There was a lot of talk this weekend pointing at the All-Star Game in a sort of derogatory sense, that true hockey fans were somehow above the game. Of course, more hockey fans I know watched hockey’s All-Star Game as opposed to football fans watching the Pro Bowl, and while I understand I’m looking at a small sample, there’s always one or two real cool things that pop up in hockey’s game that make it worth watching.
With the weekend behind us, we can focus on playoff races, the unpredictable and off-season-storyline making playoff races. An entire team’s season will be judged on a fraction of games that will allow old-timey pressbox scribes to determine whether a team was clutch enough or had enough “it” factor to win in this league. Percentage-induced hot and cold streaks will be furiously debated during the coming summer months.
What I always like about this time of year is how there’s also a segment of hockey media that like to discuss “how the standings would look without the shootout” or “how the standings would look if regulation wins were worth more”.
(If you’re a stat-head, it’s worth checking out a series of posts by Driving Play’s JaredL on win expectancy at certain stages in the game. Looks like he’s out to prove that the current point format the NHL uses is flawed, but we didn’t really need a textbook for that. It’s some cool stuff regardless)
I believe, generally, that a shootout is a coin-flip way to determine a winner. The NFL takes this to extremes and actually flips a coin if a game is tied after an allotment of time. I’m not sure that being really really good at a shootout as opposed to average will help a team at all in the standings. Put it this way: the New Jersey Devils, the best team in the shootout since its inception, average 11.7 shootouts per 82 games. They’ve won 7.6 of those 11.7. If they were “average” as opposed to the “really really good” they are now, they would lose, on average, 1.7 points per season. Being the best at this isn’t even worth a win over the course of 82 games for this team.
So it’s funny when I hear “skills competition” when people refer to a shootout. Flipping a coin is not a skill. You may get lucky placing all your money on black at the roulette table, but you wouldn’t rely on black to provide you with a sustainable income. If the shootout were a true skills competition, I think we’d be able to easily see which players were the best at this sort of thing.
I posited the question last night “which player is the best at the shootout” not expecting that anybody would correctly guess a player in the Top 5 at this sort of thing (actually, one person did). Guesses were pretty well split between Pavel Datsyuk and Jussi Jokinen, who are both no slouches at the shootout, certainly, at 9th and 11th respectively, among players who have taken 30 shots in their careers.
The only player in the Top Five named after ten minutes? Ales Kotalik, but I think the guy was making a joke when he said that.
It just so happens that two All-Stars are in the Top 20 all-time in shootouts, and while we can gawk at endless Youtube clips of sweet hands on the guys we saw play in Ottawa on Sunday (like Dan Girardi), the fact of the matter is that many of the shooters that we saw at this weekend’s Breakaway Challenge or Elimination Shootout were totally average at this thing. The shootout isn’t for All-Stars, maybe.
Last week, San Jose and Edmonton were playing a game nationally televised in Canada that went to a shootout. Fans from the Eastern time zone who had managed to stay awake seemed confused that Michal Handzus, whoever he was, was shooting for the Sharks. He missed in rather brutal fashion and a few yuks were exchanged online. This was funny to me, because I’d seen Handzus beat the Canucks in a shootout in person just a week-and-a-half earlier, and his miss against Edmonton dropped his career average to 50%, which is tied for 3rd all-time.
The same thing happened when Randy Cunneyworth in Montreal sent Tomas Kaberle out for a shot in one shootout and Scott Gomez in another, which drew a lot of criticism (the Gomez choice in particular had some creative guy from the Montreal Gazette write: “Cunneyworth must be the only person in Montreal who actually thought Gomez might score”).
In fact, the only healthy Montreal Canadiens better than Gomez in the shootout in their careers are David Desharnais and Kaberle himself. Desharnais actually shot in that shootout, and his result was the same as Gomez’s, but he didn’t draw any mocking for some reason, but that can’t possibly be because Montreal media and management are horrible at judging players.
There are players, who, despite putting up success rates of less than a 37% league average, continue to earn a lot of shots thanks to their star power. Vincent Lecavalier, Patrice Bergeron and Alexander Ovechkin are three players in particular who any fans would love to see compete in the post-game gimmick, but neither of which are very good at this.
I see an abject failure in fans and media to properly understand the shootout or its implications. Last season, the Carolina Hurricanes missed the playoffs because they were unlucky enough to go 5-5 in the shootout, while the New York Rangers, who finished just two points ahead, went 9-3. Had they gone 6-6, Carolina are the ones who get stomped by Washington in the first round. In the West, Dallas went 5-7 while Los Angeles went 10-2. Reverse the records, and that’s Dallas facing off against San Jose in the first round.
But were those teams “good” at the shootout as opposed to lucky? Ask the Kings, who are now 4-6 in the supposed skills competition this year, while New York are 2-3. Getting really good at this particular aspect of the game is probably hard, but, if you ask any Devils fan, they’d probably trade a few shootout wins for a few more in regulation. This little gimmick causes us so many math problems during the season to figure out the standings. It’s an extension of the curse of close games that trick us into thinking that teams are better than they really are. It’s an optical illusion, and the extra points over a small sample can make all the difference in a team’s season.
But there’s still so little understanding of the event. Sure, maybe if I asked 100 people, one of them would have correctly guessed that Frans Nielsen, with 19 goals in 32 attempts, is the best at shootouts. And maybe one of them would have also correctly guessed that Erik Christensen was second among players who had taken 30 career shots.
It’s not a skills competition because nobody can guess who is the best at this sort of thing.