There’s always been a tinge of jealousy in the back of my mind when I see pictures like the ones from Justin’s post on Wednesday about backyard rinks. I was raised in a land where winter was more of a myth than a seasonal reality. (I would be considered a “green” boy if George R.R. Martin took the time to attach adjectives to my self.)
No, the city I grew up in is the same one where I would pass by golfers and runners in short shorts on my way to Winter Olympic events. Vancouver actually had to cart in snow to the local mountains for freestyle skiing and snowboarding events. In the neighborhood I grew up, it was a rare occurence to see a snowman rather than a rink.
Seeing people on ponds across the country, I just itch to get out there. It’s analogous to hearing strange sounds from the room next to yours in a hotel.
Hockey was a summer sport in Vancouver, partly because of the weather, and partly because it was the only season of the year that the Canucks weren’t losing games. A few years ago when I moved away for university, situated in a town that had a noticeable difference in seasons.
Not until a couple of years ago did a few friends of mine start trekking to a pond in one of the hills and start playing shinny. It isn’t quite Windy Arm, Yukon, nor is it the lake that the lone kid was skating on in the beginning of those obnoxious “I Believe” videos that played endlessly on CTV in February of 2010.
We have to deal with bumpy ice and clearing snow, ranging skill levels and one asshole who just doesn’t backcheck. But we’re spending a lot of time up there lately, playing shinny until our legs can’t move, a mix of men and women in our early 20s doing things we wish we had done sooner in our lives.
That really is the purest form of hockey. You don’t have to worry about referees, concussions, the score, or Pierre McGuire. And, importantly, I don’t have to feel like I missed out on anything when I see rinks from across Canada and Northern parts of the United States in backyards, and kids skating on those rinks. We get to play now, whenever we want, at our own pace, and we get to bring beer.
And, yes mother, if you’re reading this, we made sure the ice was thick enough before we got to playing on it.
At some point, for whatever reason on Wednesday also, Justin and I got into it on Twitter over the oft-mentioned “regression to the mean” that statgeeks frequently cite when a player who started hot slowly cools off. This is the part where I will note that Tyler Seguin, owner of 23 points in his first 20 games this season, has cooled to just 3 in his last 8 since I wrote a post about his elevated percentages.
“Just seems like every time someone is doing better than usual, stats predict that’ll stop happening” Justin tweeted at me. And he’s somewhat right. It sort of sucks that all the best stories that pop up around the midseason of a hockey season tend to wash away as the cherries blossom, and the playoffs come, and we have a whole new set of stories and heroes.
The more things happen that we expect, the less interested we are in a game, and it’s fine to write about the early season or mid-season stars that have seemingly broken out, but simple statistics allow us to keep these stories in context.
Consider, for instance, the leader in 5-on-5 goal scoring rate. It isn’t Milan Michalek, Steven Stamkos or Phil Kessel—It’s Eric Nystrom (before Thursday’s games), who has scored just over 2 goals per 60 minutes of play at even strength this season. It’s a cool story, but the mistake writers make when constructing narratives playing with loose factual data is that they may end up writing something like E.J. Hradek did for NHL.com:
The 28-year-old former University of Michigan star has found a nice chemistry working with linemates Vernon Fiddler and Radek Dvorak. While there’s no way to predict if he can keep up his goal-scoring pace, I think it’s safe to say Nystrom has found a new NHL home in Dallas.
There is a way to predict if Nystrom can keep up his goal-scoring pace. All we must do is check and see that his shooting percentage is 24.4%. To put that in context, only six players since the lockout have posted shooting percentages of higher than 20% in a full season taking at least 130 shots, and it hasn’t happened since Loui Eriksson did it in 2009.
High shooting percentages are, in the short-term, highly dependent on luck. Supposing a player takes three shots a game. In the first two games his team plays in December, he scores a goal. In the next two, he doesn’t. In the fifth game of the month, a shot that goes through the goalie’s five hole is just cleared out on the line by the defenseman and doesn’t count. Now, this player, a first liner, hasn’t scored in three games, and that’s a cause for concern.
However, had the defenseman not reacted, or the puck had just eluded the defender’s blade, our player has scored three times in five games, which is a very respectable pace. It’s the difference between shooting 13.3% and shooting 20%; the first is a career norm, the second is an elevated pace. It takes a bounce every five games. It doesn’t have to be a defender’s stick, but it can involve narrowly avoiding a goal post or sneaking the puck under the goaltender’s pad.
I sometimes feel that analysts and studio hosts who talk up a player who has gone on an extended hot streak are priming themselves for disappointment. Returning to my example from Monday about Tim Tebow, I saw a video on Wimp.com that autotuned analysis about Tebow mainly featuring some ESPN personality I will feel sorry for when the Denver Broncos quarterback, who “all he does is win” hits an inevitable regression to the mean.
This is an effect that can work in reverse as well, using an example from John Steigerwald, who infamously called out Alexander Ovechkin for being on steroids simply because Ovechkin’s goal total dipped from 50 to 30. Steigerwald looked only at the surface numbers and failed to see that Ovechkin saw less ice-time on both the powerplay and even strength, as well as shoot fewer pucks per game, and all those performance factors were coupled in tandem with a sharp drop in percentages. Eventually Ovechkin will get it back, and Steigerwald won’t have a leg to stand on.
We can’t handicap ourselves in that way. Looking at the statistics is an easy way, over the course of a few games, to adequately gauge player performance. Once analysis raises itself up to an extent where there is comprehension across the board of how percentages in hockey work, the storytellers with access to players, coaches and trainers can begin the legwork onto why guys like Eric Nystrom are performing better, whether it’s psychology, chemistry, or just a plain old run of good luck.