From the outset, I want to say the Player’s Tribune, conceptually, is a wonderful thing. To have players guest post or answer questions without the emotions of a post-game presser or rigid formality of a journalist interview provides great insight to their personalities. And just like anybody we’d encounter in daily life, they say things we agree with, things we don’t agree with, or things we might’ve worded differently. Take, for instance, today’s “Mailbag” with Paul Bissonnette. A majority of the interview, which were questions from readers, were your general enforcer interview questions: best fight, worst fight, scary fight, do you like to fight, etc.
But then there was this final question, which I can only assume came from Mark Spector:
Bissonnette’s response, his longest of the interview, was chock full of wrong, with plenty of right on the side.
He begins by noting:
Half the teams in the league have pretty much said, “We’re done with the fighters and mutants,” under the assumption (or hope) that other teams will follow suit. But where this falls apart is when other teams have players who can both fight and play at a world-class level. That’s a clear advantage.
From the outset, time and again we’re just not seeing a clear advantage from the act of fighting, or from teams that decide to fight more often. It doesn’t boost play, or attendance, and it doesn’t make it safer out on the ice. For all intents and purposes, fighting is circumstantial evidence, which he proceeds to demonstrate in the paragraph following the one above. To paraphrase Bissonnette: some successful teams have enforcers, some don’t, some have big guys who seem like they’d enforce in the course of play, and some don’t. … Circumstantial evidence, from the man himself.
Then he drops a little jewel, what seems like a particular point of frustration:
So now you have all these bottom-feeder teams handing over boatloads of money and influence to analytics guys, and I don’t see the point.
Let’s just pump the brakes here. First of all, NHL teams have dragged their feet on analytics for decades, and even today – literally today, when this interview came out – there is still significant backlash and criticism against an analytics movement. From personal experience, and from the comments of many of the people I know trying to “make it” in analytics, you are not handed anything. It takes considerable work, both in terms of ideas and gaining exposure for those ideas, and you have to walk a tightrope between sharing and shielding information. Then, when you “break through,” you get consultant work, and consultant pay, which is nothing to hang your hat on. If you’re lucky, consultant work might get you the references for a salary job, but those “boatloads of money”? Half of that cash would be gone buying the first boat.
Nevermind the concern, when you get the job, whether they listen to you…
His response does include some fair critiques of the use of data for hockey, that I think illuminate how thoughtful Bissonnette is on this topic.
These are guys who go, “Wow, Jonathan Toews has great puck possession.” Well no shit, he’s one of the best players in the world. I don’t need stats to tell me that.
One of the conundrums when it comes to developing performance metrics is this: if your data doesn’t suggest that obviously good players are good, you need to make sure there is a justification for it. The same thing goes for obviously bad players. So in some respects, metrics have to have some of these “no duh” assessments, to make sure we’re aligning with the primary focus: success. Conversely, the whole purpose for teams is to gain competitive advantage, and recent metrics do in fact draw out players that are better or worse than they appear to most hockey fans. By the numbers, Patrice Bergeron is almost without equal, rather than a good defensive center. Cody Franson, like Anton Stralman before him, was a decent top-6 defenseman acquired for a pittance. Marc Methot is an unheralded defenseman. Eric Fehr and Alexander Semin’s combined cap hit is just short of Deryk Engelland’s. Diamonds in the rough will always be rare, but there’s gold in dem hills, pardner.
Another good critique, in a way:
Good teams generally have four great defensemen that advance the puck. So right there as a forward, you’re spending less time in your end and less time handling the puck. I find it hard to take a stat seriously when it’s mostly based off the performance of five other guys on the ice — from a struggling d-man, to a goalie who has trouble playing the puck, to a center that goes 3-for-10 on draws every night. Your advanced stats are generally more of a reflection of which lines you’re playing with and against.
One of the biggest areas of investigation for HG, along with many others writing in hockey analytics, involves getting a better grasp on “context.” In other words, this is an important question to ask, we’ve been asking it for years (at least since the mid-2000s), and there have been several metrics built to address it. What we’ve found:
- Who you play with does matter, and there are ways to adjust for it.
- Who you play against matters a little bit, but adjustment should be limited.
- Where you tend to start your shifts also matters a little bit, but adjustment should be limited.
The capstone quote for Bissonette’s response is probably this:
Ultimately, teams don’t draft based on Corsi or possession numbers. You draft a player because you’ve watched how they perform on the ice and then consider their potential to improve.
For one, that is a limitation on the available data, and one that we’ve been addressing at HG with metrics like PCS. NHL teams are interested in improving in this area, undoubtedly because there is great value in identifying young talent that provides returns within the cheap entry-level contract years. For two, I think this is as good a point as any to note that we’re still improving our metrics. While a portion of the hockey community is hung up on bashing “Corsi”, we’ve moved on to things that are well beyond the simple Corsi concept. It’s not just about possession, it’s into the Hows of possession and scoring chance generation. We’re looking at systems, and debating the best ways to present the data.*
The irony of this interview response is that I had the opportunity earlier this year to participate in a piece for Grantland called “Knuckles vs. Numbers,” which talked about enforcers and the role analytics played in reducing their place in the game. I actually met Bissonnette, and he was fun – we joked about “the Corsis”; I used the opportunity to mention to him that he wasn’t actually a bad player by the numbers. In fact, he might have had a better career if the people above him hadn’t converted him away from his familiar position, as a defensive defenseman. While he deflected the comment, in retrospect I wonder if he even heard me, or if it got lost in the chorus of voices that switched him and held him in that enforcer role. There’s a momentum to a move like that, and if it takes you to the NHL, it becomes why you’re there. He alluded to it earlier in the interview:
Obviously, we’re dumb enough to accept a role that requires us to take a pounding in the head. But at the same time, we’re smart enough to adapt to make it to the NHL. Most fighters dreamed of being skill players at some point, but there’s something to be said for being able to honestly evaluate yourself and realize you need to change the way you play in order to make it. I don’t think that’s dumb at all.
I’ve always held that enforcers are channeled towards a perversion of the NHL dream they had growing up, and I agree that it wasn’t dumb to say, “This is the path to the NHL that they’ve given me, and I’m going to take it.” To be honest, though, and to honestly evaluate Paul Bissonnette, we sacrificed good hockey and potentially good players on a sort of brutal cult of personality.
And analytics might’ve helped us out.
* These hyperlinks are just part of the list. I’d like to also call attention to Corey Sznajder’s exhaustive efforts in his All Three Zones Project, as well as Micah Blake McCurdy’s brilliant data visualization work over at Hockey Viz. A couple of great examples of how this is more than just numbers…