Sucking the joy out of hockey: NHL playoff narratives vs. analytics

Sucking the joy out of hockey: NHL playoff narratives vs. analytics

Wyatt Arndt’s piece on VanCityBuzz about advanced stats vs. narratives will likely ring true to anyone that doesn’t always appreciate when the facts get in the way of romanticism, hyperbole and archetypes in hockey.

My first bout with this collision between reality and escapism was when the salary cap was instituted and every trade proposal made on NHL message boards, going forward, had to pass a financial litmus test.

The first response was no longer “why in the hell would Team X make this trade?” but “why in the hell would Team X make this trade, considering their cap situation makes it literally impossible without several other dominos falling and a brief fit of insanity from their trading partner?”

The only rejoinder would be a half-hearted “well let’s say they find a way to make it work” before that’s shot down faster than the ‘NHL 94’ A.I. could say “TRADE DENIED.”

But the application of the salary cap works a lot like the application of advanced stats on hockey, in the sense that it immediately filters out crap opinions and creates a few dozen new entry points for criticisms, evaluations and, yes, narratives.

With the acknowledgement that, yes, they can sometimes undeniably suck the joy out of discussing this game.

Rick Nash is a good example of this.

The New York Rangers star has four goals in 17 playoff games so far this season and a total of eight in 54 playoff games with the Blueshirts. The reflex for many of us would be to burn him at the stake in the middle of Madison Square Park using his salary money as kindling, but there’s been a sizable number of people who have defended Nash fervidly.

His possession numbers show he’s not overall been a liability despite his lack of goals. In defense of his underwhelming shooting percentage, his defenders cite similar declines among his comparable peers. (Looking at you, Patrick Sharp.)

What tips the scales for Nash, ultimately, is that when you talk to really, really smart hockey people, they’ll side-eye the goal stats while breaking down all the little things Nash does right to turn down the heat on him: the defense, the possession, the special teams play, the screens for goals.

One level of the narrative is that Nash isn’t putting the puck in the net in the playoffs, and that’s frankly undeniable given his work history. But if someone takes that prolonged slump and extrapolates that he’s “hurting the Rangers” overall, that’s as accurate as saying he skates in SCUBA flippers.

But to bring it back to Arndt’s piece, there’s a middle ground between “watch the game” luddites and “look at the analytics” seers that’s frustratingly missing from the complete picture on any given narrative, which is the players’ perspective.

That’s where “intangibles” actually have value, despite being a word that’s been totally demonized today.

From Arndt:

If Gregory Campbell goes out on the ice, breaks his leg, and finishes his shift, it’s ok to think that’s badass. We don’t particularly need somebody to scream at us that in fact, Gregory Campbell played like human garbage after his leg broke, hurt his team’s chances, and he’s an idiot for risking further injury. Sometimes we just want to enjoy a dude for doing something that we might not have been able to do.

If a player scores five overtime goals in the playoffs en route to a Stanley Cup, it’s ok for people to call him clutch. Let people enjoy the fact somebody did something special in the playoffs. We don’t particularly need to hear about his shooting percentage being unsustainable with an accompanying lengthy document outlining how “clutch” isn’t even a thing.

And yet the Boston Bruins, to a man, were inspired by it. That guy with the five overtime game winners is adding to an overall feeling of destiny or inevitability in that locker room, even if it’s pure luck and probably can’t be quantified as “clutch.”

Good, recent example of that disconnect: The Rangers, the Lightning and timing.

***

In the second period of Game 5, the Lightning took a minor penalty at 7:19 and another at 9:51. This is a bad thing by any logical measure, what with the Rangers scoring two power-play goals per game in their last three contests. But the Lightning kill them off and then score the game’s first goal at 13:29, or 1:38 after the second power play was over. To a man, the Lightning talked about the boost that PK gave them and how it led to a shift in momentum – that most unquantifiable of things – and the goal.

There’s probably a way to demonstrably prove that, overall, killing four penalties in the first 33:29 of a game doesn’t have an impact on a team’s offense, but like there’s evidence that a fight doesn’t “energize” a team. But in both cases there are situations when the players involved in the game claims they do. And these claims live in a purgatory where hollow narratives and situations that defy the numbers coexist.

Ditto the Lightning’s shot-blocking in Game 5. If you’re blocking shots, you don’t have the puck, and if you don’t have the puck then you’re playing to lose. And yet to hear Brian Boyle talk about the “momentum shift” that happens when the Lightning blocks shots, and the psychological damage it does to the competition, that’s hard to ignore.

Please don’t mistake this for some kind of MSM-supporting “us guys in the room vs. you guys in the basement” thing, because that’s not what I’m getting it. But one of the functions of journalism is to collect as many views and as much information as one can from the experts and eyewitnesses, and I think that information is too often shoved aside because one analytic or another doesn’t support it.

That said, there are plenty of members of the traditional media who shove that information aside as well, because it doesn’t fit the narrative. Like, Rick Nash can have his play validated by possession stats and lauded by teammates and he’ll still have the leading voice on American studio coverage calling him a “marshmallow.”

But that’s really what the analytics revolution has done: It’s not so much taking the joy out of hockey as adding much needed nuance to it. I don’t think the person Arndt is describing here is being shamed out of fandom:

Again, I get that to some people understanding WHY something happened is far more interesting than the event itself. I just think people should remember people enjoy the games in different ways, and that doesn’t make them an idiot for not viewing it your way. Sure, if a person of authority is drilling home a narrative you think is way off base, take them down. But in every day life, if buddy in the next cubicle thinks Sbisa has “potential”, maybe just smile and nod and let it go once in a while. Sometimes the unthinkable does happen in sports, and things do go against conventional wisdom. Those are moments we should remember to celebrate, instead of simply finding a way to prove that was against the norm.

***

My favorite thing about hockey is the size of the tent we’re all under. Sure, there are these priggish dinks running the entrance gate that try to keep others out based on presumed knowledge of the game or economics or gender or because they work for ESPN, but essentially we’re a religion in Canada, an ever-growing cult in the U.S. and an international congregation whose members speak a universal language.

A universal language … with different dialects. 

Some of us are going to speak in narratives and hyperbole, and there is always going to be media punditry to serve that audience. (Usually found on television, between periods, wearing suit jackets that look like the wallpaper in a Palm Beach motel.)

Some of us are going to speak in analytics, providing needles to narrative balloons and providing the “how and why” for the “what.”

Some of us are going to chant “OVI SUCKS” even if its existence defies logic beyond its undeniable cadence.

I think Arndt’s essentially right that hockey’s tent is big enough for the zealots and theologians to coexist. I also think he’s right that the firepower of fancy stats should still be trained on media opinion makers that ignore empirical evidence and statistical proof for the sake of the (hot) take.

(Again, one of the true joys of the analytics revolution in hockey is seeing the same life cycle of rejection and acceptance play out that I experience when blogs rose from the basement to the mainstream over the last decade.)

The joy of hockey is that there are so many ways to extract joy from it.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to get back to the HFBoards and propose that Shea Weber to the Blackhawks trade. What do you mean by “idiot, did you even look at the cap hits on the new Toews and Kane contracts?”

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