Blinded by Science… and Scattered Thoughts



ST-FABIEN-DE-PANET and QUÉBEC, QUÉBEC – In case you missed it, last week was  ᴫ (pi) day – March 14 or 03/14. With my nerdy background, that was enough to give a scientific spin to my piece. Thus, I figured  it was the best time to bring out advanced stats.

Each and every fan has his or her own way to take in the game, to appreciate hockey. On one hand, one might have a sweet spot for the local team, in this case the Habs, be it by force of habit, by attachment to deep rooted traditions or, simply, because of the colours Bleu, Blanc and Rouge. On the other hand, often one player (or a few) is the seductor, by his feats on the ice or because of his personality. For a good portion of fans, the appreciation of the game whether it’s team oriented or based on individual performances comes from emotion. At the other end of the spectrum, you have those who crack for the scientific stuff, those number crunchers who fill worksheets with incomprehensible mumbo-jumbo with names like Corsi and Fenwick.

Statistics rule hockey, like any other profesional sport: the team with highest amount of wins thrones at the top of the chart and the best scorers are honoured each year with individual trophies. The science of advanced statistics, or hockey analytics, is defined by those who thrive on it by “the quest for an objective knowledge of the game of hockey”. They’re qualified as “advanced” because they reach beyond the simple stuff — which is more widely available like goals, assists, plus/minus ratings, shots on goal, etc. — because other elements are taken into account like line mates or d-pairings, and the quality of opposition other teams are offering to counter the players under observation. They’re being used to understand how some team wins, to quantitatively assess what player makes a strong forward or keeps him an honest defenseman.

If analytics may seem out of reach at first look, they’re not necessarily out of reach and they can be domesticated with time as more and more sportscasters and mainstream media analysts are getting into the party as time goes by. Last year, Arpon Basu then covering the Habs for CTV Montreal, broached the subject in this article. Another MSM journalist,  James Mirtle from Globe and Mail is another advanced statistics afficionado, though he primarily covers the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Those stats are also being used to compare players to one another, to assess whether a trade was good or bad. For example, beyond the gong show fashion way with which the Habs have dealt away Michael Cammalleri, those numbers have been used to evaluate that deal that has brought us Rene Bourque… Of course, in this particular case, stats will reveal but only one side of the story: that trade can’t be truly deemed success or failure until the emergence of Patrick Holland in the NHL or the development of that second round pick that won’t have a name attached to it until next year.

Photo credit: REUTERS/Christinne Muschi

This science can help solve another dilemma facing the Montreal Canadiens for all the arm chair GM’s we can be: faced with the dilemma of keeping only one of two centers, which one should the Habs keep, Desharnais or Plekanec? If there’s one thing many fans can agree upon as far as Habs matters are, it’s this: the quest for a big center has never been so in our faces, a position which has been traditionally lacking for years on end. In this regard, both players may seem interchangeable in terms of role and one might easily conclude one may be disposable.

Common stats will reveal the obvious: Desharnais has been leading Plekanec in terms of points, goals, +/- ratings most of the season. But these figures don’t tell the whole storyline. Advanced hockey statistics break down the game further, splitting time on ice in short-handed, man-advantage and even handed situations. They also take into account the quality of competition each player faces, and the quality of line mates he’s being given to play along with. Furthermore, all shots in favor of the team (or against) are being considered, including missed and blockes ones, not only the ones that reach the opposing net in order to compute scoring chances.

As you know, those resounding Ping!s are not accounted for in the classic SoG figures provided by the scoresheet keepers…
So, there are folks who compile raw data, like Olivier Bouchard, French blogger on « En attendant les Nordiques », others who mine that data like Andrew Berkshire from « Habs Eyes on the Prize », and still a few others who devised a new quite unorthodox system like Chris Boucher of « Boucher Scouting » fame.

Andrew is a true blue advanced stats fellow. He sent me his worksheets, filled with all kinds of data such as Corsi and Fenwick numbers and the likes of offensive zone starts, among other figures. Without analyzing in detail, the numbers confirm without much surprise something we already knew: Plekanec is more often than not playing the harder minutes, against stronger opponents, and this with little or no help – somebody had coined whatever line headed by Plekanec as the “Copter line” or the one without wings… The Czech also inherits more defensive missions than the Québécois, ungrateful and unrewarding tasks leftover since the good old Jacques Martin days.

