Week 19 Snapshot: Out Into Nothing

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From Capstagram, which is what I call it now.

I don’t know if what I’m doing with the snapshot is really “analytics.” Hearing all the buzz at the Sloan Conference and this mostly inane Deadspin piece, there’s a lot of stuff wrapped up in that term that don’t really apply here.

The snapshot isn’t about decision-making (we don’t make any decisions), and it’s definitely not a branding effort (it probably hurts the RMNB brand by being so stodgy). For me, these statistics are just new ways to understand the game.

My educational background is in literary criticism. In that field, people discuss writing using different frameworks (formalism, deconstruction, post-colonialism, queer, etc.). The goal isn’t to decide what writing is good or bad, but to appreciate the writing in new ways and learn more about it and ourselves by looking from different– and deeper– angles.

It’s not that much different for hockey. For some people, the only metric that matters is championships. It’s a simple binary: yes you won, or no you did not. Some go deeper: how far did you make it in the playoffs: zero rounds, one round, two rounds, or more (As a Caps fan, I suspect the “more” is a myth). More nuance, more understanding, but still nothing too deep. And then you can get down to wins. And then goals. And then shots. And then– and for some reason people resist this– shot attempts.

And there are layers of rich and complex data even further below, new angles from which to look. And when we acknowledge how that low-level information can bubble up to high-level results– like championships– we create an intellectual scaffold for richer understanding of the sport. It’s miles from the championship binary.

I see why some critics consider analytics to be a retreat from complexity: because it uses numbers, which are finite, instead of descriptions, which are not. It can seem reductive. But the spirit behind the analysis is quite the opposite: it’s a framework for looking deeper, and more closely– not to blithely draw conclusions.

In this week’s snapshot: No blithe conclusions. I’ll try.

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Hockey legend Igor Larionov captured the hockey news cycle on Monday with a provocative article in the Players Tribune. Larionov’s thesis is that coaches are so stuck on hockey orthodoxy or so fearful of risk that they stifle and select against “creative” players.

The pullquote: “There’s a reason why Pavel Datsyuk went undrafted in 1996 and 1997.”

angry-linesI’m skeptical about that example, but I think Larionov is spot-on about conservative coaching in general. We see it in all sports, but hockey seems to have a particularly pernicious strain of Goodoldboysclubitis, wherein exciting, finesse players are considered too “European” and risky, and safe and pedestrian players are wildly overvalued. I suspect that disease is behind symptoms like Top-line Beagle.

It’s a chronic infection that takes the form of valuing of a player’s characteristics over his actual effectiveness. Adding hard-working, “spark”-y Jay Beagle to the Capitals scoring line despite an embarrassingly convincing body of evidence that he actually hinders scoring– that’s an acute case.

If the point of hockey is to win games, why do so many people care more about a player’s description than a player’s production? The only answer is Goodoldboysclubitis.

We’ve seen it create necrotized flesh on the Philadelphia blue line after an injection of Andrew MacDonald, and in coming years we will see similar morbidity with the addition of Brooks Orpik in Washington.

“The effect is not going to be in goals and assists,” Brian MacLellan said in July. “It’s going to be in culture and winning and attitude, and that’s what Brooks Orpik does.”

That quote, likely uttered in the throes of a Goodoldboysclubitis fever, sums up the affliction perfectly. It’s like the brain is not able to separate the ways we talk about players (“gritty,” “hard-working,” “last name is also a breed of dog”) from the things those players do to actually help win games.

The teams who can rid themselves of the disease are the ones who do best in this league.

The only cure is information. Let’s do the snapshot.

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Week 17 Snapshot: If You Don’t Like the Lines

There’s a great Mark Twain quote about weather in New England, but it sort of applies to how the Caps organize their forwards. If you don’t like the lines, just wait a few minutes.

Barry Trotz’s forward lines, which I’ve been tracking all season, get announced once or twice a day– at practice or morning skate and during warmups before games. And each time they’re followed by a chorus of criticism from professional and amateur hockey watchers, including me.

There’s always something to rail against: the guy on Alex Ovechkin’s opposite wing, who’s getting stuck on the fourth line, which pairings don’t work, who deserves a scratch but isn’t getting one, and who deserves a sweater but isn’t getting one. It’s instant fodder for content, fresh grist for the anguish mill, and an easy conversation starter.

But it’s also sort of cheap. Because there is no optimal line combination for Barry Trotz. If twenty of us were to make up our ideal lines, I doubt any two would match. There is no magic Rubik’s cube of forwards that make everyone love him and shut up. It just doesn’t exist. The lines are a loser every time, and Trotz, a coaching veteran with three decades of experience, knows it.

Every day he’s got to set back a rookie or piss off a forward. He’s got to give a sweater to a player he’d rather see traded, and maybe he’s thinking about how great some other player on some other team might be in that same spot. Even MacLellan has limited control over his roster considering the market forces and freak injuries that determine it.

That doesn’t mean we should hush up about the lines. I think we’ve got an exceptionally informed and passionate community here. We all know what it means for Evgeny Kuznetsov’s development when he takes shifts with Jason Chimera, and we should talk about it. (Though I bet Barry Trotz probably already knows as well.)

While it’s good for us to discuss and debate it, I’m going to always try to acknowledge that the lines will never be totally perfect and they’ll never be totally broken.

In this week’s snapshot, we explore the great space between those two extremes.

