New Year Thoughts After Some Time Away

Happy New Year, BSB community!  It’s been a while since I’ve written, so I figured this would be a good time to catch up.  Recently, Dave posted his retrospective on the 10-year anniversary of Blue Seat Blogs. He (erroneously!) characterized me as “retired” in that piece, and I understand why he would have had that impression. People who write on a non-professional basis tend to not pick it back up after a hiatus, and I’ll give Dave credit for trying to let me fade out with class and dignity.

This past summer, in all of my infinite wisdom, I decided to go back to grad school to obtain an L.L.M. degree (basically a master’s degree for lawyers) in Cybersecurity and Data Privacy.  I work in the banking industry, so protecting consumer data has become a huge priority for companies, especially in New York.  The degree will only take me until this coming July, so that is when I will be making my triumphant return to writing full-time again.

I did not intend to just sort of fade into oblivion at the beginning of the season; I had fully intended to write the 7th Annual Top 30 Goaltenders list and explain that it would be my last article for little while.  However, once the semester started up and I realized that I hadn’t done nearly the research or other legwork that I usually put into that piece, so rather than put out a sub-par product, I ended up shelving it for this year.

So, due to all of that, I haven’t watched nearly as much hockey as I typically would, but that certainly doesn’t stop me from having some thoughts on the Rangers’ season thus far.  Let’s get to it, shall we?  Just fair warning, I haven’t written in about 6 months, so this will probably get long…

1. First, let’s start with the rebuild concept, as a whole. I think there has been some fan disconnect about the willingness to go through the rebuild process for the sake of organizational improvement, and the actual emotional consequences of watching your favorite team lose every night. Especially for an organization that has a tremendously successful past decade.  Seeing once-core Rangers like Lundqvist, Zuccarello and Staal enter the twilights of their career while getting stomped on a nightly basis isn’t anyone’s idea of fun, no matter how much better it would be in the long run.

The other disconnect has been between the concept of a rebuild as a vehicle for developing young talent to create a new core, and actually having that young talent. Sure, there are some interesting pieces in the organization; Howden, Chytil, Andersson, Shestyorkin, etc., but the team still lacks those future superstars on the cusp to help move this thing along. At the time the organization waived the white flag in its letter to the fans last year, I saw many comparisons to what the Yankees had done in 2016.  The problem for the Rangers is they didn’t have an Aaron Judge, Gary Sanchez, Luis Severino and Miguel Andujar lying around.  They had to do this thing from basically scratch.

The good news was Chytil, Andersson and Shestyorkin were already in the organization, and then the team went out and acquired Howden, Rykov, Hajek, Kravtsov, K’Andre Miller, and others through the Draft and trades at the deadline.  Not a bad pool to start working through.  Back to the disconnect; very few of those guys were in a position to even get an NHL look this season, much less help move the needle for a youth movement at the highest level.

I think people were expecting the organization to ice a massively young team that would be super exciting to watch, ala the 2017 Yankees, which would give everyone hope for the future, even as they took their lumps and missed the playoffs.  Ultimately, the team was still quite veteran heavy, and the optimism of youth never really materialized (and was really never going to this season).

Not to belabor the Yankees example too badly, but I think a good portion of the fanbase was hoping that the team would dispense with some superfluous veterans and the high ceiling kids would slot in, supported by more effective young veterans like Kreider, Zibanejad and Zuccarello.  With Henrik Lundqvist in net and a few big steps forward from the likes of Chytil and Andersson and you could squint and see a possible playoff team.  I know I was in this camp.  I think partially out of that desperate desire to see Lundqvist get a Cup after years of Hall of Fame service to the team and the city.  It’s a depressing notion that he will probably retire one of the greatest goalies ever never to win one.

2. Speaking of Lundqvist, he is just brutal on a rebuild, isn’t he? If you put even a league average goaltender in there, the Rangers would likely be dead last in the NHL by a country mile (Ottawa might have something to say about that, though). All those games that made it to overtime on his back and the extra loser points could end up costing the team anywhere from 5-10 percentage points in the Draft lottery. So much of his personal brand and career legacy are tied up in being a Ranger, that is makes it kind of a sticky situation to really lean into the tanking concept.  I suppose you could really dial back his playing time in favor of Alex Georgiev, but Hank is going to be a big part of the development of Shestyorkin over the next couple years, so I wouldn’t be trying to unload him just because he is playing the Rangers into a worse draft position.

3. Now, I fully expected the defense to be the weak link of the team going into the season, but I did not expect a tire fire of this magnitude. Honestly, out of the current group, I don’t know if there are any members of the next competitive core suiting up on a nightly basis. I’m not really sure what else there is to say about the blue line, it’s been tough to watch.

4. I know when David Quinn was hired there was some mixed reaction. The notion of player development as a focus and new ideas and NCAA coaches transitioning to the NHL, and blah blah blah. I get it; it was an unknown and that was worth discussing.  However, I think the decision-making processes that we are observing with Quinn, and hell, league-wide really, are just continually reflective of the systemic issue in the NHL, and hockey as a whole: a complete and total unwillingness to embrace new ideas.

