Paradigm shift

Jonathan Willis
January 19 2009 03:47PM

I think it's a universal truth that we view life through the lens of our own experience. One of the best things I find about reading a variety of different takes on the same subject is challenging my own preconceived notions, and expanding my perspective on different issues.

I’ve referenced foreign news organizations before, but one of the best things I’ve ever read from that perspective is Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (although I’ll confess that I haven’t finished it yet). Early into volume one, I was surprised by Gibbon’s view of slavery; because Gibbon wrote The History in the 1700s when slavery was common practice, he writes as a pragmatist rather than a moralist. No modern historian could write about the practice in such a practical manner; he’d be obliged to insert some indignation so as to make it clear that he stood against the practice. While absolutely correct, such moralization clouds the account with a modern perspective, and one that was alien to Ancient Rome.

In any case, my particular perspective is coloured as a result of my work; I’m an oil-patch guy, and I tend to relate things that I see or read about to things I’ve seen happen in the industry. There’s been a tremendous push, even since I entered the industry a little over four years ago, towards safety. What is now accepted practice is a radical departure from how most companies operated twenty, or even ten, years ago. The requirements of this new safety-first model are often bizarre, or counterproductive.

As an example, one company recently instituted a mandatory lateral-impact hardhat (a hardhat with a ¾” or 1” thick interior Styrofoam lining) requirement in a low-risk environment where the temperature often topped 30ºC. After men began collapsing from heat exhaustion, the policy was mercifully adjusted. In any case, despite its occasional excesses, this new focus on safety is manifestly better than what preceded it.

Such shifts have been happening in every field of human endeavour, all down through human history. In the hard sciences, such changes are often referred to as “paradigm shifts,” based on the work of Thomas Kuhn and others. They occur in politics, in societal norms, and often in areas of less importance, such as in pop culture or sports.

These shifts have also taken place within hockey. Roger Neilson was the chief instigator of the last major shift, which had three key features:

  1. greater use of technology, specifically video tape
  2. training innovations including off-season training and pre-game stretches
  3. the use of real-time statistics

There isn’t a team in the NHL that doesn’t use all three of those techniques now; there wasn’t a team that used all three (and many teams didn’t use any of them) when Roger Neilson broke into hockey. I’m not going to get into that shift any further, but I have written about it in the past.

The reason why I’m writing about this now is because I think another shift is coming (or rather, an extension of the Neilson shift) in hockey, and soon, because the process has already begun. Consider the following:

-- The Buffalo Sabres dismantled their extremely successful amateur scouting department and moved to a largely video-based system in the 2006 off-season. It’s a move that has been unsurprisingly condemned by the scouting community, and one that, when mentioned by the MSM, is usually written off as penny-pinching. Meanwhile, one of Scott Howson’s first moves as the GM of the Columbus Blue Jackets was to implement a similar video scouting system, as he hired away video scout Bryan Stewart from the Sabres.

-- New Vancouver Canucks GM Mike Gillis has publicly stated that he subscribes the methods presented in Billy Beane’s Moneyball; methods that are now widely accepted in baseball but are considered unorthodox by the hockey establishment. These methods involve placing greater value on results as measured by statistical analysis then on process, as measured by visual scouting.

-- Coleman Analytics, a consulting company founded by ex-Blackhawks GM Mike Smith and statistics guru Richard Coleman, provides unorthodox statistical information to five different NHL teams, at a cost exceeding $50,000 to each of them for the basic service. They also offer an advanced scouting tool for coaches for an additional fee.

-- Various NHL coaches, most notably Ron Wilson, compile an impressive array of real-time statistics that help guide their approach to individual players. It’s an approach that still hasn’t been accepted in the mainstream; Wilson’s assistant Tim Hunter put it this way: “We've got numbers in hockey, too. It's just that nobody is using them.”

I think it is coming. It’s only a matter of time. Of course, it won’t be uniformly a good thing; statistical analysis has its limitations and it is hazardous to try and exceed them. Much like safety, people can get stupid with their assertions; perspective is required.

That said, the hockey community as a whole hasn’t taken advantage of advanced statistics the way that they should; if they had, we wouldn’t need to witness things like Jan Hejda being let go in the off-season, or Joffrey Lupul implode when he faces legitimate competition.

