Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

I wasn't initially going to bother with this, but at the urging of my only two regular readers who apparently noticed that I've spewed a fair amount of words pleading for the firing, beheading, or defenestration of Bruce Boudreau, and with him being terminated yesterday, apparently want some form of schadenfreude soaked obituary, an orgy of I-told-you-so feasting on the bloody carcass of a defeated foe. But alas, I don't really have much to say. Yes, I think he ruined the Caps' last two postseasons by not putting together Ovechkin-Backstrom-Semin together despite that trio being Corsi- and scoring-dominant over the past three years. And his giving Semin less PP time than Brooks Laich last postseason and this season was asinine. And yes, his team played loosey-goosey and he didn't seem to pick up on the newer tactical developments around the league, e.g. the pp-breakout-drop-pass thing that Van and Det and other teams do. But that said, Boudreau was probably a not-good-but-not-terrible-coach-either. He was mostly hokey and sincere and inarticulate and caring. His biggest crime against me was his mistreatment (i.e., playing him with a revolving door of ill-fitting, unready, and/or inferior linemates) of Alexander Semin, whose abilities and style of play have become largely the only joy I derive from watching the Capitals, or the NHL for that matter. So for that, I certainly but hesitantly celebrated BB's departure. Hesitantly because of what has come next.

While Dale Hunter does have a reputation for playing the fuck out of his stars in junior, I would have preferred the nerd/tactician type. The Bylsma/Babcock/Vigneault breed of coach who understands data and goes on more than just gut, who are if not educated, at least articulate and thoughtful. But most of all, I want a coach that understands that Alexander Semin is probably the best intercepter of opponents passes in the league (whereas Datsyuk is the best thief of puck carriers), is a dominant player along the boards in maintaining and obtaining puck possession, and is a unique offensive talent that needs to be paired with a certain type of center that instinctively plays the European, combinational style to maximize his effectiveness. I don't know if the Caps got that in Hunter - my guess is no - but I do know Hunter is one of the dirtiest players in the history of the sport. Second all-time in penalty minutes, yes, but moreso shit like this:

Am I happy that Boudreau's gone? Sure. Am I optimistic about the future? No.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Foes Before Bros

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.”
- Staal on Staal

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

A Beautiful But Flawed Game

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

Old Wine, New Bottles

There's been a recent spate of articles detailing the "Moneypuck" revolution in ice hockey. I've used advanced statistics before, e.g. in defending the misunderstood and oppressed, and find them useful in distilling large amounts of varied data into digestible pieces; they aid in the understanding of certain hockey events. We know more about the game today than we did 5 years ago, and every NHL team should be utilizing advanced statistics in making personnel decisions. That said, I'm with Tom Benjamin: "Hockey statistics will never do what we want them to do, which is to [comprehensively] evaluate individual hockey players." The reasons for this, I think, are complicated and not well understood: the team context pollutes individual results, the game is not comprised of binary or even recordable events, and "[h]ockey statistics do not add up to goals." In any case, NHL teams are starting to look at data more critically and are finally beginning to eschew traditional mythmaking as an explanation for results, and that's a good thing.

I imagine, however, that within this movement both outside and inside organizations there are more than a few snake oil salesmen (cough*puckstopshere*cough) who don't really know what they're doing and are going to try to hoodwink and bamboozle some teams into buying what they're peddling. I don't know if John Weisbrod is such a fellow, but he apparently went to Harvard and reads Thoreau, meaning he's like super smart and well edumacated, and he's involved in the Calgary Flames' efforts to use analytical software programs to evaluate talent. As a scout in the Boston Bruins organization, he "broke it down and redefined what we wanted a Boston Bruin to be," which sounds very, um, new and, er, scientific. But Weisbrod's money quote, after a desultory discussion of the sophisticated ways in which the Flames are using these tools, is regarding his time as GM of the NBA Orlando Magic:

[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.

