July 26, 2016

Just because you work with someone doesn't mean you have to like them

Here's a reality check: Evander Kane has been known to be an elite hockey player destined for the NHL since he was a young boy. He's had all sorts of coaches, tutors, mentors, and role model figures around him, preparing him for the moment, like most star players. He's chosen to ignore it and, for reasons none of us particularly know, act in public like he's allowed to do whatever he wants.

"Well-paid" shouldn't buy him get out of jail free cards. "Talented" only matters on the ice. "Fun-loving" sounds great, until you wonder how much fun all of his accusers were having if what they've all repeatedly been saying holds true. There's no excuse for selfish, and the portrayal of a "boys will be boys" stubbornness is toxic.
You have two camps in fan bases and media.

The first camp is that athletes should be treated just like anyone else. And if someone at work is having legal problems, and it's public, then they tend to not be around work much. Because people don't want to deal with an accused criminal; they find it uncomfortable and creepy. They see the man and the player as one individual.

The other camp is that athletes aren't human, but are instead sports robots who help their teams win. So it doesn't matter what happens off the ice, so long as the guy can contribute to the winning. Because their team winning is all that matters. They separate the man from the player, because it's convenient.

It seems as if players don't seem to mind when a guy acts less than legally. And that can be due to the fact that the guys doing criminal things don't talk about those things with his teammates. So that'd be understandable. And then there's the teammate aspect - you have to play with the guy, so you overlook some things that maybe you don't agree with if you do know some of the stuff that's going on.

On the other hand, teams and / or teammates defending them in public - once certain things are known publicly, that is - seems like poor judgment to fans that believe the guy should be shunned due to his illicit activities. It's turning a blind eye to someone who children and some adults look up to that perhaps they shouldn't. Trying to ignore there's a problem suggests that you don't think there's a problem with someone being an abuser, rapist, assaulting others, or whatever.

Which isn't to say that they have to come out and say what they think in detail. Acknowledging that this player is a teammate and that you're not going to comment on their personal problems is the most graceful way out, and then moving on from that is best. It's the "I support my teammate 100%, and if he says he didn't do anything wrong then I believe him" stuff that's not the best approach public relations-wise.

Ultimately, the problem isn't that someone like Evander Kane is doing this stuff - although, that is a problem. The problem is that no one's helping him realize it's a problem. It's one thing to make a mistake and then learn from it. But when a guy like him or Patrick Kane are saying they did nothing wrong, and they're still getting arrested for things, and the teams and teammates are backing them up...that's not a pretty picture for the rest of humanity.

And maybe that's because NHLers and the former NHLers now running teams don't understand what the problem actually is. Which is a massively huge problem in and of itself. I mean, how do you not know how to treat fellow human beings on the street? And then also thinking that treating them what the majority of people in both Canada and the US consider badly is okay?

The sad part is that this goes so much deeper than the NHL. The prevailing culture of the NHL is the exact same as what's going on in the minor leagues and the junior leagues. Rookies, desperate to fit in, follow the veteran examples of how to treat people in their teens in junior hockey, presumably unlearning the rules set by their parents, and so it becomes a self-perpetuating problem.

Basically, it's a more civilized version of Lord of the Flies. There are various social theories that generally suggest women are the civilizing factor of humanity - and to some extent, that's probably true. But without women around to help men keep themselves in line, as most sports are men-only clubs that shun women as distractions (among other things), they start to think that some things are okay even when they're not.

The bottom line is, just because a guy is a good teammate and / or an athlete of great ability, that doesn't automatically make him a good person. It's a difference that most people realize and understand, and being a good person matters to a whole lot of humanity. However, in hockey, that doesn't seem to often be the case.

While it's totally understandable that teams want the best players they can get - despite any accompanying baggage - the fact is that the baggage matters, too. And that baggage doesn't seem to be properly addressed, probably because there's this ridiculous assumption that people are adults and they can make their own decisions. Well, if they're constantly making bad decisions, then others need to straighten them out, even if they're adults.

Sign who you want, and play who you want, but at least acknowledge the fact that the fans aren't stupid and admit that there are problems - and that they're actually being addressed. Pretending otherwise when there are police reports floating around just makes you look like a clueless ass. And, trust me, there are plenty of fans who will quit the sport for less than that.

After all, the financial bottom line is selling tickets to games. But when you alienate the fan base by acting stupid or treating them like they're stupid, you won't sell as many tickets. It's really rather sad that the NHL hasn't figured this whole connection between respecting fans and selling tickets thing yet, despite being around for almost 100 years.

And to address something Patrick Kane once said about coming back better to shut up the haters - the reason people hate you has nothing to do with how you play, but what kind of person you appear to be.

