Five things: On trolling and analytics

Ryan Lambert
May 22 2014 08:30AM

5

1. A theory

Everyone is up in arms about something Steve "What ever happened to Alexander Karpovtsev" Simmons wrote on Monday, and justifiably so. It's something so bad and disingenuous — and it won't be linked here — that he should be embarrassed to have attached his name to it. As with most Steve Simmons articles these days, it is obsessed with the idea that there are people who think they know more than he does, and how he has no ability whatsoever to handle the fact that they might be right.

The thing with this is that it's blatant trolling of a group (the hockey analytics community) that is regularly looked down upon by people in positions of power within the hockey media. Now, when I talked about this steaming heap of garbage on Twitter Monday night, I once again put forth my common assertion that I do not troll, and this was generally laughed at as being preposterous.

But the thing is this, and it's an important distinction between what I do and what Simmons does: Trolling is the taking on and advocating for a point of view that one does not necessarily believe, or even amplifying a held belief, to make people angry and generate page-views. That's what I'm accused of all the time. I have never, though, written something I didn't believe without exaggeration — apart from the anti-Canada stuff, but only idiots don't see that stuff as being pretty obviously done for the sake of humor — nor have I thought that something I wrote would get a lot of clicks. Don't read this. I don't care at all. Don't comment. I would actually prefer you didn't. (The proprietors of this site, however, likely do, so sorry about that.)

I believe that the best way to rebuild a team is to blow it to smithereens. I believe Sean Monahan should have spent the year in junior no matter how well he did at the NHL level. I believe Brian Burke is incorrect about where this sport is going and is therefore not the man to lead the Flames into the future. I believe it's wrong for the organization to "sell hope" in a crass attempt to pump ticket sales while potentially impeding future progress toward meaningful competitiveness. I believe in all that and I'll swear on a stack of bibles that I do. You might not agree with me, and it's fine if you don't (as long as you don't mind being wrong, because you are), but that doesn't mean I'm trolling you. It means we have opposing viewpoints. That's life.

Moreover, and more germane to this debate, I believe in the power of hockey analytics to predict the general outcomes in the league, because we have years of evidence that something as simple as raw even-strength Corsi percentage works more often than it does not. To say that it doesn't work, as Simmons regularly does, is to simply ignore evidence and then act like an asshole about it in exchange for money. That's the definition of trolling.

2. A debate worth having

One of the things that was brought up in the immediate wake of the publication of Simmons' trite, smug nonsense is that this "debate" about the efficacy of hockey analytics has grown tiresome. It's true to some extent.

This "debate" is tiresome in the same way the climate change or evolution "debates" are tiresome. There are always going to be people who hold steadfastly onto their beliefs — or continue peddling what they know to be snake oil in exchange for profit — no matter how much evidence you present them. The great new HBO show "Last Week Tonight with John Oliver" recently covered this topic in an interesting way, holding a debate between Bill Nye, and a representative 97 percent of climate scientists who say climate change is real, and the representative 3 percent who say it's not, or it's too early to tell.

The numbers scream that Corsi is an excellent (but not perfect) tool to estimate future results at the NHL level, and maybe people are right that it's a debate that goes around in circles and gets everyone nowhere. But that same reality doesn't prevent Bill Nye from going on cable news shows and too-politely shouting down luddite idiots.

That's all the evidence you need that Corsi works. Depending on how you use it and narrow down the range down, it's an accurate predictor of playoff results about 70 percent of the time. Point to the outliers all you want — and those who don't want The Nerds to be right do this constantly — but you're pointing to the smaller number, and only the deeply stupid know that but don't care.

3. A series of falsehoods?

Which brings us to the actual substance of what Steve Simmons wrote. He led off his column with anecdotes about how Mikhail Grabovski was better than Jay McClement in such-and-such a game according to corsi. When he asked a "stats man" (who may or may not have been James Mirtle) why he and another colleague both felt McClement was better, the answer from this nameless man was, "Sample size." This was allegedly the same answer given during Game 1 of the first round last season, when the Leafs were buried by the Bruins, and James van Riemsdyk was supposedly the best Leaf on the ice according to both "the numbers" and "the eye test."