The heart/60 metric is one of the great successes of the advanced stat discipline, no doubt.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

On Semin, Boudreau, and Understanding

Alexander Semin possesses a unique set of characteristics that often cause extreme polarization among hockey fans and pundits: he is supremely skilled, particularly in areas that are easily observable (FN1), and he seems to operate in a different space from the dominant North American hockey culture, both on the ice – whereas certain preferences exist for those players that appear to skate hard and fast into corners and up and down the ice (FN2), Semin and other such players "let the game come to them" without continually chasing the play/puck so aggressively – and off it – Semin is extremely shy, introverted, and does not speak English well. (FN3) While Semin’s patently high skill level does create expectations that are difficult to meet, what actually fuels the vitriol is subtler: an ingrained preference against a distinct playing style due to a hockey-cultural dissonance, i.e. because a player doesn’t skate around the rink like a madman, combined with an inability or unwillingness to share person and personality with teammates and/or fans, i.e. that there is no connection to the subject, not only poisons any objective evaluation of play but also foments unsupported and ad hominal attacks, such as that Semin “just doesn’t care,” to explain perceived failings. (FN4) Such attacks, long the domain of message board and blog pabulum, were finally levied by actual ex-teammates, first by Matt Bradley and then echoed by David Steckel. Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau and owner Ted Leonsis sort of lukewarmly, or at least inarticulately, responded to the criticisms and defended the player without really explaining why the attacks were without basis. GM George McPhee, however, supplied a brief but appropriate response, noting that Semin is a proven playoff performer, that Bradley got the facts wrong, and perhaps most succinctly and accurately, “[t]his kid’s been productive.”

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.

FN3 – In over six seasons with the Capitals, he’s given two English language interviews, and both occurred this week. The first was kinda heartbreaking, and the second was awkwardly charming.

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.

2011 Playoffs

Power Play

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.

Even Strength

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.

Penalty Kill

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

The Limits of Control and the Limits of Film Review Aggregation

The little-known 2009 film The Limits of Control, Jim Jarmusch's most recent directorial work, is mostly just a collection of beautifully shot, slow-moving landscapes and silent portraits through the stylish cities and pastoral countryside of Spain. Visually, the film is nearly inarguably gorgeous. Even more inarguable, it received a "rotten" rating on Rotten Tomatoes, the popular film review aggregation site. The site essentially collects, evaluates, and aggregates large quantities of movie reviews to arrive at a single, final rating. The Limits of Control received a 42%. That is not good.

The negative reviews, which safely outnumber the positive ones, are fairly unanimous in their criticisms: the film is "tedious," "pretentious," and lacks a "coherent story." Rather than taking issue with the accuracy of those assessments -- I think the "pretentious" and no "coherent story" complaints are fair, while "tedious" is a subjective valuation that depends on the importance placed by the viewer on the more objective features of the film, such as tone (pretentious) or plot (none) -- I think they fundamentally miss the point. The film is pretentious in that it's not even a remotely honest or true depiction of things that people do; in fact, it's mostly just scenes of protagonist Isaach de Bankol sitting around cafes, sipping two espressos ("my, what a cute affectation, it must mean something!"), and waiting for strangers to approach him and engage in very cryptic, one-sided, pseudo-philosophical conversations before exchanging matchbooks, with each new one containing the location of his next rendezvous. Of course a movie based around that is going to be necessarily if not tautologically over-loaded with pretension. And there is no coherent story, insofar as the "story" is a series of these rendezvous, interspersed lightly with Paz de la Huerta alternately wearing nothing or a transparent raincoat, all of it inevitably leading to a penultimate scene involving a wig-coiffed and bespectacled Bill Murray inside a heavily fortified compound somewhere in the desert. Of course. Needless to say, the importance if not existence of a story in The Limits of Control is minimal. Jarmusch seems to have learned a valuable lesson from his previous work in Ghost Dog, an otherwise effective film that was completely ruined by its slavery to the plot and the comically terrible ending it required. Critical observations regarding The Limits of Control's tone and story seem akin to disparaging films that display 24 frames per second, or that criticisms Buster Keaton's early work was silent; that is, they are obvious features of the subject work, and evaluation based on those features alone is narrow-minded and practically useless.

