Mention that Jonathan Toews is playing poorly in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and an angry mob of advanced statistics people will march on your home carrying charts and graphs. Mention that Jonathan Toews is playing well in the postseason by pointing toward his Corsi and Fenwick numbers, and old sportswriters will roll their eyes and ask if you pay rent while living in your mom’s basement.
Trying to determine why in the heck a player as good as Toews has one goal in 20 playoff games is about as difficult juggling chainsaws with your feet, only instead of feet, you have stumps smothered in baby oil.
During the regular season, Toews was so good at the sport of hockey that he finished fourth in voting for the Hart Trophy. On the strength of a career-best (pro-rated) 23 goals and 48 points in 47 contests and excellent defensive game that won him the Selke Trophy, the captain of the Chicago Blackhawks also received the third-most first-place votes for the Hart.
The Blackhawks won the Presidents’ Trophy with 131.5 (again, pro-rated, obviously) points, which if you round up ties the 1976-77 Montreal Canadiens for the most in a season. Sure, it happened over the course of 48 games so it doesn’t mean as much, but the Blackhawks put forth the NHL’s most dominant season in nearly four decades, and Toews was a major reason the Blackhawks brought hockey back the way Justin Timberlake brought sexy back in that neither brought anything back because it was already there.
Chicago scored 3.1 goals per game in the regular season, second-most in the NHL; in the postseason, that number has dipped to 2.6 goals per game. The Blackhawks have five goals in three games in the Final, four of which came in Game 1, which lasted nearly as long as that previous paragraph that referenced Justin Timberlake.
Since the start of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Blackhawks have been winning mostly in spite of Toews. They’ve been getting by largely on Corey Crawford’s fantastic goaltending, the continued excellence of Marian Hossa, Patrick Sharp and Patrick Kane and Bryan Bickell’s out-of-nowhere scoring burst that could make him the highest-paid player in Buffalo. Chicago’s success with Toews’ lack of goals speaks to the team’s incredible depth.
But with Hossa perhaps way below 100 percent for the rest of the Final after missing Game 3, the Blackhawks will likely fall excruciatingly short of a Stanley Cup unless Toews rediscovers his ability to put hockey pucks into hockey nets.
In 20 games, Toews has one more goal than the guy who makes your bagel every morning along with eight assists. He is tied for seventh in team scoring with Andrew Shaw and trails Michal Handzus – MICHAL HANDZUS! – by one point. Toews has his one goal on a whopping 63 shots. That’s Colton Orr-esque.
There are two schools of thought for explaining Toews’ inability to score in the playoffs.
The School of Not Playing Well points to his one goal and teaches students that one goal in 20 games from such an important player is unacceptable and is probably affecting him mentally. The School of Advanced Metrics will educate students about Corsi and how it indicates Toews is playing extremely well but failing to catch breaks on his opportunities to score.
The truth lies somewhere in the middle. Or maybe it doesn’t. Really, I don’t know.
First, the Corsi explainer for the uninitiated: Think of it as a useful plus/minus tool that calculates all of the shot attempts for and against when a player is on the ice. That includes not just shots that reach that net, but also shots that are blocked or miss the net.
During the postseason, Toews has been fantastic in the Corsi department and it has continued during the Final, which is especially remarkable because he is going up against two-way center extraordinaire Patrice Bergeron and the NHL’s best defenseman, Zdeno Chara, on nearly every shift no matter who is on his wings.
When Toews is on the ice, good things are happening. The problem for Toews and by extension the Blackhawks is nothing great is happening when Toews is on the ice. Toews is universally considered a great player and come playoff time, he needs to do great things, and one goal in 20 games isn’t great. Yes, he’s driving possession, but he’s not doing anything with it. The Blackhawks’ success this season was somewhat predicated on Toews scoring at nearly a 40-goal pace over an 82-game season and now he has one goal in 439 minutes of postseason ice time.
Simply put, he’s not finishing, and it’s because most of his 63 shots are about dangerous as a newborn kitten. Toews is being kept to the outside and has been settling for a lot of harmless shots from the left wing that have no chance of getting past an NHL goaltender and a minimal chance of creating a dangerous rebound. Fifty-foot shots from along the boards are calculated the same as a one-timer from the slot, and it’s contributing to both Toews’ inflated Corsi and lack of goals.
Daniel Wagner wrote about low-quality chances affecting Fenwick and Corsi and explained it better than I could, but that’s the situation with Toews right now. In theory, over a long enough timeline, all of these shots will eventually generate more goals, but if Toews is mostly flicking harmless wristers on net from another area code, will it? If so, when? There are no more than four games left this season.
