Welcome to The Rorschach, a new feature aimed at the discussing the psychological side of hockey analysis and fandom
A lot of heat is currently falling on Bruce Boudreau for the Capitals recent six game losing streak. Last season’s Presidents Trophy winners, the Capitals have been outscored 26-9 over the last six contests, despite facing a number of apparently inferior clubs including the Toronto Maple Leafs, Florida Panthers, Colorado Avalanche and New York Rangers. On the heels of a disappointing first round ouster at the hands of the Montreal Canadiens last April, speculative minds searching answers are defaulting to the coach as the explanation.
Reasoning from results is a natural and superficially rational approach to judging performance in sports. The task of the players, coaches and decision makers at hand, after all, is to win games. If a team is losing, it therefore follows that someone must be at fault. Unfortunately, sometimes the reality doesn’t agree with the premise. In sport, there are time when the better team doesn’t win. In fact, in any given season, there are stretches where a good team will lose multiple games in a row, despite frequently outplaying their opponents. In a capped league with a large spread of talent, highly engaged coaching and generally excellent goaltending, the role of chance is elevated and has significant sway in determining outcomes.
The influence of luck is theoretically sensible to most people, but seems to lose it’s explanatory power when successive wins or losses start to mount. Unfortunately, the human brain is adept at picking out patterns, but relative poor at understanding randomness. For example, it’s entirely possible to flip a coin five times and have it land on heads each time, even though the chance of heads or tails for each flip is 50%. Over the long term, the two sides are bound to even out, despite the fact there will be a number of all-heads or all-tails “clusters” inside a given sample of coin flips. Human perception of coin flips is such that, with 50% odds, the sides should seem to more or less alternate over successive flips. That’s not random, however – that’s just a pattern the brain expects based on the odds or “fairness” of 50-50. Variance is far more unpredictable than going H-T-H-T, however; so while the sides be may split evenly over a long enough time line, there will always be series of flips that “favor” one side over the other inside that time line.
Besides the brain’s innate tendency to perceive patterns, there’s the human penchant for assigning meaning to perceived patterns, particularly when there’s something riding on the outcome of an event or events. Take the coin flip example. In one instance, say two people sit down and simply flip a coin 10 times and get a 7H-3T outcome. They’d probably think it was odd, but nothing more. Now, instead imagine your friend approaches you one day and says he’ll bet you $100 that a random coin he flips will land on heads more than tails through 10 flips. Do you assume randomness after a 7H-3T result? Or would you naturally conclude your friend cheated you somehow?
Coaches in the NHL fall before the fickle hand of variance quite frequently. Around this time last year, Philadelphia Flyers coach John Stevens was fired after his club stumbled through a rough 10-game patch. I noted at the time:
It’s funny that a coach who guided a team to a 99 point season with a +26 GD just last year can get the axe because his injured goalie couldn’t stop a beachball on the PK and pucks stopped going in for his skaters for 10 games. The truth of the matter is, the Flyers are actually a pretty good club and it’s a good bet they would have righted the ship anyways. As it stands, the inevitable correction will come and Laviolette will be cheered as savior.
Which brings us back to Bruce Boudreau. His Capitals aren’t meeting expectations currently, but by all indications it’s because they’re unlucky, not because they are truly under performing. Through their six game losing streak, Washington has a combined corsi of +102 (+17 per game), a per game shot average of 38.17 and a combined shot on net differential of +69 (+11.5 per game). Those are the possession and shot rates of an elite squad. One would think that is Boudreau was truly dropping the ball, the negative effects would show up throughout the Capitals stats.
What’s really killed Washington recently is the percentages. The team’s shooting percentage through the last six contests has been 3.93%. To put that number in perspective, the worst SH% team in the league last season was Boston at 7.54%. For further context, the Capitals scored on 11.62% of their shots in 2010-11. In addition, the club’s pair of young goaltenders have struggled to keep the puck out of the net: Varlamov and Neuvirth combined for a ghastly .838 SV% during the period in question. That save rate is south of the leagues mean short-handed save percentage. No starter in the league has been anywhere near that poor for well over a decade, so we can safely conclude that one or both of the youngsters will start stopping pucks at a much greater rate at some point.
The Capitals remain a very good team. They are still outshooting and outplaying the opposition most nights and unless Bruce Boudreau is somehow inhibiting his shooters from scoring or his goalies from stopping shots, he’s not the cause of their current struggles. If he’s fired, it will be a sacrifice before the fickle gods of variance and the human need to find answers in randomness.