Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Eller's Burden

From the moment he became a member of the Montreal Canadiens, Lars Eller has been tied to expectations. It was an unusual situation for a young man of 21 years to step into in the biggest hockey mad city in the world. Made more unusual by the fact that he was coming in from Peoria.

The expectations are both good and bad ones. The certainty being that a lot of people feel they have a lot at stake in the case of Lars Eller.

The history that preceded the acquisition of Lars Eller is well known.

Montreal's highest draft pick in years gets his start, "wins" the starting role and a boatload of fans, experiences growing pains, is outplayed for a season and a half, and is unseated. Those were the real-life events.

The history of the sideshow that accompanied it saw the spawning of a fierce debate that raged for the whole period, placing an oft united fanbase in different camps.

The culmination of the story was that Eller trade, or so one would have thought. That was of course the end of the real-life events in this saga.

But the sideshow lingered and lingered long. Camps did not disband quickly and a summer of questions about rodeos, autograph signings and organizational priorities raged.

The sideshow once seemed to have its end too.

Carey Price had a season for the ages, getting everything but the Vezina nomination and playoff round victory he roundly deserved. Jaroslav Halak was starter, but not starter extraordinaire for St. Louis. Perhaps this chapter of it has ended. It seems fair to me, if not a bit early given our lectures about looking beyond single seasons, to deem that of the two goalies Montreal made the right choice. At least I feel that Montreal in this docket made a right choice, both goalies likely to be capable starters for years to come.

But for Lars Eller, it seems the book is not closed.

After Ian Schultz, despite a brief rush to his side, predictably became a forgotten Canadien, Lars Eller remains the return for a trade of one of the hottest trade chips that a Montreal GM has held in years.

For this reason, and because Halak had gathered quite a camp calling for his long future with the club, Eller continues to face judgment. For this reason, and because planting seeds of doubt about Halak constituted a major political strategy of those in parts of another camp, Eller continues to be held to lofty heights.

To further vindicate this following, Eller has to be good.

To hold back the disgruntled, Eller has to be good.

To prevent stories about how Ottawa pried the hot commodity, David Rundblad, from St. Louis days after Gauthier's transaction, Eller has to be good.

To put off thoughts of a Colorado high first rounder taken for an RFA goalie, Eller has to be good.

Every time, I read a review of Eller, I am given to thinking about inflation of events. The question of whether he is good, or will be good, or can just be good at being average seems forever be coloured by these concerns.

I like a good battle in the corner as much as the next guy, but rarely have I seen Habs fans get too excited about a young man who can do this effectively. I enjoy a winning match-up on the fourth line, but seldom have I seen ink spilled on the topic till now. Little steps in the right direction for Eller don't go unnoticed, little they may be.

My take on the poor guy is that there is no question he is good enough to make a living in the NHL, but there is a lot of question as to whether that living will ever be made as a top 6 forward. My take is that he has some laudable talents, notably his willingness to take scrub roles, but that like all prospects he may not last the onslaught of those coming behind him.

My take is that he could probably do without all this baggage that is attached to his name, but that it would take a bit of doing to uncouple himself.

For Lars Eller, it's a consequence of changing from Peoria blue to Montreal red.

But us fans, forever in red. Should we just not abandon these thoughts and move on? Should we not forego the battlefields already won/lost? Should we not just let Lars Eller be the player he looks like he will be? Lift his burden?

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Draft Pick Love

During the regular season all fan energy is geared to just making the playoffs. 82 games of ups and downs culminate in what amounts to two weeks of nail biting for all but 3 teams at the top and bottom. The lucky 8 make it through and experience brief elation and short relief.

The playoffs take more energy. Game 1 and Game 2 hold huge hope and anticipation no matter the results. Anyone can win in the playoffs, the mantra repeated. Game 3 and onwards things get serio9us. Elimination looms, progression attainable. The fan channels energy into every facet of the game.

In a short but very intense moment of the NHL calendar, every blocked shot, every dressing room visit, every post-game quote is taken for full analysis (and not just in Montreal). This period is all-consuming. Thoughts seldom stray to other topics, it's team all day.

But then it ends. One way or another it ends. For 15 teams, the end is abrupt and dissatisfying. Seldom do fans have more than 40 minutes to morph from undying belief to total disbelief. The energy that was generated, nurtured, stored is left without direction.

The lucky fan can dissipate it all with a single fist to wall rendez-vous. Some can transfer it all, miraculously celebrating victory every year in different stripes. Those of us that are so accursed to attach everything to one group of 23 are left with adrenaline to burn and plenty of time and space in which to do it.

The NHL entry draft

Enter the NHL entry draft, a shopping excursion for NHL teams during which scouting departments pick whole generations of hockey players clean to the bone over a single weekend.

For the unsatiated fan the entry draft provides. It provides those topsy turvy moments where worst is first and playoff vanquished are in the driver's seat.

If I remember back to a time when there was no internet and the team I followed largely left their fans with ample achievement in their bellies come June, I remember being one of a few who followed the draft. Certainly one of a few who could list the picks in later rounds.

Through a combination of pent up glory-envy and the creation of means for release of this playoff stored energy, the following for such academic interests has grown exponentially. Nowadays it seems that draft day and the days that precede it are some of the busiest days of the year for a blog like this one. Nowadays, it seems like there is as much excitement in hearing the "right" name called on a June afternoon as there is on hearing the goal siren on a cold November evening. The fervent fan of hockey games transformed into the fervent fan of hockey operations.

In a hockey game, the glasses fitted for the team one supports allows for lopsided views to become reason. Each goal for a thing of beauty, each goal against a grievous error, each penalty for an unlucky misfire, each penalty against a revelation of justice.

I am beginning to see these glasses creep into the world of hockey operations fandom. While other teams can make errors donning their silly logoed shirts, the "porteurs du Saintte Flanelle" are a thing of grace even in the offseason.

