The 2013 Season’s Co-Most Fascinating Team: The New Jersey Devils

The lock-out shortened season was chock full of surprises and absurdities, including the Toronto Maple Leafs’ first playoff appearance in nearly a decade. They rode into the playoffs on the massive PDO wave driven by an allegedly unsustainably high shooting percentage and excellent goaltending. But that was supposed to be a fluke; after all, the test cases for regression to the mean in PDO were consistent with the idea that you couldn’t out-“luck” your problems consistently.

And yet here we are, over a month into the full 2013 season and the Leafs are once again riding that big wave of team shooting and save percentages right to the top(-ish) of the East. Most analysts are predicting heavy regression to the mean for the Leafs and a rude awakening for head coach Randy Carlyle & Co.’s conception of “quality possession”.

Sean McIndoe (Down Goes Brown) had an excellent piece in Grantland about what this season’s Leafs performance means for the hockey analytics community. Basically, the idea is that their money is where their mouth is.

But for all this discussion of the statistically impaired Maple Leafs being the poster boy of small sample sized success on the back of unsustainable performance, there is surprisingly little said about what could be another team that’s challenging analytics.

While the Leafs were busy allegedly playing unsustainably well during the lockout season,  the New Jersey Devils who were fresh off a Stanley Cup final appearance were doing just the opposite. From reading the stuff available about the Leafs, you’d think regression to the mean only went one way when it’s actually symmetric (meaning that both teams below and above are affected by it). The Devils have strong possession numbers, some of the best in the league in fact and when paired with a brutal PDO it indicates that the fundamentals are there but the Devils simply are getting unlucky (or horrific goaltending performance).

During the 48 game 2012-13 season the Devils had the best 5v5 FF% in the league with 55.7%, just edging out their recently crowned rival the Kings. But the Devils PDO was 976, a very low number and something analysts at the time pointed out would regress upwards to the mean. The Devils sported the 25th best 5v5 sv% in the league at 0.912 and the 28th best sh% at 6.42%.

So the Devils bought out Hedberg and sent their 9th overall pick to Vancouver for Corey Schneider. Surely, with this upgrade between the pipes and the acquisition of forwards Jaromir Jagr, Michael Ryder and Ryane Clowe this new-look New Jersey team would somewhat offset the loses of David Clarkson, Zach Parise and Ilya Kovalchuck; experience some puck luck; and see that sh% and sv% rise on the wave of upwards regression to the mean. But the Devils are 14 games into this post-lockout season and sit 7th in the Metropolitan division. It’s still early and the race in the Metropolitan division is pretty tight (outside of first place) but early indications are not good for the Devils.

The Devils are currently 7th in 5v5 Fenwick For % (which measures the percentage of unblocked shots taken by that team) at 52.3% but sit 30th in the league with a PDO of 957. New Jersey has the third worst 5v5 sv% in the league  and sit 26th in the league with a 5v5 sh% of 5.8%.

That’s a lot of numbers, so what exactly is the point here?

The point is not to stomp up and down that hockey analytics are wrong, that the Leafs have figured out a way to consistently snipe goals and that the Devils are a team full of plumbers that can throw the puck on net.

The point is partially that we need to give this season time to play out and give unsustainable patterns are chance to correct themselves.

But the big point is really that if traditionalist and analytics people alike want to cast this season as the proving grounds for some kind of dichotomous dick-measuring competition, they had better look at the allegedly unsustainable play of the New Jersey Devils as well. The Devils, who don’t get much spotlight, deserve to be just as much to be this season’s co-most fascinating team with the Maple Leafs as test cases for the power of hockey analytics.

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The Feigned Distaste for Analytics and a Parallel to Phaneuf

Over the last couple of years, one trend I have noticed during the rise of hockey analytics is the shared negative reaction to the presumptive complexity in aggregated numbers.  Or maybe numbers are not complex, but the ignorance of the complexity in hockey.  The truth is that hockey analytics is still in the embryo stages.  The accumulation of data is still on-going and so are the many discussions of what part of the game is in need of being scrutinized.  But it doesn’t hurt to be critical, does it?

It’s an interesting dynamic watching analytics supporters and traditional viewers fight over rooted beliefs of what exactly can or cannot be quantified.  Having played a very minor role in the discussion – which is just another way of saying that no one really listens to me – I feel that most of the problem lies at the feet of those who support analytics.  They just aren’t very good at conveying the nuances of the data they have.  Of course, it would be even better if someone could collect the cumulative knowledge out there and put it into an easy-to-find and accessible place on the internet where interested readers can catch up.

