Pittsburgh Penguins v Washington Capitals

By the time I was born, Wayne Gretzky had played his last game with the Edmonton Oilers. I never got to see them, and all through my childhood I had difficulty placing Gretzky in an Oilers uniform. I saw pictures and hockey cards, and the occasional TV clip, but it always looked weird to me to see Gretzky in something other than a Los Angeles Kings’ sweater.

The Oilers of the 80s are discussed a lot, and they have an impressive collection of stars and Hall of Famers and records and Stanley Cups. That said, it is difficult to imagine just how dominant they were. The first year they won the Cup, they had 446 goals, 86 more than the second place team. That’s more than a goal a game, which is wild, but in the end, just by visualizing, it would have taken a few weeks dedicated viewing for somebody who wasn’t counting the score to gather that Edmonton was putting goals at a much faster rate than Quebec, the New York Islanders or Minnesota.

That’s why things get recorded. Numbers and the detailed notes taken by stat geeks counting scoring chances or zone entries, or the guys in the NHL booth tracking the data that becomes the skeleton for our Corsi and Fenwick models. There’s that, but there’s also goals and assists and points to record for individuals, and goals for each team. For a sport like mixed martial arts, scores are awarded based on subjectivity. There’s no running point total on the board, just three trained guys sitting near the ring each with an interpretation of what leads the victory.

Even the Chicago Blackhawks this season, the unbeaten-despite-losing-three-games Chicago Blackhawks, have won most of their games by a single goal. Eventually they’ll have to lose, and there have been games when they probably should have lost in regulation already on the year and our impartial judges who see every play but the goals would have told us that. Luckily for the Blackhawks, they record numbers and keep score, and by that measurement they’re off to a better start than any team in history.

The Internet has exposed me to a lot of different hockey opinions. I’ve talked with people who think toughness is the most important thing for a hockey team. Others say speed. Whatever it is, if you take two people just as qualified to sit and watch a hockey game on a delay, with the sound muted, and the plays that led to goals deleted out of the system, I highly doubt anybody would be able to guess who won more than 50% of the time over a long stretch on visuals alone.

Which is why, when somebody like Mike Milbury tracks down Alexander Ovechkin for periods at a time, noting down every flaw, every indication that the former No. 1 overall pick has a bad attitude, I know he’s completely full of it. Mike Milbury may sound like an idiot, and he certainly is a xenophobic misogynist given his propensity to call out foreign players and telling them to “play like a man”. But I don’t think he’s an idiot, he’s a person who watches the game a different way I do and weights certain events differently. He knows, though, that to properly criticize a player, you need to hold every one up to the same standard. Why Ovechkin? Why not track every player, and find the subtle, little things that other players do better than Ovechkin, that explain why his puck possession game has dropped off since 2010? Because Ovechkin scores fewer goals than he used to, and a struggling Ovechkin is a story he can sell. NBC teased the rant was going to go live in the moments leading up to the second intermission to get people to tune in.

gretzky oilers cardPerhaps it’s odd for me to imagine Gretzky in an Oilers jersey because every single thing I’ve seen or read involves Gretzky and his line being a dominant force, creating scoring chances every shift and carving up opponents. I never grew up with that brand of hockey—by the time I was old enough to analyze the game for myself, defensive match ups were common, the trap was used by half the teams in the NHL to some degree and checking lines were coming into fashion.

For the last two seasons, Ovechkin has seen no opponent more often than Brandon Sutter. Sutter has held Ovechkin’s Corsi rate to 43% during that span. Other common match ups against Ovechkin over the last pair of seasons? Nate Thompson, Patrick Dwyer, Adam Hall, Andrew Ladd, Rich Peverley and Andreas Nodl. Most of them have had success carrying the play against Ovechkin. Since the Caps changed their style after deciding they needed to when they ran into a hot goalie in Jaroslav Halak in the 2010 playoffs, it’s been difficult for Ovechkin to re-establish himself as one of the top players in the game. But the thing is, the top players in the game are no longer the “top players” in the game, and you can’t note their dominance on visuals alone. Third line players are now run out frequently against the stars, and there’s only rare stretches of games where a player will be near as dominant as anybody was in the 80s or early 90s.

The thing I’ve noticed about hockey in the last couple of seasons is that hockey is an extraordinarily hard game. The best players in the league at every position look awful some nights, and on most shifts. Consider that an elite offensive player will get three shots a game, then consider that they’ll play 22 or 23 shifts a night. On the vast majority of those shifts, the elite offensive players are effectively shut down, and zone entries are restricted to dump ins as the skating lines are blocked, the passing lanes have sticks in them, and there’s not enough space for the player to generate any real speed. In short, nothing happens for a lot during a hockey game, and it’s easy to look at good defence and call it “bad offence” or “without passion” if you don’t put a lot of thought into it.

(One of the best things I’ve seen is Mark Cuban absolutely eviscerating Skip Bayless for his lazy analysis of the 2011 NBA Finals that Dallas won over Miami. Bayless, a notorious troll, took to American airwaves to call out LeBron James for being passionless and a guy who didn’t want to win. Cuban, owner of the Mavericks, went on air with Bayless after Miami won the 2012 Final and called out all his bullshit, pointing to the things the Mavericks were able to do against LeBron to render him ineffective. Cuban knows more about basketball than Bayless does.

Milbury did this to Ovechkin yesterday Wednesday night. Fellow panellist Keith Jones did it to Alex Radulov last playoffs. You could give me editing software and a full game, and you could get a five minute clip of every player looking lazy and disinterested or making poor plays. When players get on fans’ nerves, the abuse on Twitter and on local call-in shows never stops because the sloppy plays made by these players are going to come under further scrutiny (I believe the quote from The Matrix “would you still have broken it if I hadn’t said anything?” is applicable here).

Not every good play results in a goal, and not every goal results from a good play. Hockey is a game played with lots of statistical noise over the short term, and inferring anything from the overall results of one or two games leads to sloppy forecasts and bad analysis. What I like about legions of hockey fans and bloggers now counting microstats like scoring chances and zone entries is that we’ll have a better sense of who the best players really are in the game, as in which players performed the best, not just produced the most.

By the way, to answer Mike Milbury’s question about Ovechkin and why he fails to live up to Milbury’s expectations is that Milbury’s expectations are too high. Ovechkin is on the wrong side of his scoring peak. The NHL no longer gives out powerplays like cake at a birthday party, and the Capitals are no longer good enough to be able to generate offensive opportunities for Ovechkin. Ovechkin, even with his miserable season, is on pace for 35 goals over 82 games shooting two percentage points below his career average. The expectation for him to get 50 every year is simply putting too much of a burden on a player who physically can no longer do it, not without significant help from his teammates or from variance.

There are a lot of players who seem to fail to live up to the stated expectations of the Milburys, Keith Joneses and Don Cherrys of the world. The era where you can expect superstars to play head and shoulders above everybody else has passed. You need more than a minute of video to show problems and solutions in hockey. You need to get down to it and compare the minute differences between what makes a player worth $6-million and playing first line minutes, and worth $3-million and playing second line minutes. A lot of coaches can spot the trends and send the right guys out in the right situation. When you put thought into it, your arguments get much stronger. Milbury’s argument is weak because he’s not looking for any sort of “solution” to Ovechkin. He’s just looking for another problem to rile up Washington Capitals fans who long for the 2010 season again.