Asking the Right Questions – Content Over Style



In previous entries in this series, we’ve discussed how GM’s and coaches can fall victim to certain fallacies that result in bad decision paths. In part one, we looked at mistaking correlation for causation in small sample sizes and fabricating narratives to explain randomness. In part two, the topic was overly weighting the effect of vague, unquantifiable factors in players and teams. 

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I want to expand on that latter point this time around to cover how player categorization plus qualitative scouting reports can lead folks sometimes to value style over content.

One of the reasons I began to use advanced stats to evaluate players years ago is I found many of the conventional methods didn’t really tell me anything. Let’s take a look at a couple of standard (but hypothetical) scouting reports that lists all of a guys apparently strengths and weaknesses:

Player X

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  • Big body who hits hard and is strong on his skates
  • Relatively quick stride and good acceleration
  • Average offensive acumen and puckhandling
  • Good defensive awareness
  • Unafraid to block shots and defend teammates

Player Y

  • Smallish guy but with low center of gravity who can keep up with physical play
  • Agile with good escapability
  • Good puck handling and quick release
  • Decent defensive awareness, although tends to cheat for offense

Etc, etc. you get the idea.

There seems to be a lot of information there. Most hockey fans could probably construct a reasonable vision of the guys in question just based on those few bullet points. Naturally, the subsequent evaluation of them as potentially useful players will depend on the evaluators own preferences, perception of team needs, etc.

Here’s the issue: the above is primarily a description of the style of game each guy plays which is not necessarily indicative of how effective he is at providing value on the ice. It’s kind of like asking how fast a car can accelerate from 0-60 and getting a laundry list of it’s various qualities and specifications (such as wheel size, interior space, color, engine size, transmission type) in response. There might be suggestions and clues buried within the descriptors, but the question remains largely unanswered.

Because no one is perfect, positive and negative scouting reports can be constructed about the same guy and be completely accurate. Jay Bouwmeester is big defender with huge, fluid strides who can glide effortlessly around the ice. He can play on both special team units, he makes incisive headman passes and is one of the most durable athletes in the league. He is also far less physical than one would expect of someone who stands 6’4", is sometimes prone to give-aways in his own zone when pressured and has a below average shot from the point.

So…based on those competing descriptions: is Jay Bouwmeester a useful player?

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Of course, the answer depends on the proportion to which his strengths stand to his weaknesses; in how the sum is constructed from those disparate parts. Two of the most dominant all-around players in the modern era are Pavel Datsyuk and Nik Lidstrom. Neither guy is overly big or physical or known for blocking shots or dropping the gloves. You cold build an intimidating list of the conventional hockey areas/tools which both guys lack. What they do, though, is essential – drive the play. When Datsyuk and Listrom are on the ice, their team outshoots and outscores the bad guys by a wide margin, which is why Detroit wins so often. 

The Red Wings pair does it with puck skills and smarts. Some guys, though, employ a mix of strength and physicality others have great shots or are blindingly fast. There are various ways to skin the cat and what ultimately matters, of course, is that the cat gets skinned.


Which isn’t to say a players physical tools, assets or shortcomings should be wholly ignored, just that his outcomes are ultimately more important. It’s valuable to know how a guy gets around the ice just as long as that doesn’t obscure where he’s going, if you catch my drift.

One area I think where the focus on player qualities over player outcomes can muddle things is in team building, specifically when it comes to player categorization, ie; "roles" on a club. For example, NHL teams primarily employ bigger, tougher players in their bottom six forward rotation, especially when it comes to the the 4th unit. This is often an area where folks stop asking pertinent questions (can this guy outplay his opponents? Does he drive goal differential?) are instead start focusing on particular qualities (is he big? Is he mean? Can he fight?). This is how a person decides, for instance, to buy out Nigel Dawes after a 15-goal season only to to sign Raitis Ivanans.

Again, this is not to say being big and tough is bad or that tough guys can’t be useful – instead, the issue is that being tough also doesn’t necessarily mean a player has any value. Being tough is merely a potential asset, a tool that has utility only insofar as it helps drive play, goals etc. If a guy is big and can hit but bleeds shots and goals against because he’s completely miserable at everything else, then he is a liability. And deploying liabilities because their scouting report coincides with a conventional role or category is ineffective.

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To put it more plainly: toughness for the sake of toughness is dumb. 

Content Before Style

This error can be replicated in other ways. For example, a team with a slower, less skilled defender corps might decide it needs more mobility on the back-end and so will pursue players whose scouting reports list those assets. Of course, there are plenty of defenders who can skate but can’t sufficiently advance play. The error is looking at a team in aggregate and deciding it needs more of "positive quality X" and that acquiring a player with "quality X" will be like adding some salt to a bland pot of stew.

Again, it doesn’t matter as much if a guy can skate: it matters if he puts that skill to use in a meaningful fashion. Otherwise he’ll likely be detrimental even if it seems the club could really use some speed. It’s not wrong to desire a mix of qualities or to try to build a team with a balance of abilities. But those concerns should ultimately be subordinate to the question of how effective a guy is at driving possession and goal differential.