July 19, 2016

A tale of two defensemen

We’ve finally reached that point in the post-trade dialog where people are finally comparing players. That took long enough. The outrage over Subban being traded (which vastly outweighs the talk about Weber being traded) had died down enough so that people can get down to cases.

Shea Weber versus PK Subban will be one of those trades that will define both Nashville and Montreal for years to come. Books will be written about it, TV shows will be produced about it, and discussions about it will last for potentially decades. And it’s not all about the caliber of the players involved, either, but the team politics in Montreal.

However, purely from a statistical perspective, Weber and Subban are fairly comparable except in one are: possession. Subban last season had much better possession numbers than Weber did, but Weber had more goals. And you also have to take into consideration that Weber was on a better team.

The issue isn’t actually statistics, though. The issue is actually preference in style of play. And that is also colored by what you might think of the players themselves.

Defensemen are weird in that most people tend to ignore the position – at least until someone makes a mistake. So a lot of people don’t have a great grasp as to what makes a great defenseman. They know what makes a great forward (scoring and playmaking), and they know what makes a good goalie (stopping pucks), but defensemen…?

There really are no statistics specifically for defensemen. Plus-minus comes close, but that’s only for even strength. Corsi, supposedly, is an adjusted plus-minus – but I’m not entirely convinced it’s calculated the right way and it was really intended for goaltending, anyways. I could probably come up with something that’s more suitable and specific to defensemen, but I’m not sure I really want to bother.

In regards to touching the puck and / or possession, that’s all guesswork. I’ve tracked sports statistics before, and while most of the time you catch most things, being human you don’t catch everything. So until the NHL institutes some technology changes, that’s not going to be entirely accurate, either. Especially since home team bias creeps into statistics tracking.

So, essentially, there’s no adequate way to determine how good a defenseman is at his position right now. And because of this, people determine how good a defenseman is in three ways: points, hits, and blocked shots. That’s pretty much all there is to it.

Because everyone’s so focused on forwards and scoring, points is the biggest determination of what makes a good defenseman. Almost gone from the NHL is the “stay-at-home” defenseman type of player, who only touched the puck to clear it out of their defensive zone or to keep it in the offensive zone. Bottom pairing guys might still play that way, but that’s why they’re bottom pair guys.

So if you can set up plays (including that crucial first pass out of your own zone), rack up the assists, and score a few goals (might want to work on your shot a bit), then you’re considered a top defenseman. Seriously. That’s all there is to it. You don’t even have to be all that great defensively, which is sad but true. You might turnover the puck a lot in the neutral zone, but all can be forgiven if you consistently score or set up goals. (**cough cough** ...Mike Green.... **cough cough**)

This is almost entirely why both Weber and Subban are considered elite defensemen; they’re both scorers and playmakers.

The difference between them, comes down to hits and blocked shots. Subban might throw the occasional big hit, but Weber does that all the time. And that’s a big reason why some people prefer Weber over Subban. They see hitting as being tough, gritty, and being into the game. Which isn’t true at all, but that’s the perception – and is why some think Weber is better than Subban.

In shot blocking, too, Weber has the edge on Subban. Subban’s not afraid to block shots, but Weber does it more often. That might have been due to the teams each played on – we won’t know that for sure until the next season starts – but that adds to the tough-gritty-leadership perception.

(Random note: I really hate the term "eye-test".)

Weber playing that way, though, shortens his hockey career and slows him down faster. The more physical abuse a guy takes, the shorter his career tends to be. It’s not a perfect correlation, of course, since Chris Chelios played for a very long time and he was a physical player. But generally speaking, if you want to lengthen your hockey career, consistent overly physical play isn’t the way to go about doing that.

Partly because of that, but also because of his size and perhaps his age, Weber isn’t as quick as Subban is. In that way, Subban definitely has the edge. And in today’s NHL, the quicker you are the better. The better teams in the league want fast players, no matter what position they play. Going out of your way to make a hit just for the sake of hitting puts you out of position and often out of the play.

The biggest thing to take into consideration between the two is their age and how long they should play. Weber, as mentioned above, being more physical will likely have a shorter career. And as he’ll be 31 years old when the season starts, he’s looking the downside of his NHL career right in the face. His level of play might not decline significantly for another couple of years, or it could decline this year; you just don’t know.

Subban, however, is only 27. In the NHL, that’s just starting the peak performance years. Well, I think so, anyways. A lot of people seem to think defensemen peak earlier, but I don’t agree. Late 20s to early 30s seems to be when defensemen are the most productive to me. Then again, most are also judging them by the standards they have for forwards, too.