Tyler Dellow looked it up and found that the latter claim (that van Riemsdyk was the best Leaf according to corsi) was a complete falsehood. We can also go ahead and doubt the truthfulness of the quotes in either case, because no strawman stats man would answer "sample size" to childlike questions such as these. It's not an answer that actually applies to the query at all; a better answer would be "Because Grabovski/van Riemsdyk is a better hockey player than McClement/most other people on the Leafs."

Later in the column, Simmons attempted to disprove the usefulness of corsi by saying that if the Kings were so dominant at even strength (and boy, are they ever), then why was there a stretch of 16 games in which they scored just 19 goals? The answer to this question, according to SkinnyPhish, is that there wasn't. The fewest goals the Kings scored over any 16-game span this season was 24. That's still not a lot, but it's better. Let's put it this way: East coast bias or not, the hockey world would have been talking at length about the Kings' offense if they'd scored 19 goals in 16 games.

This also ignores the fact that Corsi doesn't have anything to do with shooting percentage, or that even if they had scored 19 in 16, which again they did not, it didn't really hurt them too badly because they made the playoffs with ease and in fact won 100 damn points this season. It further ignores that the Kings are in the Western Conference Final for the third (THIRD!!!!!!!) straight season, so they must be doing something right.

So that's at least two things Simmons was objectively incorrect —and potentially lied — about, and missed the point about besides. He may also have been wrong or missed the point of what his "stats man" said about the Leafs, but these are personal anecdotes that, fortunately for him, cannot be fact-checked with a web browser open to Hockey-Reference and Extra Skater.

4. So what's to be done?

Again, the problem with this "debate" is that there's nothing to do with it. Both sides are dug in. The people who support analytics aren't going to change their minds and go back to the other side, because they know they're right and have mountains of proof on their side, and can't be swayed back to the side of wrongness. That's really not how intellectual thought progresses.

The people who are skeptical or outright dismissive of analytics will either be won over by the growing evidence (this is what happened to me), or go to their stupid graves swearing they're right while that evidence and the growing numbers of people who accept them as more or less true know better. Self-satisfied bones in a box on their way to being literal fossils, after spending their years being figurative dinosaurs on the subject.

In the meantime, the sport will continue to pass them by, and their predictions will continue to be less accurate, and they'll feel more and more surrounded by Nerds With Calculators And Spreadsheets Who Don't Watch The Games. Because that's just how the games will be watched by everyone.

5. Sorry this had nothing to do with the Flames

When they unveiled the new AHL team the banners behind the guys spelled "CACA." That was funny.

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Yer ol' buddy Lambert is handsome and great and everyone loves him. Also you can visit his regular blog at The Two-Line Pass or follow him on Twitter. Lucky you!
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#51 coachedpotatoe
May 23 2014, 03:22PM
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BurningSensation wrote:

Yeah I see my suggestion for completing the rebuild now has a perfect score of 'everybody hates it' vs 'nobody likes it'.

Now I know how Lambert feels, without all the head injury clouding my judgement stuff.

So here is the thing, without adding a vet #1 C the Flames should improve enough next season (assuming Ramo isn't a dumpster fire) that they miss the playoffs, but not by a lot. At a minimum the Flames would still need two more years before they are competitive for a playoff spot - and that timeline depends a lot on how soon Monahan or Draisatl/Bennett develop into being a #1 pivot.

If we look at Matt Duchene (a top 3 pick) its taken him the better part of 5 years to become a front line player, and a similar timeline projection for Calgary puts our playoff contention at something like 4-5 years.

I have to tell you but there is no way, no way at all, that Burke is going to wait five years to make the playoffs.

You make some good points, the Flames would be a playoff team, but they clearly wouldn't be a powerhouse (unless Ramo really is the second coming of Pekka Rinne). As well, we woulld need to factor in what the cost of aquiring those vets (Staal, Phaneuf, etc.) would actually be.

But there are ery good reasons to act now (assuming the cost is right);

- GMs overvalue picks the closer we get to the draft. The best time to trade picks for a player is now. (smart GMs do the reverse at the trade deadline, flipping players for picks)

- For the first time in as long as I can remember, there are not 1, not 2, but potentially 3 #1Cs on the market (Spezza, Staal, Thornton). This means that bidding wars for any one of them are less likely.

