Friday, March 29, 2013

How To Talk To Hockey Nerds

One of the great things about the last five to ten years, from my perspective at least, is the relatively new mainstream appeal of being a nerd.  I've always been a nerd at heart but I didn't always wear the badge as proudly as I do now and while part of that is a bi-product of growing up, it would probably be dishonest to say that I'd self-identify as one if I were the only person doing it with pride.

In part, I was able to keep my inner-nerd closeted during the time it wasn't so chic because I was reasonably athletic and genuinely loved sports.  Given these two interests, it's not particularly surprising that I have a hockey blog.

Being a hockey nerd is a little bit different than liking the Christopher Nolan Batman movies though; it's not exactly universally accepted.  Part of that comes from the fact that the advanced stat community often challenges preconceptions that have been held for a very long time in the sport, but part of it comes from misunderstandings.  With that in mind, I thought I'd take a little bit of time to clear the air on some of the nerdier elements of hockey analysis.

The Stats We Dislike

(+/-): A lot of advanced statistics is predicated on the idea that "goals" is too narrow a result to be of much predictive value.  There aren't enough goals scored to clear up a lot of the statistical noise and a handful of goals against caused by skating with a defensively inept linemate can really skew your own personal results.  For this reason hockey nerds tend to seriously dislike (+/-) and this is especially true if you're comparing guys on different teams.  (+/-) without regard for context is anathema for us.

Hits: Cam Charron had an exceptional piece over at Backhand Shelf where he touches on how teams with a lot of hits tend to lose a lot of games.  The reason behind this is pretty obvious if you actually think about it: In order to make a hit, you can't have the puck which means to make a lot of hits, you have to spend a lot of time without the puck.  When a hockey pundit praises a guy for being third in the NHL in hits, you can expect that hockey nerds everywhere are rolling their eyes.  To a lesser extent, you can throw out shot blocks for the exact same reason.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

A Darwinian Look at Phil Kessel & The Kovalchuk Model of Star Evolution

It’s no secret that the Leafs have been struggling lately, losing five straight with two coming in overtime. There are a number of culpable parties, sharing the blame for the poor showings;  Randy Carlyle’s refusal to call up Jake Gardiner, Mikhail Grabovski’s inability to produce offensively while buried in the defensive zone, uneven goaltending, and the lack of goals from Phil Kessel.

It’s likely that all of the above are contributing factors in the lack of wins, but where I disagree with the standard rationale is on why Phil Kessel has been disappointing. Recording 30 or more goals in 4 straight seasons and coming off of a 37 goal 2011-12 has made Kessel’s current 82 game pace of 28 goals inadequate to some.

Since becoming a Maple Leaf Kessel has repeatedly been labeled as a ’40 goal scorer’, based largely on his potential to do so, since he has never in fact scored 40 goals in a single season. As a result, he seems to be unfairly judged against a standard he has never actually achieved. Furthermore, he seems to be graded along a single axis, in one category (that being goals) when there is so much more a player of his calibre can contribute to a team. Phil Kessel is most certainly a sniper in the truest form, but speed and latent playmaking ability give him the tools to perhaps be more.

As a possible case study I’d like to examine the transformation of Ilya Kovalchuk. Much like Kessel, he was known primarily as a goal scorer in his early years with the Atlanta Thrashers. Kovalchuk scored 29 times in his rookie campaign and went on to amass an 6 straight seasons of 40+ goals – impressive. Not quite as awe inspiring was his Augusta-worthy plus/minus over that time, recording a -19,-24,-10, -6, -2, -12 and -12 over the same stretch. Granted, the Thrashers weren’t all that good during his tenure, so we can forgive him the plus/minus. However, it’s clear no Selke trophies were coming his way.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Making Lemonade Out Of Lemons: Internal Fixes For The Leafs Lineup

As things stand today, the Leafs sit in 6th in the Eastern Conference and are 3 points ahead of 9th place Winnipeg following last night's loss to the Jets.  Not a bad spot to be and had you told me in the offseason we'd be in a playoff spot 27 games into the season, I would have been pleasantly surprised.  The underlying numbers for how we've gotten here suggest that we've been awfully lucky to be so successful but this is where we are and nobody can take those points away from us.

