Thursday, September 24, 2009

NHL Hockey in Winnipeg: Post Game

Off to the game tonight! The last time I saw the Oilers play live it was also a preseason tilt at the MTS Centre. I was lucky enough to end up with a puck from that game (it's true: I'm rich, bitch!) as well as sit with a good friend who possesses a keen eye for talent - he identified Patrick Thoresen as a legitimate player right from puck drop while I was busy fawning over the "speed" of Toby Petersen and goal scoring "prowess" of Alex Mikhnov.

Tonight I will be sitting 8th row, front and center, with that same good friend. For my own enjoyment I'll do my best to post after the game with my thoughts and his. If you're watching on TSN and have no need of this commentary, deal with it: it's not every day I get to see my favourite NHL team in my home city and I will enjoy it however I like :)

Post Game Thoughts:

First off, I really meant to get these posted last night. But then I got drunk.

My experience at the MTS Centre last night started off in an amazing way. I'm not sure how much detail is appropriate but right after entry, I found myself on a brief tour of the facilities by a staffer at the arena which included...

The press box.

First thing I noticed was a gorgeous brunette near the entrance who smiled at me which definitely made me feel more at ease. The second was that Bob Stauffer is a very large man which kind of killed the boner I had going from #1. And lastly, as surprised as I was to see him, Tony Rajala was in the press box smiling and looking rather sharp in a nice suit. My first thought here was WTF but then, he does play in Brandon and I later had it confirmed that he came over on the charter with the team. My tour was quick and I didn't talk to any of the aforementioned, but if you happen to be a press box visiting gorgeous brunette who smiled a boner into the pants of a handsome U of M student...

Anyhoo. Next stop on the tour was the tunnel underneath the stands that the Oilers used to take to the ice from their dressing room. Unfortunately, we made it there about a minute too late and just caught the team turning the corner towards the ice from a distance but still: for me, this was amazing! I had no idea any of this was going to happen and I was sporting a shit eating grin as a result of it for at least half the 1st period.

Speaking of which, there was hockey last night!
I'll basically pull from my notes from here on out:

The atmosphere:
The arena wasn't full and it felt like it, but the announced ~12k felt about right. From what I saw it was mostly pro Oilers (by the way, for the first time I know how much hotter a hot girl is while wearing copper and blue) with the occasional Bolts jersey. I also, for the first time, ran into a Flames fan in the concourse and felt that despite my choice to respect him as a human being I need not look him in the eye or acknowledge his presence in any way whatsoever. Is this about par for the course or was I supposed to jersey him and take his beer?

The 1-2-2:
At times I was surprised with just how passive Edmonton's forcheck was - they frequently dropped into a 1-2-2 so passive the rear wingers were chilling out by the offside dots. This wasn't always the case but it was clearly a part of the system and honestly, it tended to work. We shall see if it carries forward into the regular season but it might be a decent way of idiot proofing puck recovery for our particularly small group of forwards.

Ryan Stone:
I texted someone (doritogrande, iirc) during the intermission that Ryan Stone has every tool of a top 6 forward but speed. He was hitting, he was blocking shots, he was a 1st choice winger on the pk, and he was able to create a little bit of offense down low. Stone also incited one of the best moments of the night: Steve Downie's raging charge through the Bolts' zone into a flying hit on a Lightning teammate. Despite my praise and this hilarious moment, Ryan Stone was also the poster boy for an Oilers roster gone wrong on the game winning goal - a goal that was only scored because none of Horcoff, Brodziak, or Malholtra were available to take the draw. My one game verdict: I'd be happy with Ryan Stone on the 4th line or as a 1st choice callup.

Gilbert Brule:
One of my favourite Oilers of the night. He was skating well, made some nice plays to retain the puck and some nice passes transitioning through the neutral zone. Brule also loves to hit people, and while this may have helped in terms of puck recovery it's clear that he will never crush people at the NHL level like he did in junior. He was also Quinn's consistent choice for a 2nd pk unit winger, suggesting to me that he along with Stone were being given every chance to audition against each other. Gilbert Brule's best shifts of the game came in OT where he and Dustin Penner were, strangely enough, dominant on shift 1 and were rushed back onto the ice 2 shifts later for a 2nd go at it.

