Black_Swans

I’ve done by best to get away from hockey for the last couple of weeks. It’s August, and hockey should only last from October to April in a perfect world—we’re conditioned in Canada to think about it year round and it’s hard to escape. The off-season is hit with deadlines, free agent signings, and often the low-profile ones are the most interesting to me. Scott Gomez upped with Florida last week which is interesting, Alex Pietrangelo is unsigned, and there’s still the matter of where Mikhail Grabovski and Brad Boyes will sign. There’s a lot surrounding hockey that has little to do with the actual playing of the sport in the months of the year when there’s actually snow on the ground.

(Although I’m from Vancouver, so I’m unaccustomed to seeing snow on the ground during hockey season. You don’t have to shovel rain.)

What I have been doing, on and off, is sitting around listening to music and have been reading some writing from Nassim Taleb. His job description is somewhat ambiguous, but his Wikipedia entry calls him an “essayist, scholar and statistician”. He has an interesting focus in random events, or “Black Swans”, that are essentially things you can’t accurately predict or forecast yet have a huge impact on our daily lives.

It’s interesting to apply non-hockey thought to hockey, since there are so many people within hockey who have been doing it their whole lives, concentrating on training camps in September, the season between October and May, the draft in June, free agency in July and predictions and preparations in August. Last August I went to two scrimmages at Hockey Canada’s Ivan Hlinka U-18 camp and noted a good community of bloggers, journalists and, mostly, scouts, sharing notes and walking around in team-emblazoned windbreakers. Is there ever time off in this sport?

Consider Taleb’s work surrounding the “Black Swan”. In the book, curiously titled Black Swan, such an event has defining characteristics: it’s improbability, it carries a large impact on our lives, and we retrofit analysis to make such an event appear predictable.

Hockey seems full of these events.

Just think about when a goal is scored. Any standard hockey game carries somewhere between 60 and 65 shots on goal and 25 and 30 scoring chances. Yet only five or six of those shots or scoring chances wind up as goals. During replays, an analyst will point to a bad change, or poor positioning, or something that happens multiple times in any other shift, yet on this one occasion, had the unfortunate result of resulting in a goal against.

Consider this one goal:

Here is how Andy Brickley, the analyst for NESN, describes the play:

What a great pass by Thomas Vanek… you talk about his goal-scoring prowess but he can make plays as well. The Sabres are feeding off the five-on-three, that goes into the five-on-four, they just want to keep the pressure in the offensive zone and as Ference is knocking Vanek down, he still has the vision and the presence of mind to find a wide-open Ennis on the opposite side of the net, and once again Rask just can’t get across in time.

I vaguely remember watching the game, but I couldn’t have told you until Brickley’s analysis just now that I remember the Sabres coming off of a five-on-three or a five-on-four situation. That’s the explanation that we’re given for the Sabres’ continued pressure in the zone, but I’d suggest that there’s very little evidence to suggest that when teams score five-on-three goals, they continue applying pressure for more than :90 seconds after the fact.

It’s tough to blame any particular Bruin on that play. Nobody seems in good position but that could just be sheer fatigue. On some goals there’s a player on the team that was scored on that makes some grave error, one repeated maybe a dozen times by various players throughout the game but only noticed on an instance where it pops up as being evidenced in a replay on a goal against.

(The notable thing about this goal is that it marked the only time Zdeno Chara and Patrice Bergeron were scored on together on the ice in over 283 minutes of 5-on-5 play in the 2013 regular season.)

I’ve been a little curious as to “analysis by replay” and have had thoughts in the past to record which scoring chances for and against I tracked were shown again on replays. A goal or a not, a bad outlet pass that results in a two-on-one against is a bad outlet pass that results on a two-on-one against, and the more fans get to see a particular player’s mistakes, the more likely they are to be convinced that the defenceman is mistake-prone.

Which is interesting when analyzing defence. A good defensive play can’t be quantified. In the end, a player is preventing a shot or a scoring chance against, but how can you tell by replay what did or didn’t happen? Rob Vollman in his Hockey Abstract for 2013 (available here) tries to explore the difficult ways we can quantify good defensive play. It’s tough when you count things, because ultimately a good defensive play results in the absence of counting things. A defenceman that plays 20 minutes and handles the puck more is going to make far more defensive errors than a defenceman that plays 12 minutes the night and rarely handles the puck.

There’s one way to take the Black Swan theory as applied to hockey, but I think it can be used to look at seasons as a whole. One of the things that struck me this offseason is that even knowing how much randomness dictates a 48-game season, a seemingly high number of teams fired their coaches. Going through the list, you get John Tortorella, Alain Vigneault, Ralph Krueger, Joe Sacco and Glen Gulutzan all gone after the season, with Guy Boucher and Lindy Ruff axed midway through their respective seasons. Seven coaching buckets kicked seems odd considering 48 games is nowhere near enough to judge the quality of a team, but this is a results-oriented business, and displeasure with results can turn people blind to process.

Gauging results over a short timespan can be disastrous. The NHL regular season lasted 100 days (it was scheduled to last 99, but an event that nobody could have forecasted, among other things, forced a game to be played on August 28). On January 13th of the 2011-2012 season, 100 days in, Toronto held a playoff spot but not Pittsburgh. Minnesota held a playoff spot but not Phoenix. We know that, as we completed the season, that Pittsburgh and Phoenix landed playoff spots (and the Coyotes managed to even get to the Conference Finals) but had the season been as long as the shortened season, while most of the playoff teams had been decided two had slipped through the cracks for one reason or another.

In response to criticism over their shot totals and differentials, the Maple Leafs coaching staff has concocted an explanation about “quality possessions” that retrofits their analysis of the 2013 season. Imagine if Ron Wilson’s Leafs had made the playoffs after 48 games in 2012, the stories about redemption and coming through when it really mattered, that could have been written about those teams. Wilson just picked the wrong year to coach a bad team that had a poor start, unfortunately, and he lost his job and hasn’t really been seen anywhere since he was fired.

The beauty of hockey lies in its randomness, that marvellous things happen that we have no way of expecting. It’s the sort of pleasure you derive from the game when you actually watch it, and something you’re attempting to match when you’re catching up on junior camps throughout the summer because you miss the distinctive smell of hockey sweat mixed with artificial ice. But those hours of hanging around rinks aren’t going to make you any better at understanding the game. Non-hockey concepts can have value in hockey, and it’s worthwhile to occasionally step away from the sport, and rather than focusing on a specific random event, learn to modify our expectations for the improbable and unlikely by determining what’s random and what’s talent. That goes not only for hockey, but also life.

Speaking of which, I was pulled aside for “additional random screening” when boarding a flight yesterday. The only way to protect yourself against having to step into the affectionally-named “cancer machines”—that probably have not saved a single life since their installation—is probably to not fly altogether. In that sense, it’s a random event you can plan for.