One of the fuzziest of the fuzzy hockey terms being thrown around Calgary right now is “chemistry”. During lead-up interviews to the trade deadline, Jay Feaster has stated explicitly he is loathe to break up the Flames new-found chemistry by dealing any bodies on February 28th.
“Chemistry” is thought to describe a condition where a line or team is playing at or above it’s perceived level of ability. The idea is that some balance or mix of talents has come together to form a whole greater than the sum of it’s parts (the “gestalt theory of hockey” I suppose).
If that sounds entirely too intellectual, in common parlance “chemistry” usually implies that “everything is working” for a given line or team. It’s often conceptualized as a delicate balancing act by the coach or GM. Picture a frazzled man earnestly tuning a hopelessly outdated radio, straining to hear a very particular tune between static bursts.
Hockey is a fairly complex game when it comes down to it. Injuries, fatigue, coaching decisions, varying player performance, ice-time, officiating, strength of opposition can all influence output and results. Sometimes the interplay of the various factors causes peaks and valleys in outcomes. Throw in our old friend variance (lady luck, the hockey gods, etc.) and sometimes you have what is apparently spontaneous order; sudden “chemistry” springing from the ether before eventually dissolving without apparent cause.
So is chemistry real? Probably not in the way it’s commonly understood. Some players have chemistry because they’re simply good – Pavel Datsyuk and Sidney Crosby likely promote “chemistry” on a line as a matter of course since they are both prime drivers of the play. As such, it doesn’t really make sense to talk about chemistry as something apart from their superior abilities.
The other chemistry, that thing Jay Feaster is currently pointing to in Calgary, is likely just a misunderstanding of circumstances and variance. It’s a description of the Flames current run; an effect, rather than a cause. The reason the Flames are winning is (after a couple months of rotten bounces) the percentages have regressed hard and the team is riding a PDO (SH%+SV%) greater than 104 over the last 15-20 games or so. That’s not a sustainable rate and at some point Calgary will come back down to earth. One need not necessarily believe in the inevitability of regression to understand this: since mid-January, the Flames have managed a point percentage of 80.6%. The best team during the regular season last year was the Washington Capitals with 121 points – or a point percentage of 73.4%. In fact, the best season by any team since the lock-out was 2005-06 Detroit Red Wings and their 124-point record (75.6%). So unless the Flames spontaneously became the best post-lock-out club in mid-January, the current success (chemistry) is going to evaporate eventually simply because the team isn’t this good. The bounces will even out and the Flames will go fall somewhere between their dreadfulness in November and their seeming invincibility now. In fact, the same thing is happening in New Jersey currently.
These two clubs haven’t stumbled upon some secret alchemy, capable of imbuing their squads with heretofore unknown levels of “work ethic” or “team accountability” or “skill”. The hockey gods giveth and the hockey gods taketh away. Most clubs ride the percentages train for some period of time over an 82-game schedule: some get heads, others gets tails and some for longer than others. In the long-run, it all tends to even out. As a result, some teams talk about the shining chemistry of their squads in the first half and then lament it’s lack later on. Dallas and Atlanta spring to mind this season. Calgary and New Jersey are the reverse.
Chemistry is useful shorthand concept when describing something since it’s easily identified by hockey fans, players, etc. It’s therefore a narrative term more than anything else. It’s problematic, however, when GM’s and coaches mis-identify chemistry as a cause of success rather than an artifact of converging circumstances and chance. Like coaches who are reluctant to change things when a team is winning, GM’s who appeal to chemistry in their decision making are likely reasoning from results rather than from principles. In Feaster’s case, for example, there’s a good chance the Flames acting GM is going to eschew shopping pending UFA’s like Curtis Glencross, Anton Babchuk and Brendan Morrison (which could help improve the club or down the road), for the sake of preserving the club’s perceived chemistry. The hot streak is bound to end eventually, however, and when chemistry is no longer the watchword of the hour, the decision to not shop sale-able pieces will likely be judged as a poor one.