Photo by John Slipec, via Wikimedia Commons
In case you missed it at 1 am this morning, Gary Lawless of the Winnipeg Free Press decided to add to a chapter in his future collection, Gary Lawless Gets Tough – Online Version (CD of Lawless Gets Tough – Radio Version coming soon!), by declaring Claude Noel needs to reduce Dustin Byfuglien’s minutes. The chapter, titled “Black Players,” is the longest of the book, filled with relentless reminders of how the players in-question aren’t anything like Gary Lawless.
The spark for the uproar, uproar being a requisite thing in the sports talk world where blowhards and mittenstringers are made to look hard-hitting and important, was an admittedly bad weekend for Byfuglien, who made a few costly errors that contributed to Jets losses. I get that “admission” from Byfuglien himself, as he’s quoted in the Lawless column: “Not playing my top. Something I have to figure out myself. Slow down and play the game I should be. Keep it simple. I might be playing a little too fast for myself right now. Tighten it up.”
That explanation, for Lawless, is “a refusal to be responsible with the puck.” But that’s just the beginning.
Admittedly, it’s not the first time Byfuglien’s turnovers have led to goals, but when you play 40% of all your team’s minutes and are an offensive defenseman, you tend to be carrying the puck a lot. Kind of like Erik Karlsson, the league leader in giveaways, whom Lawless doesn’t refer to in his tirade against Byfuglien as an example of a player whose “risk outweighs the reward.” Of course, it would be silly to refer to a counting statistic without recognizing a player’s playing time relative to others, and Lawless almost gets there, he just forgets the “relative” part. You see, a player who plays more is going to be more likely to lead in counting categories, such as shots (10th in NHL, 1st among defensemen, 17 more than Karlsson), hits (64th, 25th among defensemen), giveaways (2nd in NHL), and takeaways (6th, 2nd among defensemen and 5 more than Karlsson). Yet it’s the giveaways that stick out for Lawless, because a couple happened this weekend.
And then he follows with plus-minus, because you see, it’s not that journalists like Lawless don’t like stats, it’s that they have stats that somebody told them was important a long time ago, and they don’t want to change. It’s the same kind of attitude that jumps onto a young Evander Kane when he has a little fun, or when when Lawless wants to believe a damaging Kane rumor, or jumps on Dustin Byfuglien for a rumor that he played at 300 pounds (the same rumor that’s stated without question in Lawless’s most recent telling).
Lawless is the same kind of journalist who would point at the scoreboard and tell stats folks that that’s the only thing that matters. Well, they count shots up there too, Gary, and those numbers tell us that, despite playing top opponents in high-volume minutes, Byfuglien and Enstrom are still outchancing Jets opponents. They also tell us that he’s playing regular penalty kill minutes for the first time and he’s one of the better penalty killers in the league. Over the last three years, he has almost identical possession numbers and goaltender SV% to Duncan Keith. The scoreboard’s talking, and the proof is in the pudding, not the hot-headed.
For Lawless, the solution is to reduce Byfuglien’s minutes and look to trade him, which is about as counter-intuitive as you can possibly get. Reduce the minutes of a plus-possession defenseman, the one who helps put the puck in the net? Not unless the Jets are mailing it in this year. Nevermind the fact that the Jets have seemed to figure out the lineup and are steadily improving as a result (even with Byfuglien in there, imagine that!). Reduce the minutes of a trade asset? By all means, 29 teams will love you for that one. I guarantee you, if you listen closely enough, you can already hear the clickety-clack of thousands of eager team bloggers and fans league-wide dreaming on their computer screens of the Jets artificially discounting one of their best assets.
The coup de grâce is Lawless placing paramountcy in Don Waddell’s analysis, the same Waddell who “developed” one of the league’s worst expansion franchises. Yes, Byfuglien is a “high-risk guy,” which is why Noel has tried him on the kill, and he’s returned above-average numbers there. He’s a “high-risk guy” two days after a weekend in which those risks turned sour, when the foolhardy allowed the fresh memories to cloud their better judgment.
This is precisely the kind of thing that drives stats folks nuts. If you were down with your stats, you would know what we’ve always known: that you need to chill out and wait for the trend. That you’re not sure without being critical. That you’re not an “expert,” you’re a purveyor of information.
And it’s that last that’s been perverted almost beyond recognition in sports journalism. Like some renegade polemicist, we have people who’ve been given the title of sports journalist, granted access most of us will never dream of, and they’ve used it to gossip, ape analysis, and drive a wedge between players and their cities with all their petty transgressions. It seems to be particularly virulent in the prairie provinces and the East Coast U.S., where numerous bloggers and sympathetic journalists have fought to mend and help retain local fans’ attitudes about their blasted talent. And maybe that’s where it’s coming from; the Lawlesses of the world have an innate desire to be those loud, “tough” American sports talk show hosts who take pleasure in the attention they get for pulling legs off ants.
In such a time when this is lauded (whenever I run up against the Winnipeg Free Press paywall, I’m reminded that there are folks that actually pay for this), the people who know better, not just stats folk, are tied down to the tracks, watching the train roll them over. And if Lawless has that large of a readership in Winnipeg, maybe Winnipeg doesn’t deserve players like Byfuglien or Kane. Lose talent, keep Lawless.
Wave goodbye to your players, Winnipeg, you were made to believe you didn’t like them anyway.