"Cause all I do is win, win, win / and if you're going in put you're hands in the air / make 'em stay there"

To see the rather large football media do a complete heel-turn on Tim Tebow is ridiculous. He’s gone from an unconventional college boy who couldn’t take a snap or throw a football to a religious figure who can’t lose a game.

It’s ridiculous. There were no laws of nature preventing an untalented guy from finding success, just as there no laws of nature allowing a guy to do nothing but win. There is nobody in the history of sports who never lost. We know that Tebow’s luck, and, by extension, the luck of the Denver Broncos will run out because you just can’t keep winning games in overtime, by three points, coming from behind.

For all those wondering why Tim Tebow, a man who we have grown accustomed to feeling sick about hearing about, is mentioned on a hockey blog, is because in the hockey world, we have our own Tim Tebow. Mike Yeo, rookie head coach of the Minnesota Wild, who even has his own church.

WWMWD?

Minnesota leads the NHL in the two categories that matter the most in the standings: wins and points, with 20 and 43 of those, respectively. They’re also fourth in the entire NHL in goals against average, but before you consider that they are the best defensive team in the league, playing a style reminiscent to their days with Jacques Lemaire, just wait a second.

The Wild are 30th in the NHL in shots per game. They are also 29th in the NHL in shots allowed per game. With the score tied, the Wild are the worst team in the league at generating shots—just an astoundingly low 41% of play is at the opponent’s end of the ice.

For the Sporting News last week, hockey reporter Jesse Spector took a look at what  Minnesota is doing differently from other teams. Here’s what Mike Yeo is recorded as saying:

“We wanted to establish our own brand of hockey. With that, we wanted to establish a culture here that was about winning, doing things that winners do, day in and day out. … It’s been a process for us, and the guys have bought in right from the start and we’ve been making some great progress.”

I don’t get this “winning culture” argument. If a team could simply create a culture of winning, we would have more repeat Stanley Cup winners than we do. There is not a group of 23 hockey players you could put together on a team that wouldn’t want to win as badly as I’m sure the players on the Minnesota Wild do.

“While there are outliers every year,” writes Spector, “the Wild have been oustripping even the most optimistic victory rates for those usually telltale situations,” referring to those situations where the Wild succeed the most: they are 12-6 when giving up the first goal; 9-5 when leading after the first period.

It isn’t conventional, and, yes, it’s ugly. Even watching a Wild game, you begin to notice just how much of the game takes place right in front of goaltenders Niklas Backstrom, Josh Harding, or Matt Hackett. Teams simply do not win being outshot on a nightly basis. Against Phoenix on Saturday, they took home a 4-1 win despite being outshot 36-20. On Thursday, being outshot by the Kings 44-24, they managed a 4-2 win. In their current 7-game winning streak, they have been outshot by a margin of 243-170. It defies all logic. And it’s cool that they’re defying logic, because sports would be boring if no teams did, if the best teams always went 82-0. But just because you defy logic for a month or two, doesn’t mean it can continue to last.

Image taken via brilliant web-comic XKCD. ( http://xkcd.com/904 )

Returning to the Tebow analogy: If you flip a coin that will end up as “heads” just 40% of the time six times, you have less than half of a percentage point of turning up heads six straight times. Consider our coin the Broncos quarterback. With 32 quarterbacks in the league, every seven years should we come up with a gem of a season from a pivot who has somehow been able to win six consecutive games defying all logic in this regard. Because it’s Tebow, it goes from a statistical anomaly to story pretty quickly.

To root against the Wild, Tebow, or any underdog is to root against our primal nature as sports fans. We don’t tune in to the game so that we can see things unfold exactly as planned, we tune in because we have no idea. All these numbers, stats, rates and measures have such little bearing over the course of one individual game, but, over time, when the luck balances out and when the Wild, Tebow or any other underdog regress to the mean, we need to be able to point to why.

I’m done with presenting reasons as to why the Wild will start to lose games, but I’m accepting it as an unfortunate inevitability, because, eventually, the Minnesota Wild will start to lose games. Their method of success, riding unconscious goaltending, is unsustainable. The underdog can’t always win. Paul Kariya understood this in 2003, when he bolted the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim for the Colorado Avalanche, despite being a single game away from the Stanley Cup, losing to the New Jersey Devils after an improbable run by Jean-Sebastien Giguere.

What the Wild are going through is not unlike Tebow’s situation, or that of the 2003 Mighty Ducks. Or the 2004 Calgary Flames, 2006 Edmonton Oilers, 1999 Buffalo Sabres, 1998 Washington Capitals, 1994 Vancouver Canucks, or any other hockey team that went on a run that was quite literally too good to be true.

I hope Mike Yeo doesn't read this, because he will come to my house and beat me up.

The numbers and measures that we use are able to determine how good a hockey team might be are just that: determining how good a team is. But the best hockey teams don’t always win every given game: no team can expect to go 82-0. So much can happen—an untimely clang off the goal-post or a goalie not squeezing the legs just in time, and these things, as we’ve seen from years of data, have evened out over the years.

