Archive for the ‘Hockey’ category

The NHL Awards

06/23/2010

Tonight the NHL hands out its regular season awards. I am going to focus on the four primary awards, giving brief thoughts on who should win and why.

Hart Trophy (MVP):

Alexander Ovechkin – Going up against Sidney Crosby and Henrik Sedin, this will be a close race. Sedin led the league in points with 112, while Ovechkin and Crosby tied for second with 109. Crosby led in goals with 51, with Ovechkin second at 50. Ovechkin led in plus/minus (goals scored while you were on the ice – goals scored by the other team while you were on the ice) at +45, Sedin came in 5th at +35, and Crosby trailed dramatically at +15. To separate these incredibly close players, I would point to the plus/minus numbers and the team success of the Capitals. An MVP is not determined by which team was best, but I consider that a useful tiebreaker when players are as close as these are. A final note: If Ovechkin wins, he will become only the third player to win three straight Harts, joining Bobby Orr and Wayne Gretzky. If he wins this year, and also the next five years, he will tie Gretzky’s record of 8 straight MVP’s. Good luck with that.

Norris Trophy (Top Defenseman)

Drew Doughty – Doughty has zero chance, I think, and will surely finish third behind top scorer Mike Green and top reputation Duncan Keith. Both played on significantly better teams, and both scored more. However, the award is for top defenseman. Though Doughty does not have the scoring prowess of either of his fellow nominees, his 157 hits dwarfs the totals of Green (133) and Keith (46). In a slate that does not include Bobby Orr, I look for a skater who plays sound defense; his offensive success is distinctly secondary. For me, that is Drew Doughty.

Vezina Trophy (Top Goalie)

Ryan Miller – Call me a homer, I pick the Sabre to win. For Martin Brodeur, this is a career nomination. His career is matchless, but this season cannot match up to his competition. Ilya Bryzgalov was essential to the turnaround of the Coyotes this season, but he trails Miller in save percentage and goals against. In the end a goalie is supposed to make saves and prevent goals. Miller did it better than either of his fellow nominees, and he should win easily unless Brodeur gets some sort of career appreciation vote. Just 5 more Vezina wins, and he can tie Dominik Hasek for the Sabres record. Good luck with that.

Calder Trophy (Rookie of the Year)

Tyler Myers – I almost picked Mike Duchene to avoid picking multiple Sabres to win, but Myers has the best numbers. It is a strange ballot, with one forward, one defenseman, and one goalie. They are, to say the least, hard to compare. However, the forward, Duchene, only scored 7 more points than the defenseman, Myers, and he trailed the Myers by 12 in plus/minus. A forward should dramatically outscore a defenseman, and Duchene did not. Jimmy Howard, the Red Wings goalie, played for a two-time defending Stanley Cup finalist, and he put up good but not great numbers. This is a team that took a mediocre goalie like Chris Osgood and turned him into a Stanley Cup champion. In this case, I fault Howard a bit because the Red Wings underperformed. An argument could be made for all three, and I think this is the most wide open of races, even more than the Hart. I would side with Myers.

I know this site is lacking in hockey fans, but any thoughts from anyone?

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Explaining the Flyers to Baseball Fans

05/19/2010

I recognize that I have an audience of baseball fans for the most part, and that my hockey posts receive minimal traffic.  Nonetheless in the middle of the NHL playoffs and only the early part of the baseball season, I am tempted to write more about hockey than about baseball.  Today, let me try to combine the two.  At the moment, the Philadelphia Flyers are 2 victories away from making the Stanley Cup finals, despite being a 7-seed who only made the playoffs by winning the last game of the regular season in overtime and overcoming a 3-0 deficit in a best-of-7 series and a 3-0 deficit in Game 7 itself.  That strange confluence of events make the Flyers look extremely lucky, and that is surely part of their success.  However, let me give you a baseball analogue to the Flyers to help explain their success.

