Be Less Wrong



Cam Charron pointed out an interesting article by Sabrematrician Phil Birnbaum yesterday entitled Eliminating Stupidity is easier than creating brilliance; a statement I think is pertinent to the state of hockey analysis in general and to the Flames moving forward in particular.

I’ve thought for awhile now that the term "advanced stats" is a bit of a misnomer given how relatively simple most corsi-based math really is: adding and subtracting, means and modes. While we can test the relevancy of these metrics with correlation coefficents and such, no one needs a graphing calculator or a stats degree to calculate or understand any of the basic, fundamental stuff.

I think there have been major strides made in terms of the math since I started writing about hockey in 2006, but I also understand there is a great deal that remains poorly understood. We’re not necessarily approaching a paradigmatic shift where a collection of stats will empower us to conculsively model each season (the future is always subject to a bit of chaos), so instead of fumbling towards perfection, the true goal of stuff like this is just to be less and less wrong over time. Or, in the spirit of Birnbaum’s article, less stupid.

To that end, hockey analysis has made a few major discoveries over the last few years that can help decision makers avoid stepping on landmines.

1.) Possession/outshooting correlates with outscoring over the long-term.

2.) Percentages tend to vary around the mean wildly, meaning variance has undue influence over save rates and shooting percentages over relatively small samples.

There are details, clauses and caveats attached to those two main issues, but overall one could conceivably avoid many of the major missteps we see NHL GM’s frequently make in their player acquisition with those principles in mind. If every NHL executive understood and respected regression to the mean, for instance, Im guessing it would save NHL owners many millions of dollars every summer.

There are a few other pretty simple principles that have arisen from modern analysis: don’t take a goalie in the first round, don’t have faith in "clutch" (or not-clutch) performances in small sample sizes, stop assuming toughness absent ability has any value on the ice, and respect the fact that performance peaks in the mid-20’s and almost always drops off precipitously after 35. Also, understand how hard goalies are to predict and how fungible puckstopping is as a commodity on the market (outside of the few established, elite options).


What rules of player acquisition do we get out of the above?

1.) Collect as many guys who can drive the puck into the offensive zone (and keep it there) as possible.

2.) Be suspicious of any output or performance that resulted from a spike in percentages.

3.) Avoid goons and ruffians who can’t play at the NHL level.

4.) Stack your roster with players in the 23-28 age range as possible. Conversely, limit risk in the 35+ age range.

5.) Concentrate on skaters (especially forwards) early in the draft.

6.) Goalies are voodoo. Limit risk by having organizational redundancy and buying cheap goaltending unless you can sign, say, Henrik Lundqvist.

That’s about it. You can color inside the lines a bit depending on circumstances and market fluctuations, but those are the broad strokes.

Which brings us to the Calgary Flames. The organization has spent a lot of time stepping on landmines (some detailed here) since about 2008 and the cumulative effect has been to blunder headlong into a rebuild, engaged in out of necessity when the iceberg proved impossible to avoid. The team may be entering the 2013 off-season with a gaggle of first round picks and scads of cap room, but they have limited opportunity to meaningfully improve the club in the short-term. Therefore, the goal for the org should simply be to keep its powder dry (no clever flood reference pun intended). 

The Flames don’t have to do anything especially clever this summer since they are a poor bet to win anything next season anyways. Instead, the primary objective should be to not be dumb – to avoid any obvious mistakes like signing Bryan Bickell for $4.5M a year or picking goalie Zach Fucale at 22. Building a great roster is about hitting homeruns here and there, but also about taking the walk once in awhile. A lot of teams with money and failing fortunes waste their time going white whale hunting in the off-season which ends up being a waste of time at best.

Consider, for example, the Oilers ill-fated quests for Danny Heatley, Marian Hossa and Tomas Vanek a few years ago as they were bottoming out. During the same time frame, they allowed Curtis Glencross and Kyle Brodziak to walk while retaining Zack Stortini. They were too centered on making a big splash than simply not being dumb.

My hope for the Flames in the immediate future is that the management group simply gets the basic stuff right. Sign Brodie and Backlund to good deals, take high-end skaters with their first round picks. Don’t chase after the flavor of the month during free agency, target players who advance play and won’t cost an arm and a leg.

This way, Calgary can improve their prospect base considerably, avoid tying themselves to any unnecessarily long or expensive new deals and position themselves opportunistically in the market with their cap space and big budget.

  • Cowtown 1989

    Sports is, and will always be a distraction from our everyday lives. It is nice to come to this site and escape. My thoughts and prayers are with all of those affected. Be strong Calgary and area.

    Torts boarding a plane on his way to Vancouver according to a tweet from a NHL fan in an airport.

    • beloch

      Well, it’s certainly changed since last season started, and it’s changed earlier this off-season than anyone expected with the addition of Corban Knight. If nothing else, the fact that Feaster has finally admitted the team is in a rebuild means we might finally see some forward-looking moves.

      The Flames have a small group of up and coming rookies and a lot of players over 28 who are going to decline before this team is truly competitive again. Giordano, Hudler, Stajan, Tanguay, Cammalleri, and Wideman are all good players with considerable value. Trading them all is a recipe for tanking next season, which might not be in the org’s road-plan. However, some of these guys need to be traded before their value declines too far. Moving Tanguay this summer should be a priority.

      • please cancel acct

        Couldn’t agree more about those 28+ group. Valuable now but will be declining or fully declined once the rebuild gets traction. Trade em now. I like the concept of a top 5 pick next year, so it all works good if the team has patience and the balls to do it.

      • please cancel acct

        I agree with you beloch.

        I also believe that there will be many suitors come calling when Calgary pick’s at 22.and just hope that our management group get’s a deal that’s in our favour, that doesn’t include a gamble.

    • I haven’t seen any evidence that defenders differ from forwards in terms of average peak production age.

      You’re right that output doesn’t necessarily = performance, but the issue for managers who are buying players via trade or free agency is how much past offense often influences purchasing decisions and prices.

      Take Calgary’s recent contract to Dennis Wideman, for example. The high $/year is mostly predicated on his ability to put up points (anchored by a 50-point season when he was 26), but there’s significant risk since it stretches into his mid-30’s years.

  • MC Hockey

    Great rules to follow Kent, hope the Flames consider them but I worry an ex-Lightning player from the 2004 Cup-winning team like BR or VL suddenly lands here somehow! I would rather see some UFA around 25-27 who has upside in the C, LW, or D position to be signed, but worry something silly happens

  • please cancel acct

    Interesting read Kent! It will be interesting to see where Feaster’s mind is at compared to Lowe’s at the same time of their teams development. I agree wholeheartedly that the Flames should not be trying to chase down the big names in place of building a solid foundation right now. Even if the Flames land those players it will take away precious development time for players like Baertschi! See Paajarvi!

  • Where's Your Towel

    I can only hope that Jay Feaster doesn’t take your advice as it is quite sound.

    In all seriousness, I hope the Oilers beat the Flames every time they play, but not that the Flames are terrible. Where’s the fun in that?

    I’m hoping all my fellow Calgarians are safe and dry today. Calgary is a pretty great place, even if the Flames are eminently hate-worthy. 🙂

  • Wizard22

    What value do Corsi/possession numbers put on experience and character? Say a Gary Robert type player wanted to finish hia career in CGY would he not be a valuable person to have around Sven. Max.etc

    Or do you insist on a younger player? I say at thia point in the rebuild you take the older character player on a one yr contract until some of the younger players develop.