How I would “Fix” the NHL All-Star Game

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It seems like there have been 1000 of these articles written, so I thought I would throw my hat in the ring.

First of all, it’s important to remember that an All-Star Game is primarily for kids. When you’re 6 or 10 or even 14, All-Star Games are a novelty with no equal, the opportunity to see your heroes play together in a best-on-best competition, while learning more about their personalities. When I was younger, I got to go to the game in Montreal, the one where Alex Kovalev scored a hat-trick, the shootout winner, and game MVP. The Bell Centre was going crazy, it was a great environment, and a cool event. Live music (kinda trashy live music, but you take what you can get), different jerseys, all the stars, I loved it.

So before you complain about how the All-Star game sucks, remember the game isn’t really for you. Just relax and maybe log off for a little while.

But anyway, here’s how I would fix that….ordeal.

VOTING:

First of all, the voting process. I was not one of the people who had a big problem with John Scott being in the All-Star game, but I also wasn’t among those championing him. Sure, I like the idea of the underdog write-in, I was all in favor of Rory Fitzpatrick. But Vote Rory was a fan-created push to celebrate a veteran player. Vote John Scott was a media-driven campaign to make fun of the NHL. Yeah, those are simplifications, there’s more overlap than that, but essentially, if it was about celebrating a journeyman, a genuine beloved guy, there were far better candidates than Scott (Guys like Shawn Thornton, Adam Burish, Jason Chimera spring to mind, just based on my interactions with them).

So here’s what I would do. I would have the NHL or NHL GMs select all of the All-Star players, with two exceptions. Every team’s media contingent would nominate a player as an honorary All-Star (in a similar fashion to the Masterton Trophy). They would be instructed to nominate a player who has served the game well over a number of years, and has never before been All-Star. Fans then would have the chance to vote for one of those guys from each conference to make the game (baseball has a similar voting process for the last two All-Stars).

SKILLS COMPETITION:

Here’s the biggie. The NBA uses their skills competition as a way to flaunt the best their sport has to offer in a number of categories. The NHL, instead, just pulls guys who are already at the game into various competitions that may or may not be something each player is fit for. John Scott hardest shot? Dustin Byfuglien, fastest skater? Brandon Saad, shootout expert? Sure, why not. It makes for some pretty uninteresting events overall.

Instead, choose the players in the league we legitimately think are best in each category, and bring them for the weekend to exclusively participate in the Skills competition. This way, the rest of the All-Stars can take it easy and schmooze on the Saturday.

What are said competitions?

1. Fastest Skater:

This event is pretty self-explanatory, I don’t have a problem with how they do it now. Except obviously, now you can actually use the guys you think are the fastest.

Potential competitors: Michael Grabner (Leafs), Matt Duchene (Avs), Marian Gaborik (Kings), Carl Hagelin (Penguins)

2. NHL Chicken/Puck Knockout

I’m not sure what the widespread name for this game is, but here’s the idea. Eight (or any number of) players start in the center circle each with a puck. If your puck leaves the circle you’re out. The goal is to be the last player with your puck still in. Who wouldn’t love to see NHLers attempt this game? I’ve been calling for this for years, it HAS to happen.

Potential competitors: Patrick Kane (Blackhawks), Pavel Datsyuk (Red Wings), Jaromir Jagr (Panthers), Evgeny Kuznetsov (Capitals), P.K. Subban (Canadiens), Sidney Crosby (Penguins), Vladimir Tarasenko (Blues), Johnny Gaudreau (Flames)

3. Hardest Shot

Another classic, but it really means nothing if Zdeno Chara isn’t there, so get the best of the best.

Competitors: Zdeno Chara (Bruins), P.K. Subban (Canadiens), Shea Weber (Nashville Predators), Alex Ovechkin (Capitals)

4. Breakaway Challenge

Here’s where it gets tough, because the stuff we’ve seen in this event over the years has been embarrassing. We need some real dazzle.