- Calgary has a surfeit of picks, owning 5 in the first 3 rounds.

- There is virtually no chance that our pick in 2015 will be 1st or 2nd overall. So if we did move the 2015 1st we wouldn't be looking at Ottawa or Carolina selecting Connor McDavid with it.

Is Stastny not a number one center, who might be had via free agency. What do you think the cost would be for any of the 3 centers you mentioned? If you are going to make moves this year shore up the 3-5 positions on the back end and let the young forwards develop.

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#52 DragonFlame
May 23 2014, 07:25PM
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There is nothing wrong with advanced stats, but are they making you any money in Vegas?

Stats are stats and they work over the long-term, but in a best of seven, they don't take into consideration short-term, "hiccups."

Montreal's advanced stats (if I've read them correctly) were not great, but it didn't stop the Habs from upending the Bruins and Lightning, who were vastly superior (from a Corsi perspective).

Simply put, advanced stats are stats. The larger the sample size, the more accurate the information.

And just as I know my pocket aces should win the majority of the time, advanced stats cannot equate for the twenty times they got blown out of the water the last twenty six times I held them.

I don't bet on sports and rarely play poker, but I know enough about anomalies that I give them their due in the short-term.

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#53 DragonFlame
May 23 2014, 07:46PM
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And, by the way, Ryan, trolling or not . . .

Steve Simmons works for a MAJOR Canadian publication and you do not.

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#54 BurningSensation
May 23 2014, 10:10PM
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coachedpotatoe wrote:

Is Stastny not a number one center, who might be had via free agency. What do you think the cost would be for any of the 3 centers you mentioned? If you are going to make moves this year shore up the 3-5 positions on the back end and let the young forwards develop.

Re: Stastny as a #1

I'd have to say 'No', he's not really a #1.

The last time he had a contract year he had 79 points - and got PAID. Last year he had 60 points, also a contract year, and perhaps coincidentally, the best year he'd had since signing his last big deal.

Re: cost for Staal/Spezza

Likely our 2015 1st, a roster player (that might have to be a D-man in the case of Carolina), and a prospect.

Assume for arguments sake that the prospect is Baertschi, and that the roster player is Wideman, and that we get a pick back.

Erik Staal and a 2nd in 2015 for Wideman, Baetschi and our 2015 1st.

I'd do that.

Thornton because of his age, would likely cost less, either in terms of the prospect, or the necessity of it being a 1st.

Re: shoring up the back end

Totally agree. I hate to say it, but fleecing a desperate Toronto to get Phaneuf back for our 2nd unit D pairing would be a good fit. I just wish it was anybody but him.

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#55 wes
May 24 2014, 01:51AM
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Skuehler wrote:

So I know that I don't know jack about analytics. But what I don't understand is that beyond accepting and using it as one of the tools for assessment and decision making, how does it offer an advantage? You say all teams are using it. So yah you don't want to get left behind, but doing what everyone else is doing doesn't give you a competitive advantage. Advanced stats were an advantage when most teams didn't use them. So unless a particular team can translate the data better or dig deeper and obtain ultra-advanced stats it's not going to make a difference. Didn't AS come out of necessity where poor teams in baseball couldn't compete with the budgets of the bigger teams? I would argue that if anything, advanced stats for finding value (as opposed to skill) is not a top priority for the Flames right now. They have space and the means to pursue skill. Value is the least of their worries right now if the mandate is to compete. In a league with so much parity in access to assets, budgets, knowledge, scouting, skill level, it seems the only way to get an advantage is to focus on intangibles like work ethic, commitment, discipline, etc. you basically have the same assets and opportunities as everyone else so you basically have out work the opposition. I think a forward thinking team would have to be one or two steps ahead and working on new ways of developing advantages.

Look at how hockey has changed since 2004. The flames were successful against more skilled teams playing the trap by playing fast dump and chase aggressive forechecking hockey. Then possession teams were the way to go. But once everyone is playing possession hockey, what system will crack that and be the next successful advantage. And through all these different styles of hockey - fire wagon, trap, dump and chase, possession, on and on - what are the common denominators that all successful players have?

