You’d like to think that, on some level, the sport of hockey is moving inexorably towards self-awareness. There’s a gradual acceptance of not just advanced stats, but of basic critical analysis and dedication to evidence. The league has pushed for more and more parity, and so to such a level of competition that teams must find any edge they can – even if that means using logic and predictive analysis. But this week was a reminder that most of what you can see in the aggregate is easily washed away, at least for a few minutes, by the emotion of the moment.
First there was that roller-coaster of a game against the Habs. The team gives up three goals on 11 shots, including a shorthanded goal. The team then absolutely dominates in terms of shots and possession, scoring four unanswered to take the lead. The team then scores on its own net. The team then loses in overtime on a weak shot from the far side of two defensemen. I mean, it just didn’t make any sense from start to finish. It was chaos out there.
And sometimes all you can say is that that’s hockey at its most maddening, its most arbitrary. That Subban then celebrated as he did (which I’m fine with) only served to rub in a loss that, if we’re being realistic about it, we shouldn’t really feel all that bad about. If you outshoot your opponent 2-1 on most nights, then most nights you’re going to win. I’ll take that kind of performance, minus Anderson’s creakiness, any night of the week. Andy makes one more save and this whole thing ends differently.
Also something that was So Very Hockey about that game: I love that Ottawa finally gets to be the team to Montreal that Toronto was to Ottawa all those years. We’re the plucky, blue-collar group (relatively speaking). Montreal is the far more skilled team that wilts under pressure. It’s clear these two teams hate each other. And yet, when they get together, Ottawa plays Montreal so well and Montreal seems thoroughly intimidated. I don’t watch enough Habs games to know if they play this small against other clubs, but they look very easy to outmuscle against Ottawa. It’s refreshing to be on the other side of that, and it has nothing to do with advanced stats.
Other things that happened this week that were Just So Fucking Hockey: a team traded a league average goaltender for an expensive role player and then traded a pick for a league average goaltender. Now: try to figure out if they’re better.
I’m trying to put this in a perspective that we can all appreciate. Some of us work in offices. Very few of us get to see reports updated daily on the statistical effectiveness of our coworkers. Rather, we codify each other’s effectiveness in terms of one’s ability to be articulate, professional, friendly, and occasionally deliver a product on time and on budget. This doesn’t always lend itself to the aggregate.
And so while sports, being so statistically quantifiable, does lend itself so, it’s maybe difficult for us to remember that hockey franchises also have “the office,” with all of its intangibles. You’ve heard this all before, usually from commentators who have been in the game for years. It’s the reason why I’ll never understand Chris Neil and why the franchise extends him time and time again. It has to be intangibles. Either that or total incompetence on the part of management, but I think the former much more likely.
Perhaps it’s our instinct, as fans, to try and tear down those things we don’t have access to. To destabilize the exclusivity that is very natural in a world where millionaires sit in a locked room and prepare while the rest of us take the bus out to Kanata. Murray said as much in all of those recent interviews after he was extended: one change when he took over was drafting “quality people.” It’s so ephemeral, so unsatisfying for those of us who never gain access to that side of the game. But we got another reminder this week that to those who make the decisions in this game, hockey is a collection of personalities more than it is of statistical signifiers.
On Tim Murray’s new life in Buffalo: just a quick thought here. There was a bit written about how Murray would prefer Buffalo because of Pegula’s fortune, but I also have to think that that’s a pretty enticing roster. There’s a number of good prospects in Grigorenko, Ristolainen, Zadarov, and (to a lesser degree) Armia; there’s a number of expiring contracts after the year, giving Murray the chance to put his stamp on the team, and an opportunity to make trades for more picks; there’re only a couple of stinky contracts, including Myers, Ehrhoff, and Leino, who aren’t entirely ineffective players. And then, sure, there’s Pegula’s money.
If you had the opportunity to rebuild any team in the league, you could do a lot worse than Buffalo. Certainly given the choice between Buffalo and Calgary right now, I know who I’d pick.