September 5, 2016

Taking "best available by position" one step too far

Babcock explains importance of left-handed defensemen
On Monday during a press conference, Babcock finally revealed why having a defenseman with a left-handed shot is so important.

So, in case it wasn't clear before, Babcock has clearly thought this through.
I understand why coaches think this. I have always gotten it, in fact. And it makes total sense, from a technical and a "looks good on paper" point of view.

However, from an available talent perspective, it makes little sense.

There's this on-going argument that happens periodically, and it usually happens around fantasy hockey time when people are picking their teams. And it often comes up when someone picks a guy no one else expected them to take in the fantasy league draft. And that argument is whether someone ought to pick the best available player, regardless of position, or the best available player by their position.

And that's what this argument comes down to. Are coaches picking the best available defensemen? Or, are they picking the best available defenseman by what side they happen to shoot?

Obviously, for some coaches like Mike Babcock, it's pretty clear that when he's able to, he'll take best available player at the position he's looking for - at least for defense.

Because, clearly, Canada didn't taking the best player by position when it came to for forwards. Not when there's an overwhelming number of centers on that team. What I'd be interested in - and I wasn't able to find this in a quick Google search - is whether those centers who are playing right wing also shoot right or not. I'm betting they all don't.

If that's the case, and not all of the players put at right wing shoot right, then that makes me question why he's so adamant about doing that with the defense.

(Knowing Babcock's reputation, I'm going to guess that all of the right wingers shoot right. Because he's an attention to detail sort of a guy like that. But until I see a roster that confirms that - and at this point I'd have to reconstruct the roster on my own so that it includes NHL position and what side they shoot - I'm not going to entirely believe it until it's confirmed.)

It's interesting that they decided to parse out the defensemen, but not the forwards. It shows that the decision makers are more comfortable with one group (the forwards) than with the other (the defense). Which is sort of strange, since back in the day, Babcock was a defenseman himself.

All the same, if you're going to be consistent, and handed-ness actually matters to you, then choosing by best available player by position makes sense.

But if they were going to be as particular about it with the forwards as they were the defensemen, then they should've picked four right-shooting right wingers, four left-shooting left wingers, two left-shooting centers, and two right-shooting centers. (Two of each with the centers means you can mix and match with wingers as necessary.) I mean, if symmetry of handed-ness really matters, then it should matter throughout the roster, right? Including with the goaltenders?

Apparently the argument of symmetry only matters with the defensemen, for some unknown reason, since the forward corps are mostly centermen.

The other part of this problem is simply one of numbers - not statistics, although they can play into this mentality, but just shear numbers. In Canada, most hockey players shoot left - that's just a fact of life. If you were to count up the number of right-shooting players in Canada, they'd probably be a bit more than the average percentage of left-handed people within their general population.

To help put that into perspective, roughly 12% of the world's population is left-handed, and 30% show some sort of ambidextrousness - although, they still tend to favor one hand over the other, all the same.

So let's say that 15% of all Canadian hockey players shoot right. Seems to be a fair sort of number, I think. In any given population, that percentage will vary, but the average will stick around that number.

If you're looking for defensemen to play the right side who shoot right, then you're picking out of a pool of 12-18% of all of the Canadian defensemen in the National Hockey League. I want you to think about that for a second. It matters because the smaller the group, the less likely you're going to find an exceptional individual out of it.

Because of that basic population issue, you might find a generational talent who happens to shoot right in Canadian hockey, but they likely won't be playing defense - simply due to the larger number of forwards there are versus the number of defensemen.

Again, it goes back to best available versus best available at position. You might pick the best available right-shooting defenseman, but they'll likely be of a lesser ability than simply the best defensemen available. And that's just because of how general populations are set up - standard deviations and all of that, you know.

What it all boils down to is this: Any team's coach that doesn't buy into this notion of symmetry may eventually realize that the easiest way to exploit that decision made by Team Canada is to take their best forwards, and send them down the right side of the ice in the neutral zone.

If you buy into Babcock's explanation, then making sure you have a righty with a lefty at the blue line matters primarily due to maintaining puck possession at the blue line while in the offensive zone. But, it's at the expense of general ability on the right side in the neutral zone and in the defensive zone. It's one-dimensional thinking; he's only accounting for one zone on the entire sheet of ice.

The game isn't always about offense, but also defense - there's balance between the two - which is something a former defenseman such as himself ought to be taking into account. "A good defense is having a great offense" works some of the time, but it also leads to horrific defensive breakdowns in front of your own goalie. I personally have a problem with relying on goaltending too much and letting goalies fend for themselves, but I guess most NHL coaches don't.

No comments:

Post a Comment