And another thing...at what point does the minutiae get tiresome? Will we have stats and debates on the advantages of 1.45 second toe drag vs. a 1.65 second toe drag? So glad Johnny Hockey is coming so we can excitedly watch amazing talent for what it is

People have enjoyed watching great hockey long before advanced stats were avail to fans. I agree they have a place in management but let's not blow it out of proportion.

I agree with so much of what you're saying but, blowing it out of proportion is really all we ever do here.

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#56 coachedpotatoe
May 24 2014, 07:20AM
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BurningSensation wrote:

Re: Stastny as a #1

I'd have to say 'No', he's not really a #1.

The last time he had a contract year he had 79 points - and got PAID. Last year he had 60 points, also a contract year, and perhaps coincidentally, the best year he'd had since signing his last big deal.

Re: cost for Staal/Spezza

Likely our 2015 1st, a roster player (that might have to be a D-man in the case of Carolina), and a prospect.

Assume for arguments sake that the prospect is Baertschi, and that the roster player is Wideman, and that we get a pick back.

Erik Staal and a 2nd in 2015 for Wideman, Baetschi and our 2015 1st.

I'd do that.

Thornton because of his age, would likely cost less, either in terms of the prospect, or the necessity of it being a 1st.

Re: shoring up the back end

Totally agree. I hate to say it, but fleecing a desperate Toronto to get Phaneuf back for our 2nd unit D pairing would be a good fit. I just wish it was anybody but him.

I hate the idea of giving up a 1st round draft pick. Next years draft seems at first glance to be much better than this years and while we all hope and believe that the Flames will be better next year there are no assurances and I would prefer to go younger than Spezza,Staal or Thorton(I don't think any of them get you into the playoffs by themselves) which is why I think we need to look at a Freeagent Stastny of a RFA like RoR.

I's stay away from Dion and seek one or two of the UFA defenders.

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#57 piscera.infada
May 24 2014, 10:20AM
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@BurningSensation

I'm sorry, but in my opinion, there's no amount of "fleecing" that can be done for Phaneuf at that price tag - even if it's for one seventh rounder. He's horrible in his own zone, watch it some time. He also runs completely contra the workman-like, meritocracy this team is trying to cultivate. So no thank you.

For once, I very much agree with @coachedpotatoe. I'm not sure any of Spezza, Thornton, or Phaneuf make the team appreciably better in the long-term. Sure, maybe you get a bump for a season or two, but by the time those players are fading into obscurity (and the Flames are try to hopefully become contenders) the draft pick we gave up for them would likely be ready to contribute. I feel the same about Statsny though. He's not a game-changer in his own right, so I'm not going to give him the pay-day he likely believes he deserves. ROR would be an interested proposal if his rights could be had on the cheap - but that's never going to happen - and I have to think that (again) the contract he'd be due would be more of a hindrance in the long run.

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#58 coachedpotatoe
May 24 2014, 11:03AM
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piscera.infada wrote:

I'm sorry, but in my opinion, there's no amount of "fleecing" that can be done for Phaneuf at that price tag - even if it's for one seventh rounder. He's horrible in his own zone, watch it some time. He also runs completely contra the workman-like, meritocracy this team is trying to cultivate. So no thank you.

For once, I very much agree with @coachedpotatoe. I'm not sure any of Spezza, Thornton, or Phaneuf make the team appreciably better in the long-term. Sure, maybe you get a bump for a season or two, but by the time those players are fading into obscurity (and the Flames are try to hopefully become contenders) the draft pick we gave up for them would likely be ready to contribute. I feel the same about Statsny though. He's not a game-changer in his own right, so I'm not going to give him the pay-day he likely believes he deserves. ROR would be an interested proposal if his rights could be had on the cheap - but that's never going to happen - and I have to think that (again) the contract he'd be due would be more of a hindrance in the long run.

While I keep mentioning Stastny it's not that I'm stuck on him but I prefer the idea of a 28/29 year old UFA rather than trading for an older version that will cost us prospects. My real preference would be to start the year with what we have and add via the draft up front.( we need to assess and see what we have in Johnny, Sven,Granlund, Poirier, Rhino,Ferland plus or first rounder this year) I believe we need to address the 3-5 spot on the backend via either a trade or my preference a UFA signing or two. Make some changes this year, develop what we have and make bolder moves next year.

