Thursday, December 8, 2011
Tuesday, November 29, 2011
Monday, November 14, 2011
Staal did not realize whom he had leveled until after the play. Immediately after that game, Marc told Eric he was “upset” and “disappointed” at being hit like that. Marc missed a handful of games last season, although neither he nor the Rangers revealed he had sustained a concussion. Marc’s symptoms worsened over the summer, and he has not played this season. There is no timetable for his return. “It’s tough for him; it’s tough for me; it’s tough for everyone in the family.”
I think this is the most interesting and illustrative of all the stories regarding the problem of concussions in the NHL. Yes, the sine qua non of NHL sales and marketing and golden boy-related marginalia hasn't played a game in 10 months due to a (2) concussion(s), and the daily updates regarding his condition and prognostications as to his return is one of the bigger storylines of the season thus far, and rightfully so. And, yes, what happened to Him is super important and instructive and can't be over emphasized enough and should probably have resulted in greater action by the league and its asvertisers et al., etc., but the bro on bro crime aspect of the Staals hit is just too good to ignore. Two of the more popular explanations of the increasing acts of brain musherry in the league are that players don't have enough respect for each other on the ice and that players put themselves in vulnerable positions. I think Eric's hit on Marc pretty clearly debunks both of those notions. This is the play:
More than the plain consanguinity of the participants, the particulars of their family - they are the eldest siblings of a sort of fairy tale-esque and notoriously close-knit Canadian hockey clan comprised of three NHL stars and a fourth brother in the minors, raised in a place called Thunder Bay where the family business is sod farming, and each with the blue-eyed, blond-hair, farm boy countenance that registers as good looking in a completely non-threatening and uninteresting way - make the hit and its fallout particularly sad or illuminating, depending on one's perspective.
As to the respect explanation, I think it's fairly self-evident that the Staals are not dirty players: while they may engage in some in-scrum pushing and face washing, they don't take many minor or major penalties, they don't do a lot of hitting, and I've never seen any of them do anything I'd consider maliciously violent. If "respect" is just a word to signify playing the game in a way that places a reasonable amount of concern for the safety and well-being of your opponents, then whatever respect the Staals have for their individual opponents should be and probably is dwarfed by the respect they have for each other. Nevertheless, Eric crushed Marc with an arguably clean hit. (Because that's the way the game is played, because if he doesn't, he'll hear it from his coaches, because it won't be penalized, because the players - due to enhanced training and shortened shifts - are basically flying around the ice at near full speed nearly all the time.)
And as to the victim's awareness or ability to protect himself, Marc Staal emerged last season as one of the elite shutdown defensemen in the game. If a player as skilled and adept as him at putting himself in the right position with the appropriate amount of control, balance, and vision can still let himself get hit with his head down like that, how much hope is there for the average player? Right now, the game is outrageously violent and dangerous, and it has to do with larger institutional and systemic issues more than individual or cultural failings. I hope Marc Staal gets better, but more than that, I hope the game becomes safer.
Saturday, October 29, 2011
The English football match that everyone was paying attention to last weekend, likely the most highly anticipated contest of the season thus far, was the Manchester derby. And, yes, it was glorious watching the oil-fueled nouveau riche from Etihad punish and embarrass the always and ever loathsome paragons of English football, the flagbearers of success and excess, tradition, and mythologizing aka the Yankees of the old country, but even more annoying. (FN1) Nevertheless, what I want to discuss is the Queens Park Rangers v. Chelsea affair of later that day. It was a match that sort of perfectly illustrates what’s wrong with the sport, or at least what’s wrong with a certain aspect of the sport.
FN1 - I walked by the neighborhood Manchester City pub – I will concede that one of the nicer things about living in New York City is that there’s a designated Man City bar (and basically any other type of bar) just a few blocks away from me that is packed to the gills on weekend mornings during City games – and it was pretty great to see and hear pissed Mancunians singing loudly in unison and off-key, spilling out into the street as Dzeko put up a six spot on United.
In the 8th minute, the referee awarded a penalty to QPR from a David Luiz foul in the box against Heidar Helguson. While the call was fairly marginal – the announcers said it could have gone either way and that they’ve seen more egregious fouls gone uncalled this season; I think that's a pretty fair reading – the problem lies not specifically with a failure of officiating but rather the consequences of such a potential failure. Penalty kicks during the course of play (as opposed to settling a tie) seem to be converted at around 80% (though I can’t seem to find conclusive numbers for this in the EPL). That means the referee’s decision on a marginal call essentially awarded QPR .8 goals. The average number of goals scored by each team in the EPL last season was 1.4 (the highest number in league history). That means that the single call on Luiz represented more than half the scoring for an average team in an average game. That makes a single officiating decision a disproportionately high impact event, which is, in this case, exacerbated by the marginalness of the call.