Dustin Penner:
Speaking of #27, he was actually great to watch. For a guy who I've been down on in the past from time to time because he never quite looked like he gave a shit, Dustin Penner was one of Edmonton's best players for the 2nd night in a row. He was separating people from the puck, winning battles, and was perhaps the best Oiler in OT - while I thought he was gassed at the end of his first overtime shift, Penner was good to go for round 2 and did it all again with aplomb.

Rob Schremp:
Those fans who say he was invisible last night are overstating things quite a bit; I have photographic evidence that Rob Schremp was in the building last night and that his features were not in fact ghostlike and transparent but were instead perfectly opaque. So while you might damn him with your curses of shineboxery and your suggestions that beneath his sugartits there lies no heart, I will simply damn him with faint praise: Schremp looked like he fit in just fine in a non impactful sort of way. His best shifts came at the end of the game, first getting denied on the doorstep towards the end of period 3 and then having a halfway dangerous shift with Nilsson driving the bus in OT. I don't want him on my NHL team and feel he is skilled only in a narrow view but I think that there are few fans who can speak on Rob Schremp hockey without past arguments clouding our judgment. Oh well, see you on waivers Robbie!

Robert Nilsson:
Speaking of overstatements, I don't think it's safe to say that Robert Nilsson was the best player on the ice last night. I have read this in a few places but I will say only that he had a good game. Nilsson appeared by my eye to be skating better as the night went on and was most effective towards the end of the game, especially in OT driving the bus in his duo with Schremp hanging on. One funny moment of the night, at least for me, was seeing Gagner way effing more excited for Nilsson's goal than anyone else on the ice including Rowbear himself. Is Sam always this animated? I took it to mean that he is pulling for his old linemate. Anyhow, a solid effort and when he had time and space, Nilsson looked dangerous.

Sam Gagner:
I'll be honest and say that I expected Gagner to impress me more than he did. Maybe asking him to dominate like the last time I saw him at the MTS Centre was a little much, but for every great pass (and there were a few) there was an equal amount of frustration as he skated the puck to a standstill on the halfboards and then turned it over. In his favour I will say that Gagner has sublime vision finding lanes for teammates to skate into and demonstrated it more than once leading Andrew Cogliano into gaps in the neutral zone.

Andrew Cogliano:
It was a treat to see his wheels up close and personal. There was one sequence where he was kind of coasting back towards the Oiler blue line just as Edmonton forced a turnover and Gagner took it the other way. Cogs made an instantaneous U-turn, kept his head up, and by his second crossover back towards Tampa's zone, he had gained a step on both Lightning defencemen. Unreal.

A second note and a bit of an aside leading from Cogliano's goal. The more I watch the replay the more I think that the reason his shot beat Smith was largely the timing of release. Once upon a time I played soccer at a reasonably high level and I often found it easy to step around defenders by changing direction at unexpected rhythmic moments as opposed to with especially impressive dribbling skills. By delaying a step by half a second or taking an extra one just a little bit faster than before I could make defenders look pretty silly without ever doing anything remotely intricate. I think Cogliano "flatfooted" Smith on his goal last night and I will be keeping an eye on his timing in the future. I'm not sure if I've explained this as clearly as I'd like but if anyone out there has ever studied musical theory, theatre, or comedy (or has had a similar sports experience to mine) then maybe you understand what I'm trying to get at.