That said, it doesn't mean that you look at the underlying numbers, shrug, and say, "well, we've gotten away with it so far."  This team is 3rd last in the NHL in Fenwick Close.  For the uninitiated, Fenwick Close is essentially shot +/- when the game is within a goal (during the 1st or 2nd period) or tied (in the 3rd or overtime).  It may seem counter-intuitive to a lot of you, but if you isolate this number for road games it actually correlates more closely with home points than points earned on the road does.  In a nutshell: This might be the most important number the NHL has for predicting future success.

A lot of what happens during the rest of the season will hinge on how Randy Carlyle is able to manipulate the lineup in an effort to improve our Fenwick number moving forward, thereby improving our odds at success.  The good news, in my opinion, is that there are internal solutions for most of what ails this team.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Phil Kessel and the Ryan Getzlaf Contract - A Ripple Effect

On Friday March 8th, the Anaheim Ducks signed a contract extension with their star center, Ryan Getzlaf. The deal amounts to $66 million over 8 years, making the 27-year old one of the highest earning players in the NHL, pulling in $8.25 million a season. While the agreement quite obviously impacts the Ducks, it will also have a ripple effect throughout the league as teams, like the Maple Leafs, try to navigate the waters of the new CBA.

The Leafs next year will be faced with the difficult proposition of what to do with Phil Kessel. Much like Ryan Getzlaf, Kessel will be a UFA at the end of next season and on the edge of what many believe will be his most productive hockey-playing years. The contracts of Marian Gaborik, Rick Nash, Ilya Kovalchuk and Zach Parise have demonstrated the significant investment required to keep a player entering free agency in their mid to late 20s – close to their maximum value.

The difference between the players above and the deal struck in Anaheim is how the new CBA has forced teams to re-think superstar contracts. No longer able to sign players to heavily front loaded dollars that tapper in the late going, thereby maintaining a manageable annual cap-hit. Today’s GMs must now impress stars with the promise of an 8th year (opposing teams can only offer up to 7) or the allure of winning a Stanley Cup.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Optimus Reim Showing Off Some Autobotian Heroics in 2013

The most pleasant surprise of the 2013 Maple Leafs season has undoubtedly been the consistent and exceptional play of James Reimer and the perfectly adequate backup performance of Ben Scrivens. The steadying performances of both goalies has been one of the key reasons they team currently sits 5th in the Eastern Conference, and has all but completely silenced the whispers surrounding Roberto Luongo in Toronto.

Ben Scrivens, the AHL's reigning Harry Holmes Memorial Award (lowest goals allowed in a minimum of 25 games) winner has been more than adequate, and despite that, Randy Carlyle is justifiably leaning towards James Reimer when he's healthy.

Reimer’s statistics thus far have been reminiscent of his numbers during the 2010-11 season when he posted a 2.60 GAA and .921 save percentage with a 20-10-5 record. The wayward Brian Gionta elbow put him off track for most of last season, side lined with a concussion. However, his play this year has stoked the fire once again on talks that he has the skill set to succeed as a number one goalie in the NHL.

Taking a look at two key measures for goalies we can see he is in some lofty company, in line with some of the league’s best.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Spring Shopping List: A 1st Line Center

Somewhere in California, with his tie slightly undone (just enough to make you ask why he bothers wearing it in the first place) Brian Burke is smirking at the Leafs success.

The team seems to be a spitting image of the one Burke hoped to create 4 years ago. A nice mix of scoring and finesse on the top 2 lines with tenacious checkers and men quick to drop their gloves in the bottom six.

The goaltending has moved from league worst to the top third of the league. The defense, while imperfect, has been strong enough that Carlyle has kept Jake Gardiner, once thrust into the throngs of an NHL season, out of the NHL lineup and unsure as to where he will even slot in. A good problem to have if you’re Dave Nonis.

Alas, one remaining issue plagues the team and its roster – that of the never-ending search for player capable of playing 1st line center minutes. The hole left by Mats Sundin has proven to be deeper than many fans were willing to admit. It’s been temporarily filled by the likes of Matt Stajan, Nik Antropov, Tim Connolly, and most recently by Tyler Bozak.

Rumours have circulated for quite some time over replacements that could be signed or traded for to stabilize the position. Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry are both unrestricted free agents this summer and the speculation is that Anaheim may only be able to retain the services of one. Both will be looking for deals north of 7 million dollars per year for an extended time. Getzlaf represents the prototypical 1st line center that can play in all situations and would certainly end all questions about the position in the foreseeable future. However, the free agent market can be extremely fickle, and placing the team’s future in the hands of pending UFAs can be dangerous.