During the intermissions of last night’s 3-1 victory over the Stars, the Sportsnet panel discussed the reasons for the Flames success over the past month or so. Their conclusion was more or less that the defence had improved, which in turn, allowed Brian Elliott to become a better goalie. They also made sure to mention that the Flames were a perfect 9-0-0 with Michael Stone in the lineup. It was quite ridiculous.
As we saw with Garnet Hathaway earlier in the season, there is a near-superstitious drive to attribute the Flames’ wins or losses to one player regardless of their actual contribution on the ice. Hathaway was being praised for merely existing on ice while the team was winning, disregarding his five points in 26 games and average 5v5 icetime of just under nine minutes. This narrative also overshadowed the fact that it was really the 3M line being put together and Chad Johnson playing out of his mind that drove the Flames’ wins. Since being sent down to Stockton, the Flames are 11-1-0, perhaps because his performances and usage were so minor that they really never had an impact on the team’s ability to win or lose a game.
Now, the same narrative is being used with Michael Stone. His presence in the lineup during a winning streak (mostly fueled by Brian Elliott, 13-23-79 being assembled and being a functioning line, and 3M+27-5 being the best five man unit in the league) was the reason for the win streak and not just a correlation.
The argument, on the surface, appears to hold water. Stone is actually being used as a key player, slotting beside TJ Brodie in the top four. If the team placed him in a key spot in the lineup, and the team started winning, there must be some connection, right?
The blind test
Our perceptions of players are, no doubt, influenced by cognitive biases. Some of these are absolutely rational. For example, whipping boy Dennis Wideman gets paid way too much and has been frustrating to watch for the better part of two consecutive seasons. Along with the perceived Wideman Effect and his generally unspectacular play, it is easy and understandable as to why people don’t want him in the lineup.
Conversely, it is easy to understand why people like Stone. He’s new, young-ish, and a cheap acquisition price and cap hit. By these categories, he is the anti-Wideman, which is the thing he has going for him the most. Not being Dennis Wideman is an easy way to get a Flames fan to like a player. You can probably put a bag of hair or a stick of deodorant in the 4D spot and people will be happy.
But what really matters is the results. Say what you want about the bag of hair, if it doesn’t actually improve the team on-ice, the praise is unearned. Our task is to remove said biases from the discussion, and look at this from a neutral, results-focused perspective.
Here’s a table with the Flames’ bottom six defenders and their stats. Your job is to try and guess who is who.
All data from corsica.hockey
There’s a few general conclusions we can grab from this. Players A and C aren’t great, but they’re good, which is what you need from the bottom six. Players B, D, E, and F are all varying shades of the same crap. B and F are slightly better than D and E, but still not as good as A and C.
Let’s complicate this a bit more. Of those six unnamed players above, three of them played with TJ Brodie on the second pairing. Here’s a blind test for their stats.
Again, general observations. Pairing A is not great, neither is pairing C, and pairing B is just okay. Neither option is preferable, but one is better than the others.
Results! For quiz #1, the answers were: Wideman for A, Deryk Engelland for B, Brett Kulak for C, Jyrki Jokkipakka for D, Matt Bartkowski for E, and Michael Stone for F. For quiz #2, A is Brodie-Engelland, B is Brodie-Wideman, and C is Brodie-Stone.
Based on possession results, Dennis Wideman was actually better than Michael Stone, which was a surprise to me too. It very much appears that Wideman was, at the very least, a manageable player sunk by PDO while Stone is the opposite. In the long term, Stone is less likely to be this final piece for the Flames and more likely to be a liability.
This is nearly exactly what people were saying about Wideman in the 2014-15 playoff run season. All numbers suggested that his suddenly improved performance was not likely going to be sustained, and it wasn’t. He was the same old defensive liability Dennis Wideman.
So why does it matter?
The purpose of this post is not to put a wet blanket on the Flames, nor is it a call to put Wideman back in the lineup (heavens no). There is nothing the Flames could do, or should do, to fix the defence, mostly because no option will actually make a major improvement for the final stretch of the season.
It’s a warning for the future. When management decided that Wideman needed to be replaced, they made a judgement based on PDO. Who’s to say that they won’t make a similar decision about re-signing Michael Stone when better options exist?
In the long run, Stone will not be a solution. Winning should not cloud the real problems with Stone, because he’s much more likely to turn into another Wideman than be a Wideman replacement.