If someone asked me what I think the biggest failing of the eyeball test is, I’d respond that it’s the emphasis on the big mistake. There are gigabytes of information contained in a hockey game. So much information that I think it’s difficult for anyone to take it in and organize it rationally. The way that our brains deal with that is by focusing on the big mistake.
What is the big mistake? The big mistake is the play that leads to a goal against. When we see a player who’s made a bunch of big mistakes in a row, we get down on him. There are two problems with this. First, big mistakes don’t end up in the net on a clockwork basis. If for, example, one big mistake in four ends up in the net, it’s not like it goes goal, no goal, no goal, no goal, goal, no goal, no goal, no goal, goal, no goal, no goal, no goal, goal, no goal, no goal, no goal, goal, no goal, no goal, no goal. There will be clusters of goals and clusters of no goal.
Second, focusing on the big mistake ignores the context in which the mistake happens. A team with a 55% Corsi% has fewer opportunities for its players to make the big mistake than a team with a 45% Corsi%.
Steve Simmons went on TSN 1050 this morning and fell into this trap. He was asked about the Leafs lousy numbers and had this to say:
If the current administration is in charge, they pay next to no attention to, whatever you want to call the analytics people, to that realm of hockey. There are people who watched last night’s game, I’ll give you an example, and say ‘See? It’s all because of puck possession.’
That seems to be the new term for everybody that really doesn’t know the game. They’re great on talking about puck possession. What you get into though, look at last night’s game. They get a goal scored because the defenceman backs in and a goalie who can’t stop anything high glove. So it’s 1-0.
The Leafs had three power plays prior to that and didn’t score on any of them. What in God’s name that has to do with puck possession or Corsi or Fenwick or anything…their power play is lousy right now. That’s got nothing to do with any other statistic other than power play percentage.
Then they take a penalty and get scored on seven seconds in and essentially the game’s over. So you’ve had a mistake on a d-man backing in, you’ve taken a penalty and got scored on seven seconds in to your power play, where does your puck possession that everyone’s obsessing about come in to this?
Some will say sample size. That’s the other great term they use. Well, sample size is 82 games. If you break down each game individually, you’ll see puck possession plays a factor sometimes. So does defensive zone coverage, so does turning the puck over, so does penalty kill, so does power play, so does goaltending.
You can right now take a laundry list of what’s wrong with the Maple Leafs and you can go through many, many things but to continually point to these, for my mind, statistics that have predicted this doom and gloom and that everybody’s gleeful about, well the same statistics predicted for the Colorado Avalanche and they’re going to the playoffs and they’re home to Chicago. So, explain that to me.
The Colorado Avalanche, as I’ve discussed previously, are piling up points in an unsustainable way. They will either get better and earn their points, or they will probably get theirs next season, just like the Leafs did this year. I expect that Chicago will wipe them out in the playoffs but, small sample size, anything can happen.
Two portions of what Simmons said caught my eye:
If you break down each game individually, you’ll see puck possession plays a factor sometimes. So does defensive zone coverage, so does turning the puck over, so does penalty kill, so does power play, so does goaltending.
Two of those things – defensive zone coverage and turning the puck over – are directly related to puck possession. The better you are at those things, the better your Corsi% will be, all other things being equal. The Leafs goaltending was, on the whole, excellent this year. If it cost them specific games, who cares? Goaltending costs everybody some games. It cost the Leafs fewer than most.
The Leafs are twelfth in the league in 5v4 goal difference. They’re better than average. Are there games where the power play didn’t score? Sure. As there are for every team. So there were fewer for the Leafs than there were for most.
The penalty kill has hurt the Leafs. Their -51 goal difference when shorthanded is 11 goals worse than the league average. That’s on par with their 5v5 play, which has been 12 goals worse than the league average. Of course the reason that people focus on the Leafs 5v5 possession is that they’re great at finishing 5v5 (8.6% S%, fourth in the NHL) and very good at stopping the puck at 5v5 (.927, tenth in the NHL). If you’re great at finishing and good at stopping the puck but overall you’re bad at 5v5…well, there’s one thing left.
Which brings me back to the big mistake.
What you get into though, look at last night’s game. They get a goal scored because the defenceman backs in and a goalie who can’t stop anything high glove. So it’s 1-0.
There’s a reason that “Hockey is a game of mistakes” is a hoary cliche. It’s because it’s true. The more opportunities you have to make mistakes, the more mistakes you will make. No team in the NHL has more opportunities to make mistakes in the defensive zone than the Maple Leafs. That’s the underlying cause of this rot.
The Leafs can attack the underlying issue and try to become a 50% Corsi% team on their way to being one of the league’s elite. Or they can try and find guys who make mistakes 14% less often than the average guy so that they can survive as a 43% Corsi% team. Either way focusing on the big mistake misses the easiest way to stop suffering from them: be in a position to make them less often.Email Tyler Dellow at email@example.com