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Week 16 Snapshot: Aspirational Evaluation

My educational background is in literature and my day job is in information architecture. In both pursuits I spend much of my time thinking about how people think. Understanding how they learn, what their different perspectives are, and what unconscious biases they may hold made me a better writer and a better software engineer.

Now that I’m doing the hockey thing, I see those same biases in play– especially concerning younger players. Most of the furor about the Erat-Forsberg trade was rooted in a (now verified) belief that Forsberg had the potential to be a star.

Were those angry people right or did they get lucky? When do our aspirations for a player hinder our ability to discuss him accurately? And what kind of new information is most likely to make us revisit an opinion of a player?

In this week’s snapshot, let’s talk about Evgeny Kuznetsov.

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Week 15 Snapshot: Throwing Away the Halo Effect


There’s this one peccadillo in hockey discourse that is bugging me more and more. I don’t know if anyone else experiences it this way; let me know.

If I say a player had a bad game, people might hear me say that the player is bad. If I say I’d rather someone not play on a top line, people might hear me say I don’t like that player. If I say a player’s contract is very bad, people might hear me say that player himself is very bad.

But I didn’t say that, and I definitely don’t think that.

I’m not sure how to do this more precisely in the future. How can we offer a criticism (or a joke) about Jason Chimera without committing character assassination? How can we separate discussions of Jay Beagle’s deployment and Brooks Orpik’s contract from descriptions of those player and those persons?

Because I like Jay Beagle and Jason Chimera and Brooks Orpik. A lot. They wear the right colors. They’re my guys.

In this week’s snapshot, we go a little bit deeper– because “this guy sucks” is never helpful to the discussion and almost never correct.

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Glenn James

Photo: Glenn James

What do you make of a week like that one? The Caps split the week with two wins and two losses– winning over the bad teams and losing to the good teams. Are we to conclude that the Caps bullied the weak teams but couldn’t compete with the dominant possession teams?

And what about those defensive mistakes that cost the Caps both games this weekend? Matt Niskanen’s giveaway lost the game on Friday, and a half dozen blown assignments lost the game on Saturday. What even does “defense” means in a game like hockey where players transition from attacking to defending in the blink of an eye?

And what can we conclude about back-up goalie Justin Peters based on last night’s game?

In this week’s snapshot, we cut the game in half and question everything, because what do we really know anyway?

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Patrick McDermott

Halfway. Get it? (Photo: Patrick McDermott)

We are 41 games in to the 2014-15 season, exactly halfway, so now is a good time to take stock.

Let’s start with this: The Capitals are good again. After spending the last year or four wandering into the wilderness, the team is finally improving, a feat owed mostly to the hiring of Barry Trotz and the firing of Adam Oates.

The standings, which don’t necessarily tell us much about a team right now, look good. The Caps are 12th in the league with 52 points. That’s a 104-point pace. The Caps are fourth in the division behind the Rangers (who have been even hotter than the Caps lately), and they own the first wild card spot in the Eastern Conference. At a glance, it looks like the Caps are a playoff team, which is accurate, but there’s a heckuva lot more going on.

In today’s supersized snapshot special, we do the usual stuff– plus a whole lot more. I’ve got six essential conclusions that should inform what the Caps do in the back half. Get comfortable. This is a long one, and I’ll need you to share your thoughts at bottom.

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Week 12 Snapshot: The Schmidtuation


Photo: Amanda Bowen (See more!)

The Washington Capitals are looking pretty darn good overall. A whole lot of people saw them play a thrilling game against the Stanley Cup favorites on Thursday, and they just wrapped up a month that saw them become the hottest team in the league.

That’s the past. Looking at the schedule ahead, the Capitals face a murderer’s row of — well, just check this out:

  • Panthers
  • Leafs
  • Flyers
  • Red Wings
  • Avalanche
  • Flyers
  • Predators
  • Stars
  • Oilers
  • Blue Jackets
  • Penguins
  • Canadiens

Okay, actually, the Capitals could win a heluva lot of those games in January. Still, they should never stop trying to improve. There’s the usual stuff about optimizing forward lines and evening out defensive deployments, but one player in particular has caught my attention in the last week for his conspicuous absence from play. In today’s snapshot we ask, “What’s the deal with Nate Schmidt?”

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Week 11 Snapshot: It’s Been a Weird December

Gregory Shamus

Here’s Jay Beagle and Brooks Orpik celebrating a goal. (Photo: Gregory Shamus)

This is the final snapshot of 2014. What a weird year– capped off by an even weirder month. With one game left to play, the Caps took 18 out of 24 possible standings points in December, and there’s one thing above all others that is responsible for that success.

(If you’re wondering what that thing is, here’s a hint: People on Facebook spent October debating if he’s an average goalie “at best” or if he’s just terrible.)

This week’s snapshot takes a look back at the streak, the Holtbeast who made it happen, and what the Caps should do to extend it.

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Week 9 Snapshot: Finally Getting Paid

Patrick McDermott

Photo: Patrick McDermott

We’re going streaking! The Caps have won four of their last five games and taken points from all of them. Wins finally seem to be catching to the team’s generally good underlying play. Not every week is going to be smooth sailing like this one, but I think the hockey we saw over the last seven days is a reliable indication of what this team is: pretty good.

It’s tempting to chalk the recent success up to Green’s return, Chimera’s benching, or Backstrom’s heroics. Those are certainly big (and loud) factors, but I kind of see it as the whole team finally getting rewarded for playing well. If only the team had got these results in the season’s opening weeks, they might still be playing like they did in October.

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