How else to explain the sudden rush of support that is bestowed on each and every name called on the day of drafting, no matter how little we knew of the 17 year olds they were a minute before?

How else to explain the gulf of affection that lies between newly added 20 year-olds and those whose names we spent summers studying up on?

My theory is exactly that. That fans with that excess of hockey-allotted energy stored from May (or April) spend it throughout a summer. With little otherwise to spend it on other than qualifying offers and stories of gym routines, those 6-10 newly adorned sweaters from mid-June take the lion's share. The hours that would be spent reading about Lars Eller's ankle wrapping in early May are channeled into hockey databases and scouting reports and reviews of those hockey operations additions.

And I think there are varying levels of energy too. I mentioned the lucky ones who can turn off in May and turn on in October. Grades must then range from people who have a few days left of itch to months worth. Those with little begin and end most likely with the Nathan Beaulieus of the world, while the next tiers spend their reserves on rounds next until they realise summer just happened.

I am hardly amazed then that each first round draft pick of the storied Montreal Canadiens instantly becomes hero. I am hardly surprised that after only a few weeks, each unknown darts to the top of lists of organizational successes.

Intriguing to me still though is how enduring this love is. How even in the face of scrutiny and trials and comparisons to peers nearly each and every first rounder maintains an aura that will be carried for years. Intriguing how one decision made in June (that probably could have gone any one of 10 different directions) is deemed right and good.

You'll know if you follow this blog that I have been a bit down recently on Jarred Tinordi. In fact, I am starting to feel like a lone critic some of the time and made to feel almost traitorous for my words. Jarred, you see was taken as the Canadiens first pick in he 2010 draft which shortly followed the exhilarating run and highly disappointing end to that season. It seems I have touched a nerve perhaps too soon. Perhaps because Jarred is (or has to be) the good that came from that season without a Cup (again).

I don't pretend to know which way is right. The fact I can let go of the hope I had for the 2010 draft just like the hope of coming back against Pronger's smothering Philadelphia might just make me lucky. Perhaps I am wrong to even wish to let go of the little nugget we picked out of the river of the 2010 season. Maybe I'm the hockey operations fan equivalent of the guy who gets his beer during the period to skip the lineups.

I don't know. All I know is first round picks is not yet on the level of missed calls for me. I probably have decades of pent-up energy left for how wrong the refs got it on Doug Gilmour's broken glass penalty. Nathan Bealieu? you have maybe 5 months...

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Tinordi And The Habs Prospects

Today, Habs Eyes On The Prize has published their profile for #10 player under the age of 25 in the entire Habs organization: Jarred Tinordi.

I was part of the voting for these top 25 players and I promised you all that I would have comments on the picks when the time was right. Well the time is right. I think Jarred Tinordi at #10 says a lot about this team, its future and the fans who follow its story.

First of all, you should know that I did vote for Jarred Tinordi in this poll. I placed him at #22 on my overall list of players under the age of 25.

Tinordi in my estimation was drafted for one main reason: size. Luckily for us Habs fans he is not just big, he is very big. In fact, he's so big (6'7"). But the rest of the scouting report of Jarred Tinordi is not made to turn heads. He skates well (always written for a big player), he has an excellent shot from the point (but it must be noted he actually scores few goals with it) is mean (but by most reports not that mean).

Based on numerous firsthand reports of acquaintances and OHL fans, I gather he had an enormous amount of trouble adapting to the OHL. Even the most generous reports said only that he fit in and just didn't set himself apart from the garden variety OHL Dman. At the end of the day, he had a rough first season in the OHL. Yes, he was a rookie in that league. But at 18/19 through this season he was not one of the younger players. Legitimate excuses for his performance can be found, but I wonder if we're starting that 2 leagues below the NHL what to expect in a few years.

Tinordi at #10 is an indictment of the Canadiens talent pool

One of the problems I have with Tinordi is that I find his profiles and projections speak to me. I find little I can disagree with based on what I have seen heard and read about the player in the assessments that result. The sum up at the end of his profile on EOTP says it all in this regard:
If his development goes well I would expect Tinordi to become a good 3rd pairing defenseman that his used heavily in his own end and on the penalty kill, with the outside chance he might turn out to be a decent 2nd pairing shutdown player.
I wholeheartedly agree. I to am optimistic that Tinordi will one day play in the NHL. But, I share the notion that his ceiling will be a complementary role on any future team.

Does this light any fires? Potential future defensive defenceman?

(Oh good, those summers we won't have to sign Jeff Woywitka or Paul Mara.)

To me, this assessment which essentially spells potential #4-6 defenceman is not heartening at the #10 position among all players under 25. To me, this is a massive indictment of the rest of the plaers that come after him.

Good scoring hands? So what, he'll definitely be less valuable than a future Hal Gill. Impressive season in the WHL? Whatever,there's no way he'll fare better than someone who struggled in the OHL. 5'9" with speed? I'd trade all the skill and speed for 9 inches.


Luckily Habs fans, I don't think the Habs pool of players is awful, I just think that in this case Tinordi's value has been vastly overrated. Moreover, I think the value of having a very big guy as your 5th most frequently used defender has been overrated.

Take for example some of the players I ranked ahead of him that eventually received a lower consensus number than him: Michael Bournival, Brendan Gallagher, Alexander Avtsin, Brock Trotter and Magnus Nygren.

Bournival just put up his second point per game season in a row in the QMJHL as the Captain of the Shawinigan Cataractes. He was a late cut from the Canadian Junior Team (not an early cut from the American Junior team) and scored plenty of goals. Bournival certainly is a guaranteed first line player, but hope is not lost that he could score in the NHL.

Gallagher just scored 40+ goals for the second straight season in a WHL where 28 goals is now sometimes touted as future power forward. If he was over 6' tall he would be in the top 3 Habs prospects. With a chance taken on him, there's plenty of precedent to see NHL goals in his future too.