That’s not to say all of Toews’ shots are of the low-percentage variety. He has had some quality scoring chances, but again, he’s just not finishing. He’s not beating goaltenders, and at the end of the day, that’s the thing that determines outcomes to hockey games more than anything else.
Toews had a shooting percentage of 16.2 percent in the regular season, not that far above his career average of 15 percent entering the season. Factoring his playoff production, Toews has 24 goals on 206 shots in 67 games, an 11.7 shooting percentage, which is worse than anything he’s ever produced during a regular season.
So it’s not as though after a goofy 48-game season, things are balancing out for Toews over a lengthier timeline. He has slipped far below his 82-game average. So what is it then? How has a player considered by 39 PHWA voters to be the best in the NHL and another 35 to be the best second-best plummeted so far?
Sometimes there is no definitive answer. Sometimes the other guy is better. It’s always great at the end of a Law & Order episode when the killer confesses to the murder and explains why he did it, the location of the body and the weapon he used, but that’s not real life. It’s never that neat. Sometimes there’s questionable DNA evidence and conflicting witness reports and motions to exclude the confession because Stabler punched the guy in the face needlessly before reading the perp his rights.
Maybe Toews is playing with a torn labrum in his shoulder or a sprained wrist. Maybe he’s never dealt with a scoring drought like this before in his life and it’s affecting him mentally, causing him to make poor choices with shot selection. Maybe he’s playing as well or better than anybody, but he’s getting unlucky while facing the stiffest competition in the league.
We can take off all of our clothes and skinny dip in a magical pool of advanced statistics, splashing each other with Corsi and Fenwick, or sit on our high horses and offer dime-store psychology about confidence and him “trying too hard” or guess about his physical condition, but none of it matters. We don’t know. Heck, Toews might not even know what’s causing this two-month swoon.
At the end of the day, the guy with the puck has to shoot it past the guy wearing the oversized padding to affect the outcome of a game. As complicated as hockey can be sometimes, the simple act of scoring a goal is what matters most.
Nearing the brink of Stanley Cup failure with Hossa ailing, the Blackhawks need Toews to produce now more than ever.
Awards voting…pull back the curtain
Transparency. I’m all for it. Right now, I am typing this while in my underwear and watching a rerun of Bones. No socks, either. My toenails could use a clipping now that I look down. Is that an infection? I’ll Vine that later.
You see, I am more than happy to reveal all that because I could not possibly care less what you think about that. I am confident in myself and have no problem backing up any of that. Bones is a quality television show, I look great in boxer briefs and I will get that rash examined immediately.
Yet when it comes to the voting decisions by members of the PHWA that determine which hockey players are the best at hockey and giving them hockey trophies, there is no transparency. There isn’t enough confidence in some to reveal their votes. Yes, some members have revealed their voting decisions, but the PHWA does not make it a policy to reveal everyone’s votes. I mean, goodness. What are you people afraid of? Being yelled at in Internet comments? Mean Twitter replies?
If you’re against transparency, it doesn’t necessarily mean you have something to hide, but you very likely have something to hide. You are probably afraid of being revealed as a homer, or someone who isn’t following the game closely outside of your own market, or are afraid of having your opinion challenged. If I can tell you that I am scratching my foot right now, you can tell me why you think Tyler Bozak is such a great defensive forward.
Transparency is great. It would make the process to some degree better. If a person is knowingly a homer, they will very likely curb that if their votes are made public. Or in the case of foul play, you can receive the public shaming you so richly deserve.
Foul play? Sure, it can happen.
Let’s say you’ve got a pretty good idea that the Selke Trophy is going to come down to Jonathan Toews and Patrice Bergeron and you are a member of the Chicago media. In a vote as close as that, if you decide to vote Toews at No. 1 and leave Bergeron off your ballot altogether, that’s a 26-point swing in a vote that was decided by 10 points. All it takes is one malicious homer to swing a vote.
If you’re against transparency, think of it like this: You can spend eight hours a day for the final month of the season studying candidates, researching statistics, asking questions of scouts about certain players. You can go through painstaking measures to rank your players as accurately as possible. You can deliver the most objective piece of voting in the history of sports awards, and you know what? There will still be a thousand idiots who will call you a lazy homer if you’re aren’t lazy, a homer or a lazy homer.
People are stupid. I’m talking overwhelmingly stupid. The type of stupid that makes you wonder how they ever passed a driving test. Are you really afraid of blowback from these people? Is it somehow going to crack your confidence and destroy your self-esteem? Who cares what they think?
If your reaction to this as a fan is “who cares what *YOU* think,” first of all, you do, because you cared enough to ask who cares and are reading the 10th paragraph on something about awards voting and are about to leave a comment on this post. Second of all, if you don’t want to care about the silliness of trophies, then you shouldn’t care about the silliness of adult men playing a game for money. The whole thing is silly. Get lost if you don’t understand that. The idea is discussing the situation in an effort to make it better.
