On Zach Parise, Players Using Analytics, and Healthy Skepticism

There’s a show called Modern Family in which a couple adopts a child named Lilly. The show plays up the little girl’s typical curiosity, as at varying points she’ll go into a phase where she just asks “why” continually until her parents get fed up. For some reason I thought of that while reading this piece by the Star Tribune’s awesome Minnesota Wild columnist Mike Russo this morning. Parise has always been one the players I have most admired because I think he blends the old school abilities to work hard, go to the net, block shots, and play in all situations, with the more new school skills at puck handling, entering the offensive zone with control, and most importantly, scoring goals. I may be Canadian, but even I could appreciate how cool his game tying goal in the 2010 Olympic Gold Medal Game was (and let’s just not forget how that game ended).

Anyway, simply by asking “why,” Parise was able to figure out that his attitude towards the dump and chase needed to change. I wrote yesterday about why I think it’s important that players understand and embrace analytic concepts, rather than simply heading future analytic-minded coaches’ advice. And I think Parise is a good example of why. In his first season in Minnesota, he made this comment.

“We went to the Finals dumping and chasing. We did it more than anybody. And we scored a lot.” And for players who don’t understand the probabilistic nature of hockey (hint: most surely don’t), that attitude is pervasive. You can win while dump-and-chasing, just like you can win without taking a lot of shots. But that doesn’t mean it will continue or that there aren’t problems.

“I just got kind of, not brainwashed, but my last couple years in New Jersey we were so adamant about dumping the puck in,” Parise says in Russo’s article. And so does every player. They grow up learning to play a certain way, and unless they’re lucky enough to pass through Kyle Dubas and Sheldon Keefe’s Greyhounds program, they likely never get what they’ve learned challenged. And the older you get, the harder it is to unlearn.

So let’s be Lilly for a moment, and consider the type of scrutiny that could lead a player to challenge his or her own views:

I’ve been told to dump the puck nearly exclusively in the neutral zone.

Why?

Because that’s the way it’s always been done.

But why?

Because you need to get the puck deep.

Why?

Because by getting the puck deep you can skate hard and go regain possession in the offensive zone.

But didn’t you already have possession? By carrying the puck in wouldn’t you be giving the puck up just to go get it again?

Well sure, but if you try to carry the puck in you might give up possession and cause a turnover.

But isn’t dumping it in essentially a turnover anyway?

Well kind of, but it would be a turnover in a less dangerous place.

But if you gain more possession, shots, and chances from carrying the puck in, isn’t it possible that you earn more net goals by carrying the puck in as much as possible, even if sometimes it results in dangerous turnovers?

And that’s where reading something like this, or any of the shorter summaries around the web, can come in handy for players. You don’t need a background in math, or even heavy reading skills, to understand the concepts or the conclusions. They’re hockey concepts after all.

Players don’t need to spend their time figuring out hockey’s yet to be unearthed inefficiencies, but they do need to have an open mind and a healthy skepticism. As do we all. Always ask “why,” and if you can’t find a satisfactory answer, change your approach until you find one.

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