I'll equate it to the sport that is structurally most similar to soccer, ice hockey, where there are a number of minor penalties called in each game, and where some are clearly marginal or even "phantom," meaning that the referee did'nt really see what happened but called something anyway based on what he thinks might have happened. But the effect of such calls are fairly limited in that NHL teams only convert around 18% of their power plays (this includes 5on3 and 4on3 advantages, so the number is a bit lower for 5on4's, but for our purposes, the difference is not important). This means that awarding a penalty results in the advantaged team receiving .18 goals (it's actually lower because shortanded teams score some of the time, but it's fine for our purposes). Last year in the NHL teams scored an average of 2.8 goals per game. To have the same effect on a team's scoring output as a penalty in the EPL, an NHL team would need to be awarded 1.6 goals for a penalty. To score 1.6 goals, an NHL team would need 9 power plays. So, to have roughly the same effect on the game as when a penalty is awarded in the EPL, a penalty in the NHL would have to yield an 18 minute major power play. Clearly, such a crime and punishment system would be absurd (see, e.g., drug possession laws in the U.S.). Penalties in soccer have a disproportionately strong effect on the outcome of the game. If a mistake is made and the referee makes the incorrect call, the game is essentially ruined in many cases.
Not only did the Luiz penalty have such an overly significant effect on the QPR-Chelsea match - Helguson buried the penalty of course - but Chelsea was the victim of soccer's other extra-punitive rule, the ejection of a player following a red card. Now, I don't have a problem with the general rule itself. Chelsea's Didier Drogba actually received a red card late in the first half, Chelsea's second straight red of the match, and I think everyone would agree that the call was justified. He went in wildly with two feet for a late challenge. The punishment is harsh so as to dissuade dangerous tackles that could lead to serious injury. Consequently, you rarely see such challenges, and I'm not sure what Drogba was doing or thinking there. But Chelsea's first red card of the half (what a fucking miserable first half they had), was a very different kind of play. Jose Bosingwa and Shaun Wright-Philips raced for a loose ball deep in Chelsea's zone. The players seemed to be relatively even, arriving at the ball just outside of the box when Bosingwa appears to have wrapped his arm around Wight-Phillips, possibly tugged on his jersey, and both players went down. The alleged tug was imperceptible in real time and very subtle on the replay. It certainly wasn't obvious or gratuitous. The referee found that a goal scoring chance was denied and handed out a straight red. Chelsea would be down to 10 men for the remainder of the match, that is, until they subsequently went down to 9 men. My problem lies not with the questionable call, I certainly disagreed with it (it looked to me that Bosingwa had the angle on Wright-Phillips and no great scoring chance was going to come), but it's a judgment and the ref has to make a decision one way or other. The problem is that the the consequences of a difficult 50/50 judgment call, that the player is sent off and the team is down to 10 men, are massive: shooting rates go way down, shots allowed go way up, and the impact when the visitors lose a man for half the game is approximately 0.75 goals - roughly the same as giving up a penalty kick. That is an incredibly harsh result for a fairly borderline call that could have gone either way. Not every ref awards a red card there, and the effects of such a decision are just too significant.
Perhaps the great irony of all this is that despite being down 11 men to 9, Chelsea dominated the second half and had by far the better of the chances. In what was so infuriating to me as a casual disinterested observer that I cannot image what Andre Villas-Boas was going through, there were two instances where QPR players engaged in shirt pulling in the box to deny or hinder Chelsea scoring chances (one on Frank Lampard and another on Luiz) that went uncalled. (FN2) Neither infraction was particularly egregious or obvious, but they were both at least just as bad as the Luiz bump or the Bosingwa tug. The non calls were particularly disappointing because of Chelsea's fight and battle showed in defending and attacking relentlessly with just 9 men. A harsh result for Chelsea, needlessly so only because of draconian and irrational penalties associated with certain rule violations.
FN2 - Luiz, by the way, is a stud. He's one of the few soccer players that I can confidently say would have made a great hockey player. He had a physically dominating and exhausting second half, going up an down with the pitch with controlled abandon. Beauty player.
Friday, October 7, 2011
[McGrady] was one of the most talented players in the league, very popular, but I came to the conclusion he didn't have the internal fortitude to win a championship.
Thursday, September 22, 2011
FN1 – These skills being predominantly stick-handling and shooting, as distinct from other skills that are not always so obvious, e.g., screening the goalie, winning puck battles, etc.
FN2 – Those that play the game this way are not exclusively from North America, see, e.g., Semin’scountryman and good friend, Alexander Ovechkin. Also note the important distinction between appearing to skate hard and fast and actually skating hard and fast. Effortlessly smooth skaters, such as Paul Coffey and Phil Housely, were brutally criticized at various points in their careers for appearing to not work hard enough. Ditto for those players whose games involved patiently waiting in the weeds rather than relentless puck pursuit. Before reaching statistical heights which made them largely criticism-proof, Mario Lemieux and Brett Hull faced criticisms regarding work-ethic that were born more from their style of play than any actual substantive flaw.