In 2006, the St. Louis Cardinals won the World Series despite having the worst record of any team to win the Series. For the regular season, they went only 83-78, a .515 winning percentage. Compare this to their Pythagorean record, and you will see a team whose year basically lined up with their record. So, were the Cardinals the worst team ever to win the World Series? Were they a total fluke? I think the answer to the first is no, and the second is a qualified yes.

For starters, put 2006 in context. The Cardinals won the NL Central each of the previous two seasons, winning 105 and 100 games respectively. In 2004 they lost the World Series to a freakishly hot Red Sox team, and in 2005 they dropped the NLCS to Houston. In 2006, they win the World Series but only win 83 regular season games. Which is the fluke? The Cardinals are flukish only when judged by their regular season record. The fluke is how few games they won, not their eventual Series win.

Second, the Cardinals were a rare playoff team that got healthier as the playoffs progressed. During the regular season, Albert Pujols played in 143 games, Scott Rolen in 142, and Jim Edmonds in 110. Only Rolen missed a single postseason game, and his was missed in the first round. Certain assumption usually hold, and one of those is that the more games you play in a year, the more injuries accumulate. For the Cardinals, this assumption failed, and woebetide the Padres, Mets, and Tigers who had to face a team with a history of 100-win talent.

What does this have to do with the Flyers? In 2010, the Flyers put up 88 points, and they barely squeezed into the playoffs as a 7-seed. Nonetheless, the team had recorded 95 and 99 points the two previous seasons. In 2008, the team made the Conference Finals, and in 2009 they pushed the eventual Cup-winning Penguins to 6 games. The 88 point regular season appears to be the aberration, not the deep playoff run.

Finally, the Flyers, outside of goalie, are surprisingly healthy. Part of the poor regular season record were key injuries to Simon Gagne and Danny Briere. Briere snuck into 75 regular season games, but he battled injury all year.  Gagne only played 58. In the playoffs, though, a healthy Briere has 9 goals and 9 assists in 14 games. Gagne has 6 goals and 3 assists in 10 games, but his healthy return in the second round changed that series. He missed the first three games, which the Flyers lost, and played the last four, all of which they won.

The 2010 Flyers are a team with a flukishly poor regular season that has gotten healthy at the right time. As the 2006 Cardinals showed the world of baseball, that can be a dangerous combination in the playoffs.

Titles as a Measure of Greatness

05/17/2010

Many people consider the titles the ultimate measure of greatness. Did a player win a title? Then he might be great. If not, he clearly was not. Classic examples of this are the contrast between Dan Marino and Tom Brady, or Bill Simmons‘ preference for Bill Russell over Wilt Chamberlain. For starters, I think this measure is nonsense. Given that all of these sports are team games, it is tough to argue that any one player determines a championship. With that point acknowledged, I do not see how championships are an appropriate measure of greatness. However, that is not my point today. Rather, I want to pick at another consequence of this line of thought. When does a player become great?

If championships are the measure, a player cannot become great before winning a title. Sometimes, this makes sense. Magic Johnson, Bill Russell, Patrick Roy, Ken Dryden, Babe Ruth, and Derek Jeter all won titles as rookies. They, then, become instantly eligible for greatness. Look at the flipside, though. Alex Rodriguez became officially great in 2009, almost certainly after he has reached the downside of his 3-time MVP career. Wayne Gretzky became great in 1984, two years after he set the single season goal record. Wilt Chamberlain became great in 1967, 5 years after averaging 50 points/game for a season and scoring 100 points in a game. Jerry West became great in 1972, his 12th season, at age 33.

Think about that very brief list for a minute. Gretzky and Chamberlain had established scoring records that stand today, yet they were not officially great. Jerry West had become the logo of the NBA, but he was not great. Rodriguez had become one of only 10 players in MLB history to win 3 MVP’s, but he was not great. Does that make any sense? Ignore, for a minute, the obvious counters to titles as a measure of greatness (i.e. Ernie Banks, Carl Yastrzemski, Dan Marino, Dick Butkus, Charles Barkley, John Stockton, etc.). Even for players who have won titles, the titles say little about these players claim to greatness.

