, the Wild were bound to come back down to earth.
The flip side to this argument, of course, was the familiar refrain: “Who cares about all these numbers? The only statistic that matters is wins!”
These days, the only statistic that matters hasn’t been getting much action. Since the beginning of February the Wild have won only four of 17 games, the most recent being a 4-3 victory over the San Jose Sharks, one of the few teams that might be slumping more than Minnesota. Since that win, on February 26, the Wild have been shut out three times and have been outscored 24-5, including a 7-1 drubbing at the hands of the Colorado Avalanche on Tuesday night. Injuries have, of course, played a devastating role in this. But so, too, has the fact that all season long, the Wild have been outshot, sometimes massively, by the opposition. It shouldn’t take a fancy statistician to know or explain that in an 82-game season, that won’t be the best way to win.
Taking It Coast-to-Coast: A Lap Around the League
- The Flyers’ Nick Grossmann, who was traded by Dallas to Philadelphia, didn’t just get a new team this season — he got his old name. A Flyers employee noticed that the shut-down defenseman’s passport, which shows his last name spelled with two N’s, didn’t match the “Grossman” that had always been on the back of his Stars jerseys. When Grossmann was asked about the discrepancy, he admitted that his name had been bungled since his 2006 rookie season. “I was just happy to have a jersey with my name on it,” he said when asked why he hadn’t spoken up. As someone who once let a scary gym teacher refer to her as “Kay” for an entire school year, I can fully understand this.
- Hockey Canada announced this week that Steve Yzerman would be the head of the management team for the 2014 Sochi Olympics, a pointed move that the organizing body undoubtedly hopes will help pressure the NHL to allow its players to compete.7 The Ottawa Citizen’s Wayne Scanlan has a thorough look at the dynamics in play surrounding the Olympics, noting that there’s a good chance the league hopes to use the Games as a bargaining chip in CBA negotiation — perhaps as leverage in obtaining better rights to footage, or in firming up a better player-transfer agreement between the NHL and Russia’s KHL.
- If I were to tell you that this is some sort of Czech commercial that involves Jaromir Jagr, a firefighter’s uniform, gyrating women, and birthday candles, would that be something that you would be interested in?
- Behold, the gaudy-go-braugh pot of gold that is the NHL’s assortment of St. Patrick’s Day gear. I’m kind of into the absurdity of an “O’Datsyuk” tee, though.
- Looks like Chad Ochocinco wants to learn more about the coolest game on ice. “Is there a significant difference in Sidney Crosby/Alex Ovechkin. Both from the naked eye are awesome,” he wrote on Twitter. (Ryan Kesler was all, What does a guy have to DO?) He got an offer from the Florida Panthers’ Shawn Matthias to come to a game, asked Scottie Upshall for a signed jersey, and he must have gotten some educated feedback about his Crosby/Ovechkin question, because soon he tweeted this: “@malkin71_ Hi, I’ve been informed you are the shit, my knowledge about the game of hockey is premature at best but your name keeps ringing.” It took Geno a cool 10 hours to respond, complete with Russian smiley emoticons. He really is the shit.
- The recent beastitude of Evgeni Malkin combined with the announcement that Sidney Crosby could return to the Penguins’ lineup as early as Sunday has left teams suddenly realizing that the Rangers or Bruins aren’t the teams to be most scared about in the East. With Crosby back, the Penguins shoot up from awesome to scary, though it would be the return of defenseman Kris Letang that would really make the Penguins immediate contenders. At any rate, with all this going on, it should be noted how eerily silent things have been on the Jonathan Toews front. Consider: He’s a recent Stanley Cup-winning captain and a face of the league. He hasn’t played since February 19 with a suspected concussion. On February 23 he crashed his car into a giant pole. How has this not been a bigger to-do?
- A brilliant promotion from the Columbus Blue Jackets as they get set to play the L.A. Kings: “TONIGHT ONLY! Bring your Carter jersey to team store by end of 1st period, we’ll change nameplate to J.Johnson for FREE! Quantities limited.”
- Some big games on the docket over the next several days: The Tampa Bay Lightning play the Washington Capitals tonight in a game with four-point-swing potential in the Eastern Conference playoff race, while in the West slumping San Jose takes on the Stars to try to get its season back on track; the Buffalo Sabres take on the rival Bruins on Thursday night and face Ottawa Saturday; Detroit and Nashville play Saturday in what would be, if the playoffs began today, a preview of the 4-vs.-5 first-round matchup; and the Flyers and Devils play Sunday in a game that both teams at this point might be trying to lose: In the East, having the sixth seed means playing the dismal Southeast Division’s leader in round one, while having the ostensibly “better” fifth seed would currently mean a date with the Penguins.
Chirping Like a Champ: The Best Mouthing Off
The Buffalo Sabres and Winnipeg Jets faced off Monday night in a battle for the eighth and final Eastern Conference playoff spot. The Jets entered the game on the heels of a 7-0 shellacking of their Southeast divisional rival Florida Panthers, while Buffalo was coming off a hot stretch that saw them defeat the Penguins, Bruins, and Canucks and post back-to-back shutouts by a reinvigorated Ryan Miller. With the Jets up 2-1 on Buffalo after Blake Wheeler’s breakaway score,8 Winnipeg third-liner Chris Thorburn added a nifty insurance goal that made him look like a much better offensive weapon than his four goals on the season might indicate.
Asked about Thorburn’s smooth moves after the game, though, Miller was stingy with the credit. “He drove the net hard and kinda bailed on the play, put it in my pads. He got a nice bounce back to him. … I’ll give him credit for driving the net and making a pretty goal, but I don’t want him to get too cocky, that greasy kid. I don’t want him talking about how he toe-dragged everyone.”
Had the boisterous MTS Centre fans, in front of whom Winnipeg is 21-10-4, rattled Miller with their “SIL-VER MED-AL” chants throughout the game? Not exactly. Miller was, in the grand tradition of deadpan interviews, just ribbing an old friend: He and Thorburn were teammates back in the day with the AHL’s Rochester Americans. (When the playoffs begin, I am organizing a New Orleans Saints-style bounty pot, though, to be given to the first player who uses the phrase “that greasy kid” with genuine disgust. Anyone who saw the NHL 36 segment on James Neal not washing his hair knows that he could be the first target.)
Bronzed and surrounded by butts
Très “Le Magnifique!”