FN4 – Another player who is similarly divorced from the predominant North American hockey culture is Nikolai Zherdev. Like Semin, Zherdev plays a passive game that is more read and react than pursue and attack. Zherdev also speaks very little English and in unconcerned with bonding with players or reporters. He is a very good hockey player though, who has no problem scoring or domintating possession at even strength (I’ve written about him before but others have done more). Despite this objective success, Zherdev is one of the more maligned players of his generation by fans, coaches, and reporters.
Notwithstanding the incomplete statistical picture he offered, McPhee is basically correct. Neil Greenberg provides a fuller analysis and concludes with what should have been long obvious to any objective viewer unbiased by a culturally-derived aesthetic preference of the game: Alexander Semin is an extremely effective hockey player who drives possession against tough competition and who is an effective penalty killer. (FN5)
FN5 – An effective but criminally underused penalty-killer. Semin finished the 2010-11 season with .96 TOI/60, 7th highest among Washington forwards. He did not spend a single second killing penalties in the playoffs. See infra.
McPhee basically nails the point about Semin’s playoff success, but I’d like to delve into Semin’s most recent playoff performance a little deeper with specific reference to how he was utilized.
Perhaps the most egregious example of the misuse of Semin came on the PP. The Capitals’ PP was mostly woeful during the season, but Semin was its most productive player:
Semin had the highest scoring rate and received the third most minutes (behind Ovechkin and Backstrom). This is consistent with Semin's PP utilization and production throughout his career, that is, he's played and scored a bunch (scoring rate rank among Capitals’ forwards is in parenthesis):
Those scoring rates are comparable with other elite scorers (Datsyuk’s PP scoring rates are 5.68, 5.38, 7.03, and 5.74 over the same period; Crosby’s are 4.80, 4.62, 5.38 and 5.02). Semin’s proven track record on the PP suggests that he should be used similarly in the playoffs. However, not only did Semin’s PP ice time decrease in the playoffs, relative to the other Capitals’ forwards, it decreased significantly:
While Semin’s raw decrease in power play minutes was only .15 minutes per game (a 5% reduction), the reduction is heightened by the fact that the Capitals as a team saw a 20% increase in power play time from the regular season to the playoffs (5.04 to 6.06). In fact, there were 7(!) other Capitals’ forwards who received more power play ice time than Semin. While Semin has been an elite PP scorer his entire career, none of Knuble, Fehr, or Johansson have ever approached Semin’s scoring on the power play, yet they received more PP time in the playoffs than him. The case of Brooks Laich is an interesting one. Laich received a whopping 3.58 min/game on the PP in the playoffs. That is 31% more time than Semin received. Had Laich ever done anything to suggest that he was a more effective PP player than Semin? No, quite the opposite:
Semin has been used more frequently on the PP his entire career, and he has scored at a higher rate than Laich every year (including 06/07 which is not listed) save for 07/08 when Laich scored at a higher rate but in nearly one-third the PP time. It seems clear that going into the 2011 playoffs, Semin had established himself as a great, bordering on elite, PP player, and Laich had established himself as a good or very good PP player. Yet, for some reason Boudreau opted to use Laich 31% more on the PP than Semin, and opted to use 7 different forwards more than Semin. This strikes me as completely insane, without justification, and a severe misuse of talent. (FN6)
FN6 – Critics may want to point to the fact that Semin didn’t score a single PP point in the playoffs as a justification for Boudreau to curtail his use. This argument fails because the Capitals only scored 5 PPG in the 9 games, so the sample size is too small to draw any real conclusions. Moreover, with respect to shots directed at net, the key driver of PP success, Semin was third on the team in PP Corsi (behind Knuble and Sturm). Laich was eighth.
At even strength during the regular season, Semin produced the second highest point scoring rate and the highest goal scoring rate on the team:
He did this while being paired up front most often with Brooks Laich (51% of the time) and to a lesser extent Nicklas Backstrom (36%) and Alexander Ovechkin (31%). He was paired with rookie Marcus Johansson not infrequently (22%) as well. This tells us that Semin played with a variety of different linemates at different times, and was with the big boys some but not all that often. Semin wasn’t exactly handed a golden key on a silver platter, but he wasn’t exactly slumming it either.
