‘All these shoot-out wins are disguising how badly the Leafs have played this year’
‘Why are you complaining if they’re winning? Aren’t you a fan!?’
‘Bozak is on fire!’
‘Just wait, that 16% shooting percentage isn’t sustainable. You’ll see..’
If you’re a Maple Leafs fan on twitter you’ve seen variations on this exchange over and over. The never-ending chatter of the fans, reporters, commentators and bloggers that follow the most beloved team in hockey is becoming increasingly polarized. Between those who attempt to observe, quantify and evaluate how well the team really is playing by attempting to find more stable measurements than goals for/against and those who simply want to see the Leafs do well. I guess, in the end, there is little harm done by squabbling over how one should interpret the results of a hockey team (except that there might be much more important issues in our world that are being neglected but that’s a topic for another post). I believe, in most cases, there is room for both points of view within one’s mind.
As this is my 1st post, I’m going to try and make a point and begin to introduce myself at the same time. I am Leafs fan, by no means the hardest-core or the longest suffering, but they say step 1 of 12 is admission.. I was born in 1989 and though I was too young to witness the Gilmour, Clark, and Kerry Fraser era, I watched as much of the Sundin era as a kid as I could and forged a strong enough connection with the team then, that even though it is mired in a Cubs/Redsoxesque championship slump, and is currently being mismanaged and poorly coached in my opinion; I still to this day cannot help but ride the emotional ups and downs of each game I watch (maybe in time that will change if this blogging thing sticks, seemed to work for Dustin Parks).
So I get it. I totally get just being happy when the Leafs win a game. Lucky bounce? Bernier or Reimer stole it? Still puts a grin on my face and gets us 2 points closer to the playoffs. Even if in the end it all fell apart, watching the Leafs in the playoffs last year was awesome. I missed playoff hockey. I mean, I watched play off hockey every year before that too, but I missed caring about playoff hockey. My fondest memories of the Leafs are from their playoff series back in the day, vs Philly, Ottawa, or Buffalo. I can distinctly remember running down my street to Kingston Rd. with my blue plastic horn to honk along with the cars driving by, after a few dramatic Leaf wins. So short term? Hells yea, I’ll take a shoot-out win. Let’s get back in the playoffs, and who knows what could happen? They might be playing pretty shittily now, but if they finally figure something out and get on a roll.. Anything could happen. That’s sports.
But part of fandom for me, is a desire to investigate and learn. This might not be the case for all fans, but it is for me and for thousands, if not millions, of other sports fans (hence the popularity of sites like Fangraphs amongst baseball nerds and prospect projection content in most sports). My nerding out on sports started with baseball and spiked last year with all of the preseason excitement regarding the Blue Jays. I spent much of my free time throughout the offseason delving into projections and analysis of the Jays and other teams, especially their division rivals. While in the end the Jays season went about as dismally as it could (expect positive regression!) I don’t regret the energy I put into learning about baseball at all. I have a much more complete (but still woefully incomplete) understanding of professional baseball now, I enjoy that and would like to do the same with hockey.
Sometimes I wonder if large bastions of the hockey world, fans and management, haven’t watched Money Ball yet. Which dramatically chronicles another binary struggle in sports; a struggle which is still ongoing in baseball and now hockey as well. ‘New School’ vs. ‘Old School’. Analytics vs. scouting. Stephen Burtch vs. Steve Simmons. It’s a conflict that’s taking place in so many different aspects of my two favourite sports. Some debates don’t really have anything to do with mathematics, just (relatively) new notions as to how the game ought to be played challenging incumbent ideas (chip and chase vs. attempting to carry the puck into the zone) while in other arguments one side’s point might be very much based on complex mathematics (like the idea that it is slightly more optimal to have your best hitter bat 2nd in the line up instead of 3rd). Like with everything in sports in the end it comes down to winning and it was small market teams using ‘New School’ ideas to out perform their salaries that broke the ice in baseball and over the past decade that landscape has been completely altered.
Obviously hockey and baseball are very different sports. My intuition has always been that hockey due to the chaotic and fluid nature of play is a much harder sport to productively quantify and assess with statistics. But harder doesn’t mean impossible. There are aspects to every sport that are nigh ungraspable by analytics, but there are also aspects that can be broken down by mathematics. Most baseball and basketball teams seem to think so at least, and have enough belief in the value of statistical analysis to commit millions of dollars into the creation of Analytics Departments for their teams and then guard their proprietary in-house metrics from one another.
It frustrates me that there are NHL teams employing Analytics Departments and using the resulting insights to tilt the ice in their favour and that the Leafs are not one of those teams. That the richest organization in hockey isn’t using a sliver of its sequoia sized revenues to have the best and brightest minds coming up with models and simulations to give their management and coaching staff every possible advantage is yet another slap in my face. Sure, we get that you let your hands be tied by the salary cap so you don’t have to deal with fans moaning about how you should just spend more money on free agents like the Blue Jays have to endure. But maybe you could take some of the $100+ million in extra profit and give analytics in hockey an honest try. Maybe it wouldn’t work, but I wish they would at least try because I believe there probably are inefficiencies to be found and systems and skill-sets to be favoured. It just seems obvious to me, that having another tool for decision making can only help because even if, as the general manager, you choose to disregard analytics, its still good to try understand how your competitors might be operating. As it is I get the suspicion that the Leafs might be like the Philadelphia Phillies of the hockey world with their heads proudly stuck in the sands of stubbornness (except with the Leafs its not sand, its a mountain of dollar bills).
Just like in baseball a balance between old fashioned and new wave will eventually be found. Just because teams have fancy metrics doesn’t mean they disregard old fashioned talent evaluation. And perhaps analytics’ share in the proper balance is the smaller half, especially in hockey which as I mentioned before might above might be a particularly difficult sport to assess mathematically. So, of course, scouting and talent evaluation will always be important and maybe should get first priority if you have limited resources. But why shouldn’t the Maple Leafs have the broadest and best scouting network in hockey and a robust Analytics Department? Why choose between ‘New’ or ‘Old school’ when there is plenty to be learned from both.
I would say I’m just getting started in familiarizing myself with the ‘advanced’ statistical analysis of hockey but I see doing so as only one part of my personal on-going discovery of hockey, and it is a pursuit that is born out of; and always comes back to my fandom of the Leafs and of the game of hockey. One fan’s obsessive attention to statistics is another fan’s blue and white face paint. Two different ways to express passion for the same thing. Black and white/wrong and right attitudes are everywhere in our world, and I think the Realm of Sports is a good place to find examples of why attempting to be as full spectrum as we can in our analysis of things and our resulting opinions is usually the best way to go.
Thanks for reading my first ever blog post. As I said above I’m still just learning hockey’s adv. stats and I haven’t written anything since highschool (5ish years?) so my hope is this blog can be like a time capture of my growth in both aspects. I hope you enjoyed it. If you have any comments or critiques feel free. Tweet me @TophervonEsh, comment box below or whatever works for you. Remember, in life and in sports, straddle the lines of division. Even order and chaos, concepts that are as polarized as it gets, can be intertwined beautifully to create magical things like a shuffled playlist and the game of hockey.