It’s that time of year, when NHL previews start to creep into our feeds like reminders of our father’s disappointment that we didn’t go to med school.
“I know you miss hockey, and can’t wait to cheer on the home team. Just remember… *whispers* Ottawa will finish bottom five.”
We’re about a month out from this appearing in magazines. Twitter, as always, is way ahead of the game.
Let’s forget for a moment what an unbelievable wet shit in the pants this is from a narrative standpoint, an example of a writer literally ignoring their audience, privileging their need for hot takes over the need for the reader to interact with something interesting and/or joyous. It’s asshole behavior, a phalanx of Actuallys carpet bombing what’s left of your childlike wonder . But I want to concentrate on the wrongness of the prediction itself.
Indulge me: I want to get excited about hockey.
Ottawa finished last season with 85 points, good for 19th in the league. Outside of Clarke MacArthur, they didn’t have much in the way of injuries. They need about 95-96 to compete for a wild card spot. So you can say, with some accuracy, that the team was not great. They weren’t close to sneaking into the playoffs, let alone contending.
They were also about 10 points up on the worst teams in the league.
So here’s the crux, which also happens to be a thing you can’t really sell a lot of magazines or generate a lot of blog hits writing about: 10 points in the standings, in either direction, is a big shift. Something has to go either really right or really wrong to experience a 10 point change.
Let’s look at some assumptions about the 2016-2017 Ottawa Senators, and at what kind of impact those assumptions might have on their place in the standings:
Everything goes as planned
- Injuries can happen to anyone, and are totally unpredictable, so let’s look at the ecosystem of players as static, assuming every team gets to keep their lineup as is. Karlsson, in this universe, is invincible.
- There’s a new coach. I think good players have a much bigger influence on performance than good coaching, but let’s assume Boucher’s system is appropriate for these players, and having NHL experience imbues some intangible whatevers. Let’s say that’s good for an extra 3 points in the standings.
- Derick Brassard does turn out to be a better player than Zibanejad at this point in their careers, and pairs well with Bobby Ryan, bumping up his production. Let’s say, together, this accounts for another 2 points in the standings.
- A full season of Phaneuf in place of Wiercioch might be a wash, but let’s say it provides an extra .5-1 point.
- Clarke MacArthur plays a full season. Maybe another point.
- Boro doesn’t play at forward. Or anywhere else. Maybe another point.
- The team’s powerplay and penalty kill improve. They win 1-2 more shootouts than they did last year. Another 2-3 points.
- Chris Kelly is a serviceable depth player. The youngins keep developing. This is a wash for weird and nice things that happened last year, like Zack Smith scoring 25 goals. (Which, btw: remember that?)
So that’s an extra 10 points in the standings. An unsustainable run of great goaltending, some high shooting percentage, some random puck luck and you’ve got better than a wild card team. It’s not likely, but if you squint and look sideways you can see a scenario in which Ottawa improves that much.
Nothing goes as planned
As simplistic as this math is, let’s just reverse all of the above, with the correlative subtraction of the same point totals. You end up with the team scoring about 8 points less in the standings (because in this scenario their PP and PK don’t get worse, they just stay bad), and with bad luck you can stretch that to 10-12. Only then do you have your situation where Ottawa is competing for 30th in the league.
My point here being that a lot of things have to line up just so for this to happen. It’s equally unlikely that Ottawa would be truly awful as it would be for Ottawa to suddenly be a scary playoff team. It’s almost as if what I said at the beginning of this article was something I intended to swing back to right here: 10 point swings in the standings are exceedingly rare, especially in a league with parity and shootout points.
Which brings me back to the same point I make every year around this time: what exactly is the utility of a person who writes season previews predicting a 10 point swing for any team? And why does it seem so much more fun for them to predict a negative swing for Ottawa than a positive one?
When they do this, it’s usually in the form of “popular team X has added popular free agent Y, so now they’re a legit contender,” which almost never happens. Or “less popular team X has made fewer moves and weren’t great last season, so they’ll be terrible” which reeks of having to fill out the bottom halves of their brackets to account for the wild optimism of predicting success for larger markets.
To a degree, I understand selling this crap for magazines. They’re trying to sell paper to as many people as possible, and are hanging on by their fingernails doing it. I don’t fault them putting Crosby on the cover, or covering the Leafs and Habs to death, or skewing their predictions to make hockey exciting for the greatest number of people. They’re selling the narrative, not the science, and that’s OK. I didn’t read No Country for Old Men to learn about our aging demographics.
But when it comes to the online community, including Sens fans, I’m not sure if I’ll ever understand the doom-and-gloom predictions that start to poke up every fall – their intensity or their perpetuity. There’s a robust community of fans, local and otherwise, who truly look at this team and see something that is 10 points worse than last year. How is that possible? Who is their audience? Where does this come from? And why isn’t there an equally large community looking at the equally unlikely scenario of the Sens being 10 points better?
I write a post like this every year, but maybe there’s more utility in talking about what we’re excited about, how things can go right, than there is in acknowledging that things might go wrong.