Titles are important, clearly. In the end, teams play in order to win a title. Players, as part of a team, are supposedly united by this common goal. Nonetheless, titles make a poor measure of greatness.

The Forgotten Alexander Mogilny

04/20/2010

This article is primarily of local interest, but I find it interesting in a larger sense how great players are sometimes forgotten. What distinguishes those who are remembered from those who are lost? I can’t say. Nonetheless, I want to highlight one example from the world of hockey, Alexander Mogilny. Given that all of my readers have just gone, who?, consider my point made.

Alexander Mogilny is first of all important historically. He was one of the earliest young Russian players to come to the NHL, defecting in 1989 and joining the Buffalo Sabres. Before that, he had been a critical part of dominant Russian Juniors teams and the 1988 Olympic Gold Medalist, with linemates Sergei Federov and Pavel Bure. From there, he would become the first European to lead the NHL is scoring. The game as we know it today follows in Mogilny’s footsteps.

Second, Mogilny is the greatest pure scorer ever to play for the Buffalo Sabres. In the 1992-93 season, Mogilny put up 76 goals in 77 games, primarily because he cooled off after scoring 50 in his first 46 games. This is the fifth highest single season total in NHL history. The next highest total in Sabres history? 56. Yet when the local sports radio station unveiled their “Buffalo Brackets” to honor, among other things, the greatest players in Sabres history, Mogilny couldn’t crack the top 16. Why? What happened to the memory of Alexander Mogilny?

Third, Mogilny was painfully inconsistent. This, I think, became his great legacy. Mogilny put up 76 goals in a season but never again scored more than 55. He had only one great playoff run, when he put up 7 goals in 7 games after the 1992-93 season. He won a single Stanley Cup, with the 2000 New Jersey Devils, yet he finished tied for 10th on the team in playoff scoring on a Cup won on the back of Martin Brodeur. Despite that inconsistency, he still has the 49th most goals in NHL history, surrounded by players like Federov, his former Sabres teammate Pat Lafontaine, and Doug Gilmour. He is the one already forgotten. He ranks 36th all-time in goals per game and 65th in career points, yet he is lost to the sands of times a mere four seasons after his last game.

What happened? Mogilny was always a bit of a disappointment. His ridiculous 76-goal season set the bar for his future impossibly high. The baseball comparison I think of is Eddie Mathews. In his first four seasons, Matthews hit 153 home runs with an OPS+ of 157. He never again approached such lofty heights, which proves that he was not Babe Ruth. He remained an outstanding player, and he should be in the argument for best to ever play third base. Yet Mathews is largely forgotten. Similarly, Mogilny was not Wayne Gretzky. Oh well. He was a remarkable scorer anyway. Why has he disappeared from the collective imagination? I don’t know.

Who are other great players that are surprisingly forgotten? I don’t mean old players. It is no surprise that few people remember Eddie Collins, since he retired 80 years ago. It is surprising how quickly Eddie Murray (just to give a series of Eddie’s) has been forgotten in less than 20. Who has struck you as tragically forgotten?

NHL Playoff Predictions

04/14/2010

Though baseball is distinctly my favorite sport, second place is a toss-up.  I like basketball, generally preferring the pros over college, yet outside of the NCAA tournament and the NBA playoffs I rarely sit down and watch a bunch of games in a short period of time.  Instead, basketball trails football and hockey by a wide margin.  Which of those two goes second?  Coin flip.  Let me give two particular things I love about hockey:

1. Pulling the goalie. Hockey coaches recognize that some nights goalies just don’t have their best stuff. The goalie gives up a couple of early goals, and then the backup comes in. Imagine this happening to a QB in football. When Donovan McNabb was benched for part of one game two seasons ago, it was a topic of conversations for the rest of the year. If Martin Brodeur, possibly the greatest goalie ever, gets benched after a poor first period, the benching is forgotten the next day. This recognition that your best player at a position can have off nights strikes me as much more realistic than the NFL approach to player management.

