Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Why All The Winning?

A week off and we content generators must occupy our minds with something.

The trend I am responding to is the one where everyone has a go at deciding why the Canadiens, so bad a week ago, suddenly veered to victory 3 times in a row to restore the hopes and dreams of millions.

Yesterday, I read a few accounts in which the authors’ insight was that Habs won more games because they didn’t lose. Wait that’s unfair, they actually did go a step further than that – that the team won because they scored more goals than the other team.

Today, Sean Gordon “drills down” on the Habs winning streak. In looking in all the familiar places a few hundred yards off shore, he claimed to turn up sand, not oil. As for drilling deeper, it seems he’d rather assume it’d only turn up sea water. Outside the metaphor, he decided to call it luck or law of averages or whatever you like, after he’d checked the shots, blocked shots and PP numbers.

It’s a fair point and one that I see more and more people subscribing to. Basically, as Sean puts it:
The margin between winning and losing for a team like the Habs (or the Bruins, Sabres, Leafs and even Capitals and Penguins) has become unimaginably narrow.
His explanation that small things make the difference ultimately.

Both theories, Sean's and that of those who distill to the only cold hard facts there are imply that the Canadiens fate is at least in some part out of their own control. The notion that what will happen will happen due to so many factors, it hardly bears thinking about.

What this leads me to is the question: "Is the exercise of playing 100 games with all of us watching really just an elaborate exercise in coin flipping?" Provided the coins (teams) are relatively balanced (sorry Florida most years), are the outcomes really just hinged on whether someone’s skate happens to deflect a puck an inch inside or outside the post?

My feeling is that it is not. I may well be deluding myself.

Teams wouldn’t bother to hire scouts, coaches and all the rest of the entourage if it were thus. Surely if we can admit that teams can be off the pace at the bottom end of things (Florida’s decade) then we must have room for the idea that some teams at the top are off the pace set by some of the others. How?

Personnel. By this I mean players as well as scouts and coaches.

Fitness. This may be leveling out, but I don’t think its level yet, amazing as that is to digest.

Tactics. It’s clear as day that some teams operate with different tactical priorities to others. I’d think that many tactics fluctuate in efficiency in this relative way.

Execution. Some players are innately more efficient at executing plays than others (personnel), but I think that some plays can be learned. Execution of plays is what people must be trying to influence with practice (or is that just for internet traffic?)

I think all these matter. I think all these can be conrolled in some way by the team and its organization. I think this is part of each game, albeit the part we don't see.

So if that's true, what has changed with these parameters in a week?

We’re kind of stuck on the personnel front, though Engqvist for Nokelainen did some good. Fitness isn’t something that can change overnight. Tactics and execution can be changed (Olivier pointed out the change in the way three forwards are attacking now vs. then). But it’s hard to see what really changed over a week.

One thing's for sure, trying to answer this question is not simple at all, and definitely produces answers that are hard to justify. It’s easy to see why people assume it’ll be a futile drilling exercise.

But maybe this is because we’re just asking the wrong question. Or maybe trying to answer the question by looking at the wrong data set.

After all, I don’t really need an answer that proves to me the Habs have some chance of winning after a loss. I’ve watched enough to know the odds aren’t nil.

Maybe when we ask what has made the Habs win this week, our fixation is not with the week, but rather what the week might tell us about our true concerns. As a group of fans that is hoping there are people in the Canadiens organization taking some actions to get a step ahead of rivals, aren’t we looking beyond October, November, 2011 anyway?

The ultimate question then, as it probably always should be until that future June night: “Is this team good enough to win the championship?”. And perhaps: “Does this stretch of 11 games tell us anything in that regard?”.

I can only answer for myself, but I’d say yes.

The good signs are there. The team is not allowing themselves to be wildly outshot or outchanced and mostly they are doing this by limiting good chances against. The team and its individual parts seem to be learning as they go.

But there are troubling signs too, not forgotten after a week. The team is rigid in its approach to offense. And without flexibility, they have had trouble when either teams figure that out or just get a big enough lead. The team’s strategy of choice for defending a lead seems to put them more at the mercy of luck than the teams who are defending their leads against the Habs (by that I mean puck concession is dangerously prone to bad bounces).

History will show that these flags aren’t really new. For years this has been the run-down on the Habs. Maybe that’s why my assessment hasn’t actually changed much since September. But this team doesn’t look in many ways to have changed very substantially from teams of Octobers past. Reasonable then to think that without adequate change in approach, change in results might not be drastic.

In a round-about way, I think I’ve argued that I think Sean Gordon (and even the they won because they won crew) was correct. I think those assessments were pretty dead on – for this team. The team is good enough to beat anyone on a given night, but flawed enough to lose as well.

But I’d disagree that this is the way for every team, so that all fans should just resign itself to this epic series of coin tosses. I’d disagree that none of the coins can be weighted. A team like Washington has rigged the game enough in my opinion to make their bets better than 50-50. Quite some margin better.

Take this opinion as you like, but I’d suggest to you that it’d be good news if it were proven fact. Because I tell you what Habs fans, if it’s all just averages, it don’t look good for this team which nabbed 24 Cups in 75 or so opportunities.

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