However, I’m not here to enlighten everyone on what’s right or wrong.  I am the skeptic after all.  I think the root of the issues goes back to what I said in my very first post: “We watch hockey and sports in general because we believe that in the many events that repeat itself, there’s that one event out of a thousand that can change the complexion of a game completely.”

With people invested in analytics, it’s a matter of wanting to have something to quantify events into weighed values of importance so that they know, to some degree, that a certain way of playing tends to win more often than it loses.  That same analytical mindset is why we assign a personal preference to players we enjoy watching – it’s entirely theoretical, but not necessarily practical.  As a fan of the game in its unpredictable state, I think it’s okay to be skeptical, but at the same time it is important to acknowledge the shortcomings of watching with your eyes as well as trying to allocate numbers of hockey’s many nuances.  It is better to be aware of the statistical merits of what we can try to quantify in hockey rather than completely dismissive – and that goes for both sides.

On that note, I have two links for people interested in following up on analytics.  The first link is Aaron Chan’s excellent introduction of Corsi and Fenwick.  Aaron, by the way, is probably a bigger skeptic of hockey analytics than I am.  The second link is more cognitive.  If you’re more interested in the psychology of theory, intuition and mental observation, Steve Burtch gave me a heads up a while back to read “Thinking Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman.

On Dion Phaneuf

This is a subject I have been kind of putting off from writing because Mike Stephen wrote up an amazing summary of how good Phaneuf has been in the past couple of years – last season in particular.  So until recently, I didn’t have it high on my list of priorities to write.  But sometimes, I come across tweets and posts overflowing with condemnation and vitriol towards the Leafs captain, and I can’t help wonder if people understand the absurd role Phaneuf has to play.  I’m not going to name names or post specific examples, but I really want to extol Phaneuf’s value to the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Let’s start with some of the more traditional aspects of his game.  Phaneuf brings a unique mixture of size, skill, skating ability, compete, physicality, and robust defensive play to his position.  I guess there might be some questions about his sense for the game and his hockey IQ, but I find a lot of his mistakes are reflective of the mistakes his own teammates make.  Last night’s game against Minnesota was a good example — he dropped a pass behind him in the neutral zone and Franson wasn’t there to pick it up like he was supposed to.  But that’s just one example out of many.

Anyway, that he merges his impressive mixture of size, skating, and skill on the first pairing of the second youngest team in the NHL cannot be understated – he eats up the ugliest minutes that few other defenseman in the NHL plays.  It is in Phaneuf’s role that we can see just how useful Corsi can be to understand how he mitigates the difficulties the other pairings have to face.

And for the record, I want to make it clear that Corsi isn’t an exact science, but it does help us understand a player’s role by contextualizing the statistical merits we have available to us.

Right now, Phaneuf ranks 13th overall for Corsi Relative to Quality of Competition (Corsi Rel QoC) among defensemen.  Corsi Rel QoC is a measure used to determine a player’s possession numbers vs. his opponent’s possession numbers weighed by the amount of ice-time they are on the ice against each other.  In other words,  Phaneuf is on the ice against players who positively drive possession – and if he’s 13th overall in this category, he is facing the league’s best players.  Last season, Phaneuf was 2nd overall, just behind Olivier Ekman-Larsson (who happens to be a pretty damn good defenseman already).

Another way to understand the statistical uphill battle Phaneuf has to face is to look at how his team performs when he’s off the ice.  This category is known as Corsi Relative (Corsi Rel).  This statistical merit is a pretty interesting feature because usually, if you have a minus number in this category, you’re probably a pretty terrible player.  Except that we already know that Phaneuf eats the dirtiest minutes so that the pairings behind him don’t have to.  Last season, Phaneuf’s Corsi Rel was a -7.2, placing him 21st overall among defensemen with 40 or more games played – this year, Phaneuf’s Corsi Rel is -9.7, placing him 41st overall in the NHL among defensemen.

Obviously, the numbers for this season are too early to place any emphasis on, but at least we know that that Corsi is showing a similar trend in which he is, once again, facing some of the stiffest minutes in the NHL.  However, consider this: If Phaneuf’s Corsi Rel is a negative, while the rest of the defense have had better possession numbers against weaker possession drivers, why are we not celebrating his role so that we can watch Jake Gardiner, Cody Franson, and Morgan Rielly develop at their own pace?