2. Pulling the goalie. I am a Buffalo Sabres fan, going back to the days when Dominik Hasek was dueling the Dallas Stars for the Stanley Cup basically by himself. Going into the last game of the season, the Sabres needed to beat the New Jersey Devils in regulation in order to secure the 2-seed in the playoffs. If they lost or the game went into overtime, the Sabres would get the 3-seed. The game is tied at one with 10 seconds left in regulation. What would an NFL coach do? Play it safe, do what you always do, and know that you will not be criticized the next day for doing the normal thing. What does a baseball manager do when the game hangs in the balance in the seventh inning? Bring in his closer? Of course not (look at the piece on the Tigers-Royals game). What do the Sabres do, given that the only thing that matters is a regulation win. They pull the goalie to go all out to score a goal in the last 10 seconds. Instead, the Devils score an empty net goal to win. I love watching a team go all out, even if it goes against the normal flow of things.

Given all of that, I figured it was appropriate to throw up some first round predictions for the playoffs of one of my favorite sports.

Eastern Conference:
Washington Capitals over Montreal Canadiens
New Jersey Devils over Philadelphia Flyers
Buffalo Sabres over Boston Bruins
Ottawa Senators over Pittsburgh Penguins

Western Conference:
San Jose Sharks over Colorado Avalanche
Chicago Blackhawks over Nashville Predators
Los Angeles Kings over Vancouver Canucks
Detroit Red Wings over Phoenix Coyotes

Are Modern Players Better?

01/26/2010

In The Book of Basketball, Bill Simmons argues that modern basketball players are substantially better than their historical predecessors.  This view is common across sports.  In baseball, Bill James has been known to advocate a weak version of the thesis, and anyone who listens much to sports talk radio can hear its football-based proponents weekly.  But is it true?  Here, the key is defining the question carefully?  What precisely do we mean by saying that modern players either are or are not better than players that have gone before?  We need to dig into this question in all of its permutations before we can begin to give it a satisfying answer.

Claim #1: Modern leagues are better at getting the best players to the big leagues.

This claim is simply true. Reason #1 is integration. A league that excluded all members of non-white races is not getting the same amount of talent as an integrated league. In the NHL and NBA, leagues that allow European players are drawing from a substantially larger talent pool than leagues that do not. Other reasons also abound. In baseball the decline of the minor leagues as separate sources of baseball power increased the quality of play in the major leagues. As an example, Joe McGinnity won 246 games in the major leagues in only 10 seasons. He then moved to the minor leagues and won another 207 games. The National League without McGinnity was not as good as the National League with him.

Response #1: The claim does not prove as much as it seems like it would.

Just because the current leagues are better in aggregate, because they funnel talent more efficiently, does not mean that individual players are better. Old ballplayers, it is likely, have inflated stats because they get to spend more time playing against weaker players. That says nothing about raw talent, though it does form an important part of evaluating statistics.

Claim #2: Players today are bigger, faster, and stronger.

This claim is trickier. In one sense it is clearly true. Compare two left tackles, Jonathan Ogden and Forrest Gregg. Ogden was listed at 6’9″, 340 lbs., making him one of the largest players ever to play in the NFL. Gregg, one of the largest players of the 1960s, was 6’4″, 249. The discrepancy is astounding. As a matter of fact, the discrepancy is so astounding as to undermine the point of the claim.

Response #2: Players are bigger, faster, and stronger, yet they do not possess appreciably more natural talent.

