Why It’s Healthy To Bring Up The Past

All men make mistakes, but only wise men learn from their mistakes.

That particular line comes from Winston Churchill, but variants of it are commonplace. Albert Einstein regarded mistakes as a necessary consequence of trying new things; James Joyce saw them as “portals of discovery.” It’s a point of view I agree with entirely: mistakes are inevitable, the trick is to learn from them.

With Gilbert Brule’s departure for the minors, I brought up a post I made back in 2010 that was highly controversial and widely ridiculed at the time. One of the comments I got when I brought it up came from Tim, who promised to “keep track of every opinion [I] give” and remind me when I’m wrong. Tim is under the impression that I was reminding people about my Brule warnings to ‘pump my tires’ and make myself look good.

I’ve decided to save Tim some time, and bring up a few notable errors that I’ve made in the past, and point to some of the things I’ve learned from them.

Robert Nilsson is one player I’ve learned a lot from. Like pretty much everyone, I was enamoured with his performance in 2007-08, and in the summer of 2008 I wrote this about him:

Nilsson produced in a difference-making way; his contributions all season long helped the team to win actual hockey games, which is probably a product of his age and professional experience. He scored 2.37 PTS/60 (that’s a Hemskyian clip, if you were wondering), and posted a 2.98 GFON/60. He was shockingly low-event on defense, where his 2.29 GAON/60 trailed only Stortini and Glencross amongst the forward group. As a weak-opposition killer, Nilsson is already good enough to contribute to a contending team.

The observant reader will note the statistics used in this paragraph – points/60, and goals for/goals against per 60. I didn’t look at where Nilsson was starting his shifts (in the offensive zone, almost more than any other Oiler), at his on-ice percentages (bizarrely good), and I didn’t put enough emphasis on who he was playing against (lower-tier opposition; MacTavish was religious about keeping the Kid Line away from quality players). Scoring chance data wasn’t available, and I didn’t see the value in shot-based measures like Corsi and Fenwick. I also put too much emphasis on his single good season and not enough emphasis on his struggles with the Islanders. Thus, a year later when his numbers fell down an elevator shaft, I was surprised along with most everyone else.

Flash forward one season more, and the Oilers get a great season from another player. Like Nilsson, Gilbert Brule was a high draft pick who’d failed after a long stint with a previous team – and like Nilsson, he came over from a team renowned for making bad decisions with young players. Like Nilsson, his scoring numbers were a marked departure from the past (2.36 PTS/60) and like Nilsson he got favourable matchups – on the ice with Penner during the best season of the latter’s career, largely playing against poor opponents (Quinn wasn’t big on line-matching, but Horcoff’s line got handed the tough minutes). Brule didn’t have Nilsson’s great on-ice percentages, but he had something Nilsson lacked – a career season in shooting percentage. Unlike with Nilsson, scoring chance data was available and I was looking at shot metrics – both of which showed that Brule was struggling whenever he was on the ice without Penner. Unlike with Nilsson, I was less ready to believe in the most recent results if they conflicted with the known track record of the player under consideration.

Because I made the wrong call on Robert Nilsson, I was far more suspicious of Brule’s superb 2009-10. I weighed those previous years more heavily, and I placed more emphasis on the role he had been playing. If I was right on Brule – and the book’s not closed yet, plus we still haven’t had last season’s issues satisfactorily explained – it was because I was wrong on Nilsson.

Another player I look back at fairly often is Mathieu Garon. Garon stole the starting job from Dwayne Roloson in the same year that Nilsson was putting up points for the Oilers, and given Garon’s age I thought he was a much better bet than Roloson going forward. Here’s another quote from the summer of 2008:

I believe Garon’s track record shows enough to sign him now, to a reasonable 3 or 4 year contract, rather than wait another year and watch his value shoot through the roof as an unrestricted free agent.