What The Limits of Control does actually attempt to do (rather than be honest or tell a story), and what it does really well, is provide an varied mix of beautifully composed shots, center those shots around the mysterious voyage of a compelling figure (de Bankol gives a wonderfully subdued performance), layer the droning sound of experimental Japanese rock band Boris over the landscapes, which gives the slow movement an even more laborious and ominous feel, and sprinkle in some interesting performances from well-regarded actors (John Hurt and Gael Garcia Bernal are particularly good). It does this while keeping the momentum and arc going forward. It is a successful and enjoyable film, even if it does border closely on tedium before the dilemma of how will this will all end surfaces.

The Rotten Tomatoes reviews of The Limits of Control are particularly divisive; there was a bifurcation of the audience into those that really enjoyed the film and those that hated it. Splitting the difference to arrive at a single rating tells the potential viewer nothing about which group she will fall into. As is the case with advanced hockey statistics, the broader context of the data is key. Another problem with Rotten Tomatoes is that it does not differentiate between reviewers or the reviews themselves. Reviews are given only a binary metric - positive or negative. Each reviewer is treated equally - a glowing review from A. O. Scott counts just the same as a lukewarm review from a hack in the Palookaville Post. While there's an argument to be made that differentiating between reviewers introduces a problematic subjective element to the endeavor, it would seem that treating them the same imposes a similar value judgment on the analysis.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Playoff Predictions

I wasn't planning on doing this, but urged on by one Jeremy "Father" Brown to at least address the upcoming NHL playoffs here in some way -- I'd much rather talk about how completely, utterly, and criminally insane it was for Chelsea to start the morbidly ineffectual and ineffective Fernando Torres over the consistently dangerous Didier Drogba in yesterday Champions League quarterfinal match against Manchester United -- I'll offer some first round predictions. The important caveat is that each and every one of these could turn out wrong. The largest relative discrepancy in team ability in any of the first round matchups is probably the Washington-New York series and it's probably only around 55% to 45%. That means that some combination of puck luck, officiating, and injuries will likely have more to do with who wins even the most unevenly matched playoff series. If we were to roll a 9-sided die 7 times, the evens would still win that series some of the time over the odds. Nevertheless, here we go:

Washington (1) over New York (8) in 5 - Lundqvist could win this series more or less by himself, and he may have to. But it's a bit hard for me to see Washington being a victim of the hockey gods in that way for the second year in a row. Their penalty killing, defense, and goaltending is too good (the important goalie save metrics are sv% and particularly even strength sv%, and they fairly clearly tell us Varlamov's a better goalie than Nuevirth; I do like Nuevirth, however, and think he'll do fine) to give up too many goals to a somewhat anemic Rangers offense (which is further hurt by Callahan's injury). And the Caps should eventually, though it may not be pretty, score enough goals to advance. I think the games will all be tight and special teams will play a huge role. I guess I could say that about every series though.

Philadelphia (2) over Buffalo (7) in 6 - Lot of people are picking the Sabres here, it seems. I don't see it. Not having Pronger hurts, obviously, but I think he'll be back at some point. I think Ryan Miller is overrated, Buffalo is not deep enough up front or on the back to get past a ridiculously deep Flyers team. Buffalo has been outrageously good down the stretch, the li'l guy Gerbe has some sick moves, but Philly has just too many weapons, and I think Bobrovsky is going to play well.

Montreal (6) over Boston (3) in 7 - I like Montreal's game and they'd certainly be much better with Markov and Gorges not injured and out for the season. Nevertheless, there's gotta be an upset in the East somewhere, and I figure Thomas' magical ride has to end at some point. Boston is a good team, though, and I could see them going very far. Puck luck, officiating, injuries favor les habs in this one.

