mike brown

intangible |inˈtanjəbəl|

adjective

unable to be touched or grasped; not having physical presence: my companions do not care about cyberspace or anything else so intangible.

• difficult or impossible to define or understand; vague and abstract: the rose symbolized something intangible about their relationship.

• (of an asset or benefit) not constituting or represented by a physical object and of a value not precisely measurable: intangible business property like trademarks and patents.

noun (usu. intangibles)

an intangible thing: intangibles like self-confidence and responsibility.

There’s our official Apple dictionary on the word “intangible” which gets thrown an awful lot around hockey conversation. Google “intangible NHL” and you get about 23 million results, compared with 15 million for the NBA, 843,000 for the NFL and 412,000 for MLB.

In hockey I guess we love our players who bring things that are tough to define. The top Google result for “intangible NHL” comes from Scott Cullen at TSN who used several different statistical categories to come up with an “Ingangibles rating” at the conclusion of the 2011 NHL season. Greg Zanon led the NHL in intangibles and Ryan Callahan was second.

I like Cullen. He spent the weekend at the Sloan Sport Analytics Conference and wrote a very good column about the state of analytics in the minds of fans. His column from two years ago is funny because he’s not the first, and won’t be the last, to attempt to quantify ‘intangibles’, which is something that, again, can’t be defined. It’s the old “I know it when I see it” argument, and affixing a number or a rating on a player for his work ethic in certain areas ignores the parts of the game the model isn’t designed to pick out.

I’ve written before how CBC has used a crude “hits plus blocked shots” statistic to estimate how gritty certain teams are, particularly into the playoffs when we’re led to believe grit matters more than talent. Putting these numbers together and coming up with rankings takes away from the beauty of intangibles, the idea that there is some aspect of hockey and sports that is so human it can’t be measured on anything but reflex. There is something in the back of my mind preventing me from accepting that Ed Jovanovski was merely a good offensive defenceman for his time. Emotionally, Jovanovski meant so much more than what his statistics show, and that sort of blind loyalty and attachment, whether it’s as a fan to a player or a teammate to a teammate is what makes sports what it is.

Does that emotional addition have a monetary value? No. Realistically, no intangible quality can be bought or sold like a tangible commodity. A general manager can go out onto the free agent market and buy goals. He can go out into the trade market and purchase a player who allows fewer shots against. I’ve never thought of a situation where a manager could actually buy “grit”. Even things like “size” or “speed” are difficult to measure. A player who is 6’4″ can play a more skilled game than a player who is 5’10″, and if I learned anything from Rick Rypien’s brief, yet exciting and memorable National Hockey League career it’s that the toughest player on the team can be one of its most physically unassuming.

Here is what fourth liner Mike Brown said after being traded from the Toronto Maple Leafs to the Edmonton Oilers:

“I’m going to play the way I do. I’m not going to change anything,” he continued. “Obviously, that’s why they’re bringing me here. I’m going to add that grit, that little bit of toughness, and energy.”

You can’t “add” intangibles anymore than you can create a definite “intangibles rating”. What Brown is talking about, grit, toughness and energy, are three separate qualities that can’t be measured as they pertain to hockey. There’s no way of being able to objectively assess the Oilers and suggest that the problem is “too few intangibles” and where the proper response is “add more of these things that don’t exist”.

The popular example of a gritty fourth liner who stands up for his teammates is Shawn Thornton. Thornton has played with a single NHL organization since the time Mike Brown entered the NHL. Brown has played for three teams, soon to be four, while Thornton has been a Bruin. Thornton has been a Bruin through a period of rebuild where the team transitioned from the post-Joe Thornton era, where the leading scorers were Marc Savard and Phil Kessel. Thornton has been with the team, played games with them and won with them. Brown is a hired goon brought in to be something reminiscent of a final piece (Jim Matheson wrote a column in the Edmonton Journal that I reached by clicking on a link “Edmonton Oilers need to add more grit“).

If solutions to hockey’s problems were as easy as adding more salt to a recipe, more teams would win Stanley Cups. But hockey is not like cooking, where you need the right mix of ingredients. It’s more like a bank, where you’re better off putting as much valuable stuff in the vault as you can and letting it appreciate over time.

Steve Tambellini suggests that Brown is “a tough kid who plays hard every night” which is something I could do. If I were in the NHL, I doubt I’d take a shift off. Qualifier: I’m also not good at hockey—I need to look at the puck when I stickhandle and have trouble crossing over to my right when I turn. I would try very hard though.

“When you need to get in on the forecheck and get to that first hit, he can do that. He can play that abrasive type of hockey that we’re looking for.” Edmonton are currently 25th in the NHL in goal-scoring. Mike Brown has scored 14 career goals in 254 career games. It’s not the abrasive type of hockey that Edmonton needs, it’s breaking the curse on their first line. Last season, Jordan Eberle, Taylor Hall and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins scored goals on 15.2% of their shots. This season, they’re down to 6.2% combined. Is that because an intangible element was removed from their lineup?

Depth signings are mostly over-analyzed. Even the best forwards who play on fourth lines don’t positively help their teams by more than a goal or two a year. These are mostly players who play five or six minutes a night, usually against the other team’s fourth line, and it’s only a notable occurrence when a player will bring up a skilled rookie onto their fourth line for one of his first NHL games. For most teams, though, the fourth line will end up as a unique combination of a good centreman and two guys who have been on waivers at some point over the last season.

You won’t find intangibles begging door-to-door or trading away picks. That’s just a way to find replacement players. Somehow, “replacement player” has made it’s way into the definition above when it’s put into a hockey context. You can’t “add” intangibles to your hockey team any more than you can “add” to your lucky hat collection with the first thing you see at Lids. It takes a year or two to break it in.