Take the USA Hockey coaching model.  If I spend enough weekends in the conference room of the Lake Placid Marriott and coach my local pee wee team, I can be a level 5 USA Hockey coach.  Never you mind how much actual hockey knowledge I have, or how talented a communicator I am or how innovative my philosophy on the game is, it’s ultimately about checking a box.  Hockey’s culture in general in relatively conservative and risk averse, but the game is never really going to grow until it starts taking those risks.

If hockey was truly limited simply by the fact that it is a niche sport, I could deal with that.  It is what it is.  However, the modern NHL is actively shooting itself in the foot with shortsighted decisions designed to keep under (or “un”)-qualified decision makers in power.  If the sport embraces new ideas and perspectives, it threatens the status quo of those in power, who by the way, would have their resumes thrown directly in the trash in any other major sport.

Hockey culture has brainwashed us into thinking that having “played the game” qualifies someone to manage a multi-million-dollar business.  They would obviously have valuable input on the experience of becoming and remaining a professional player and other in-game contributions, but the notion that because someone was able to play the game at the highest level means they understand it’s most complicated economic inner-workings is absurd.

Which brings us back to David Quinn.  Sure, he is young and been tasked with helping to develop younger players, but at the end of the day, he is an extension of the current power structure and that will always stamp out any creativity or process evolution that might have been.  Veterans have earned their time and the kids have to be above board to avoid the threat of the press box.  Disappointing, yes, but ultimately predictable.

5. Moving on, I am really excited about K’Andre Miller’s development. I liked the pick as an upside play at the time; physical specimens like that don’t become available all that often. If everything clicks, he is a bonafide number one defenseman with huge offensive upside. It might take him a little bit to get there, but he could end up the big win out of that draft class; and that is no knock against Kravtsov.

6. I want to take a minute to talk about analytics. I know, I know, this subject has been beaten to death. However, I guess I just want to muse for a moment on what I wish the discussion could be. When baseball was having their great analytics war, there were certain assumptions that were already agreed upon. No one really questioned whether or not a statistic could accurately measure what it was setting out to measure, but rather what value that measurement held.  It was a debate between whether human eyes could see what would make a team successful, or whether or not that value was obfuscated within a larger data set.

For data analysts in baseball, it was like learning to ride a bike.  They just needed enough data to see if their theories would bear out.  For hockey data analysts, instead of learning to ride a bike, it’s like learning to ride a unicycle while spinning plates.  There are no agreed upon assumptions of measurement accuracy.  The game moves with such speed and fluidity, with no isolated plays and large stretches of time that cover both offensive and defensive scenarios.  The arguments against its evolution remain the same, however.

What should be happening is looking to experiment with different data analysis tools to more accurately determine the reliability of the measurements, then apply them to the accuracy of their predictability for on-ice success.  It needs to be a multi-stage, always evolving perspective.  The problem is, both sides came from an intellectually dishonest perspective in their advocacy.  The anti-stats crowd railed against a combination of change, concepts they did not understand, nostalgia and general defensiveness.  The advocates of the data felt compelled to declare these tools the end-all, be-all solution for smart people who seek to better understand the game.

At the end of the day, hockey will benefit from a better understanding of how data drives success; that’s true of any business.  It creates market inefficiencies and allows savvy organizations to gain an edge.  I don’t know exactly where I am going with this, I guess I would just like to see this develop organically instead of this tribal battlefield of eye test v. spreadsheets.

7. I am really interested to see how the trade deadline and the Draft this year play out.  I think it’s going to be the real crossroads for the rebuild.  The deadline hauls for pending free agents and the Draft strategy will really bring the organization’s capabilities to the forefront.  I think the group of assets that the team has by the end of June will give us a much better idea of how the time horizon on this endeavor truly looks.  I just hope for all our sakes that it won’t last too long.

8. Might as well cap this off on a bit of a lighter note. On Wednesday, Adidas introduced the jerseys for the 2019 All-Star Game. They have a monotone, black or white aesthetic, and have the individual team logos instead of an NHL crest.  To be honest, they are a little “meh”.  I like the minimalistic sensibility, but I think since the color scheme branded on the Parley technology used in the jerseys is very similar to the color scheme for the host San Jose Sharks, I would like to have seen the teal featured a little more prominently.

What is noteworthy, however, is the aforementioned Parley technology.  For those unfamiliar, Parley is a company that sources recyclable materials from the oceans, clearing out dangerous debris that threatens marine life.  Their mission statement goes far beyond that, though. You can check out their website at Parley.tv.  I have a pair of their trainers and they are awesome. Back to the jerseys, though.  Most NHL All-Star jerseys are abhorrently ugly to begin with.  I’ll gladly give these a pass for the innovation and worthwhile initiative they support.

Alright gang, that’s it for me.  I’m heading back to the grindstone for the next couple months, but I will try to work in some articles when I have some free time, with the plan being to launch back into things with the Top 30 prior to next season.  It’s been a pleasure writing for you again after all this time, and I look forward to reading your comments (well, most of them, anyway).  Enjoy the rest of the season, everyone!

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