One of the comments I get a lot runs along the lines of ‘character wins championships, and stats don’t measure character!’ It’s true, to a point, but it glosses over a lot of important nuance.
Since it’s August, and every day is a slow news day, this seemed like a good time to talk about it.
How much does it matter?
Character might be the most important thing, beyond a certain level of athletic talent.
Reaching the top level of any profession is incredibly difficult, with numerous pitfalls and hurdles along the way. Just getting to the NHL requires years of dedication and hard work; staying there and excelling is an order of difficulty above that. It doesn’t take much in the way of brains to know that a guy without endurance, dedication, and drive is going to flame out along the way.
More Captain Obvious: It doesn’t stop there. Does a player have the self-control to put in a high-level performance when he suddenly gains fame and fortune at a young age? Is he humble enough to take direction from coaches but also strong enough to tune out external criticism? Does he work well with his teammates? Can he handle the extra pressure created at critical moments of games or seasons? Is he the kind of guy who is haunted by past mistakes, or does he have the short-term memory so essential to rebounding from a poor run? And on and on the questions go.
So, yes, character is critically important. But despite that critical importance, stats people tend to ignore it. There’s a good reason for that.
Eye of the Beholder
Consider three different pieces of information on a hypothetical player:
- A complete statistical workup: goals, assists, points, underlying numbers, etc.
- A complete scouting report based on watching the games: speed, strength, hockey sense, etc.
- A report on character based on body language and talking to people who talk to people.
The first bit of information is absolute. There is no argument that Player X scored 13 goals or posted a 54% Corsi on a middling team with a tough zone start; those are facts, and while there is room for interpretation 10 out of 10 people are going to be working from the same template with the same iron-clad facts.
There is a little more variance with the second bit of information; some people see more when they look at the game than others do. If we have three scouts grading a player’s speed on a scale of 1-10, one might say 5, one might say 6 and one might say 4. But all three can agree that he’s an average skater, and will likely be in the same general range when they talk about his shot and how strong he is in the corners and so on. We have some room for disagreement, but for the most part everyone will be working from a template that captures a particular skillset.
We’ve talked about the numbers, and we’ve talked about the eyeball test, but our third piece of information is an entirely different kettle of fish. Let’s consider some examples.
Is Mark Messier, revered as the captain of two Stanley Cup teams and one of sport’s greatest leaders, a character guy? The Vancouver Canucks thought so, which is one of the reasons they signed him, but it didn’t end well. The Vancouver Province’s Wyatt Arndt, summarized his time with the team on one sentence: “From taking Wayne Maki’s number without talking to the family, to taking the ‘C’ from Linden, to missing the playoffs every year he was in Vancouver, to suing the Canucks for $6 million years later, it’s no wonder Messier’s time in Vancouver is referred to as the ‘Dark Ages’ by many fans.”
When a player like Messier can be alternately regarded as the best captain in hockey history and a cancer who helped author one of the darkest eras in the history of the third team he led, we know there’s some subjectivity involved.
It’s an easy game to play. Let’s try it with some recent Oilers coaches. Was Pat Quinn a motivational genius or an outdated relic who couldn’t be bothered to research his team before he joined it? Was Ralph Krueger a compassionate and inspired leader or way too soft on his players? Is Dallas Eakins an open-minded innovator or arrogant and self-satisfied? It works for players, too: Was Ryan Whitney a character guy for the Oilers?
Character is in the eye of the beholder. It’s why Mike Richards went from being the best choice for Philadelphia’s captaincy to a partier and locker-room problem who had to be traded lest he ruin the team, to an alternate captain of the Stanley Cup champions.
We catch glimpses of character on the ice, but even that tends to be highly subjective. Consider an example: if a player takes a cheap shot from an opponent and doesn’t come out swinging, is that a sign of the presence or absence of character? Was he a savvy and disciplined skater, refusing to take a retaliatory infraction? Or was he timid and incapable of standing up for himself? Does that opinion change if he draws a penalty?
Another example: a skater behind the play has a chance to take a cheap shot of his own on a dirty opponent, and does so. Is he a dirty player himself for taking advantage of the opportunity, the kind of thug who should be run out of the game and who will hurt his team with selfish penalties? Or is he a fiery and competitive personality, the kind of guy every team wants because he’ll do anything for his club? Does that opinion change if he takes a penalty and/or seriously injures the opponent?
These are things that, like speed and hockey sense, are part of a player’s makeup. But unlike skating, where we can say a player is fast or slow, there aren’t firm assignments of good and bad here. One man’s ‘fiery competitor’ is another’s ‘undisciplined fool who will kill you with offensive zone penalties.’ Another man’s ‘cerebral, disciplined player’ is another’s ‘soft, uninvolved skater who needs to work on his give-a-damn.’
The Lamoriello Solution
New Jersey Devils G.M. Lou Lamoriello summed his approach up for the book Behind the Moves:
I don’t believe in hearsay. I don’t believe in going on what other people think – ‘This player is a bad character’ or ‘This player is this.’ I want to make sure I know. If you’re a scout, don’t come and tell me he’s a bad person, unless you know he’s a bad person from your own experience – not because you heard it from somebody else. I’m from that school. I give the benefit of the doubt unless there’s no doubt. Shame on you the first time; shame on me the second time.
That’s what makes sense to me. No divining of body language, no ‘I heard that a guy on the team said’, not even any ‘he scored a high percentage of his goals in games that didn’t matter!’ There is no witchcraft, no taking one part of the picture and extrapolating it far beyond reason.
Painting somebody with the ‘lacks character’ brush is an awfully nasty thing to do, and both media and fans should be way more careful of it than they actually are. The last time I quoted Lamoriello was with regard to Kyle Quincey, who had his character slammed by one of the biggest reporters around on the basis of comments from unnamed sources. Teammates quickly stood up for the maligned defenceman, and the negative tweet disappeared.
I respect that people with knowledge of the individual sometimes make decisions based on character; in their shoes I would, too. Everyone who has ever commented that character matters and that analytics can’t measure character is right (well, to an extent; the results of a player on the ice are certainly influenced by his drive and determination, and we can measure those results).
But for our purposes, it almost doesn’t matter, because we’re limited to the knowledge we have. We can look at the on-ice stuff and use it effectively, as long as we’re aware that a positive can be a negative and vice versa depending on the situation. The off-ice stuff? It has the same limitations, but with the added problems that a) there are a very few people who have the right to a firm opinion and most of them don’t talk and b) the slimiest off-ice character can play critical minutes for a championship team if he brings enough on the ice.
Lamoriello has it right.
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