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Jonathan Willis is a freelance writer. He currently works for Oilers Nation, Sportsnet, the Edmonton Journal and Bleacher Report. He's co-written three books and worked for myriad websites, including Grantland, ESPN, The Score, and Hockey Prospectus. He was previously the founder and managing editor of Copper & Blue.
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#1 Wanye Gretz
January 19 2009, 04:23PM
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Great read as usual Jonathan. It's interesting how there has always been an attitude of "we know best" with every generation. The old guard will always cling to the old ways of operating sure that their methods are far superior to anything new. The new breed will always come to the table with their eyes shining with excitement and optimism, with crazy new ways to do things.

Of course, the old guard generally suppresses the new breed and are eventually slaughtered in a bloody coup or pushed aside and heavily medicated until they expire.

It's ultimately success that dictates the path we follow. Watch one team with video scouting win the Cup -and it will become accepted practice around the league.

I didn't even know this technique was occuring. Great read.

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#2 King Mob
January 19 2009, 04:27PM
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look, we should all just find out what the eff Detroit is doing in their scouting department, and copy them.

There, Mr. Katz. I just saved you hundreds of thousands of dollars in research costs. Send me free swag.

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#3 Travis Dakin
January 19 2009, 04:32PM
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I had to read this article three times to understand. That's how good this is. You are the man Willis. Question... Do the sabres do any tradtional scouting to coincide with the new system? To me it seems that there are still too many differing opinions on some legitimate stats to put all of your faith in the system just yet. And there are also so many other entangibles that a player can bring that no stat could ever capture. Only the eyes and ears. No doubt though that I wish the Oil had you as an advisor on some future moves. Damn you Joffrey.

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#4 Chris
January 19 2009, 05:30PM
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"I can prove anything by statistics except the truth." -George Canning

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#5 Darcy
January 19 2009, 05:46PM
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Jonathan,

Why does the guy from BTN publish his stuff for free?

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#6 oilerbear
January 19 2009, 05:47PM
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Chris wrote:

“I can prove anything by statistics except the truth.” -George Canning

The oilers won 6-3 last night. Is that a lie?

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#7 Jonathan Willis
January 19 2009, 06:00PM
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@ Chris:

Tell it to Ron Wilson.

Still, at least you quote fun people - from the Wikipedia entry on Canning:

"He was a dominant personality and often risked losing political allies for personal reasons. He once reduced Lord Liverpool to tears with a long satirical poem mocking Liverpool's attachment to his time as a colonel in the militia. He then forced Liverpool to apologise for being upset."

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#8 Jonathan Willis
January 19 2009, 06:01PM
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Darcy wrote:

Jonathan, Why does the guy from BTN publish his stuff for free?

I'm not sure - and he isn't the only one either. Alan Ryder's site is free.

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#9 Chris
January 19 2009, 06:30PM
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@ Jonathan Willis: I like Canning... He's a lot like Brownlee. Speaking of Brownlee; Does he only post when the Oil are losing?

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#10 Chris
January 19 2009, 06:55PM
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Dear God... It sounds as though I'm saying I like Brownlee... We NEED an edit button!

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#11 rindog
January 19 2009, 08:32PM
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Gregor where are you???

How is Reddox still here and Potulny got sent back down?

I know people will talk about roles, etc.

We have a decent 3rd line going right now with 18, 13, 78.

If Nilsson is still hurt why can't Potulny play with Cole and Gagner where he looked pretty good and is alot better fit than Reddox. When Bobby comes back - Potulny can come out.

Brodziak can play with Strudwickand Big Mac. If Mac has to sit on the bench then our other right wingers can get a little extra ice.

What does Reddox exactly do for our team anyway?

Actually I did see him make one nice pass last night.

Our team is entering an important stretch and look poised to make a bit of a run.

Secondary scoring is going to become key and I don't think we count on the captain to light up like that on a regular basis.

Let's get a 2nd line established and get some wins!!!!!

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#12 oilman
January 19 2009, 08:38PM
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The description Mike Smith gives his statistical services sounds like they are trying to determine a players "clutchness" - something mocked by most stats guys. Odd.

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#13 Ender the Dragon
January 19 2009, 08:54PM
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rindog wrote:

What does Reddox exactly do for our team anyway?