Pittsburgh (4) over Tampa Bay (5) in 7 - While the NHL would love to market this as Crosby v. Stamkos, this is really the battle of the super coaches, Blysma v. Boucher. The Penguins' success without Crosby and Malkin is amazing and a testament to the coaching ability of Dan Bylsma. Not only will the Pens be without Crosby, it would seem, they'll also lack the penalty killing and overall effective play of one Matthew Cooke, who has in media and player circles become known simply as "the greatest monster of all time." Tough but fair, I guess. It don't matter, the Pens are too deep, and outside of Martin St. Louis, the Lighting are mostly smoke and mirrors.

Vancouver (1) over Chicago (8) in 5 - A bit of a crushing blow for the Canucks to have to face Chicago in the first round who got in on game No. 1230 of the regular season when the Stars failed to beat the Wild (Toe Blake is spinning in his grave after the mention of those team names). Chicago is probably the second or third or fourth best team in team in the Conference, and it's a bit unfair for the Presidents' trophy winner to have to face them in the first round. Chicago has the playoff experience, the swagger from beating Vancouver the last two years in the playoffs, the Patrick Kane mullet, and one of the best captains in the sport. It don't matter, the Canucks are too good with too many weapons: the Sedins cannot be contained, Edler is back and looks healthy, and Ryan Kesler is one of the best players in the NHL. Yes, that's right. A player a lot of people have never heard of, particularly on the east coast, is probably one of the best players in the NHL and certainly one of the most effective forwards. The Hawks are also missing Dave Bolland, which is a huge loss, but it probably wouldn't matter anyway, this is the Canucks' year... to lose farther along in the playoffs.

Los Angeles (7) over San Jose (2) in 6 - You'd think L.A. would have no chance without their stud forward, Anze Kopitar, who cruelly broke his ankle with a couple weeks left in the season, against the big bad Sharks who shook off some early season struggles and rounded into form in the second half. Well, hockey's a crazy mother fucking sport where weird shit like that happens all the time.

Detroit (3) over Phoenix (6) in 7 - Poor Phoenix. They go through bankruptcy hell last year to miraculously make the playoffs, and then face a suddenly healthy Red Wings team in the first round. This year they go through the collateral damage associated with a bullshit public subsidy to a rich businessman and corporate organization resembling a crime syndicate (the NHL) -- lawsuits, threatened lawsuits, protracted bond financing, and even John McCain made an appearance -- and now on literally the verge of its opening round series against, you guessed it, the vaunted Red Wings, it seems that justice has prevailed and the team will likely be moving after all. This is a surprisingly good hockey team put together on a shoe string budget and under a cloud of uncertainty. Kudos to Don Maloney and Dave Tippett. Ilya Bryzgalov, Keith Yandle, Martin Hanzal, and Lori Korpikoski are studs. It's going to be just barely not enough. Hockey's a cruel mistress.

Nashville (5) over Anaheim (4) in 7 - Nashville is essentially put together in the same way as Phoenix and they play basically the same game. One of those two poor bastards has to move on.

Should be a fun ride. The NHL playoffs: when a mediocre husband, pet owner, and associate further neglects his responsibilities.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Season Recapped

The second half of the fall season went much like the first: a certain amount of personal success (beaucoup is an amount) and a certain amount of team dominance (zero is another amount). Despite mostly underachieving for the first 5/8's of the season, we were nevertheless in a decent position to make the playoffs before dropping four straight down the stretch, with each a very winnable game, and were forced to play out, and win out, the string. Unlike the team, I was mostly consistently brilliant throughout. At least as far as the boxcars go:

Nearly a goal per game, 1.6 points per game, and a fairly ridiculous 23.6% shooting percentage, On the one hand I'm kind of ecstatically pleased with my personal season, but I'm also worried that some shooting% regression plus fewer good bounces plus decreased ice time plus the loss of our captain and spiritual leader (the stats guys love the last seven words) plus a non-insignificant amount of roster turnover plus a ridiculous trial and trial prep throughout the bulk of the season could all lead to a disastrous '11 spring. But I'm also worried that something terrifyingly horrible will happen to Anita and Pasha on their totally normal walk around our neighborhood right now. So maybe it's just me.

