Monday, August 10, 2009

A Friendly Dissent, Offered in All Humility

I mean that! Sarcasm-free, such as.

Soren Kierkegaard, the world's 2nd most famous neurotic Dane (most famous if we except fictional characters from consideration), once wrote that "Numbers are the negation of truth."

Provocative and startling and sometimes true, but not always true. Sports is one of the few realms of human endeavor where numbers pretty much always represent the whole truth. Game scores, win-loss ratios, personal stats, league and division and conference standings, etc.

But numbers, when pressed into formulas like the hockey plus/minus ratio, can mislead. There are ways to make the plus/minus formula more precise and more accurate, and our Thrash-blogging comrade (and sometime PJ Harvey concert companion) the Falconer does just that in an excellent recent post on Colby Armstrong's value as an even-strength forward. He goes beyond a simple look at a player's plus/minus rating and examines what happens when a specific player is playing in a unit at even strength. What does he find? That Colby Armstrong is awfully useful, our most valuable even strength forward to be exact. I see no reason to disagree with this, if one defines "valuable" as "almost always makes the right choice" or "sturdy" or "dependable." The Falconer, sometimes unfairly caricatured as a stats extremist, goes to great lengths to describe Armstrong's habits of play, the different ways he finds to keep the puck in the opposing team's zone, his overall sanity and good hockey sense.

This is all good stuff, but I do have a quibble with the fact that he then uses Armstrong's game as a cudgel with which to beat Ilya Kovalchuk. As far as I can tell from his writing, the Falconer has always been ambivalent about Kovalchuk: of course he doesn't deny Kovalchuk's tremendous gifts as a goal-scorer, but he finds his defensive play not just questionable but downright bad. This is healthy, much-needed skepticism. Too many of us, myself included, too often blindly worship the Czar and rarely question his worth.

But perhaps the main reason that his value is so rarely questioned is because he's one of the best players alive. Not the most complete, certainly, but also hardly the one-dimensional sniper that some people have decided he is. I won't go into the other good qualities Kovalchuk brings to the party (passing, super-fluid skating, over-the-top passion that every now and then explodes and leads to an exciting fight, the ability to reverse the direction of a game and control the momentum of his team). For now I just want to point out two sentences from the Falconer's post:

At ES Kovalchuk's highlight reel goals are wiped out by his own bad defensive play and those of his teammates. Simply put at ES Kovalchuk is doing worse than breaking even.

I have to admit I don't really know what the Falconer means here. The ES plus/minus that the Falconer is examining here is simply a mathematical formula for summarizing the full regular season, and as such it's seriously incomplete and general. According to the abstract generalities of the plus/minus formula, Kovalchuk scores a certain (high) amount of goals, but all these goals are negated by the anti-Thrashers goals that occur when he's on the ice. Kovalchuk may or may not be a poor defensive forward (my opinion: he's improved a great deal, and not every goal that occurs while he's on the ice is his fault). The trouble with this ES plus/minus formula is that it ignores the particulars of each game and of an individual player's style. The kind of stuff that the Falconer writes about with such subtlety and perceptiveness when it comes to Colby Armstrong.

The Falconer says that he has a fuller post on Kovalchuk's plus/minus woes on the way, and I look forward to reading it, but allow me, Thrashblog readers, just a few points right here and now:

First of all, why SHOULD Kovalchuk play a defensive game similar to Dastyuk's or Zetterberg's? It's not even close to what he does well, so surely the answer to the dilemma of Kovy's questionable defense is either a) get rid of Kovy, or b) implement a system that accommodates Kovy's style whenever he's on the ice. I think that with the hiring of Coach Anderson and the recent acquisition of Pavel Kubina, the team has embraced Option B (something the Falconer acknowledges in his post). No bad thing, in my opinion. My position is and always has been "Let Kovy play his game." Green light. Drop the leash. Let him follow his unique daemon. Let slip the dogs of war, and stuff. Just be sure that the rest of the team is on the same page.