Avtsin just played his first season in Hamilton after his stint in the KHL. Again questions exist, but the tools are plain to see. Skating, shooting, puck control and many other of the unteachables. A bit of investment in time and teaching into a player like this would turn him into better than a 5th defenceman in my honest opinion.

Trotter was 6th in AHL scoring 2 seasons ago and did a pretty bang up job in the KHL this past season. He's an injury away from the NHL this season. Used correctly nothing in his past suggests he'll be a hanger-on.

Nygren is my favourite. He just ended a season as one of the best up and coming defencemen in the top Swedish league. Playing with men, he availed himself well and wrested the PP QB role from established members of the organization at age 20. Skating and Swedish acumen alone suggest he would have chance, and a chance with upside.

These are just four for me, but four that I would be comfortable placing higher ceilings on than Jarred Tinordi. Sure they all face uncertainty about NHL career at all, but then I wouldn't mind if I'd never had to watch Andy Sutton.

In my estimation, the Habs have drafted fairly well and filled in the gaps pretty adeptly with players like Raphael Diaz, Brock Trotter, Peter Delmas and Alain Berger.

In my estimation the team has one of the brighter crops of players under the age of 25 in the league.

Tinordi, apart from in size, bloodlines and picks invested does not stack up to these 5 and the other 7 guys I ranked a head of him.

I don't see this a s a bad thing, but rather something very bright. For if I shared the opinion that our tenth best young player could one day, if things go well, be put out to defend the future Chris Kellys of the league then I'm pretty certain I'd be looking into future winter pastimes to take up in 5 years time.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Taken for Granted

As the season closes in, I'm always amazed at the variable levels of optimism and pessimism from fans and reporters for their given teams. The Habs are no exception. If anything, the peaks and troughs seem higher and deeper in Montreal.

Overall, I'd have to say I am getting a vibe of general optimism form Habs fans these days. Despite a relatively quiet summer and little overall change to team make up, the Canadiens supporterate is upbeat.

So upbeat, in fact, that I am finding myself reading more often than not that the Canadiens have a baseline level from which they can only do better, and that baseline seems to be well within the playoff threshold by most accounts.

Every year this happens, not just with the Habs, but with all teams. Analysts take the past and use some imagination and rational projection to prognosticate on what will come about.

The issue I take with this approach is that it generally focuses far too heavily on the positive direction. In most schemes all young players progress, all career best years are only foundations for more career best years and few ever decline.

Progress it seems is taken for granted.

Rarely do I read that Erik Cole might have an Edmonton debacle as he did his only other time outside North Carolina. Few and far between are the reports of Gionta possibly dropping off or Plekanec slipping in offensive production. I don't think anyone has dared write that PK Subban might be susceptible to a sophomore setback that the vast majority of his peers are not immune to.

All I read is about Gomez having nowhere to go but up. Eller continuing to make strides and the like.

I just thought that for a true balance, we should probably have a look at what we all, honestly, are probably taking for granted this season:

1) Tomas Plekanec posting 20+ goals and at least 57 points

2) Carey Price providing top-10 NHL goaltending

3) Hal Gill not getting figured out by fast forwards

4) Brian Gionta in the higher 20s in goals

5) Max Pacioretty scoring at the rate he did on his curtailed streak

6) Markov and Subban clicking on the PP

7) Emelin, Diaz or whichever AHLer having few growing pains

8) Not missing Hamrlik

9) Cammalleri repeating playoff magic

10) Team morale staying high no matter what happens

I very much hope the team does well. Yet I don't take for granted this will happen. Every team has its surprises and every team suffers setbacks, no matter how good. It may not be one of the things I have listed above, but something on the Montreal Canadiens will go awry and decline from the idealized painting we have in the endless August prognostications.

I do still despite this balanced head find I have more hope than some years that the team will close the season with a few games in the 82 to spare.

I won't make a prediction on points or on placement, but I will predict this: we will have reasons to cheer and reasons to fret in 2011-12, and we will have to watch the games to see how this new group of 23 players will fare against the 29 other new groups of players.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Woy not?

New Habs D Is Low Risk Proposition

If it seemed the Canadiens weren't keen on resigning Alexandre Picard, they confirmed that today by signing journeyman defenceman Jeff Woywitka to a one-year two-way deal. As per club policy, we will have to wait until capgeek tells us the contract value later today to find out.

This signing looks good, OK, on most fronts.

Woywitka played in the NHL last season for a start. He was a plus player on a team that wasn't terrible defensively. He averaged a lot of ice and didn't make too much of a mess by letting up way more chances than he was on for.

In other words he did an adequate job for an adequate team.

He may no longer be the prized trade chip that he once was, or the prospect he looked when he came out of junior an all-star. But he has made his place in the league it seems -- or half a place.

The two-way contract is probably the key consideration of this contract. I would imagine that at this point of the summer Gauthier has had the chance to speak with a few free agent defencemen who might have filled an 8th man in role. Sopel probably, Picard maybe. Gauthier probably had the two-way contract as the stipulation, and in Woywitka it seems he found a taker.

From the team's perspective this provides the flexibility to go with the youngsters they're hoping will come through, but the insurance of an NHL body on the AHL team. It's a good insurance policy and one that could be quite fruitful if the relationship is productive at the AHL or NHL level.

I don't know that much about Woywitka's play, and given his days of player profiles are long behind him, I thought I'd share with you something I came across from another blog that was making the case to sign him earlier in the summer.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Andrei Needs To Go?

Almost couldn't believe my eyes when I read the headline this morning:

"Montreal Canadiens’ Andrei Kostitsyn has got to go"

The sensational headline will be clicked on all day by supporters and those who wanted this nascent thought reaffirmed anyway.

The problem I have is not necessarily with the headline (I understand trying to hook a reader), but as usual with the quick and dirty research that went into backing up a story with such a contentious stance.

First of all, the article uses average stats available to anyone and everyone, despite the fact the author has special access to the team. What's more, I read Puck Daddy's article last night and this one barely misses a step as it retraces arguments.