That at least some of the talk of these exploits is with tongue firmly inside of cheek is, I hope, clear; if not, I'll remind myself and everyone else that notwithstanding the ceremonial li'l fist pumps after the denting of the twine - THE greatest physical joy known to man (apologies to both my wife and my meth dealer) - I did most certainly give up a lot the other way: turnovers inside the zone, missed assignments that lead to goals, lost battles in the corners, etc. These all continued to rear their ugly heads, and while I'd argue it was all to a lesser extent than ever before, I am certainly no Martin Hanzal or Frans Neilsen just yet. Rather, and this is somewhat interesting, I think a ridiculous 9 of my 13 goals came on wrist shots from outside the circles. I think that makes me of the Michael Ryder / Joffrey Lupul mold of one-dimensional, one skill-set players. And with that, what started out as a boast post ends up a suicide note.

But I won't end on such a dour note. For my friends, fans, and most importantly for myself, when I'm too long in the tooth to do any of these things or even remember them, here are my top five favorite plays of the season:

5) GM1 v. Hudson Hawks, Sep. 12, 2010: As much as I kind of don't like him these days, my love of hockey started exclusively with Wayne Gretzky. Perhaps his most signature move, especially over the period that I watched him, was him setting up behind the net and passing it out in front for a tap in. I capped off a 5 point opening night with that very play, feeding it to Geno for the last goal in an enormously fun win.

4) GM15 v. Irish Times, Jan. 9, 2011: Virtually eliminated from the playoffs, we beat the eventual champion. I scored what ended up being the game winner on a very unspectacular but completely typical goal: took a short pass at center ice, walked into the zone, dmen did not step up, waited, waited, saw room high blocker, wristed it basically exactly where I wanted from probably just inside the top of the circle. No fuss, no muss.

3) GM8 v. Impact, Nov. 10, 2010: Late in a tightly contested game against the eventual runner up, I collected the puck behind the net, took a step out in front, waited for the goalie to go down or open up some space to shoot, waited, waited... saw our dman (Hambly) jumping into the slot from the point, put it right on his stick, and he buried it. Probably my highest hockey IQ play all year.

2) GM10 v. Brother Jimmy's, Dec. 10, 2010: Had two goals in a 7-3 romp, but the second was kind of a beauty. Shorthanded, dman (Joel) won a battle in our own zone, skated up the right side, I took off down the middle, he threaded it perfectly, collected it in stride at the blue line, split the two d, went in alone and wristed it short side. It was probably the fastest I skated all season and there was no doubt that I was going to score. Magical feeling of exhilaration.

1) GM14 v. Homer's Heroes, Jan. 2, 2011: The structure of the goal itself - took a pass at the red line, made one move at the blue line to beat a defenseman (Karel), walked in down my off wing and beat the goalie up high, far corner from between the dot and top of the circle - wasn't that unusual or spectacular; rather, it was special because it was against the best goalie in the league, a goalie that is very difficult to beat, and he had come well out of the crease and gave me almost nothing to shoot at. There were times during the season where I felt like I could hit quarters strategically placed in the net, and this goal was the ultimate expression of that feeling - ripped off the post and in, a glorious sound and sight.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Sauced and Swoll

To further my heretofore narrowly manifested data accumulation penchant, I did the unthinkable, most likely totally useless, and even more likely hardcore douchey. That's right, I started tracking and quantifying my workouts. It was mostly an attempt to shame me into working out more thereby contributing to my record setting hockey season, but it was also largely a way to spend more time looking at and writing things in my JRT calendar. Amusing but not joking. In any case, the process wasn't all that quantitative. I essentially made one of four basic notations to correspond to a workout: an up arrow (meaning I lifted upper body, usually combined with some cardiovascular work, usually either short distance running or interval training bike work), a down arrow (meaning lower body lifting combined with the same CV caveats), a BS (meaning Bluestreak, which is a brutally difficult but awesome hockey-specific workout involving the dreaded skating treadmill), or an H (meaning that I played hockey). Sometimes I'd also threw on an R (meaning I just ran) or an S (which means I did my pseudo-ashtanga stretches usually with some core work thrown in). This all sounds more intense than it really was; those who know me will take comfort in knowing that I half-assed my way through most of all this. Except for the Bluestreak sessions, those are usually insane.