Gregg was 6’4″ and weighed 249 lbs. Nate Newton was 6’3″, 318. Walter Jones was 6’5″, 315. The change is in weight. Did Newton have extra talent that helped him gain 70 more pounds? Of course not. Instead, Newton had better weight training, nutrition, and supplements. Gregg did not have access to the wonders of BALCO, protein shakes, and regular weight training. To get at the question of talent, imagine time travel. What happens if Walter Jones was transported to 1962? He begins by dominating, and then he would shrink. I mean that literally. Walter Jones, upon losing access to modern weight training and nutrition would literally watch the pounds fall off him. Gregg comes forward? Watch the pounds get added to his frame. What would Lebron James look like in the early 1960’s? Probably a lot like Elgin Baylor. The changes cannot be ascribed to something internal to the player, and because of that they cannot be ascribed to talent differences.

Claim #3: Modern players have better stats.

This claim is only sporadically true. Modern quarterbacks have substantially better statistics than their older counterparts. Fielders in baseball commit half of the errors of players a century ago in more games.

Response #3: Stats do not exist in a vacuum.

Why do modern quarterbacks have better stats? They play with laxer passing rules during seasons with more games. Why do fielders commit fewer errors? They play on carefully manicured fields. The 1924 World Series was decided by a ball that took a funny bounce off a rock. That would not happen today. Along with these changes, some older players did have better stats. Consider Wilt Chamberlain or Cy Young as the obvious examples here.

These are three possible ways to answer the question posed in the title. I think #1 is the strongest point. Nevertheless, I don’t think that modern players are more talented. They simply have more favorable circumstances. What are other possible ways of interpreting the claim? Do you think the question is true in any sense?

The Most Transformative Goalie

01/23/2010

A few weeks back, I briefly waded into the debate about the greatest goalie in NHL history.  My sympathies rest with Martin Brodeur, as his career long excellence is unmatched even by other greats like Terry Sawchuk, Patrick Roy, and Dominik Hasek.  In comments on that post, Verdun and I briefly recapped the merits of Ken Dryden, who might have had the best peak of any goalie.  But one great goalie was conspicuously left out:  the great Jacques Plante.  Though Plante is not the greatest goalie ever, he is the one who truly transformed the position.  I once posted on the all-time transformative baseball team; if I did the same for hockey, Plante would have to be the goalie.

First, Plante was a great goalie, regardless of anything he contributed to the game. He won 7 Vezina Trophies in his time, an all-time record approached only by Hasek’s 6. As a goalie, Plante led his team to 6 Stanley Cups, including an NHL record 5 straight. Nevertheless, as good as his numbers are, he does not quite match up with the other legendary goaltenders. For his career, he is 6th in wins, 5th in shutouts. and 7th in adjusted goals against. Great, but not Brodeur. At this point, we must remember the transformation he wrought on the game of hockey.

In 1959, Plante changed the game of hockey forever. In 1956, Plante had suffered from sinusitis. In order to protect the illness, Plante wore a primitive mask in practice, but in games he went maskless like all other goalies that had ever played. On November 1, 1959, his nose was broken in the first period of a game on a shot by Andy Bathgate. After getting stitched up, Plante returned to the game wearing his old practice mask. With this, Plante introduced the world to the goalie mask. Imagine, for a second, a world in which hockey goalies do not wear masks. In 2009, Zdeno Chara set the record for hardest shot ever, with a shot of 105.4 mph during All Star festivities. Goalies would be facing hockey pucks harder than baseballs shot directly at them at speeds faster than Nolan Ryan’s fastball without a mask. Goalies would die regularly. Instead, Plante changed everything with the most common sense bit of safety equipment in all of professional sports.

Was Plante as good as Brodeur? Probably not. Has Brodeur lived longer because of Plante’s invention? Almost certainly. It is tough to imagine the NHL surviving without someone inventing the hockey mask. For that, Jacques Plante earned our thanks and respect. Greatest ever he is not, but no one changed the position quite like Jacques Plante.