Everybody asks what Reddox does for this team. I'm not MSM, so I don't get to see him in practice, but I'll tell you what I see during games when I watch him; anyone ever see that movie Rudy? Reddox embodies heart. There's a line in the movie where the coach says something along the lines of 'Damnit, Rudy; if only I could put you heart in the rest of my players . . .' When you see Reddox throwing his body to the ice to try and stretch out to win a puck battle in front of the net, can you only imagine what it would be like to put his drive and heart into Penner's body? Reddox wants it, and he knows that every shift could be his last. He senses he's not as gifted as some of the other guys around him, and he knows he's blessed to be playing a game at this level when all his friends can only shake their heads and wish they were in his shoes. Reddox is there to remind the millionaires that there are those who would kill to be in that room, and who would die more than a little if they had to leave it. Reddox leaves nothing on the bench. Don't you think there's a place on the team for a guy like that?

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#14 oilmoose
January 19 2009, 09:58PM
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I understand the questions of Reddox in the line up but I think Ender put it better than any. The kid has HEART like few on our team seem to muster on most nights. I agree that the talent isn't there to justify his position most nights but the kid always gives 110% even if his hands don't reply. Is it possible that MacT sees something that the rest of us can't? Just a thought.

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#15 rindog
January 19 2009, 10:59PM
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@ Ender the Dragon:

Rudy got to play 2 plays his entire career....

Seriously though, you do need heart, grit, etc. That doesn't mean you need to put him on the 1st or 2nd line that doesn't mean you need to put him out on the PP with 8 minutes to go in a tie game against Colorado.

I have nothing wrong with a guy like Reddox when he is put into a role that suits him. Play him in combination with MacIntyre, Strudwick and Brodziak if you need his energy in your line-up.

To me, our biggest problem over the years is that we over value are so called lunch bunket brigade.

I know why we do it - our coach was like that and he wants his players to be like him. Which is fine because that is all MacT really knows. It is also why MacT either needs to go or needs to surround himself with a "different mindset" than he is.

I don't know how much Simpson had to do with the systems, etc we used during his time as an assistant coach, but I do know that he would have atleast been able to bring a different mindset as to how certain players think the game. I also know that the last time we made the playoffs we had a different persepective available in terms of coaching.

Guys like Moreau, Reasoner, Pederson, Pisani, Reddox, etc have a lot of value to a team when used properly. When over used they are a big hinderance as well (see Moreau's 9 game stint with Hemmer this year).

Ender the Dragon wrote:

Reddox leaves nothing on the bench. Don’t you think there’s a place on the team for a guy like that?

The best place for a guy like that IS "on the bench" and used sparingly/situationally - NOT on your top two lines.

I don't hate the guy - just the way he is being used...

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#16 Wanye Gretz
January 19 2009, 11:11PM
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Chris wrote:

@ Jonathan Willis: I like Canning… He’s a lot like Brownlee. Speaking of Brownlee; Does he only post when the Oil are losing?

Lord Brownlee is on vacation. You please him with your yearning I'm sure.

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#17 David S
January 20 2009, 12:07AM
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Ender the Dragon wrote:

rindog wrote: Reddox wants it, and he knows that every shift could be his last. He senses he’s not as gifted as some of the other guys around him, and he knows he’s blessed to be playing a game at this level when all his friends can only shake their heads and wish they were in his shoes. Reddox is there to remind the millionaires that there are those who would kill to be in that room, and who would die more than a little if they had to leave it. Reddox leaves nothing on the bench.

Ender, sometimes you amaze me. Frickin' nicely spoken. Could it be that MacT has Reddox on this line as a statement? Maybe he's saying that if you want to be on the second line, there's the bar. Hey - I dunno.

One thing I do know is that I don't have any insight into why MacT does what he does. So I don't have any right to start throwing words in his mouth or start saying goofy things that might fit in lieu of my actually knowing what's really going on. Of course this is because I'm just a fan, not some inside scoop hockey savant.

Come to think of it, does anybody out there have any credible evidence that "our coach was like that and he wants his players to be like him"? You know, quotes or anything tangible like that? Maybe something gleaned from a one-on-one talk in the bar or on the golf course? Anything? ...Bueller?

Yeah. That's what I thought.

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#18 Cam
January 20 2009, 11:07AM
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@ Ender the Dragon:

Beautifully written.

Your way fo thinking could also be used to explain why ethan Moreau is captain. Not the most gifted but he leaves nothing on the bench either.

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#19 RobinB
January 20 2009, 12:57PM
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Chris wrote:

Dear God… It sounds as though I’m saying I like Brownlee… We NEED an edit button!

Dillweed: I'm not convinced you're smart enough to "like Brownlee."

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