Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Leafs should "take a lesson"? Which one is that, now?

Sometimes, I just hate sports writing. If you're going to write a headline that says a team needs to "take a lesson" from their peers - and, granted, Dave Feschuk wrote the article but probably didn't write the headline - then there should probably be a clear and intelligible lesson to be taken somewhere in the story. And it shouldn't be one that's contrary to observed results.

Ostensibly, this is a story about how teams in the Stanley Cup playoffs will sacrifice their body to block shots with reckless abandon. And - again, ostensibly - this is a good thing because it's all defense-first teams among the final four, and none of the league's top ten goal-scoring teams made that same list of four. (Let's ignore, of course, the fact that the teams with the 1st and 4th best defense from the regular season are not among those final four, either. And that one of them didn't even make it past the first round.) Of course, the quantitative sports-analyst in me would like some kind of evidence of increased shot-blocking - it seems to me that every round of every playoff, at least since I began paying attention ten years ago, is filled with shot-blocking. But, hey, it's a story and not quite aspiring to be a full analysis, so I can let that slide. He says that shot-blocking would appear to be key to success, and who am I to argue?

Hockey's most exciting play - the blocked-shot! Photo by Mike Segar/Reuters

But, wait. Some of the data that Feschuk does report seems to be at odds with his own story, because 8 of the top 11 teams in shot-blocking during the regular season didn't even make the playoffs. So, there goes that theory that it's all about defense. Or that it's all about shot-blocking, anyway. So, what "lesson" are the Leafs supposed to take from this? Because if your hook is that flimsy, you should probably look for another hook.

It seems that Feschuk went for the shot-blocking angle, at least in part, because his source for every quote in the piece is from Dave Poulin, the Maple Leafs' VP of Hockey Operations. And Poulin, at least in this conversation, really wants to talk about shot-blocking. (Well, a lot of people want to talk about it, probably because we don't have more players punching each other in the face and whatnot.)

Yep, shot-blocking wasn't invented only this year. Though, admittedly,
I'm a bit freaked out by the lack of a helmet. Photo by Ian Lindsay.

But why not challenge Poulin on the veracity of his argument, or on some of the other slightly nonsensical stuff that he has to say? (If only to make it a better story?) Here's a quote with holes so big that if it were featured on Hole in the Wall, you'd beat it every time.

“If you took the first round of the playoffs and compared it to the first half of the season, it’s totally different hockey,” Poulin said. “You’re almost thinking, ‘Do we have to have a team (designed) for the regular season, and a totally different team built for the playoffs?’ It was that dramatically different.”

The answer to his question, of course, is a resounding "no". I don't how a person employed as a VP of Hockey Operations could even ask that. (Except, I guess, if he were doing it rhetorically. Or if he were playing devil's advocate. But he's not. He's being totally sincere.) In spite of the fact that the Vancouver Canucks, the regular season's best team, were knocked out in the first round and the St. Louis Blues in the second, these playoffs still feature two division-winners and the best team from the Eastern Conference. And a number one seed gets knocked out in the first round every other year, on average. (Which means, in turn, that the number one seeds will still advance 75% of the time.) It's really not that weird.

And let's look at recent history - while only two of the past 10 Cup winners have also been the NHL's best team in the regular season, another three were the second-seed and only one of those 10 teams (last year's Bruins) weren't among the top four teams in their own conference. (The other four were fourth-seeds, but in the NHL's seeding system that typically means that they also had the second- or third-best record in the conference.) The correlation is pretty clear, I think - you need to be one of the best regular-season teams in order to have a decent shot at the Cup.

Not that you'd know that if you read this story in the Toronto Star, though. Argh.

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