The Numbers and Pat Quinn
For the most part I haven’t argued very much with those who like to look at hockey through a statistical lens even though I don’t buy much of it insofar as it applies to individual players. I don’t think it hurts anyone to play around with the numbers. Some of the best hockey bloggers are in the club. One can enjoy reading Tyler Dellow or Matt Fenwick or James Mirtle while disagreeing with their approach to player evaluation.
But I can’t let this Andy Grabia post slip by unchallenged because he implies he knows more about what contributes to winning hockey than I do because, after all, I pay very little attention to the things he considers important. The post also implies that I disagree with him because I believe in hockey fairy tales.
For what it is worth, I believe (and ironically, I learned it from Pat Quinn) that scoring chances are what really matters. I’m usually happy with my team’s performance if, at even strength, we get the most the scoring chances. All of Pat Quinn’s decisions are designed to help create more scoring chances or to help prevent opposing chances.
Andy’s ire was triggered by Pat Quinn’s unorthodox decision to place JF Jacques – a physical non-scoring winger – on a line with Horcoff and Hemsky. Criticising that decision is fair ball, but I wish Andy made an actual hockey argument to support the criticism. After serving up with a quote from a baseball book (sigh), Andy writes:
What I care about is the broader point of Posnanski’s post, and Epstein’s interview, which is this: far too many professional sports teams, sport reporters, and sports fans focus on aspects of their particular game that are either secondary or irrelevant to the game’s primary purpose, which is winning. They elevate things that, while perhaps fun and entertaining, haven’t really been proven to exist or matter. Coaches who talk about players needing more “crust” in their game, for example. Fans who brag about a player being the team’s best body-checker, for another. Reporters who mythologize a player for being “clutch” in “crunch time.” Me, I’d rather people–managers, coaches, players, reporters, fans–worried more about figuring out what things actually determine success in a sport. Do I know exactly what those things are? Hell, no. But I do have some guesses.
I don’t believe any of these myths, but they will persist no matter what. We can demonstrate statistically that the first goal of a game is no more important than any other, but that’s not going to stop people from believing it is particularly important to get a lead. As long as there are clutch goals – and there are – people will conflate that to clutch ability. Reporters will mythologise and teams will happily sell myths no matter how often they are debunked.
I’m that way because I’m guessing (I’ve been convinced, actually) that some of these [new measurements] are more important in determining the outcome of a game than the things we’ve traditionally looked at and used to determine outcomes (and excellence).
None of the new measures embraced by Andy determine the outcome of a game. At best, they measure a few of the things that happened during games in the past. The outcome of any game is actually determined by how fast the players skate and how well they pass, shoot and check. (That’s why I like the players who skate fast, pass well, shoot hard and check diligently.)
You want to win? Have guys on your team who do these things well. Forget about how “big” his heart is, those “huge” goals he scores, and whether or not he can impale an opponent on his stick like a trident.
Is there a single coach in the league who actually makes personnel decisions based on the fairy tales that surround the game? They will choose a goal scorer over a big hearted clutch goon with leadership skills every time. They always have and they always will. They do not need scoring rates or Corsi numbers to tell them to do so.
When I see a near historically bad NHL player getting first-line minutes because he’s big and hits people, a little bit of my sanity dies. Why? Because the bottom-line is the guy isn’t helping his team win when he is placed in that position. His skill set does not match up with what is required to win hockey games. And the coach isn’t helping his team win, either. In fact, he’s hamstringing their chances of victory, based on some antiquated and unproven model of success. And there goes my sanity, right out the window!
If Jacques busts for the net every time his line gets the puck in the offensive end – a job that fits his skill set to a tee – he can create scoring chances for other Oilers without touching the puck. He can turn a routine point shot into a scoring chance. That helps his team win. I may not be able to demonstrate it statistically but it is very difficult to score off an offensive zone cycle without getting a player to the front of the net. That is a hockey truism that is not a myth.
Ideally the player in front has enough skill to cash a few of those chances – a deflection, a rebound off the screened shot – but if you don’t have a player with the size and skill required for the role, size alone is better than skill alone. It is better to get a plugger in front setting up a screen and drawing a crowd than nobody. Quinn doesn’t have a Ryan Smyth and he doesn’t have many forwards big enough and strong enough for that role, period. He’s picking Jacques from among the options. That seems reasonable to me.
This isn’t the first time Quinn has had this problem. One year he frequently played Gino Odjick with Bure. It worked because Gino went to the front of the net and Pavel did everything else. Gino scored 16, Bure scored 60 and the team went on to the Stanley Cup Final.
Pat Quinn has his own model for success but it is hardly antiquated or unproven. His model has been remarkably consistent and remarkably successful. He’s improved every team that hired him and I’ll be very surprised if he doesn’t improve the Oilers.