Jordan Eberle:
I came away from the game last night feeling very relieved about Jordan Eberle. It has long been my fear that he would have no sense of battle, no hope at puck recovery, and be consistently overmatched both through his smaller size and through a lack of try much in the same way Schremp is. I'm not ready to say Eberle is an NHL forward and he could clearly stand to gain from some additional strength but the guy has try and came up with more than his fair share of pucks in the corner. To use a MacT-ism, the play didn't die on his stick nearly as much as I expected. As a result, I think Eberle had a pretty solid game and created some chances - my verdict is that it sure would be nice if he could play in the AHL but I'll be just as happy to see him at the World Juniors one more time.

I asked my buddy Chris if he wanted me to take pictures of people in the penalty boxes (we were right behind them). He suggested I wait until Moreau took one so that I would have the definitive shot. Five minutes later:

Moreau was also one of two Oilers to take the pregame skate without a helmet on; this struck me as odd and perhaps a bit ego driven when I saw the other was Steve Staios. Maybe I'm projecting the leadership issues we read about from time to time on too tiny a detail but when only two players go helmet free it rubbydubs me the wrong way and conveys arrogance. Thoughts?

The Fourth Line:
Steve MacIntyre, god love him, is not an NHL hockey player. Zack Stortini had a quiet night and I still think of him as a tweener. Strangely enough, I came away impressed with Liam Reddox on both sides of the puck. He does little things defensively that are endearing (for example, he went down to block a shot. The Dman tried to step around him. He made the extra effort to swing his stick around and swatted it away). He has hands, honestly he does. In junior, where more players were his size and he was probably faster than many of them I can definitely understand why Reddox put up points. Is he an NHL player > Toby Petersen? I have yet to make up my mind.

The defense:
Doritogrande was a pretty big fan of Chorney, who I thought made some smart but unnoticed pinches on the powerplay. I'm not sure if this speaks to bad communication, other players' lack of trust in him, or the fact that a certain Rob Schremp was unwilling to give up the puck but I think Chorney found some good lanes. Staios was Staios. Stupid fucking penalty but the rest of his game was very solid, physical, what-you-want-of-a-veteran-bottom-pairing-guy. All of Gilbert, Grebeshkov, and Visnovsky had acid trip moments but Gilbert's goal was a fantastic wrister, Grebeshkov made a gorgeous pass to Cogliano for a goal, and Visnovsky made a lot of solid defensive plays. Chris called him a rat, saying he would be annoying as hell to play against and I agree completely. As for Laddy Smid, the first thing I noticed in person was that his stride is smooth as hell. I've quietly thought this for some time but Smid reminds me so much of Eric Brewer when I watch him: smooth stride, good hands, technique-wise he often just looks like a top flight player dammit but in the end top-4 D is the most reasonable expectation I can think of despite said look.

Jeff Deslauriers:
I am not fan and never have been so take this with a grain of salt. Half the time he looks like an NHL goalie: he made a nice glove save by outwaiting the shooter (Stamkos) in tight and picked off a couple of deflections with some pretty impressive reflexes. The other half: out of position, goes down too easily, lost track of the puck, does not ever appear to cover as much of the net behind him as his size dictates should be possible. With Khabibulin's age and JDD's warts I am sincerely worried about goaltending in Edmonton in the near future.

In Conclusion:
I had fun. I owe Chris a huge thank you for his company, the excellent seats, and for the series of events that led to the tour. I am hungover.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Ice Veins: A New Journalistic Blog

I have a great friend, one who I've grown up with since we made paper mache dragons in Mrs. Klassen's grade 3 classroom, who is a Ryerson Journalism grad. He has recently started a journalistic style blog that I urge all of you to have a look at. Today he's got an interesting Hamilton story with Winnipeg implications up that hasn't yet made it into mainstream media to the best of my knowledge.

Now you won't get the same statistical analysis at his blog that you do here but he is a great friend, a solid writer, and he is looking to gain some traction in the media. Drop by his site (he has linked to this one as well) and leave whatever comment you like.

Enjoy your weekend!