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  • RexLibris

    Great article and easy to understand.

    I was always surprised no one else ever picked up Dawes. What’s your evaluation of his overall game? I thought he could outplay most other team’s 3rd lines and certainly 4th lines.

  • Have you ever played against someone who is tough? How about just physically dominate?

    Driving the play is a great statistic to look at and it is very important, but there are intangibles in every game that you can’t explain with statistics. When you play against someone who is physically intimidating, it changes the way you play. Having someone on your team can also allow you to play with more confidence.

    Dave Semenko didn’t drive play, score goals or really do anything statistics will show other than pim’s. But ask any oiler in that era and they will all say he was an integral part of that team and allowed players like Gretzky and Kurri to utilize their skill.

    All I am saying, don’t discount toughness. Statistics do not tell the whole story.

    • If the intangibles were bankable, they wouldn’t be intangibles. I think stats DO tell the whole story, at least as far as what a GM can encompass in his plans. Intangibles like locker-room-whatever and mental toughness are the sort of things that you just have to cross your fingers and pray for.

    • Parallex

      But they do (or rather can) tell the whole story. It’s pretty easy actually, just make a determination on what wins games and then measure whether that person actively contributes to whatever that is.

      Frankly, I don’t buy that Dave Semenko was an integral part of the early Oiler dynasty success. It’s not like they didn’t go on to win the cup in three of the next 4 years.

    • Can you prove any of these assumed benefits? Or is it all anecdote and bald assertion?

      Here’s the problem with consigning something as “beyond the stats” – the claim that it has positive effects become articles of faith because by categorizing it as an “intangible” you are essentially saying that no evidence exists (and you need no evidence) to prove their efficacy.

      I’m completely open to admitting “toughness” has some or all of the benefits you suggest. But I’d prefer those who say so had more than convention and dusty stories to prove it.

  • RexLibris

    If you’re tough, you win battles offensively, or are able to get more puck touches in front of the net. That leads to winning puck possession and creating shots. If you’re tough, and that translates to defensive won battles, blocked shots, or good hits that dislodge the puck, that takes the puck away from the opponent that could prevent a shot or possession for the other team.

    Toughness/physical play does factor into “driving the play.” I think trying to pretend it’s something else that gets away from the core of the game, essentially is a negative against whatever element you’re advocating for.

    There’s nothing wrong with being tough and good in the physical game, it is a significant positive for a player. However if it their ONLY positive is where you really need to question their overall value.

  • redricardo

    So someone who is tough, or has other intangibles will possibly be able to drive the play. This will reflect positively in their corsi rates, advanced stats, whatever.

    They also may just be tough, and not be able to do very much with that toughness as far as possession. Like a Brashear.

    So, instead of looking at those intangibles, just look at the stats. Numbers tell the story. If you want to try to get more advanced from there, I guess you could. Would you rather have a Lucic who drives the play and is physically dominating, or a Datsyuk who drives the play without being physically dominating? Does it make a difference as long as the play is in the bad guys end?

    I guess what I’m saying is instead of taking the approach of “He’s tough, and that’s why he gets results”, why can’t you just look at the numbers and say “He gets results. Good”. Why assign qualitative reasons to quantitative results?

  • RexLibris

    Great article Kent. I think you and I would agree on quite a few points when it came to team-building and valuing assets, even though we may come to that agreement by divergent paths.

    Such a shame you cheer for the wrong team.


  • @kent
    You got me. I don’t know stats, I don’t even know what corsi means. Can I give you stats to prove my point… No, not at all. I don’t even care enough to go research it. Stats are for economists and bloggers.. That’s why your not a nhl coach and daryl sutter is. And he’s winning.

    All I can say is when I played, it was great having a tough guy on the team. It added to your confidence when the battle really got going. That’s why most nhl teams still employ a some sort of “tough” player.

    There is obviously a reason guys like semenko, tim hunter, dale hunter, ron stern, sandy mcarthy, bob probert, tie domi, etc have had jobs for years. Its because guys who play the game know their value. But your arguement tends to paint a picture that nhl people don’t know anything and that they should listen to your stats to build teams.

    Your asking me to defend my point using stats, when my arguement is stats don’t tell the whole story. Things like team work, chemistry, etc cannot be given a statistic value. Can you show me stats that show that you love your wife? No, its a feeling. And like sports, positive emotion and confidence level are a major reason teams win.

    Which team has the best corsi this year? And how are they doing so far in the playoffs?

  • MC Hockey

    Hi Kent and all, First, nice article Kent. Great example you gave as I never understood buying out Dawes when he helped give us a 3rd line that could score and out chance and outplay the opposition, I think beside Moss and someone else on the line (Glenny?) it was a trio with chemistry as well so why did it get busted up by Dutter? Because big guys are automatically better checkers that take the puck away from other teams? I think that is silly because skill on lines 3 and 4 means more goals for by that line as you more eloquently said! There is some value to size as Gussey says but only if accompanied by skill…like Lucic or Franzen or eve checkers like Brian Boyle, etc who have some skill to go with their into ideation factor.