A subtle distinction
With the Sharks 4-2 win last night in game 5, the 2015-2016 season lasts just a little bit longer. Once Lord Stanley has found his summer home, we move on proper to the business of improving the New York Rangers. Much digital ink has been spilled, including some stellar pieces around these parts, about who should stay or go, cap math and statistical analysis. This morning, I want to talk about some subtle distinctions.
I was having a beer with a buddy of mine yesterday afternoon. I grew up playing with this guy, and we been friends and Rangers fans for over 20 years. We started talking about the team; who we liked, who was overpaid, who should be shipped out and replaced in an effort to re-tool the roster back to a legitimate contender. It occurred to me during this conversation, partly because of our dynamic, that it kind of sounded like those old school scouting conversations. He isn’t much of an advanced stats guy, so we were talking like it was the 90’s.
Honestly, it was fun. I enjoyed the talking hockey and bringing the concept of fandom back to basics, water cooler style. We had our assessments of player’s talent levels and what their strengths and weaknesses were. How players drove possession or their production at even strength was never really part of the conversation.
We spoke about I had a guy on my team this season, who had played a scoring role at a prominent D3 program just a couple years ago tell me that he liked Tanner Glass “because he brought some sandpaper” to the lineup. My mind was blown. I could not get my head around the fact that this guy played the game at a comparatively high level, followed the Rangers closely and could arrive at this conclusion. Even at the ripe old age of 27, he lamented the changing game and the lack of toughness and edge of the current crop of NHL’ers.
It made me begin to think about the analysis that we do here (analyzing analysis: Inception!) and I found that people’s opinions of a players’ capabilities typically break down into two groups: “does the player conform my idea of what makes a player good?” and “did the player objectively perform”. There are obviously additional considerations within each of those concepts, but that was the framework.
When I left the bar it kind of hit me (or the 4 other beers; whose to say, really?) that so much of the perspective of hockey fans is derivative of how they want to view the game. Some people want to yell at the little men on their televisions, calling the ones who blow scoring chances “bums” and the ones who bury the biscuit on command “clutch”. It makes them happy and gives them something to talk about at the office or job site or on the Internet the next day. Some people like to watch the games and be angry that it isn’t played the same it was “back in the day”, “when men were men” and all that crap. For the record, anyone who can take a 200+lb man or a 100mph puck careening into his body over and over again is very much a man.
I feel like the distinction between preferences for a player’s style, perceived lack of specific type of production, clutchness, toughness and all that stuff and measurable performance gets lost around here sometimes. If you think that Tanner Glass is a misunderstood throwback to a better era of hockey, more power to you. Here, we draw broad strokes conclusions about a player’s talent level by virtue of their performance. Those who disagree will dismiss those performance measurements to maintain their position on the player’s talent level. It becomes a seesaw that never stops until you stumble off nauseously to do something more productive.
I guess my point is, this summer is going to be one of (presumably) massive change for the Rangers. I have a feeling that the comments section is going to be hot garbage at times. Since you all know that I have a penchant for long-winded speeches, I suppose this is just a 700-word preamble for the following advice for summer 2016:
1. To the pro-stats crowd: Analysis is good. Understand what you are measuring and the conclusions you draw from those measurements. You are measuring performance. You are also measuring performance that is not all encompassing, although there are some very smart people working to close those gaps. You are not measuring talent or creating a recipe on how to bake a Stanley Cup winning roster. Don’t be inherently dismissive to other people’s opinions, just because you know the facts back you up. Hear them out. I believe that stats are a good thing and using them to become an academic snob about hockey is not a great way to get the mainstream fan to accept them.
2. To the anti-stats crowd: Knowledge is good. Using the “eye test” for everything, just because you don’t care to learn about a stat or if it’s valuable, is just as arrogant as waiving a spreadsheet in your opponent’s face. Also, when someone uses a statistic to backup a theory about a players performance and value, don’t just say “all these stats are a bunch of garbage” to de-value the analysis. Advanced metrics are far from perfect. If you feel the analysis you are reading is flawed because of a weakness in the stat, bring up that point like a civilized human being.
Eventually, there will be a melding of both perspectives as the stats get better and the realities of what makes a championship team in the modern era becomes more engrained in hockey’s culture. Until then, I’m just trying to prevent WWIII around here this summer. I’m sure that will go swimmingly.