Humble Beginnings, and Critical Player Evaluation

The creator of this fine blog, Kent Wilson, has kindly invited me to contribute some content to this site. It's an honor and pleasure to do so. I go by the alias R O although you may call me Richard if you prefer. I've been a Flames fan for a while but only within the last season have I come to understand the game more deeply than "he shoot he score" and "oh what a save". Let me show you what I mean.

I love reading fiction, so every day I visit HFBoards to get the latest predictions on who will score how much, which team will win and in what quantities. But as our grade school teachers taught us, there are five W's and the most important, as one learns in life, is "why?" (followed closely by the W's bastard son "how?"). Therein lies the amusement and bemusement.

If opinions are like assholes then some hockey opinions have dingleberries on them. A lot of bold proclamations are left unsupported and unresearched, sometimes it feels like you're debating politics. Except hockey as a concept is a lot simpler than politics.

When it comes to evaluating a player's worth to a team there needs to be a distinction between how he helps you win hockey games and then everything else. And believe me "everything else" isn't chopped liver and we Flames fans are living proof. Our team has awesome character guys like Iginla and Regehr and that is extremely important to us as fans. Our foes on the west coast are riddled with douchebags like Luongo and the Sedins and that is also extremely relevant to us as rival fans.

But when it comes to the winning of the games, it's actually quite simple how: score more goals. So a player who helps you win helps you score more goals. We have some tools to measure this, they're not perfect but they do fine when applied with care. All those intangibles like leadership, grit, heart, clutchiosity and momentum - they most certainly exist but unless they contribute to the tangible goal of outscoring, then what good are they in helping the team win?

Let me make this clear: I do believe in some of these concepts, grit and heart especially. I think they contribute to outscoring, the thing is I have no idea how. And I don't care, I don't concern myself with this particular "how" because I'm not aiming to become an outscorer. I'm aiming to measure it, and trying to measure the immeasurable is a fool's errand.

And I think that's where a lot of fans go astray. It's very easy and not at all wrong to be inspired by the intangibles: your local playoff hero(es) leading you to a Cup/Finals berth/Game 7 OT win/first playoff berth in 10 years. It's a lot more compelling than shots for minus shots against that's for sure. But no one has yet come up with a clutch/60 metric and until they do we're all going to argue past each other about how these things contribute to winning, and even more tediously, how our favorite players rank on this scale. Better stick to what we know, y'know?

And what do we know?

Roughly, I could probably summarize my knowledge of hockey, in very broad brushstrokes, like so:

  1. You win by outscoring the opponent.
  2. Scoring chances lead to scoring.

Simple no? From this you can derive all sorts of ideas like quality of competition and quality of teammates (i.e. the best players outscore the most, it's easier to outscore when you're playing with good players and against bad players). If you accept a slight assumption that scoring chances are easier to come by the closer you are to the opposing net, you can derive the ideas of possession and where the coach tells you to start your shifts matters.

Once you accept that performance is measurable and context can be applied to it, the rest is just figuring out how to do that. I liken this to taking the red pill in the Matrix: once you do that all you gotta do is learn Kung Fu and shit. It's not easy but it's fun and at the end of the day, you have a fuller understanding of how things work.

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Which leads me to some specific Flames-related analysis. I direct your attention, regrettably, to various opinions on our esteemed Jay Bouwmeester:

http://hfboards.com/showthread.php?t=674431

Quite a few, erm, unkind opinions about him. Random shit mostly about Bouwmeester being 11th in Norris voting once and never in the playoffs, unsubstantiated claims about locker room presence and general lack of "elite-ness", which, as enlightened fans, means a lack of ability to help outscore. The rejoinders are equally uninspired - a lot of emoticons and other Internet attention-diverting devices without much in the way of reasoned argument.

Having not seen the guy play more than a game or two, I investigate. By Corsi, Bouwmeester was shit. 2nd worst among D, the only guy worse was his regular D partner Skrastins (I haven't confirm this but they are the closest in terms of high-event-ness - that can't be a coincidence). By the way, ignore Eminger, he only played 9 games with the Panthers so his numbers really skew things to shit.

Time to look at QualComp. Bouwmeester faced the toughest comp and did so with Skrastins. The QualComp metric is a little flawed as it relies on +/- but the problems aren't nearly as bad as the current QualTeam metric.

Time to look at shift starts. Bouwmeester was tapped by the coach 161 more times for the defensive zone starts than offensive zone starts. The guy closest to him was Skrastins at 116. That's a lot.

We could apply JLikens' method to correct the Corsi for this (ignoring Eminger). Bouwmeester rockets up to 3rd (out of 6) among Dmen, behind Ballard and Boynton, both of whom play against weaklings. Skrastins is 5th.

And just in case you were entertaining the notion that Skrastins was the guy driving the bus, Bouwmeester did this all of the previous season, and I believe Bryan Allen was his regular partner (again can't confirm this 100% but going off of their shared metrics).

Bouwmeester appears to be the real deal. Performance with context applied suggests that he is a very very good defenceman who was on a very very bad team. At this point I really just wish the Florida goaltenders were poorer so that we could've killed his counting numbers more and gotten him for cheaper. But he's worth it.

And that's how I evaluate players.

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