Minnesota may make the playoffs, even though the numbers are saying they shouldn’t. But accepting that Mike Yeo’s winning culture is a recipe for sustained success isn’t anything Wild fans ought to trick themselves into doing. I’ll cheer for them, because it’s fun to see success against the odds. And I will do this, just like for Tim Tebow, as long as their eventual critics promise to try not to jump through too many hoops to disparage them when their luck eventually runs out.

Comments (18)

  1. Well, I think once you’ve won the cup, there are other factors at play that make it very difficult to repeat. Cap issues, fatigue, lack of hunger, etc.

    Otherwise, I enjoyed the article and think you made some valid points. It is indeed true that there’s not much that’s logical about the success of this team. But I do hope those who bet against the Wild can afford to lose the money. :)

  2. 1) I agree the Wild is playing above its head.

    2) In general, I believe in mean reversion.

    3) I think the Wild is a playoff team this season, but not a President’s Trophy or even NW division winner.

    4) I keep thinking back to that big scene at the end of “Contact” when Jodie Foster’s testifying about her experience and McConaughey (the priest) is eyeballing her as she describes what, despite her hard-core scientific mind frame, is ultimately a spiritual experience – that she can’t describe or measure or quantify, but that she knows with every fiber of her being actually happened.. I think that applies to what the Wild’s doing right now for me.

    5) I also believe that, in sports, the whole can be greater than the sum of its parts. And it’s the coach who gets a team to achieve that. So, yeah, praise be to Yeo.

  3. Stats geeks are too obsessed with shots. Shot differential would only be relevant if all teams were playing the same systems. Or if it has a correlation coefficient with win percentage higher than 25%. But keep on denouncing the team if it makes you feel better.

  4. I’m sorry, the correlation is all the way up to 25.69% now, post lockout through last night. I wouldn’t run to Bodog with those numbers though.

    • The co-efficient is 35.1, if we’re looking at Fenwick differential with the score-tied. I looked for the most recent outlier on the table and it was the 2011 Anaheim Ducks, who shot the lights out in the second half last season.

      Why did their system change so much over the summer? They went from being a really good team that won 47 games to a team that won something like 2 over 16 games and ended up firing their coach.

      These high percentages the Wild are putting up simply aren’t sustainable.

  5. While I understand the shots analysis, I would very much like to see a “scoring chances” analysis as my best recollection is that despite a lopsided shots for / against, the wild have won in “chances”. That is more telling than shots as it factors in quality of shots. Wild thrive on outside shooting defense.

  6. also, if the Wild is winning despite poor metrics, then isn’t there a chance that, when they get healthy, they continue winning and improve on those metrics? You can’t say there’s NO chance of that happening.

    Which is why these stats are universally safer when used as backward-looking, not forward looking.

    I mean, what have the metrics done for you so far this season, vis-a-vis the Wild?

    That’s not to say they CAN’T predict what will happen, but there are too many outside factors that can and will come into play between prediction and outcome to draw a straight-line analysis between statement (Wild metrics stink) and outcome (that’s why they finished the season the 4th-best team in the Western Conference, not the first.)

  7. Forgive me for my lack of stat knowledge but my desire to see the underdog triumph led me to have a look at the numbers.

    For the Coyotes game, they converted 20% of their shots.

    For the Kings game, it was 16.7%

    Their season average thus far is 9.7%

    From this I can assume two things, 1) they got a few lucky bounces and 2) they are riding some hot goaltending.

    However, I do think Ms. Conduct is right about players buying into Yeo’s system.

    They aren’t throwing a shot at the net for the sake of it, they are taking quality chances.

    Their conversion rate is identical to Boston (3rd in goals scored in 2 fewer games) but exude the same team ethic.

    It’s also reasonably close to the conversion rate of the other two highest scoring teams in the Flyers (11%) and Vancouver (10.2%).

    Nick in NY’s assessment that they won’t win the President’s Trophy is probably correct though I think they’ll be in the running.

    It all depends on keeping everyone buying into the Church of Yeo to keep it rolling.

    On a side note, how many coaches have won the Jack Adams in their first year as an NHL coach?

  8. Mr Charron, I won’t lie, the headline mixed with the author drew me to this post. I always enjoy your work and tweets especially when Mike Mallen is involved. Nevertheless, I thought “Can Cam really statistically measure an intangible?” Please note, my original thought was: “Is he going to statistically prove the existence of God?” but God only really comes into play with Tebow…when really it shouldn’t.

    Tebow is a religious man but made an awesome point that should really quell both sides of the argument. To infer what he said: “Let’s say you have a partner, a wife. Let’s say that you love your wife more than anything else in the world and each day you wake up beside her you want her to know how much you love her, I do that with God”.

    Obviously my quote isn’t perfect but its the general idea. He’s not preaching after every win that we should all be devout Christians and those of us who aren’t are blasphemous. He believes what he does and that gives him this odd sense of confidence. That confidence is then instilled in those around him. Someone said, he’s a leader of men, and that is simply it.

    Moving on to the Mike Yeo situation and creating a winning culture: Does winning include eating Kraft Dinner and Hot Dogs all day? If so, Dany Heatley is the leader of all men.