Transparency would be nice, but if real change is going to occur, it has to happen internally. But there’s no perfect process. My idea is to treat every award the way the Masterton is treated and allow for more time on final decisions, but of course holes can be found in that. I’m a guy writing in his underwear. I’m sure someone with pants has a better idea.
Three questions: Drinking, Training Camp, and The Wire
What is drinking like on the road for you writers? Is it cool? Do you even drink? A lot of the writers seem like nerds, who wouldn’t be much fun in a bar. You guys don’t go from the rink right to bed bug infested hotel rooms do you?
Zach, you’ve asked the question no one has dared to ask. As is my policy, I always answer questions honestly, so I have no choice but to reveal the secrets of writers drinking on the road.
It’s wild, man! Is it cool? Brah, it’s the coolest, brah. Generally, what we do is go out in packs. We get to a bar and shotgun cans of PBR until the first one of us pukes. It’s so cool. We play drinking games and beer pong and flip cup and get SO WASTED. It’s so cool!
Nerds? Nerds?! How can we be nerds if we are all being cool and drinking??? Sometimes the female reporters make out on the bar while the male reporters arm wrestle and play that boxing game to see who hits the speed bag hardest. Nerds? Why, writers are all the coolest. We beat up nerds and then drink cool beer.
I can’t even muster the strength to sarcastically answer the last question about the hotel rooms. Next.
I’m a well-known idiot, but I think I have an idea dumb enough to work. The NFL has always held its camps off site, due to logistics and housing, but it has also been a great way for fans to experience the team and build hype for an oncoming season. Wouldn’t this be equally effective for NHL teams? Have, for instance, Columbus go play in Cleveland or Cincinnati or the Wild play in St. Cloud for training camps/prospect camps. Thoughts?
I can’t believe the best question I’ve ever received comes from a guy who calls himself J. HAM, but here we are.
I love this idea. The problems though are likely cost and logistics. First of all, teams need to find places that have rinks and housing that are available at that time of year for a week. It’s easier for a team like the New York Giants to do it when they trained in Albany in late-July and early-August because housing at the university and the field are both available with school not in session. Finding 30 rinks with suitable housing for 30 NHL teams for that specific week seems impossible.
While it’s great for team building in theory, players don’t want to spend a week living in a college dorm. Ask any player on the record about having to go to Europe for two weeks to start the season, and they’ll tell you about team building and the wonderful experience and all that. Ask off the record, and you’ll hear about how much they hate it and would rather be home with their families before a six-month season of non-stop travel and work.
It also costs money to house players and feed them, and if the last lockout was any indication, teams aren’t big on spending money on players unless it’s absolutely necessary, and setting up a week-long camp away from their home base of operations likely doesn’t seem worth it.
Having said all that, some teams venture to their minor-league affiliates’ rinks, but it’s doubtful your idea will ever become the norm. It’s a good idea, but when you look at football, they make eight road trips per season; in hockey, it’s 41. It’s bordering on cruel to make them spend an extra week on the road before the season even starts.
I know you usually answer 1 or 2 TV related questions each week so I wanted to ask you: Which season of The Wire is the best? Could you rank them 1-5?
I just started watching The Wire this year. I was hooked after Season 1. Season 2 was a bit of a step back with all the new characters, but still a decent plot. I just finished Season 3 and it was amazing! I honestly don’t think it can be topped. A quick Google search tells me the general consensus is Season 4 is the best…. I can’t wait to get it started. I’ll probably have it done before you even answer this question. Is it really possible to top Season 3? Anyways, I’d like to hear your rankings regardless.
Boy, do I love The Wire. Sometimes I’ll be in a hardware store and I’ll see a wire or I’ll look at a telephone pole and see a wire and be all like, “This reminds me of The Wire.” Wires, man.
As for which season is best, that’s tough. Really, I celebrate the show’s entire catalog. It was a story so riveting, so compelling, so well-written and so well-acted that it transcended race and societal hierarchies and changed how people view wires. When a criminal steals a car today, he doesn’t hot wire it – he will hot The Wire it. That’s how big that show was.
Trying to pick a favorite character is even more difficult. Is it the wire salesman or his boss, Mr. Wire? What about the people that used wires? Or maybe my favorite character was The Wire itself, for without The Wire, there would be no The Wire. Think about that for a second and let it sink in.
There was also the guy who apparently was always making beds because he said sheet a lot, but I still think the wire salesman was my favorite. He gave The Wires to the people.
Anyway, good luck with the final two seasons.
(E-mail dave111177 at gmail dot com if you want a question answered next week that isn’t related to The Wire)