July 03 2009 12:34AM
So far, the war that was furiously waged in baseball between statheads and “stats?-we-don’t-need-no-steenking-stats” traditionalists has been a relatively under-the-radar skirmish in hockey. Because of the comparative number of stats in each sport and the disparity of number-crunchers doing baseball compared to hockey, we’ll likely never see anything in the shinny world along the lines of the Sabermatricians’ revolution and the Establishment’s stick-that-abacus-where-the-sun-don’t-shine resistance movement.
Hopefully that means the two sides in hockey will be able to find a middle ground, because that’s really where everyone needs to be. For the most part, advocates of advanced stats have been frustrated by the stubborn refuse of old-school types who believe only what they see with their own eyes and refuse to consider such, to them, outlandish factors such as Corsi numbers.
On the flip side, there are proponents of advanced metrics who will steadfastly cling to a notion based on statistics while ignoring anecdotal evidence and, to a certain degree, common sense.
Now to be absolutely clear about this, colleague Jonathan Willis was NOT guilty of the latter transgression in a piece that filled this space on Tuesday. The esteemed Mr. Willis was in fact very careful to footnote his point about the respective save percentages behind Jay Bouwmeester in Florida and Dion Phaneuf in Calgary was far more involved than a cursory glance at the numbers might suggest. That example is brought up only because the naked statistical citation, sans the caveat, is a perfect demonstration of what can happen when advanced metrics are taken too far and taken too far out of context.
The save percentage stat is a useful complement to the notoriously inadequate plus-minus statistic because it brings into the play the possibility a skater plays in front of a leaky goaltender. But as Herr Willis alludes to in his article, it’s overly simplistic to declare that if Bouwmeester and Phaneuf had swapped places in 2008-09, the difference in goals against can be calculated to within a fraction of a puck.
This, ladies and gentleman, is where common sense comes in. For most hockey fans in the Western Conference, Bouwmeester the NHLer is a little like the Yeti. We’ve heard a lot about him and he sounds awfully impressive, but relatively few of us on this side of the Mississippi can provide eye-witness accounts of his post-Medicine Hat existence, let alone his rumoured awesomeness. That’s what happens when you play for a Southeast Division club that hasn’t been active in the spring since the Florida Panthers goaltending tandem consisted of Mike Vernon and Trevor Kidd.
On the other hand, Flames fans this past season got a real good look at Phaneuf’s defensive flaws, his tendency to stand around while pucks were centred to opponents camped just a few feet away from him, his habit of moving back into defensive position after an offensive rush with the alacrity and swiftness of a constipated octogenarian wearing shoes on the wrong feet and his insistence on playing neither the shot nor the pass when defending two-on-ones and, well, they can’t help but wonder if those operating practices might have had a little something to with the puny save percentage when No. 3 is on the ice for the Flames.
All of which is an incredibly long-winded way to say that the save-percentage hypothesis alone shouldn’t deter anyone from believing that the Bouwmeester isn’t a better defender than Phaneuf. Really, unless you believe that the NHL’s version of the witness protection program is preventing us from finding out that 2008-09 Panthers netminders Tomas Vokoun and Craig Anderson are the second coming of Ken Dryden and Bernie Parent, it’s reasonable to believe that Bouwmeester’s defensive acumen deserves some credit for the credit for the spiffy save percentage behind him. At least, that makes for an acceptable working theory until more empirical evidence can be gathered now that Bouwmeester is within range of the Canadian network cameras.
Not having been present to look for a possible tongue in cheek when Jonathan typed that the arrival of Bouwmeester might be a good news-bad news scenario for the Oilers in that it might necessitate the jettisoning of Phaneuf, it’s hard to know how much credence he himself puts in that theory. I’m guessing relatively little, but then again I was the idiot who thought until very late Oleg Saprykin’s hockey sense would finally kick in, so who am I to question hockey judgment?
That won’t stop me from declaring that for Flames fans, the bonus good news about Bouwmmester’s signing (and the subsequent free-agent additions) is that there’s not enough money left for Todd Bertuzzi, even at a discount. Bouwmeester’s arrival, Bertuzzi’s apparent departure and the possibility that the hiring of his former junior boss will get Phaneuf’s career back on the rails may be the best bets to improve Calgary’s goals-against numbers until somebody at the Saddledome figures out how to turn the hands of Miikka Kiprusoff’s clock back a half-decade.