    I would love the data on the shots being taken by Minnesota Wild opponents and measure against the quality of shots, shots resulting in rebounds, and shots generated because of rebounds (as not always when a rebound is created, does another shot occur). Nick Backstrom is one heck of a goaltender as is Josh Harding who is a STEAL. I know the injury to his ACL had everyone worried but I’m surprised nobody took a chance on him.

    To make my point: Here are some other starting goaltenders in the league this year – Roloson, Theodore, Steve Mason, Ondrej Pavelec, Craig Anderson, Seymeon Varlamov, Mike FREAKING Smith, and Kari Lehtonen.

    Surely Harding could do just as well if not better than all of these guys.

    Back to my original point: I wonder if Yeo has simply instilled a great defensive zone structure that allows their goaltenders to see shots from lower percentage scoring areas. I haven’t seen them play but maybe the thought is “instead of trying to block the puck, how about you clear the other team from in front of the net so our goaltender can see the puck?”

    Thanks Cam and keep up the work.

  9. Let’s look at this as an illustration.

    In the Wild’s last win against San Jose…the Sharks ATTEMPTED 90+ shots. Half of them were blocked before they made it to the net. Some 10-15 didn’t hit the net…and Hackett stopped the rest…only 1 puck made it past a Wild netminder (and that was Harding).

    When he talks about a “winning culture,” I think he’s talking about playing the system and really committing to doing the really dirty work, i.e., blocking shots, hustling on the backcheck, fighting for pucks along the wall and in the corner, trapping the neutral zone hard and still pressuring on the forecheck, etc. It’s like…the exact OPPOSITE of the Red Wings’ style (y’know…possess the puck for like…55 minutes a game or whatever their TOP stat is…).

    The other thing I’m seeing is this…aren’t the Wild scoring a bunch more goals? I mean…they’ve gotten a few party goals, for sure…but the offensive production is starting to come around as well.

    I think we’re going to see the offensive production become more consistent now that the veterans (who didn’t play under Yeo last season) are becoming more comfortable with the system, they can play it more naturally and start to refocus their efforts on stuffing pucks in the net.

    • They are, they are now 5th in the conferance in Goals, combined with their 2nd in the conference in GA they have the third best goal differential at +15.

    • The Wild’s offense is starting to come around. During their winning streak, I think they’re something like eighth in the league in goals per game.

      Also, in response to the article, they’re playing solid in their own zone, blocking shots and keeping the shots to the outside. I think, when Yeo talks about a winning culture, that’s what he means — instilling a culture in this team to do the things that good teams do. When you look at the way a lot of winning teams play in their own zone, they keep the puck to the outside quite a bit and they block shots and force turnovers. That’s what the Wild are starting to do.

      Are they a Presidents’ Trophy team? Probably not. At this point, though, I’m sold on the team and Yeo’s philosophy and I think this team is going to at least make the playoffs, if not have a decent playoff run.

      They still have a long way to go before they’re where Yeo (and the fans) want them to be. If you listen to the front office talk about this season, it was never meant to be a season like it has been so far. It was meant to be a rebuilding season, with the hopes of maybe contending for a playoff spot. Instead, Yeo has the team believing that they can do it and has them playing with confidence. If you watch the team, when they fall behind, you never get the feeling anymore that they’re defeated. It’s almost as if they thrive under the adversity.

      I think they’ll regress a bit this season (there’s no way they can keep up this pace the entire season), but I don’t think they’ll regress as far as people think. This is a team that has come together and shown that that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. This is a team that is playing unselfishly and they’re succeeding doing it.

  10. So, do you want 50 shots from the wall or 25 shots from inside the the dots? The WIld don’t allow many shots in close and block a ton of shots. I don’t give a damn about 50′+ shots. They hit SOMETHING other than twine a lot. Take a look at the Aeros last season. I’m sure they stats say they shouldn’t have finished as high as they did and they shouldn’t have been 2 games away from the Calder Cup, but THEY WERE THERE!

    • Follow the link above (thanks Cam).

      People were saying the same things about Caps-Habs in 2010. A scoring chance is supposed to be a hard shot on goal or missed shot from the slot, pretty much. Caps over the final three games of that series generated over 90 such shots. The average goalie playing the Capitals stops ~85% of those shots, Halak stopped over 95%.

      Similarly, the Wild are getting out-chanced. They may be keeping shots to the outside, but they are getting kept to the outside, as well. I’m not buying that the Wild have significantly above-average shooting skill (only guy is Heatley, and as far as I’ve seen the only person league-wide who is truly significantly better than average is Ilya Kovalchuk).

  11. I should say also believe that mesothelioma is a unusual form of cancer that is often found in those people previously familiar with asbestos. Cancerous tissue form within the mesothelium, which is a defensive lining which covers the majority of the body’s internal organs. These cells usually form inside lining with the lungs, mid-section, or the sac that really encircles one’s heart. Thanks for discussing your ideas.

  12. I also think thus, perfectly written post! .

  13. Incredible story there. What happened after? Take care!

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