The playoffs were a far different (tragic and stupefying) story, however: Semin spent the majority of his even strength ice time with Jason Arnott (65%) and Marco Sturm (52%). These numbers are actually probably misleading because, while I’m a firm believer in the inverse correlation between shift length and effectiveness, Arnott in particular was taking ridiculously short shifts at even strength in the playoffs. It appears that it was as obvious to him as it was to me that he could barely hang on and keep up with NHL playoff pace, and he accordingly and wisely got off the ice at the earliest opportunity. Good for him, not great for his linemates if they happened to have the puck and were headed in the right direction. There doesn’t seem to be published data for even strength shift length, but we can make do with overall shift length:
The most immediately notable thing in that chart should be just how many fewer minutes Semin got than the “big 4” of Ovechkin, Backstrom, Laich, and Knuble. One of Bradley’s comments was about top players and playing time:
When you’re paying your top guys a lot of money and those
guys carry you through the whole season, and if one of them isn’t going, it’s
very hard not to play them, and I understand that that’s tough. But I think in
the end, if you want to win, sometimes you have to sit some of those guys down
and maybe send a message and try to get them going.
It’s unclear if he’s talking about Semin specifically (it seems to me that he was) or someone else like Backstrom, but he probably should have been talking about Knuble, who was on the ice over 21 minutes a game and scored a whole 2 points, despite playing nearly exclusively with Ovechkin and Backstrom. I imagine "Knoobs" and "Brads" are good friends who talked a lot, whereas it wouldn’t surprise me if Bradley and Semin have never had a conversation. So, Knuble’s a great locker room guy who helps the team win, and Semin’s a monster that doesn’t care and wants to go back to Russia.
Sturm’s shift lengths are muddied because he saw time on the penalty kill, but if you consider that Arnott took about 16% of his ice time on the PP, and if you assume those shifts averaged a minute long, then you can estimate that Arnott’s even strength shifts were about 38 seconds long. Those strike me as the shifts of a player in desperate need to get off the ice because he knew he couldn’t keep up. Although Semin having to essentially babysit Arnott and Sturm so much of the time makes it’s difficult to precisely identify who was driving the results, we can nevertheless make some inferences.
Semin spent two-thirds of his even strength playing time tied down by the grizzly Arnott, during which time they would have had the same Corsi stats, but in the one-third of the time Semin thankfully extricated himself from the Anchor, he managed to create a 13.2 differentiation in Relative Corsi. Same story viz. Sturm, and because Boudreau blessed Semin with even more non-Sturm time, Semin separated himself even further from another old-timer playing on at best one leg. One wonders what Semin and the Capitals could have done if he was paired with actual NHL caliber players more of the time. After falling down by a goal late in game 1 against the Rangers, Boudreau put Semin together with Ovechkin and Backstrom (Prayer is the last refuge of a scoundrel). Semin promptly set up the Capitals’ first and tying goal late in the third. (FN7) There were far too few shifts for the deadly trio during the playoffs, as was the case last year v. Montreal. How many playoff failures will Capitals fans have to endure before Boudreau tries uniting those three for a sustained period of time?
FN7 – Of course Boudreau went back to the old line combinations for the overtime, and Arnott made his one nice play of the entire playoffs and Semin absolutely devastated a one-timer for the win.
Semin is a very effective penalty killer:
He had the highest Corsi among Capitals forwards last season. I’ll spare you further charts but let you know that this was also the case in 2009-10 and 2008-09. It’s painfully clear at this point that Semin is really good at limiting opposition shot imbalance (and by proxy, scoring chances) on the penalty kill. It may not jive with traditional hockey narratives of skilled, soft players not playing defense, but the statistics are unmistakably unequivocal in this regard. One person who either does not understand statistic or does not care about the Capitals penalty kill happens to be their coach, unfortunately, as shown:
The player who has demonstrated the highest ability to limit opposition Corsi on the PK over the last three seasons did not receive one single second of PK time in the playoffs. It is a stunningly dumb misallocation of assets and abilities, an important microcosm explaining why the Capitals, despite having a vast collection of talent at every position, perhaps unmatched around the league, have won 2 playoff series in four years under Boudreau.
Tuesday, June 14, 2011
Wednesday, April 13, 2011
Monday, February 21, 2011
Tuesday, January 25, 2011
The results are fairly straightforward. The inverse relationship between my alcohol intake and exercise output seems pretty clear and strong, which is in no way surprising. I averaged around four and a quarter "workouts" per week, which is actually not all that disappointing. 30 drinks a week, however, is a bit of a horrifying embarrassment. In my defense, there were a disproportionate number of big one-time only drinking events this past year that probably unfairly pushed that average a bit on the high side, e.g. the bachelor party, wedding, honeymoon, and that winter solstice eclipse thing that just happened. My goal for next year is to cut down to 21 drinks per week, a 30% reduction, which is certainly significant, but one that I am going to go ahead and publicly commit to making. I'd also like to get up to around 4.75 workouts per week as well. Don't worry ye faithful few, you won't have to wait a whole year in suspense, I'll give you guys a mid-year update on all of this sometime after June. Spoiler alert: I am already perhaps irrevocably off pace on both counts just two and a half weeks in. Damn you, cold and miserable winter.