Perhaps if this were the NHL before the last lockout, Weber would be better suited for the NHL than Subban overall. But, again, the better teams of the NHL have gotten where they are partly due to very mobile defensemen who are quick on their feet and can make plays, join the rush, and score goals in their own right. (And play defense well in their own end, too.) Weber just isn’t that mobile, and he isn’t that quick. He’s still a very good defenseman who’s very strong positionally, don’t get me wrong, but skating isn’t what he’s known for.

And, ultimately, foot speed is such a priority for the better teams in the NHL, that that's really the determining factor in this trade. (Age would probably be a close second.) If you can't skate, then the top teams in the league aren't going to want you. Weber might be better than Subban in many areas, but he probably couldn't out-skate Subban.

Try to imagine Weber in Pittsburgh or San Jose or Tampa Bay, and then try to imagine Subban on any of those teams, and then get back to me.

July 15, 2016

Decision making tools should be used to make decisions

The problem with analytics….

So much is being made of the whole Subban-Weber trade fiasco for a number of reasons. One of which is the fact that someone apparently lost their job over this trade. The Montreal Canadiens decided not to renew the contract of an analytics guy, and so the numbers people on Hockey Twitter are all up in arms over this.

Long story short – according to the media the guy did his job, crunched the numbers, and reported his findings to his superior. The numbers were in favor of keeping Subban, of course. But since the numbers didn’t agree with the decision already made by upper management, his contract wasn’t renewed.

Now, this is hardly a new or surprising development – especially within the NHL. However, to be fair, things like this happen in corporate America all the time, too. And they’re equally thought of as stupid in much of corporate America as well.

The problem here is two-fold. One, on the analytics side of things, numbers people tend to think the final numbers produced are gospel. They are an absolute truth, and to not automatically go along with them is folly. So their threshold of what they consider appropriate in this situation is set absurdly high, and should be taken with a grain of salt.

The other side of the problem is general hockey thinking. Numbers do serve a purpose – they’re a good decision-making tool to help people decide upon aspects of the game that can be quantified. How people go about getting these numbers might be flawed, but that still doesn’t mean that the results shouldn’t be seriously considered.

But instead, so-called hockey people seem to focus on “intangibles” – which really ought to be renamed “unquantifiables”. And, quite frankly, most of them have little meaning when it comes to the sport. Being "gritty” doesn’t really mean a damned thing, if you stop to think about it. "Mental toughness", on the other hand, does and in a few different ways.

That’s not to say that those unquantifiables don’t exist or don’t have meaning. It's a fact that people perform better at things when they're happy than when they're unhappy, and while you can capture performance, it's difficult to capture mood along with performance. So sports psychology exists for a reason, after all. The thing is, there are few people who are running teams that are being particularly scientific about player assessment. Heck, some basic critical thinking might even be helpful, and they’re seemingly not doing much of that, either.

What it comes down to on the team management side of things for most teams is really that they like a guy, and they’re trying to justify why they like him. It has nothing to do with his “toughness” (in a physical-fighting sense) or his “grittiness”. It’s all about how they want a player, and they feel like they need to have a reason for why they want that player so that it doesn’t seem like it's an arbitrary decision – when it usually is.

So when general managers and coaches start saying words like that, they sound like they’re clueless about the player. They may be trying to sound intelligent and reasonable – and maybe within the sport itself they do – but to the general fan bases and media, they sound like they have no idea what they’re talking about. They come off as just a bunch of crotchety old men tossing around descriptive words to make them look like they know what they’re doing. Or something.

Now, I’m not a numbers person, so I know that some fancy stat isn’t going to be the end-all be-all of player evaluation. However, even I recognize that they’re useful if taken the right way. If you’re evaluating people, then you take whatever tools are available that make sense – or, you create ones of your own if none of the ones available do. And I’ve done that before in my own job.

The thing is, it’s literally my job to give and / or create decision-making tools so that upper management can better manage their assets. So I have some very specialized experience in this area of business – both with government as well as with private industry. And I’m here to tell you that the NHL does things in a very backward and outdated way. From the outside looking in, at least.

And now everyone but them is noticing that.

I’m not even going to get into the whole “yes-man” thing. An intelligent person surrounds themselves with people who have different perspectives that aren’t afraid to share them. The more views you have available to you, the better your decisions will be. Only someone who’s insecure and / or egotistical rejects opinions that contradict their own. I could go on – and on, and on – but that’s the gist of it.

If the NHL and its member teams were run like a real business – and without the rampant and blatant cronyism or the nepotism – they’d be raking in the money and be incredibly successful. They could easily compare to the NFL in many ways if they broke away from their crumbling so-called traditions, in fact. Doing things “as they’ve always been done” is simply a bad business model, no matter what industry you’re talking about.

Yes, hockey is still a business, but it’s really a very poorly run one by just about any standard in North America.