The myth of the hot start

The hockey season is 82 games long.

82 games of winning streaks, losing streaks, hot hands, bumps in the ice, injuries, slogs, glue-on-the-skates, cheering, hardship, SEEKING STANLEY headlines, FIRE EVERYBODY headlines and the occasional headline that pops up because a player posed nude in ESPN: The Magazine.

Yep. All smiles.

But nobody judges a team based on two weeks in January. The first two weeks in October, however, are always worth a look because they set the tone for the rest of the season. Those first two weeks indicate  a General Manger’s successes and failures in putting his team together. We have no other sample to judge the team, and, in October, every team can look like a playoff candidate.

The Toronto Maple Leafs decline after a hot start last season, purpots Damien Cox, came just as coach Ron Wilson describes it: they “got carried away” after huge headlines about their team speed and improved depth praised the team when they began 4-0. Those first four games left us knowing what that hockey team could have been. So why weren’t they better? Is it because they capitulated from lack of leadership from Dion Phaneuf and Phil Kessel?

It’s because the team had an unsustainably-high 14.6 shooting percentage in their first four games, which was begging to fall due to variance. While sportswriters like to look at various explanations for why certain teams did well and others didn’t and tend to discuss poetic ideals such as grit, heart and character, things happen in sports for different reasons. Sometimes you don’t play well for a couple of weeks, and sometimes you get affected by variance, and sometimes all your season’s problems can be explained because you were eating fried chicken in the clubhouse.

The Bob Hohler Boston Globe story about the Red Sox borders on farce and is an extreme example of narrative getting out of whack, and thankfully we haven’t really had to deal with that in hockey to that extent. The worst we get in hockey is a few guys talking on the radio about what the Leafs (3-0 this season) can do to not suffer the same fate as last season. Jonas Siegel managed to drop the word “leader” seven times in his Sunday analysis of the Leafs Saturday win over the Calgary Flames.

A 4-0 start in October means so much more than a 4-0 run in January, when opinions have already been formed about the team. Those are more likely to be viewed as a hot streak or a slight surge and they become fun to talk about for a few days, but then the team starts to return to its old ways, just as we expected it might. Cox doesn’t mention the Leafs creeping back to those old habits after the Leafs went on a 4-0 streak in January of 2011, because it doesn’t fit the narrative of early-season promise, even though the same things happened. The team scored more goals than their talent-level dictated (they put 15.1% of pucks in the net over the January streak) and as a result, won a few games in a row.

Tavares is on pace for 103 goals this season.

If you’ve seen the Leafs, or, to stop talking about them before more Western readers start calling me a Toronto homer, the New York Islanders, you’ll have seen all the good plays that those teams have made that have led to some early season wins and they confirm your opinion about the team. ‘Tavares is a dangerous sniper, and he’s about to break-out in a big way this season’, you might say to yourself, ‘because he’s played this well in the amount of time I’ve seen him play’. Well, Tavares was a dangerous sniper last season, too. He scored 29 goals, which doesn’t seem like a lot, but it is. The difference this season is that we don’t have a measuring stick.

We have his good games to look at and not the bad onesWe haven’t seen a goal-drought from Tavares or Kessel in 2011-12. John Tavares last season had an 8-game, 9-game, and a 10-game goal drought, which must feel like shooting at a brick wall and not being able to hit it, so when he pots three points in his final game, it’s not the performance of a clutch player from our storybook imaginations, just a routine indicator of this player’s streak season.

With the new season comes new expectations, and we like to think that streaky players in the past have moved past their enigmatic ways thanks to an offseason training regime, the implementation of a new system with a new coach, or because a letter has been stitched onto the front of the jersey. The influx of possible narratives interferes with the way we actually watch a game in the first month of the season because there’s just so much to look for. There’s so much to look for that we’re bound to see some of it happen, and that becomes the team’s identity.

It works in reverse, as well. As much as Winnipeg Jets defenseman Mark Stuart says that the Jets are being beaten at their own game and getting beaten to pucks, that’s sort of an after-the-fact cliché that a player can look at to pin a loss on a team’s collective effort. Not, say, the .875 save percentage combined by Jets goaltenders Ondrej Pavelec and Chris Mason have put up through three games. That isn’t an issue corrigible by the coach or a quick fix that players, fans and media can suggest, but rather a regression that takes time, and in the case of the 2011 New Jersey Devils, sometimes half a season. An off-year by Alexander Ovechkin and his ensuing slow start is a product not of a dropping shooting percentage and a slow-down in shot volume. It’s apparently because Sidney Crosby’s presence no longer motivates #8.

All it takes is a matter of time, 82 games, for a team, or a player’s, true talent to show. 82 games. The Maple Leafs are an improved hockey team, but they won’t get the 301 goals for and 191 against that they’re on pace for at this point in the season, and that will have little to do with not having the leadership to sustain their early season pace. It’s because the percentages will drop and will probably balance out over 82 games, no matter what tricked-out explanation you want to give me that blames one or two players that a media member had a bad experience with.

82 games. Most teams have played 5.