Anything short of Rob Schremp-esque skill, or Patrick-Kane esque entertainment, just won’t do. Ideally, you want the two combined.

So get the best of the best, even if the best is playing in the minors. Call up Rob Schremp, or better, discover the new Rob Schremps. I’m sure there are guys currently playing in the AHL or NHL that can pull moves like that, it’s just up to the league to figure out who they are. So my list of contestants will be uncreative and short, but the NHL should be able to get four guys who a) know that they will be participating at least a month in advance, and b) have skills that will really make people go “wow”.

Potential Competitors: Kane, Schremp, but really hopefully guys even better than them. Being able to pick the puck up with your still is basically a prerequisite, or at least having the creativity to do this.

As for the real game, it doesn’t really matter. I’m fine with the 3-on-3, I was fine with 5-on-5 as well. It’s not supposed to be real hockey. It really can’t be. Just make it fun.

Bring back the fantasy draft, if it takes a few brews to loosen the players up, I don’t have a problem with that (though for some I guess the U.S. government might). And let P.K. Subban — and any players that have more to say than “Oh yeah just great to be here it’s exciting” — do most of the media work.

There, a more polished and exciting All-Star weekend.

On the St. Louis Blues and Seizing Rams Fever

There have been a lot of murmurs of late about the St. Louis Blues’ interest in Jonathan Drouin. There have also been rumors about the availability of star defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk. In short, nobody really knows what the Blues will look like come March, which is odd, considering they currently sit third in a competitive Central Division, 11 points clear of losing a playoff spot, and 10th in Score-Adjusted Corsi percentage.

But this uncertainty stems from the team’s salary situation. The Blues are a budget team, and one which, with this core of playoffs, has blown series leads and lost first round playoff series in consecutive years. Captain David Backes is a UFA this summer, and will likely command a huge raise despite nobody being quite clear on just how good he is. Shattenkirk is under contract at a reasonable $4.225 million for this year and next, but then he too will command a big salary, so it’s reasonable to entertain dealing him while he still has serious value.

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On Fourth Lines and Weighing Intangibles

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CalClutterbuckNYI by Lisa Gansky. Licensed under Creative Commons via Commons.

I was listening to this great episode of the PDOCast in which the guys discussed the recently waived Alex Semin and had a couple of additional thoughts on evaluating fourth liners, and on how the mold of the bottom-six forward has evolved over the years.

First of all,  I don’t believe in ever dismissing conventional hockey wisdom. There is wisdom in experience, and guys who have been around hockey for a long time have deep insight that can shed a lot of light on the game. Let’s take fighting for example. A former player might tell you that a good fight can swing momentum, and a quant might (very many have) dismissively wave them aside.

“There is no proof of that. Run along now.”

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John Tortorella wants to know…

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John Tortorella by Robert Kowal. Licensed under Creative Commons via Commons.

Today, John Tortorella had a question about power plays.

It’s certainly a reasonable thing to wonder. It also seems like the kind of thing that, you know, your analytics person or department could quite easily figure out. But hey, the “let those Twitter guys figure it out” approach works as well I guess.

Anyway, I took the bait, partially because I am a power play fiend and partly because I’ve become more and more interested by faceoff impact. So I figured out the numbers. It’s important to note that NHL scorekeeping can be sketchy. Each scorer may have a different definition of a faceoff win, which can lead to some problems. But at this point, it’s what we have, so let’s take a look.

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The Dangers of Shooting and Save Percentage Graphs

Chart courtesy of @kikkerlaika

Chart courtesy of @kikkerlaika

Regression is a dangerous word.

That’s especially true because with the increase in the popularity of measures like PDO, fans have become prone to yell the term in a (figurative) crowded theatre and then run away. Regression is the beginning of the discussion, not the end. Teams don’t all regress to the same values, or at the same rate. Basically, tread with caution.

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How Do I Know If My Team Is Any Good? Introducing Inceptum

ButlerVolmer1 by

ButlerVolmer1 by Enseeg via WikiMedia Commons.

