Cam Charron

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"Alfie! Alfie! Alfi—I mean—Mika! Mika! Mika!" (François Laplante, Getty)

“Alfie! Alfie! Alfi—I mean—Mika! Mika! Mika!” (François Laplante, Getty)

Despite being such an efficient and workmanlike group on the ice last season, the Ottawa Senators executive has had a tough time nailing down its story on why Daniel Alfredsson skipped town for division rival Detroit. While general manager Bryan Murray told the media assembled in Ottawa on July 5 that he pitched Alfredsson on the idea that Bobby Ryan was going to be a Senator.

In the same presser, Murray also in a roundabout way told the world that Daniel Alfredsson was “Plan A” and Bobby Ryan was “Plan B”. A couple of days ago in an interview with James Gordon, team owner Eugene Melnyk admitted that “the team wouldn’t have been able to afford a player of the calibre of Bobby Ryan … and met the numbers put forward by Alfredsson’s camp.”

The allegedly cash-strapped Melnyk’s finances have been covered in good detail by Travis Yost over at Hockeybuzz.

But that circles back to the central question in Moneyball. The Ottawa Senators have made the playoffs in two straight seasons. According to Capgeek, they had the fifth lowest payroll in the league in 2011-2012, and the sixth lowest in 2012-2013. Only the New York Islanders and St. Louis Blues (both last season) have made the playoffs paying less than their roster for the Senators. They’re going into this season, if nothing changes, with the third lowest payroll in the National Hockey League ahead of just the Islanders and the Florida Panthers, and were projected by Rob Vollman to be the best team in the NHL.

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Brian Babineau, Getty

Brian Babineau, Getty

“To view the potency of narrative, consider the following statement: “The king died and the queen died.” Compare it to “The king died, and then then queen died of grief.” This exercise, presented by the novelist E. M. Forster, shows the distinction between mere succession of information and a plot. But notice the hitch here: although we added information to the second statement, we effectively reduced the dimension of the total. The second sentence is, in a way, much lighter to carry and easier to remember; we now have one single piece of information in place of two. As we can remember it with less effort, we can also sell it to others, that is, market it better as a packaged idea. This, in a nutshell, is the definition and function of a narrative.”

-Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Black Swan

As we saw in Molly Brooks’ excellent comic that came out this past week, it’s easy as a fan to reduce hockey to theatre. It’s not just hockey: political reporters love to attribute slight increases or decreases in poll support to the public’s reaction on a promised policy change or event on the campaign trail.

It’s easy and satisfying to attach reason to everything, but part of the beauty of sports is that things happen without regard of logic or good sense. Not each outcome is determined, and the best team doesn’t win every game in every sport. If they did that, nobody would watch.

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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.

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benoit pouliot chris kelly

Right now I guess we’re still waiting for the manager of a good team that has the audacity to ship out his lower-level, fan-favourite players at the end of a good season.

Salary cap realities forced the Chicago Blackhawks in the summer of 2010 to shed some depth players. That was Dustin Byfuglien, Andrew Ladd and Adam Burish—but part of the reason they were forced into reality is because of not only the Great Restricted Free Agent Flap of 2009, but also because David Bolland inexplicably earned a five-year contract after 119 career NHL games and 23 total goals.

This summer, Stan Bowman caved into surely what was a lot of pressure and gave Bryan Bickell a five four-year deal. It just doesn’t seem like a good idea to pay a depth winger long-term that has a shaky spot scoring goals or registering ice-time at the NHL level. He had a good playoff run, but you’d somewhat hope Bowman could have seen through his biases and recognized that Bickell’s scoring in the playoffs (nine goals and 17 points on a 13.86% on-ice shooting percentage and 18.4% individual shooting percentage) was more of a bonus on top of the things Bickell does bring to the lineup than a new talent that somehow manifested itself within.

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Fun little dice game you can use in social situations. It’s called ‘Mexico’. You have two six-sided dice, and your score is based on the actual digits facing up rather than the addition. The highest score, a 21 or a ‘Mexico’ comes when a two and a one show up on the table. Next up are doubles—66, 55, 44, 33, 22, 11—and then the single rolls, 65 all the way in descending order down to 31, the lowest possible roll. The idea of the game is to not have the lowest roll in a round.

It’s an interesting probability problem. I didn’t get around to calculating all the odds for all situations, but you get to either pass on the dice or take another roll, up to three rolls, if you’re the first roller in the round. If you take multiple rolls, so do all your opponents. If you end up with a fairly high score you have a good chance of not being the lowest once everybody else has shot during the round, but I found it interesting what scores most people were keeping. A player would pass on the dice almost instantaneously if a ’6′ showed on one dice while they were a little more reluctant if they saw double-3s or double-2s or double-1s, despite those latter rolls being a higher score.

In most dice games, where you add the dice together, the higher rolls are the ones with lots of black dice. Every kid grew up playing Risk and Monopoly and Backgammon where generally, the more numbers the better. ‘Mexico’ flips that around, and if the player is aware of ‘anchoring bias’, they’re less likely to be satisfied even with rolls of 54 or 53, which look like large numbers but are some of the worst in the game.

Every party has the awkward kid over-thinking everything during drinking games, right? Or was that just Kamloops circa 2006-2012?

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The cost of doing business


(Disclaimer: read this post before anything here)

If you browse through the leaders of Relative Corsi or Points per 60 minutes, or any other of my favourite measures to quantify players, it’s not like you’re ending up with a bunch of third lines scrubs up top.

We’ll look at the 2012 season because it’s the most recent 82-game campaign, with a large enough sample size to take away some of the hangers-on that lived as linemates for a full season. Patrice Bergeron and Tyler Seguin at the top. Keep going down, and you’ll find players generally recognized by everybody as good two-way players: Anze Kopitar, Pavel Datsyuk, Joe Thornton, Henrik Zetterberg… most good players wind up with good possession numbers.

There are very few players that hockey fans recognize as “good” that the statistics don’t suggest are. While certain players have skill sets related to defence or shooting that may not be captured entirely in Corsi statistics, they’ll generally pop up near the top of some other list. Who cares if they do. You can tell who good players are by watching them. That was never the issue.

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Shot quantity

Detroit Red Wings v Toronto Maple Leafs

In my first year of university, my friend Jeff and I would usually begin the night by playing a few games of chess while having a few beers. Chess is a great game, but requires patience and thinking that doesn’t really suit the university dorm decorum. Just two beers can really change the course of a game, as we generally got a little worse as the night went along.

Never really thought that those nights would become the introduction to a blog post six years later, but I think there was a lot to learn from those nights. Even when I beat Jeff at chess, sober or not, I always knew it was an aberration. He won about 65% of the games we played, but since we played so many times, it’s very likely that there were samples of games that I beat him cleanly, like six-out-of-ten or eight-out-of-fifteen. If I played a friend Rob three times and beat him on each occasion, we’d assume I was a much better player, but it could be a problem with the sample. Jeff and I have played dozens of games against each other and it wasn’t until about halfway through that year when I figured that he was a much better player than I was, or at least his game better matched up against mine than mine did his.

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