Statistics provide a model, a system designed to provide more objectivity than the eye of the hockey fan. One might chose to give them a lot of meaning or to forego them altogether, it’s a question of personal preference. Having an engineering background myself, I do tend to give them some credence, but with some reservation. A model, like any other, can always benefit from improvement. Nonetheless advanced statistics can be a useful decision making tool, and would be helpful in determining which one of the two centers Habs would like to keep long term, in case the elusive big center should appear on the Habs doorsteps…

Before making a final decision, other intangibles can – and should — be taken into account. Both players are products of the organisation, they’ve known all but the Canadiens of Montreal as their team, even if the youngest was ignored in the NHL entry draft, the elder has five years of seniority on him since being picked up in 2003. Desharnais has proven wrong many of his detractors, and this at all levels where he played, moreover since he made it to the professional levels. But Plekanec remains a dependable vet, having a personal record of four consecutive years as a 20+ goal scorer. No one will deny Plekanec has been having a bad year, but apart from Desharnais and his steady line mates Erik Cole and Max Pacioretty, who on this team has been having a career season in 2011-12?

Not wanting to provide an absolute answer to this dilemma or any other question, what’s important in my eyes at least, is to not let one get blinded with only one dimension of the situation…

A name that creeps up quite often when one talks about NHL advanced statistics is that of Gabriel Desjardins who was a founder of the stats site which has since merged with Arctic Ice Hockey. On this latter link, you will find statistics, discussions, and other detailed explanations on this new science. Warning: some articles use a lot of specialized lingo and some basic knowledge might be required to fully understand, but a search on “FAQ” on the site will reveal a few primer articles for those interested in getting more acquainted with the topic.

  • As with any other internal duel opposing same team players– the « Pr-alak » controversial debate is still fresh in memory – deciding on which centre to keep or to do away with will provoke heated arguments and discussions. Other obvious differences between the two players have nothing to do with how they contribute to the team, nor their talent or their work ethics. It would be sad if those elements were used to fan the flames amongst fans. Neither player can help the fact that one is taller by 4 inches…
  • Desharnais has been a revelation and has exceeded the expectations. There were some who always believed in him, Guy Carbonneau among them – they have this Chicoutimi Saguenéens link in common – and it was Carbo who insisted the Habs give DD a shot with the team. But in the past Carbonneau was also one of the most fervent admirers of Plekanec, as he qualified him as a coach’s dream player. I’d be curious to find out how Carbonneau would deal with having to make a choice between the two hockey players…
  • Crédit photo : Lyse

    If Guy Carbonneau went from the NHL to the Q, his ex team mate and friend Patrick Roy is about to go the reverse route, or so it seems. Rumours are flying stronger that Roy has been secretly confirmed as the next head coach of the Montreal Canadiens. It is true that Red Bull has become a brand closely associated with Québec City and this product is said to give you wings… I find it strange that the head coaching job would already be filled in provision for the next season and this without having any confirmation on who will manage the team as GM, be it Mister Gauthier or a successor.

  • Obviously, as is the case with all other fans and insiders, I have no say on the organizational choices regarding my favorite hockey team. But I’ll reiterate my position onRoy as eventual coach of the Montreal Canadiens: I don’t believe Patrick Roy is the candidate of choice to put the Habs back on the tracks to glory. I won’t deny the man’s passion nor his insatiable thirst for winning, but he’s been known to go intense about it — I’m using politically correct words here. As  a Twitter friend  of mine coined the Twitter hashtag #CirqueDuOlé while referring to this Canadiens’ season, an exuberant Patrick Roy behind the bench and in post game pressers will only add to the circus atmosphere surrounding the team of late. On this topic, an eventual return of Number #33 to Montreal, I suggest you read these two All Habs articles from last week penned respectively by Simon and Habsterix:  Grigorenko et Roy : Deux choix logiques? et Habs Solution Might Sit in Avalanche Path.
  • Oh, and while many will claim ownership of that Roy scoop, I just happened to stumble on this tweet a couple of weeks ago, from the illustrious celebrity gossip king who happened to write Cirque du Soleil founder Guy Laliberté’s unauthorized bio:

 So, both GM and HC, eh? Scott’s hashtag seems so fitting here….. #CirqueDuOlé


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