Context for instance would be nice, seeing as we all did watch this thing unfold anyway. Let's divide the season using some sense, shall we:

Games 1-12: Andrei started the season on the top line with Plekanec and Cammalleri. 6 G and 4 A in 12 games.

Games 13-19: Andrei is moved to help get Gomez going. The first game is with Gionta, the next 6 are mostly spent with Lapierre and Gomez. 1 G and 3 A in 7 games.

Games 20-29: Andrei is moved back to the new first line.

Game 30: Gomez is injured in Game 28 and misses 2 games. As a result the top 6 is now a top 4 (sorry Ben). As a result, Andrei gets another game back with Pleks and Cammalleri.

Game 31-42: Pacioretty called up and granted his wish/demand. Top 6 duty all the time (maybe Pouliot/Kostitsyn/Eller didn't notice the success of this approach?). Andrei largely finds a place on the Plekanec and Cammalleri line.

Games 43-44: Cammalleri misses two games. Total line disarray, except for Gomez/Gionta/Pacioretty. Andrei experimented on a line with Jeff Halpern.

Game 45-46: Cammalleri back for two games, Andrei stays with Halpern and Moen.

Games 47-50: Cammalleri out long term. Canadiens top 6 becomes top 5 again. Kostitsyn united with Eller and Plekanec for the most part for 4 game trial.

Games 51-60: Gomez and Plekanec swap for most games to get Gionta and Pacioretty firing. Predictable results for Andrei given last stint. This is a very big slump for Andrei on the gamelog as he only records a single assist. His PP time is 15 minutes over 10 games, half of what the top options were getting.

Games 61-67: Cammalleri back for outdoor game #59. After one game of rehab the top 6 is reassessed. Kostitsyn is adjudged to be out. Plays on a line with Eller (at the time a 3 G, 4 A rookie) and Travis (hands) Moen. But Kostitsyn makes good and is easily the hottest player on the team, Eller the second. Andrei records 4 G and 6 A from games 61 to 70.

Games 68-70: Pacioretty injured in Game 67 -- a full-time (no exceptions) member of the top 6 is removed from the deck. Pouliot trialed, Halpern trialed!!!

Games 71-74: Plekanec misses games. Out of necessity, Kostitsyn re-promoted
to Cammalleri's line, still with Eller.

Games 75-77: Plek returns. Andrei stays with Eller. Andrei turns in the best goal production in goals by forwards from games 71-77 (3 G)

Games 78-82: The line wheel is spun one last time and Andrei ends the season where he began with Pleks and Cammalleri. Line clicks well enough to keep it intact for the playoffs. Andrei has 3 assists in 5 games.

Key events:

Gomez slump
Martin determines his priority is to get Gomez going (I think we all agreed it was worth the experiment at the time too). Kostitsyn is the trial man.

Pacioretty call-up
Pacioretty gets his wish and plays with Gionta pretty much every time he steps on the ice. He mostly gets Gomez with a healthy dash of PLekanec

Cammalleri return from injury
The 5 are suddenly a 6 and the line combinations become more flexible. Kostitsyn odd man out in favour of some questionable options.

Pacioretty injury
Window of opportunity for Andrei? Think again, Pouliot and Halpern gievn the bit.

Like probably every player in the league, Kostitsyn sees things from his own point of view first. From his point of view, it seems that he had a good start and things went down from there. From his point of view it seems he was used to kick start players, but unless there was another reason (injury) there weren't really attempts to kickstart him. From his point of view Pacioretty jumped the queue, Desharnais did for a little while too. From his point of view ice time is not the determining factor of first/second/third line, who is on the line is.

Some of his point of view is fair and some isn't.

It is fair, for example, that he resents being stripped from the top line at Game 13 to help 3 point Gionta and 3 point Gomez. It is fair that he feels a bit slighted that others were tried first before him when Cammalleri got injured.

Andrei probably does need to calm down too. he did slump at a pretty inopportune time (Cammalleri injury) and this rightly coloured coaching decisions for 15 games afterwards. He may have been on the third line in his mind (Eller), but in ice time and production he should probably re-evaluate that stint and recognise Martin did a favour by letting him find chemistry with Eller.

Does he need to go?

Well of course not.

What probably does need to go is the sensational half thoughts that led to this conclusion.

Even if the GM did want to trade him (and he might have wanted that anyway with contract status and all), the timing would be at its near worst to move right now. All but the most myopic would see that.

But all stats I collect also point to the fact that Andrei is actually a winning propostion on this team at his current price. The fact that people don't like brooding Russians (Belorussians) shouldn't change that.

In my estimation, everyone should take reports like this seriously, but not always go for the knee-jerk: the player is wrong to speak response. Speaking out isn't the favoured approach and we'd all prefer if this was a private meeting with the GM instead of reporter, but what is said should be taken just as seriously because it gives a window into what one player thinks. What one player thinks might not be an isolated thought. Think team chemistry can be set by ejecting players? Think again, team chemistry is fragile and takes action and proactive moves to keep the balance.

In my estimation, Gauthier does probably need to act here thought. He needs to meet with Jacques Martin to make sure a plan is in place to optimize communication between players, coaches and management. Kostitsyn won't be the only player who likes decisions explained to him, he won't be the only player who needs his ego stroking once in a while. There really is no excuse at all for not getting this right. Egos in sports are not a new thing, and anyone with an ounce of understanding of psychology or even 10 minutes of coaching experience will know that a team of players requires a team of coaching strategies.

So let's all calm down here. Kostitsyn's status shouldn't change based on an unconfirmed report and a bit of research.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Other Things Kovy Probably Should Have Said

While he was about it, why didn't Kovalev empty out all the other thoughts that might have been crossing his mind.

Through my own private Russian scrambler, this is what I heard him musing:

On Summer 2011:

"I guess I should have signed with Florida on Day 1 of free agency..."