I made three key mistakes in evaluating Garon’s track record: I didn’t pay enough attention to games played in his previous NHL season, I didn’t look at situational save percentage, and I didn’t understand the goaltending market. It was true that Garon had played three previous seasons, but he’d only appeared in 114 NHL games over that span – and in most of those games his save percentage wasn’t very good. I also hadn’t caught on that a 0.907 SV% is a little below average, or that the NHL goalie market was flooded and the price dropping out fast (others, of course, didn’t make these mistakes)

The big item, though, was situational save percentage. Here are the numbers for Garon and Roloson on the penalty kill in 2007-08:

  • Garon: 0.908 SV%
  • Roloson: 0.871 SV%

That 0.908 SV% may not look like much, but on the penalty kill (where shooters have time and space) it’s insanely good. The only other starter even close was Dan Ellis – and like Garon, Ellis would implode the following year, seeing his save percentage drop from 0.924 overall down to 0.900.

Because of those mistakes, when it came time to evaluate other things I did a better job. After Ryan Miller’s standout 2009-10, many expected him to repeat the feat – but because I’d seen it happen with Garon, I knew enough to predict a major drop-off in save percentage (Miller’s 2010-11 save percentage fell to 0.916; I’d forecast 0.915). When the Oilers signed Nikolai Khabibulin, I corrected two of the errors I’d made with Garon – first, noting that goalies typically don’t get much money or term, and that the market was flooded, and secondly weighting Khabibulin’s generally lousy 160 games between 2005-08 more heavily than his successful 42-game season in 2008-09.

The point here is that everybody who manages, watches, or writes about the game is going to make mistakes in their opinions. I certainly have. Undoubtedly, that’s going to continue. It isn’t avoidable, for anybody. The trick, I think, is to try and keep an open mind and be willing to figure out where the error came from, and then not to repeat it. That’s one of the reasons I bring up posts from the past – because sometimes I think many of the points I made at the time were dismissed out of hand by people who didn’t like them, and bringing them up again might change how people view things.

  • Oilers G- Nations Poet Laureate

    Mistakes have been made.

    Are we (they*) man enough to

    Admit we were WRONG??

    * they being Oilers management, first K.Lowe then that Friggin Idiot Steve Tambellini**

    ** NOT a “fist” post.

    • paul wodehouse

      …as a prank i’ve enjoyed it…especially the famous people quotes…seems like Tim’s a wee bit out there with blowin’ the whistle on our JW for not being perfect though…

  • justDOit

    Right on, JW – face the music! Lord knows, I donn’t make mistakes!

    And Garon is a perfect example, because I thought he was going to be signed as well. He played really well, and he absolutely kicked *ss in the shootouts. I couldn’t understand when the Oil traded him, and I thought he’d be back contending for a starter job, but no.

    This goes to show that assessing NHL talent is incredibly difficult, and almost impossible for those of us who only watch the games on TV. We can get a pretty good idea of what a player can do on most nights, but we can’t even come close to evaluating their NHL value.

  • Wanyes bastard child

    Myself, I think it takes balls to stand up and admit a mistake.

    I also think the saying “grow a set of balls” is misleading. Balls are soft and tender and hurt when smacked around… it should be “grow a vagina” those things can take a pounding!

  • Puritania

    Great article Jonathan. It’s easy to be a miserable prick to everyone on the internet and methinks there is too much of that crap on said tubes.

    It will be infinitely helpful to everyone to be a little more open minded and a little less sh*tty to those around them.

    Before you rip on someone think about if they were right there infront of you in the flesh. Be honest with yourself and think about if you would say whatever douchey thing you are about to type, to them face to face. Chances are, if you aren’t a total dink you wouldn’t. It’s best to take that outlook when you roam this godforsaken intergorething.

  • OB1 Team Yakopov - F.S.T.N.F

    I hope this doesn’t come across as a doucher move, but I’d also like to point out banking on players to revert back to average doesn’t always work out either.

    Wasn’t long ego when POS was only a swing in shooting % away from putting up big numbers again.

    • Max Powers - Team HME Evans

      And that there is the rub when looking at younger players.

      When O’Sullivan shot 10% back in 07-08 for the Los Angeles Kings, it wasn’t looked at as an outlier because of the fact that he had a pretty good history of goal scoring throughout his career (in the OHL and AHL).