Corsi has a lot of flaws. First of all, it’s not an accurate measure of possession. Corsi is just shot attempts, so it doesn’t actually measure how often a team has the puck on its stick, or its time in the offensive zone, or any other useful metric like that. Second, all shots aren’t created equal. Corsi treats a feeble wrister from the point with no traffic in front the same as a point-blank one-timer in front. Finally, it doesn’t take into account compete level or chemistry. I’m not sure why people try and use Corsi to evaluate teams.

I have come up with a far superior way to evaluate them. I called it Inceptum. Inceptum is a little difficult to explain, but the important thing is that it does a good job at predicting what will happen for the rest of the season. So if you want to know whether the team you support is as good as (or better than) its record, don’t look at goal differential, don’t look at Corsi — which isn’t even real possession — look at Inceptum, which has been shown to do a better job of predicting the results from the rest of the year than any box-score measures.

Goal differential after 10 games, for example, explains 23% of the variance in end of season goal differential, while Inceptum explains 32%! My metric is certainly not perfect, and one always has to take into account contextual factors and the eye test — luck plays a big role as well — but it’s one of the best evaluative tools we now have.

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A Look into Alex Ovechkin’s Elite Power Play Abilities

"Alex Ovechkin2" by Keith Allison. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.

Alex Ovechkin2” by Keith Allison. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.

I don’t know if we’ll ever see a power play quite like that of this decade’s Washington Capitals. We can’t attach a firm date to it because it could extend as far as the end of Alex Ovechkin’s career at this rate, but we know that its peak of power began with the hiring of Adam Oates as Caps head coach back in 2012. Oates had run a successful 1-3-1 power play for the New Jersey Devils with Ilya Kovalchuk as his trigger-man, but nothing even close to the heights he managed to achieve with the man advantage in his two seasons in DC. Barry Trotz, to his credit, has kept the same formation — what’s that old adage about things that ain’t broke? — with only minor tweaks, and last year the power play continued to succeed.

Now there’s a lot to discuss about the formation and its success — I like to think of the Caps’ PP as a work of art more than anything else — but for the sake of this post I’m going to focus in on Alex Ovechkin. Never has there been a more criticized future first-ballot Hall of Famer, nor arguably a more controversial elite goal scorer. It should already be a given that Ovechkin is the best power play goal scorer of all time — he sits fifth overall in PPG/g despite playing in a significantly lower scoring era than his contemporaries like Mike Bossy and Mario Lemieux — but I would argue by the time he retires, he will also likely be the greatest goal scorer of all time period. It’s the man advantage recently, in the latter stages of Ovechkin’s goal scoring peak, that has been the sniper’s bread and butter. Since Oates brought the 1-3-1 to town, Ovi has scored 48% of his goals on the power play, compared to 33% prior to that. He scored 25 power play goals last year, six ahead of the next highest total in Joe Pavelski’s 19. You have to go back another five to reach the player who is in third — Claude Giroux with 14 — indicating how great of a season the Sharks’ center/winger had, but that’s a story for another day.

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Hockey Abstract 2015 and the Skills Needed For Analysis

I was thinking today about the skills that it takes to be able to analyze hockey properly, and it took me back to classroom learning. As somebody who hated memorization, it was always a relief to me when a teacher explained that we didn’t need to know something specific for the test. Providing a periodic table, or a t-table, or allowing us to write our own “cheat sheets” for a test was interpreted as a measure of sympathy by the professor. “I know this stuff is hard as hell; I’ll cut you a break and relieve you of a little studying.”

The truth, though, is that allowing the use of these materials, or going as far as holding open-book tests, has practical legs. In the real world, whether in science or math – really in most fields – it is more important to be able to find and interpret information than to know it offhand. If one needs to perform a chi-squared test, for example, in the internet age I can find that information very easily. The more experience one has in the field, the less one will need to rely on guides to perform such calculations, but until that point there is no need to hold information that can easily be found.

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