"People say I've been banished to Hockey's Siberia. It could have been worse, it could have been Long Island."

On Ottawa:

"I really should take the lion's share of responsibility for the Senators woes. It really had nothing to do with Nick Foligno being on the top line."

On "hard working" NHL players

"If every player worked as hard to learn to skate efficiently as they purportedly do on every shift maybe the enigmas of the NHL wouldn't have to coast just so they could keep up."

"If I came to play every night like Steve Begin, people would still complain. And, I'd have wasted my time and talents..."

On NHL coaching methods:

"Is there anyone other than NHL coaches who thinks benching is a useful teaching tool?"

On tactical excellence:

"Spot the outlier: Defending -- track and chase. Attacking -- dump and chase. Enigmatic play -- hold onto the puck until an opportunity arises."

On increasing scoring:

"Memo to NHL: maybe if you want more goals, the trapezoid isn't the problem. 82 games, 12 serious practices, do the math."

"Memo to Junior hockey: see memo to NHL."

On playoff hockey:

"Why does the NHL feel it has to pander to the Don Cherrys of the hockey world?"

"Why does the NHL change its own rules in the playoffs to the advantage of the unskilled players in the league?"

Kovy's Corner

We know from watching the Montreal years and from the brief flirtation with Russian daily newspapers that Kovalev says entertaining things. One minute he's playing till he's 50, the next he's solving all the NHL's problems.

It sounds like another hockey pundit we know, vastly overpaid by the CBC for his out of date opinions.

Wouldn't it be fun if the CBC ran a second intermission slot called "Kovy's Corner" to juxtapose the views of a 2-game NHL fighter?

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Gotta Love Kovalev

Gauthier didn't answer our pleas, but true to form Alexei Kovalev pulled a boring summer out of the fire and made some news from thin air.

Well maybe more bitter air than thin air. Kovalev let loose in one of those wonderful tell all Russian media interviews that always surface (and then get denied) just when we need them.

As he is accustomed to doing with a puck on his stick, Kovalev cut through the defence and scored some direct hits on the Ottawa organization, defensive coaches and the media.

On the media:
Sovetsky Sport: You have a reputation of showing up one night but disappearing the next. Is this a fair characterization?

Kovalev: One journalist wrote it when I was still playing in New York, and then it all started. There are such reporters, who don’t watch hockey, don’t understand it — but they will still say that Kovalev doesn’t give his all. That he plays whenever he wants. They are short on their own opinion.

Kovalev: There are different journalists. My opinion of Ottawa journalists is that they don’t watch hockey at all. When they fly with the team and go through the (metal detector) at an airport, their bags are filled with beer. You realize right away what these people do when they write about the NHL. Let them make up nonsense about me. But I am happy with what I have done.

On Cory Clouston:

Sovetsky Sport: Sergei Gonchar threw his hands in the air when I asked what style of game Ottawa plays. What do you say to that question?

Kovalev: In two seasons I still couldn’t understand the ideas of our coach Cory Clouston. It seemed that he scoffed at some players.

On the way to coach:

Kovalev: You have to treat players kindly. If you leave someone on the bench you should explain why it happened. This is coach’s job. But when a player is benched and doesn’t understand what is happening, he becomes lost.

It seems to me there are some hard truths in there:

1) Don't slam players if you are a media hotshot who is carting beer in your hand luggage. That shame is worth taking many name-calling interviews for.

2) Or don't slam those players who can invent such a believable rumour.

3) Cory Clouston was all over the map. Having your players fear you is one 3hing, having them draw a blank when challenged on team strategy is quite another.

4) Coaches who don't have the courtesy to talk to their players about their reasoning, especially those older than the coach with decades more experience on an ice sheet should be fired. it's bad man management, it's a bad plan from the start. You may remember a coach called Carbo.

Bruce Garricoh didn't take the news with grace:

Just like he did during his short, failed stint with the Senators, the selfish underachieving winger is blaming everybody but himself for why he’s out of the NHL and headed to the Kontinental Hockey League on a two-year deal
You'd think Garrioch would get resounding "hear ye" for an article that lays one more slam on the mostly ineffective Senator from the local fans. Not so, the first sample of comments show that carting beer through x-ray detectors is a less sought after skill than stickhandling on the half boards:

Hmmm...lets compare credentials here, shall we?

Alex Kovalev: 1st Round Draft Pick in 1991. Outscored entire draft class of that year. Stanley Cup Champion. 1300+ games played. 400+ goals. 1000+ points.

Bruce Garrioch: Local hack. Fawns over popular home town players he doesn't want to lose favour with regardless of their play. Makes up quotes from fictional "league executives". May still live in mom's basement.

Yep, pretty clear to me where the sour grapes are emanating from....

You have to give it to Kovy. Yesterday, we were reading the umpteenth report on how Erik Cole will get Montreal 2 more ES goals this season. Today, we can pick between credibility of stories from Russia, coaching techniques and battle of wits for a news story. He really can strike at any time to create a thing of beauty from out of nothing.

Monday, August 08, 2011

Habs Need A New Signing

It's nearly mid-August. There's only so much one can read about Erik Cole.

Pierre Gauthier needs to come back from vacation and sign more than a goaltender for training camp drills, because the 400 blogs and 77 media personnel who cover this hockey team are gagging for some news.

Of course, there are other reasons to move: money to players that could help the team instead of Molsons, replace the bottom tier forwards that were lost, bolster Hamilton, insurance policy.

Players available

One mustn't only look at Gauthier, it's been a very slow summer from the vast majority of teams. One gets the feeling that Eklund is waiting for this domino or that domino to fall before paying for his site will be "worthwhile" again.

There are players available, though. In fact, several of the decent free agents from July 1 are still available for signing today. For those who are starting to think that people are putting too much weight of expectation on Cole, here are a few forwards that could help the team a little (and help the poor reporters a lot):

Chris Clark (RW):
He's not going to set the world on fire (or score 30 goals again), but he could probably quite capably replace Jeff Halpern and push guys like Moen to compete more for ice time.