      So in 08-09 when his numbers were down (he had 259 shots but his sh% was 6.19), the question became which is the real O’Sullivan? Was 08-09 a down year or was it a reflection of his actual abilities?

      So while players may regress to their own mean, you need to know what that mean is. It’s hard with only a season of data.

  • Puritania

    Late in Tom Gilbert’s rookie season I pegged him by eye as a possible top defender in the league within a few years (i.e. by now) and my mistake was not properly evaluating the players age in deciding how much more room he had to develop. He is not too much different today than the day we got him in many ways. Experience has helped, but his development was mostly complete before he arrived in the NHL.

    This experience aided in my evaluation of O’Marra, Vande Velde and Omark last year and also recently with my evaluations of Feduin, House and Trembley this year. Mistakes can indeed prove to be a great ally in making future decisions.

  • Wanyes bastard child

    Another mistake? Ah yes, but whose? I believe you may need to be logged in for that and currently I can’t log in. I don’t think I receive an edit option but I’ll let you know after I make this post.

  • Sheldon "Oilers Fan for Life!!!"

    I too am often frustrated with the seemingly maddening lack of activity on the Oilers from a D point of view. At the same time If they made many of the trades I would of thought would have been a good Idea at the time they would of had a lot more experience to learn from. (In other words big mistakes.)This is a patience game and I really do expect they are looking for some diamonds in the rough. We shall see if all this frustration is worth it in about 12 months we should be in a very solid place to judge the whole plan.

  • Max Powers - Team HME Evans

    You’re great at predicting breakdown seasons, JW, but if you could only predict breakout seasons as well! You’d be the best poolie ever!

  • Max Powers - Team HME Evans

    The only thing this tells me is that while stats are intersting to look at use as a rough measure of how a player plays. They can and will be used as a tool to justify a persons opinion. Just as one will use a set of stats to boost the status of a player. Someone else will use a different set to lower the status of a player.

    You Jonathan just seem to use them to justify your columns. Which much like many of the stats you use are useless. Of course that’s just my opinion.

    • You Jonathan just seem to use them to justify your columns. Which much like many of the stats you use are useless. Of course that’s just my opinion.

      This is the problem.

      Jonathan: I think X because of A, B, and C.

      You: I think you’re wrong because that’s my opinion.

      See the difference?

      You can’t just throw good data and a rational position out the window because you happen to feel it’s wrong.

      It’s absurd to claim quantifiable data is useless. The application of the data may be debatable, but it is never useless.

      These aren’t numbers people are grabbing out of thin air, they are a reflection of on-ice events. If there is evidence supporting your “opinion” then by all means, show everyone why your opinion is right.

      • Wax Man Riley

        QFT. For real.

        I don’t agree totally with advanced stats, as a few articles here have pointed out (Omark is out best defensive forward. Faceoffs don’t really matter. Those are 2 that I remember, although not contributed by JW), but they still back up a point with something measurable.

  • Tiger:

    If you read Jonathans column you would have seen that he did that for us. Besides to determine what is “quantifiable data” is relative to the person who is trying to justify their beliefs.

    Now if my opinion is absurd, that is just fine. It’s mine and I own it. Besides, I am a man and I can rationalize just about anything.

  • Wax Man Riley


    You are right.

    I can record a stat of how many times a player spits over the bench in the second period while short handed. Technically that is quantifiable data.

    It seems I missed a word. It should have read:

    “If you read Jonathans column you would have seen that he did that for us. Besides to determine what is USEFULL “quantifiable data” is relative to the person who is trying to justify their beliefs.”

  • Wanyes bastard child

    Create a new e-mail account? Thats all I got, sorry dude, computers and me are like oil and water. If I have a computer issue I generally just mash keys until my girlfriend comes and bails me out…

  • Wanyes bastard child

    All good, I considered it, but I’m mostly used to it and other than the odd typo I’d like to fix I’m ok as is right now. At least until someone with access, authority and know-how is able to help me fix this 😀 ( anyone with those things reading this? lol, just a shot in the dark )