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#59 BurningSensation
May 24 2014, 12:33PM
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coachedpotatoe wrote:

I hate the idea of giving up a 1st round draft pick. Next years draft seems at first glance to be much better than this years and while we all hope and believe that the Flames will be better next year there are no assurances and I would prefer to go younger than Spezza,Staal or Thorton(I don't think any of them get you into the playoffs by themselves) which is why I think we need to look at a Freeagent Stastny of a RFA like RoR.

I's stay away from Dion and seek one or two of the UFA defenders.

Unfortunately, there aren't any #1C caliber guys on the market who are in the 22-27 range - those guys NEVER get traded, with the only two exception in the last 20 years: Joe Thornton to SJ, and Tyler Seguin to Dal. Basically you need Boston to screw up and deal a guy they shouldn't, or they are never available.

I do think that with the additions of a legit #1C, re-signing Cammalleri (to be our #1RW), and at least one defenseman, we'd be playoff bound.

Stastny would be a nice aquisition, but;

A. I highly doubt he is interested in Calgary B. He will command #1C $, but never produce like a #1C C. 1 good year for every three mediocre years is not a good trend.

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#60 BurningSensation
May 24 2014, 12:49PM
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piscera.infada wrote:

I'm sorry, but in my opinion, there's no amount of "fleecing" that can be done for Phaneuf at that price tag - even if it's for one seventh rounder. He's horrible in his own zone, watch it some time. He also runs completely contra the workman-like, meritocracy this team is trying to cultivate. So no thank you.

For once, I very much agree with @coachedpotatoe. I'm not sure any of Spezza, Thornton, or Phaneuf make the team appreciably better in the long-term. Sure, maybe you get a bump for a season or two, but by the time those players are fading into obscurity (and the Flames are try to hopefully become contenders) the draft pick we gave up for them would likely be ready to contribute. I feel the same about Statsny though. He's not a game-changer in his own right, so I'm not going to give him the pay-day he likely believes he deserves. ROR would be an interested proposal if his rights could be had on the cheap - but that's never going to happen - and I have to think that (again) the contract he'd be due would be more of a hindrance in the long run.

The thing with Phaneuf is he is completely miscast in Toronto, to the point where even Toronto can see it now.

He is simply not a top pairing. He isn't good enough to play 20+min a night, and should be used in a 2nd pairing/1st PP unit role that would exploit his strengths and minimize his weaknesses. It's not an accident that Dion's best season was when he was playing lower down the roster.

I admit I break out in hives, but he's the perfect guy to bring in, in part because his contract is so stupid - it means that the cost of aquiring him will be less than if we were trying to get a guy on a value deal.

As for Staal / Spezza, I have to disagree. They would make us appreciably better in the short term (enough that I believe we would make the playoffs), but their real value would lie in pushing the kids (Backlund/Monahan/Arnold, etc.) down the depth chart into spots that are much more reasonable for them to be playing in.

By the time a Staal / Spezza starts to decline, the kids would be ready to push them out anyways.

Good teams have a seamless transition between talents, but as it stands we don't have anyone to protect our young C's from being overexposed early in their careers. It therefore makes good sense in the short AND the long term, to invest in a #1 C.

Yeah, trading the 2015 first would pinch, but the chances are that 1st would be outside the top 10, a price I could live with.

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#61 piscera.infada
May 24 2014, 12:58PM
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@BurningSensation

I can appreciate the centre thought, I really can. But, either of those guys is going to be massive overpay. And further to your point above, I don't see Staal as a legitimate first line C. With Phaneuf, 7 years at 7 million per (starting in the upcoming season). Just no way, no freakin' way. That's not second pairing dollars (or term, for that matter) - you, I, and everyone knows it. Regardless of how much actual cap-space we have at the moment, that's horrible cap management. You can't expect to succeed in the cap-era with that kind of an overpayment, you simply can't. Oddly enough, I'm not a huge crazy salary cap ideologue, but that is something that you simply can't do - even from my perspective.