Mike Grier (RW):
Always thought he was a good example of someone who is not only big, but can play big. As he's aged, he's also learned to be very good defensively.

JP Dumont (RW):
Let's get realistic. One of the top 6 is going to have a tough year, probably two. The GM can't take the attitude that signing a guy like Dumont will close the door. Having three good lines too much for Habs fans? It was too much for Rejean Houle...

And here are a couple of D that could make the team and make the mix back there more interesting:

Scott Hannan (D):
Wouldn't do it for his previous salary, but surely a summer of waiting has him thinking of discounting his services. Like the forwards, having an extra capable guy around couldn't/wouldn't hurt too much.

Jack Hillen (D):
25, unsigned. Maybe that's a red flag. Maybe his contract demands are sky high. But at the right price, why not Jack Hillen? It might taint the dream lineups that have been on the bulletin boards, but who cares?

All of these guys could be temporary upgrades on whoever is slotted into the spots now and (again not kidding ourselves)injuries will ensure young players still get their chances.

At the very least if we could stop hearing about Erik Cole, any signing would be a good thing.

Friday, August 05, 2011

Habs Scoring Chance Breakdown

We now all know what a scoring chance is. We now all understand its potential and are ready to play with stats.

Scoring chances should help us look into the games of Michael Cammalleri, Scott Gomez, Andrei Kostitsyn and others in a new way, to get beyond the very helpful but very limited Corsi and to add some new paint to the picture.

Scoring chance analyses

One of the great things about the way the scoring chance trackers do their work is that they build in a timestamp.

Because of this very crucial early decision (and the commitment from trackers to publishing when every scoring chance happened) we have the opportunity to cross reference the whole thing with the NHL time-stamped version of events. From there, we can see not only which shots were scoring chances, but also which scoring chances missed the net or were scored as non-shots by the league.

The composite of the two records is quite exciting because it offers the chance to run calculations that describe the shooting, positioning and offensive decision-making of the players.

I have a nearly full record of the whole 2010-11 season done in this way, but after the very informative Q&A with Olivier of En Attendant les Nordiques, I realised that I needed to go back to the drawing board on some of my analyses. So for now, I give you the analysis if scoring chances in the 2011 playoffs.

Starting from the beginning: the conventional playoff shooting stats.

As you can see below, some players took a lot of shots. Gionta led the team in total shots and shots per 60 minutes, Pouliot was completely AWOL. From these simple numbers, we can also run the simple Scott Cullen 'Josh Gorges' analysis and see that Spacek and Hamrlik could use some time on the practice green.

Moving on, we can look at Olivier's scored chances for the series by player. Gionta still led the team in scoring chances per ice time, but note the fallers. David Desharnais who came out looking like a star on NHL stats, suddenly doesn't look so good. Why? Because 75% of his shots were from outside Olivier's home base.

When people fall, others rise. Kostitsyn and Pyatt jump up because their shots tended to be from within the homebase (and by consensus definition more dangerous) -- though we're having trouble remembering a dangerous Pyat shot just now...

OK, so we knew all that. Or we could have known it if we looked. But the crossrefencing comes in now. Below you will see a column called "Target". Target means a scoring chance (from Olivier's record) that corresponded to a shot (on the NHL's record) -- a shot from within the homeplate area.

This is where it gets interesting, because we can start to see not only who waits to take shots from within the homeplate, but also who can make sure an attempt from there (where coverage is tightest) is on net. The skills of patience, timing, positioning and finally accuracy combined.

Here we see the cream (and Weber) rising to the top. Forwards are now on average better than Dmen and the forwards we thought of as threats at the time show up as the biggest threats in the record. Of greatest note here (apart from Weber who had some very nice shots) is Scott Gomez (half the number of on target attempts per game vs. the elite forwards). Pouliot really did his contract dreams no favours, did he?

So what we'd really like to know is how dangerous were the shots of each player on the team? That way before we go headlong down the Corsi results road we can see if perhaps we'd rather some of those Corsi-helping attempts had been held back in favour of a pass or a dump in.

That's what we can see below. Here are the on-target shots form the homeplate area as percentages of total shots and attempts. Weber again is top, and Andrei Kostitsyn creeps in with some scary accuracy. Scott Gomez, once again, is shown to be a very cheap shot.

If I'm defending this what I see is one player (Kostitsyn), who I'd better stick to like glue and another (Gomez) who I should probably actively open shooting lanes for from the outside boards.

Of course, we could counter by saying that Kostitsyn holds it too much and Gomez is just playing the odds. But is this more than three-fold difference really just a regression to mean waiting to happen? We all watched the games. I don't remember it that way.

Team metrics

Nowadays people who go on too long about individual stats like I just did are eaten by the wolves of Corsi. A player's value you see, can't be shown merely by looking at individual stats alone. i rather agree. And luckily for me, the script that scoring chance trackers use also shoots out all the players that were on the ice at the time the chance occurred.

So now we can see which players were on the ice for the most scoring chances by the team.

This is where things get interesting isn't it?

Scott Gomez, who clearly has no control over or confidence in his own shot is now squarely in the top 5 on the list -- ahead of his linemate Gionta! We aren't at all surprised by those ahead of him (stars of the playoff series that they were), but are a little dismayed that David Desharnais seemed to be a chance sink.

Goals scored

Finally, a look at who converts. So you've won yourself a shot in the slot, Tom Pyatt, what are you going to do with it?

Beyond anomalies Weber and Sopel (and I hesitate to say Subban), we can see that the guys who convert their chances as often as they should (more than 20%) are Cammalleri, Kostitsyn and Gionta. Sopel, who barely played spun some magic as well, because when he was on the ice, the team shot over 20%.

Players of note

So what does all this tell us about the players we wanted to know about?