About halfway into the year, I started actually trying to quantify the level of intensity of each workout, assigning a value of anywhere from .5 top 1.25 with a lifting session usually getting a 1.0, a BS session getting a 1.25, and H getting a .75 or 1.0 depending on how much and how hard I played and if I did a stretching/core session before or after. Yawn yawn, and to anyone who's still reading at this point: marry me. To make things more interesting and/or depressing (depending on if you're a future AA counselor or a current parent), I started counting my alcoholic drinks sometime towards the end of June. Pretty simple, each drink counted as, wait for it, one drink. Whereas I used to pour myself whiskey at home without regard to volume, I tried to pour myself glasses that corresponded to one "drink," and I did my best to count 'em all up (though after around 10 in a night it could get a bit hazy). Here are the results in graph form:

(Click to enlarge)

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.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

The Greatest Thing That Has Ever Happened

Clip begins at the good part.

Canadians are generally nice people. They're usually better educated, friendlier, more humble, and more compassionate than Americans. But when it comes to hockey, they turn into the ugliest of Americans and display that unique combination of arrogance, ethnocentricity, bullying, and ill-begotten success that is basically the law of the land down here. So it's glorious whenever they get their comeuppance, and it's particularly phantasmagoric when it's the artful Russians doing it and doing it in a comeback/collapse of historic and epic proportions. Long story short, last night was one of the best hockey watching experiences of my life.

I'll note that not all Canadians take such a silly view of the sport, and this is a pretty decent article on the whole thing, although that it needs to be written at all speaks volumes.

Monday, January 3, 2011

2011 WJC QF RUS 4 FIN 3 OT

56 and a half minutes into this game (and just a couple hours after my own team's 6-3 loss against our bitter division rivals (1 gorgeous goal, 5 shots, -2)), I was planning on writing a very different post. It was going to be about how the Russians made a mistake in not taking some very talented underage players who play in canadian junior leagues, e.g., Nail Yakupov, Vladislav Namestnikov, Alexander Khokhlachev, and Stanislav Galiev. (Russia's coach, Valeri Bragin, opted for older, more experienced players from the KHL intead, and he also omitted Alexander Avtsin, who plays in Hamilton in the AHL and who played well for Dinamo Moscow last season, presumably because Avtsin missed the pre-tournament exhibition series and so Bragin was not familiar with him. The Russian players selected, with the exception of in Vladimir Tarasenko and Evgeni Kuznetsov, are light on game breaking offensive skill, and Nemenstnikov or Kokhlachev could have made the difference in a tight checking, low scoring game against Finland.) It was also going to be about the shaky Russian goaltending that led to Finland's first goal, where Dimitri Shikin mishandled a weak shot and then appeared to fall down as the Finish player attempted a wrap around which was ultimately poked in. But mostly it was going to be about Kuznetsov, the Washington Capital first rounder who is highly skilled and comes with some personality as well. In the middle of a nice KHL campaign in Chelyabinsk, Kuznetsov brought some high expectations into the tournament, but absent a terrible roughing penalty that put his team down 2 men, he had done nothing virtually nothing against the Fins, who were about to skate away with a well-deserved 3-1 win. That all changed when Kuznetsov took the puck to the net at the end of a uneventful power play and poked in the rebound against Finland's goalie Joni Ortio, who was fantastic all game, to give the Russians some life. And then 2 minutes or so later he did this:

The defenseman he undressed is Sami Vatanen who is their best player and a future NHL star. A gorgeous move at any time of any game, but down by one with a minute and a half to go in an elimination game, it's really a legendary play. Oh yea, he won the game in overtime with a sick shot:

Unfortunately, the Russians have almost no chance today playing on only 15 hours turnaround time against a Swedish team that is stacked and was resting and relaxing while they watched Finland and Russia slug it out. But it was an inspired performance by both teams and some real genius by Kuznetsov.