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#62 BurningSensation
May 24 2014, 01:14PM
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piscera.infada wrote:

I can appreciate the centre thought, I really can. But, either of those guys is going to be massive overpay. And further to your point above, I don't see Staal as a legitimate first line C. With Phaneuf, 7 years at 7 million per (starting in the upcoming season). Just no way, no freakin' way. That's not second pairing dollars (or term, for that matter) - you, I, and everyone knows it. Regardless of how much actual cap-space we have at the moment, that's horrible cap management. You can't expect to succeed in the cap-era with that kind of an overpayment, you simply can't. Oddly enough, I'm not a huge crazy salary cap ideologue, but that is something that you simply can't do - even from my perspective.

Staal is a completely legit #1C, his numbers since his 100pt season have held steady at just under a ppg.. Not sure why you wouldn't like him in that role.

As for Phaneuf, I actually agree with all the criticism. He is one of my most despised players, BUT, because he is way overpaid, he can be acquired more cheaply than otherwise (say, a 2nd and a 3rd rnd pick).

Freaking out about the cap would be justified if we were actually in any kind of trouble. But we have the opposite problem where we need to acquire salary just to reach the cap floor.

Yes, in the long run Phaneuf's contract becomes an anvil, but that is the kind of problem you worry about when you have too many assets to pay properly - something that is a long way off for us.

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#63 coachedpotatoe
May 24 2014, 08:27PM
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BurningSensation wrote:

Staal is a completely legit #1C, his numbers since his 100pt season have held steady at just under a ppg.. Not sure why you wouldn't like him in that role.

As for Phaneuf, I actually agree with all the criticism. He is one of my most despised players, BUT, because he is way overpaid, he can be acquired more cheaply than otherwise (say, a 2nd and a 3rd rnd pick).

Freaking out about the cap would be justified if we were actually in any kind of trouble. But we have the opposite problem where we need to acquire salary just to reach the cap floor.

Yes, in the long run Phaneuf's contract becomes an anvil, but that is the kind of problem you worry about when you have too many assets to pay properly - something that is a long way off for us.

The debate between Staal, Spezza and Stastny is interesting. All three had around 60 points last year, all paid $7 million or more and Stastny is the youngest. The big difference is size and the cost of acquisition of each.

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#64 Baalzamon
May 24 2014, 10:27PM
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@coachedpotatoe

All three had around 60 points last year, all paid $7 million or more and Stastny is the youngest.

Barely.

Frankly, I don't think any of them helps the Flames enough, for long enough, to be worth acquiring.

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#65 Johnny Be Gaudreau
May 25 2014, 02:06PM
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Funnily enough the only thing I could think of to respond to Simmonds the other day was the following.

"I hope Steve Simmonds gets really sick from rare and degenerative bug. I hope that when he goes to the doctor the doctor tells him hey Steve Simmonds I have this new drug that will probably cure you. It's called Jay McClemment it has worked on one patient in the past. You should know, however, it was only tested on a very small sample size, however, I know sample size doesn't matter to you so here you go. Take this 2x daily. I hope that drug then consequently turns his skin bright purple and he has to walk around with the shame of being scientifically illiterate readily apparent for the rest of his life."

Sample Size Matters in All Sciences.

STFU Steve Simmonds you Troll Twat.

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#66 DragonFlame
May 26 2014, 07:26PM
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I am not sure why so many people are in such a rush to bring aboard an aging (and over-priced) veteran to this team.

Yeah, yeah yeah . . . we finished 27th over-all, but, "just look at our record since January 18th!"

Who cares!

The Flames quite likely caught any number of teams off-guard with their work ethic last season, and who's to say teams are going to take Calgary so lightly next season?

Secondly, we have veterans here who bought into what Hartley and his staff were trying to accomplish: Giordano, Stajan, Hudler, and even McGratton (whose on-ice performances may not live up to his off-ice leadership, but I believe he's a valued member in the dressing room).

Bring in any of the players mentioned (and why would they want to come here, unless we grossly over-pay them), the Flames could lose much of the team chemistry they worked so hard to build post-Jarome.

Relax, folks.

The Flames are in no position to trade young assets for aging vets right now. In fact, they aren't even close. They've managed to successfully take the first step in the re-build and I honestly can't see how adding any of the players mentioned (aside from maybe Stastny, who will still cost an arm and a leg) will help the Flames over the long-term. Allow the vets that are already here (the one's who bought into Bob Hartley's program) to tutor the young kids coming in and teach them how to be pros.

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