Brian Gionta: The boy believes in the power of odds, shooting frequently. Fortunately for him, his shot is of above average accuracy

Tomas Plekanec: Mr. Steady. He's up there in most offensive categories. he shoots a lot, but also clearly knows how to make it count.

Mike Cammalleri: Potentiator. Sure his individual record is good, and he scores the goals, but he also is on the ice for the most chances by his teammates. Who said he couldn't pass?

Andrei Kostitsyn: Good positioning, good shot, maybe too patient/picky. Probably a good thing he wasn't let go.

Scott Gomez: Should wait until the teammate becomes free, there seems to be some redeeming bit of magic when he can do that. Anything is better than watching his shot.

Benoit Pouliot: Played himself off the team in perplexing fashion.

David Desharnais/Lars Eller: Our third line might be in trouble once checking gets tight.

PK Subban: What a playoffs.

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Defining The Scoring Chance

The 6-Minute Abs?

By now, a hockey fan, you've heard plenty about advanced stats and the rise of the scoring chance.

When I was a much more naive stats geek, I used to make a lot of assumptions about what I was hearing and extrapolate that information to make my own (ultimately flawed) interpretations. I can tell you that when I first found out the working definition of scoring chance being used by the squadron of scoring chance trackers around the league, I was more than a little bit surprised.

I want to show you all some work I've been doing with scoring chances over the last couple of seasons. So as a service to those who are starting from where I was just a little while ago, I thought I'd clear up the assumptions before we start.

How better to do that than to ask the Patriarch of Habs Scoring Chances, Olivier of En Attendant les Nordiques, the question:

"Just what is a scoring chance anyway?"

I asked him more questions than that, and he kindly answered them all. But by the end of this, we should, agree or disagree about the methodology, at least be on the same page about the stat in question.

Without further ado:

What is a scoring chance?

My definition: a scoring chance is a shot on goal or a missed shot unleashed from the "home plate" area. The home plate area goes from goalposts, up to the face-off dots, then up toward the blue line to the top of the face-off circles.
(image taken from Copper and Blue, 2010)

So every shot is not a scoring chance?

No, when the shot is taken from outside the zone and doesn't result in a goal, it isn't a scoring chance.

And some non-shots are scoring chances?

That's right. Both missed shots and shots on goal from inside the home plate area are accounted for because I see them as successful attempts to challenge the opposition's goaltender. A blocked shot is not, in my opinion, a scoring chance because a defender actually thwarted the challenge.

I should say here that I give myself some leeway; if a guy floats a feeble backhander from the top of the plate and the goaltender easily follows it, I don't give a chance. A hard shot from the limit of the zone will be counted as a chance.

You say a shot can also be a scoring chance if it results in a goal?

A goal scored from outside that zone is counted as a scoring chance *if* it's an actual attempt to challenge the goaltender. So, Gill floating a wrister from the blue line is a scoring chance. Other guys recording scoring chances have some variations to their definitions: some count screened shots from the blue line, some never allow a chance from a shot from outside the home plate even if it's a goal.

So not every goal is the result of scoring chance then?

Not in my record of chances, no. Best example is a goal scored by Jeff Halpern early in the 10-11 season: he was behind the net and attempted a pass in front, only to see the puck deflect on a defender's skate into the net.

But that doesn't mean being behind the goal rules out a chance. I've also given a chance on a Moen Goal where he was behind the goal line and clearly shot it on the goaltender's leg to bounce it into the net.

Basically, to be a chance, there has to be an attempt at challenging the net.

So we are left with:

1) A shot released from inside the home plate or a goal, that
2) "Challenges the net"

is a scoring chance.

This is probably at odds with what a lot of people think at this point. It was definitely at odds with what I thought before knowing the definition being used by trackers myself. I used to think of a scoring chance as a shot that "challenged the net" basically from anywhere. I think I was also quite surprised to find out that missed shots were scored in the same way that shots on net were.

To me there still exists a massive undescribed hierarchy of scoring chances within the scoring chances that are being tracked around the league. Call them good scoring chances, great scoring chances, quality scoring chances, whatever you like. I think many like me are left thinking on the inherent difference between miss from inside the home plate and save on a breakaway or two on one.

I brought it up with Olivier and he was unfazed.

But with this definition all scoring chances are equal. Are all scoring chances equal?

As far as scoring chances are concerned, quantity *is* quality. A scoring chance is a shot attempt from a zone that leaves almost no reaction time for the goaltender. Whatever difference in quality one can find between scoring chances is, I think, drowned by the fact that you actually *got* a scoring chances.

Let me put it this way: over a normal game, I record around 35 scoring chances. Of those, maybe 25 are at even strength. One team getting 15 ES scoring chances in a game is huge, below 10 is feeble. So, is this scoring chance better or worse than that scoring chance? I think the important point is that scoring chances are very dangerous events, 15% of which ending in goals while maybe 4% of Shots+Missed shots are converted in goals.

Why not at least track whether the shot was on net or off net? That could be an interesting aspect of quality to look at down the road.

That might actually be doable trough a script. But I don't think it would tell us about the "quality" of the scoring chance.

What is more dangerous: a 20 foot wrister that Cammalleri sends 6 inches over the cross bar, or a 20 foot wrister Moen buries into the goalies crest?

Missed or not, the guy tried to bury it by unleashing a shot from a given spot. When you talk about "quality", it seems to me you see that said quality comes from the spot the shot was unleashed from, not what the shot looked like going toward the net. That's an important point.

I think there'd be disagreement about this from observers of the game. Just as the scoring chance people have broken away from simply using shots. In "Something About Mary" the hitchiker has just thought of 6-minute abs as a revolutionary idea to replace 7-minute abs. Ben Stiller's character asks what will happen when someone invents 5-minute abs.

So what if scoring chances as they are now is the 6-minute abs? What if someone comes along and ranks shots from the zone where people score most often calling them really good scoring chances?

