The League’s Best Puck-stopper

OTTAWA - APRIL 18: Jonathan Cheechoo #41 of the Ottawa Senators skates over the in-ice Stanley Cup logo during warmups prior to a game against the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game Three of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals during the 2010 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Scotiabank Place on April 18, 2010 in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.  (Photo by Andre Ringuette/NHLI via Getty Images)

My post on Miikka Kiprusoff Wednesday night raised quite a bit more outcry than I’d anticipated.  I’d felt, despite some of the things said by mainstream commentators, that most fans had observed the same drop-off in his game that I had, and thus there wouldn’t be much controversy.

It’s been a bad few days for that, actually, as it reminds me of something else that happened just last night.

I found myself in Toronto, and much to my surprise was recognized at the airport by a hockey fan named Alex.  Alex is a regular reader here, and knew me by my picture.  As it turned out, he was also having a hockey trivia night with four of his friends, and he wanted to know if I’d be willing to put some questions together and act as host.

Naturally, I thought it was a bit odd and I hesitated, but he was insistent and finally I agreed.  So last night I went to Alex’s house to host the trivia game.  There I met his friends: Bobby, Candice, Doris, and Edgar.  After exchanging pleasantries, we all sat down around Alex’s dining room table to start the trivia.

Unsure of the level of knowledge present in the room, I started off with an easy question.

“As of today, who is this season’s best goal-scorer?” I asked.  Immediately, Edgar’s hand shot up, narrowly beating out Doris.  I nodded to him.

“Jeff Carter,” he said smugly, and I observed Doris nodding bitterly.  Clearly, these people weren’t as on top of things as might be hoped.

“I’m sorry, but that’s the wrong answer.  Good try, though,” I said in a friendly manner.

“What do you mean that’s wrong?” asked Edgar angrily, “Carter leads the league with 34 wins, and has chipped in 24 goals.”

I was taken aback.  It hadn’t occurred to me that someone would judge a goal-scorer on the basis of wins.  Wins, after all, are a team statistic, not one created by an individual player.  I said as much to Edgar, who immediately started muttering bitterly with Doris while the two of them intermittently shot dirty looks at me.

“Anyone else?” I asked hesitantly.  Candice, smiling shyly at me from the far end of the table, put her hand up.

“Go ahead, Candice,” I said, smiling to encourage her.

“It’s Marian Gaborik,” she said softly, “he’s got three hat-tricks this season.”

I blinked stupidly for a moment.  Taking advantage of my momentary surprise, Alex jumped in to the conversation with determination.

“It’s not Gaborik, and it isn’t Jeff Carter either.  It’s Jonathan Cheechoo,” he said firmly.  Bobby snorted in derision.

“You’re all idiots,” he said, “clearly the answer is Ryan Kesler.”

Overcoming my surprise, I motioned them all to be quiet.  Once the room had calmed down, I spoke up again.

“You’re all wrong.  Steven Stamkos leads the league in goals, with 39, but Sidney Crosby has been the best goal-scorer on a per game basis.  I would have been happy with either answer.”

I thought the room had been chaotic before, but that was nothing.  My comments unleashed utter bedlam, as everyone piled in on me.

“Wins are all that matter!” screamed Doris, as Edgar nodded firmly behind her, “I’m sick of all your fancy talk about goals per game – you ask any coach if they want a goal or a win and they’ll tell you a win matters WAAAY more!”

“Goals are just one statistic,” started Bobby, struggling to be heard over Doris’s shrill voice, “you can’t judge goal-scoring by a single statistic!  Ryan Kesler is a physical two-way leader with mental toughness on a winning team and that obviously makes him a better goal-scorer than that injury-prone whiner Crosby!”

“How can you ignore Gaborik’s three three-goal games?” asked Candice’s voice, barely discernable in the background.  At that moment Edgar, spotting a gap while Doris took a breath, interjected.

“Crosby’s only got three game-winning goals.  What a joke.” This appeared to set off Alex, who started talking about Cheechoo’s 56 goals back in 2005-06, apparently oblivious to the fact that he wasn’t even on a 30-goal pace in the AHL this season.

The argument continued for a while, with the only consensus being that I was an idiot for looking at just goal totals in 2010-11 and not reflecting on team wins, game-winning goals, multi-goal games, mental toughness, leadership, games played, past performance and a myriad of other items.  The group of five got more and more worked up, so as Candice started eyeing up knives in the kitchen I faked the group with a sudden lunge before dashing to the entryway, slamming my feet into my shoes, and hoofing it to my rental car.  As you might imagine, I was shaken by the experience.

As I drove back to my hotel, I reflected on the similarities between the night’s events and the reaction to my Kiprusoff post.  “Goal-scorer” is a pretty clear-cut phrase, I thought to myself, but then again so is “puck-stopper.”  The first skill is easily measurable: the player who scores goals most efficiently is clearly the best goal-scorer.  The latter skill is also pretty clear: the player who stops pucks most efficiently is the best puck-stopper, and save percentage is the statistic that shows percentage of pucks stopped.

I got back to the hotel, flipped over to the hockey highlights, and left the TV on as I fell asleep, still wondering why people felt the need to clutter things up with a bunch of irrelevant data when there were such straight-forward ways of measuring results.