Friday, September 04, 2009

Positional Shot Quality

[Note: I had my curiosity piqued the other day, and I ended up writing this article. Since I don't have a blog, I thought I'd post it here. Thanks to Vic and crew. Hopefully I'll be able to contribute more in the future. - Sunny Mehta]

Shot quality at even strength has been a point of debate around these parts lately. Some folks have built shot quality models. Others have poked holes into those models’ reliability and significance. Some people have linked specific team defensive tactics with suppressing opposing shot quality. Others have questioned the evidence for its existence on a league-wide scale.

Rather than focus on what we don’t know, I’m going to focus on what we do know. Let’s start with something most everyone agrees on: A good amount of evidence exists that offensive players can, in fact, display the ability to take higher quality shots than other offensive players. I.e., shooting percentages for certain players are persistently higher than can reasonably be explained by chance (see: Kovalchuk, Ilya).

Further, we observe a large difference in shooting percentages between forwards and defensemen. It makes intuitive sense that shots taken by forwards are more likely to go in than shots taken by defensemen. The numbers back that up. We don’t need any fancy models: forwards shot 9.6 percent at even strength last season, and defensemen shot 4.1 percent. And we see similar splits every year. [Note: the data in this article is taken from Behind The Net, which unfortunately includes empty net goals, as well as certain inconsistencies with regards to players traded mid-season. My numbers would be slightly more accurate with those two issues resolved, but the conclusions would be the same.]

So, before we look at a team’s overall shooting percentage and attempt to debate how much of it was luck versus skill (or randomness versus shot quality), we can at least first look at the composition of their shots with regards to forwards and defensemen. After all, that is one area of “shot quality” we know exists and can therefore confidently adjust for.

The following chart shows the results of my inquiry:

(2008-09 Even Strength)

Let me explain the last column on the right. It is each team’s Expected Shooting Percentage based on the ratio of shots taken by forwards relative to defensemen. (Each team’s forwards and defensemen were assigned league average shooting percentage, 9.6 and 4.1, respectively.)

A few observations:

1) Some teams, even after adjusting for forward/defensemen shot ratio, over- and under-performed their expectation by a significant amount. That could be due to either randomness or the fact that their individual forwards and defensemen are offensively better or worse than average.

2) A more precise way to model this would be to weight every team’s shots by the historical shooting percentage of the player who took each shot, and then see how far teams over- and under-performed their expectation. That’d be a hell of a task.

3) I’d be curious how persistent the ability to have forwards take more shots relative to defensemen is at the team level. If someone wants to run these numbers for previous seasons for comparison sake, or run some sort of split-reliability test, that’d be great.

4) If every team took the same number of shots, the scoring impact due to F/D shot ratio from the 30th team to the 1st team is 13 goals. Doesn’t sound like a lot, but on the other hand, I guess ~2 wins isn’t scoff-worthy.

5) Detroit led the league in total shots. No surprise there. But they also led the league in shots by forwards. That may surprise people. The Wings are often, and incorrectly, accused of padding their shot totals by taking a ton of shots from the point.

6) Pittsburgh was second in shots by forwards. Considering they have a few forwards with some pretty serious talent, don’t be surprised if the Pens are near the top of the shooting percentage list again next season. (And considering Pittsburgh increased their overall shot totals and decreased their shots against once Bylsma took over, don’t be surprised if they are near the top of the standings either.) With a whopping 181 goals, Pittsburgh’s forwards led the league by a fairly wide margin. (They had more than double the goals of the Islanders’ forwards. LOL.)

7) The fact that defensemen have such persistently lower shooting percentages than forwards certainly begs the interesting inquisition into the effect of shot distance on shot quality. Are defensemen scoring at a lower rate than forwards primarily because they are shooting from farther out or because they have less offensive talent?

Viewing teams’ shots and shooting percentages separated out by forwards and defensemen has value. The two positions are inherently different, and observing them separately adds nuance and gives a more descriptive view of what is happening on the ice. And as far as measures of shot quality go, this one is much less prone to recording bias than others.

Viewing a breakdown like this for teams' shots against would probably also be insightful.