When you couple in the fact that Phaneuf was 10th overall in scoring by a defenseman in 2012-13 and is currently 14th overall this season, the picture painted shows a defenseman whose difficult role and elite production beggars belief that he’s not treated as one of the NHL’s best defensemen. Without Phaneuf, the Leafs don’t have anyone to protect Gardiner, Rielly, or Franson.  Be happy he’s on our side.

Some news

The recent blog traffic has caused me to reevaluate if I want to take the purpose of this blog into my own domain.  I have decided that I would like to see how people react to some of the more statistically inclined writers, so I brought in two friends of mine — once they post something, I will link their Twitter accounts for anyone interested in following them.  They will be posting sometime in the near future.  Until then, I will likely be writing a post on Morgan Rielly by the end of the week.  If you got any questions, give me a shout in the comment section or add me on Twitter.

The frustration of a hockey fan stuck in the middle of not really wanting to be right or wrong

Today is the first post I will be writing as part of my ongoing interest in delving into both the traditional and analytical aspect of hockey; mostly with a focus on the Toronto Maple Leafs.  I don’t know how long or how often I can commit to writing.  I think a large part of wanting to write something is in part because I enjoy putting down my thoughts to follow up on down the road.  This mindset is not to show how right I am, but to see how my viewing of hockey and its many idiosyncrasies have changed over time.

However, I want to get something out of the way first.  I want to talk specifically about the troubling shift from fandom to the philosophizing of what’s right or wrong in a sport as subjective as hockey.

Hockey, for me, is a cathartic entertainment that allows me to escape the stresses of life.  Hockey is my Canadian cultural identity as much as it is my natural human proclivity to emotionally invest into an activity that embodies so much of the human desire to be the dominant entity at the top of the food chain.  It is a shared weakness to watch bloodletting, the ongoing defiant challenge of the human athletic limits, and the glorification of the alpha male – a gladiator sport on steel blades no more than an eighth of an inch thick.

The ongoing risks and rewards of hockey is why I turn on the television at night to watch.  I idealize the toughness of John Tavares for pulling out his own teeth on the players’ bench, just as much as I admire the toughness of a player willing to drop the gloves to defend a teammate.

But over time, it got exhausting feeling like I had to take a side on the rights and wrongs.  I feel my love for the sport has been perverted by a mob mentality to be right – no matter the areas of grey that exists in perpetuity of replays.  Hockey is a naturally dangerous activity – players are flying at 25 miles an hour, risking their bodies to on a moving chessboard with millisecond windows of opportunity to make decisions, playing at the edge of emotional control, and suddenly people want to ban fighting.

Sometimes, I feel like I should have never joined in on the growth of social media.  Twitter is an incredibly powerful tool to disseminate information in real time – but maybe at the cost of really understanding what is going on.  The information and digital age has its many pitfalls – not putting in the time to understand the shifting arguments often makes some feel alienated.

I want to believe that my feelings are justified, but as I write this, I already feel like I need to take a side.  I think it is okay to have an opinion, but when the innocent conveyance of an opinion is turned into a weaponized tool to attack others, what’s the point in being a fan if the opinion is conceptualized into black and white?

The article by DownGoesBrown the other day gave me a renewed perspective of that very division in the right and wrong of hockey.

For me, the division between the two sects of hockey analysis has been troubling on many personal fronts; especially in which any point made quickly becomes an afterthought in a flurry of insults – quite often personal.  In addition, the baggage that comes with taking one side or another isn’t worth the stressful position of having to constantly defend it.  We’re hockey fans first and foremost – unless your job is to develop systems to track and break down hockey games, there’s no real reward in fighting one way or the other.

There are times you need to take a stand, but I don’t think sports should be one of them.  We watch hockey and sports in general because we believe that in the many events that repeats itself, there’s that one event out of a thousand that can change the complexion of a game completely.

In my eyes, the progress in analytics – whether via systems, possession time, or scouting – has essentially come to halt to see who’s more right.  The fight is no longer about improving the state of hockey, but a blood lust to be right on the margins of averages.

And as some already know, I am very much guilty of having participated in this vicious cycle of condescension and personal attacks.

I hope to change that for my own sake.