Are Scoring Chances the 6-minute abs? Yes they are, I am absolutely certain of that.

I record scoring chances for three main reasons, and I list them in order of importance to me: 1) I enjoy doing this 2) bunched together in a multi-game data stream, they give a better idea of who's driving the bus 3) If I take said data, make cool table out of them and write my toughest about them on a blog, people come around and we end up having very enjoyable discussions about stuff I enjoy.

Can someone come up with a better ranking of where shots are coming from? Yes, probably. I have an iPad and am fairly convinced that I could, should I beat myself into building the right tool, use it as a too for recording scoring chances in a more interesting fashion. Somebody, somewhere, will eventually hammer out such a thing and we'll end up with richer data. The question is, where will this data come from?

The NHL is putting charts up on the game centers pages of each game where you have a goaltender's save% on shots from different spots in the defensive zone. The 5 minute abs may very well be just around the corner.

Anyway, agree or disagree about the detail of the statistic, they are still useful to fans looking for more, right? On their use, is a scoring chance a team or an individual statistic?

Both. Scoring chances are useful because they are a "purer" from of shot-based metric. That is, they give you a more precise understanding of who was more challenging to the opposition. Even tough they are a team metric, they are more useful as an individual measure. They give a more reliable understanding of who is generating offense, even over a short span of time (that is from 10 games to a full season) and help weed out the luck factor.

I see two levels of individual statistics: individual achievements (Andrei Kostitsyn had a shot from between the dots, accounting for a scoring chance) and on-ice events (AKost, Cammalleri, Pleks, Gill and Subban were on the ice for a scoring chance). From my perspective, scoring chances as on-ice events is where they are more revealing about a given player.

As I wrote earlier this summer, Scott Gomez was terribly unlucky this past season: he was on the ice for the same amount of time at even strength as in 09-10 (about 1190 minutes) and the team had about the same amount of scoring chances while he was on the ice, about 370. Yet, the team scored 20 goals less in 10-11 (35 to 55) and Gomez ended up with 20 ESPoints instead of 40 (his career norm up until then). That is bad luck, pure and simple. I think scoring chances tells you who's actually driving the offense, luck be damned. Obviously, wingers will get more individual scoring chances than centers, who will get more than defensemen, but that's a structural reality.

How do you think scoring chances will be used in future stats analysis (by fans)?

It's all about the data made available. You look at advanced stats analysis done by fans and they mostly use and's outputs as building blocks. The managers of those two sites are, by the way, to be recognized as the enablers of the whole scoring chance projects you see left and right. Desjardins, of BehindThenet, used his site as a hub of analysis of data collected by Chances Recorders and timonice is the site that gives public access to a script that allows anybody to punch in time codes and notes and get a nice set of HTML tables of scoring chances data. Without these guys, there is no "Scoring Chances" as we see them being batted around in the hockey blogosphere nowadays. Making multiple years of scoring chances data on multiple teams available to fans is what will allow them to take these data stores and cross reference them with other sources such as and and come up with some new analysis.

On what? Off the top of my head: defining shot quality, quality of competition faced by goaltenders (who, of Halak and Price, saw the highest rate of scoring chances against in 09-10? If I'm not mistaken, Halak), luck-independent offensive and defensive output. Stuff like that, y'know.

When are fans on the laggard teams gonna get on this? Any word, because with the small sample now, it might as well be the Habs alone

The problem is, we aren't pooling the data already being collected so it's hard to tell who's on board. Of the 2010-11 season, I'm fairly certain the Habs, Leafs, Caps, Flames, Rangers, Flyers were recorded. I think some work was done with Chicago.

The next step would be some form of aggregation of data; seeing the data store would probably be an incentive for fans of uncharted teams to do the legwork.

The NHL teams record scoring chances, do you ever foresee these stats being available to fans?

No. Actually, I think NHL teams data stores are way more granular than anything we ever see out in the open (touches? Zone time?) and I think the NHL's data stores are way more refined than what we see on their website. But team's data stores are an asset that they manage so to give them a competitive advantage. They will *never* publish current data. The data published by the NHL is, if I'm not mistaken, the only data eligible for salary arbitration process. So whatever data we currently have from the big guys, it will all stay the same unless the new CBA states so or, maybe, if the NHL comes up with something akin to MLB's Pitch F/X. I'm not holding my breath.

What would be insanely cool is if some historian/researcher could convince old franchises such as the Habs, Rangers or Wings, to open up whatever archives they have so to give us a glimpse of how they approached stats in, say, the 40's, 50's or 60's.

Thanks again of course to Olivier for answering all of my basic questions so fully and clearly (even under challenges).

In our unending search for the 5-minute abs, and new and more interesting ways of crunching data in 6 minutes, we'll share some scoring chance extrapolations with you in the upcoming while.

At least now we can all start on the same page.

Ranking Prospects: By Committee

In my last post, I went charging full steam at some prospect ranking processes I didn't like. You'd think I'd be wise enough then to stay out of the prospect ranking game.

Think again. As I said, take the results with a grain or two of salt, but the fact remains ranking prospects is a fun sport for summertime.

The prospect ranking that I allude to here is the current Top 25 countdown of players aged 25 or under within the Canadiens system. The guys at Eyes on the Prize put in all the effort to gather opinion, compile and make some nice informative posts with snazzy graphics. I participated, but only by virtue of giving my two cents on the list.

From the looks of it, Habs Eyevs on the Prize will be releasing a profile each day until the 25 names are through. I suggest you take a look now and in the next couple of weeks as the bottom of this heap is where the least known prospects reside.

My plan is to read and watch.

Because I have my own list and the consensus list, I also plan to do a few highlights on players that I ranked much higher or much lower with some explanation as to my reasoning. My profiles, of course, following on from their profiles, so the thunder is not stolen from its rightful holders.

Until then, take it in. Save up some of your own ideas/grievances, and we can have a full on battle of philosophies when the time comes...