Secondly, the plus/minus formula (in whatever variety) totally obscures the details of whatever happens on the ice when a particular goal is scored. Kovy's thrilling goals might be wiped out by his goals-against number in the abstract universe of season-summarizing stats, but that's hardly ever the case in individual games where Kovy scores. What's the old Kamalian adage? "When Kovy scores, the Thrashers win," or something like that? Simple, but more or less accurate I think. Think of the goal-scoring tear that Kovy went on as last season wound down; it coincided with some Thrashers winning streaks and an overall respectable record. Kovalchuk, though he never gets the credit for this kind of thing, can be as much of a "game-changer" as Alex Ovechkin. I have to admit I'm not eyeing the stats right now (proof of my unscholarly inexactness?), but there are certain games from last season that leap to mind when I think about Kovalchuk's game-changing abilities. He can score with seconds left in a period and single-handedly turn a losing Thrashers game into a comeback win (as he did, off the top of my head, against the Florida Panthers and the New York Rangers this past season) and he can baffle and crush the will of an opposing team with a hat trick (as he did last season against the Anaheim Ducks).

Perhaps I also think more of Kovalchuk's leadership qualities than the Falconer does. From everything I saw during his so-far short captaincy, he has the power to win games single-handedly, whether through his own scoring or through what people like to call "intangibles": raw energy, encouragement-by-example, whatever.

And that's, like, totally cool.

The Falconer ends his post about the merits of Armstrong with a wish for the cloning of Colby so we could have a checking line of 3 Army's. I dream such dreams myself; any seriously contending team needs Colby Armstrongs, and I'm VERY glad to have him on the Thrashers. If only we had a few more like him and Marty Reasoner. It's not impossible to find such valuable pieces, of course, but there's only one Ilya Kovalchuk.


the joinhead said...

I totaly questioned Kovy's leadership abilities early last season. He just looked pissed off and frustrated, but once they slapped that C on his chest he seemed to turn that frustration into determination and we saw a different team in the second half. Not quite there but getting better every day. We have a solid core of players coming back with few roles in question. Add that to kovy's leadership abilities, and I'm very excited about this season.

Matt Labbe said...

The goal is not just to win, but to win in an entertaining manner. I would go watch an entire team full of Armstrongs play, but it wouldn't be because it was particularly exciting.. it would be due to the fact that it's an entire team full of clones. The Sedins ain't got nothin' on that.

Jay said...

I love Kovalchuk. Hell, I named my new puppy "Kovy". But he totally loafs on defense. I don't question his ability, but his desire. It seems like every game I go to, when the puck is in the Thrashers defensive end, Kovalchuk is cherry-picking around the blueline waiting for someone else's defense to set up his offense. Sometimes the breakaway happens, a lot of times it seems like Kovalchuk's guy ends up on a scoring play somehow whether it be getting the puck and forcing the goalie out of position for an assist, or just scoring the goal himself. I love watching him play and he is exciting, but if the Thrashers want to be a playoff team, and a championship contender, then their best player needs to become a more complete player.

FrenchCatalogues said...

See anytime I've heard someone say something about his defense Kovy does something awesome like last season I remember he got down on his knees and almost butterflyed like a goalie to block a shot right in front of the goal, awesome stuff.

Kovy won MVP at the World Championships. The guy will do what it takes to win. He does well under that kind of pressure. I think has gotten much better with his D, especially at the end of this last season.

A2B said...

I also think that sometimes Kovy gets blamed for lackluster play. When you are pinned in your end, you flat out get tired and make bad decisions. If Kovy's line is stuck there its bound to happen like that so don't read into it that much. Last year, Kovy was the biggest player on his line so he kind of got screwed playing with little forwards.

Daculafan said...

On the subject of Kovy. I totally agree he is the heart and soul of this team as well as it's best scorer. I do agree that he is not the best two way player we have by any means, but I do think that he has matured into the leader this team has needed so badly for several years.

I'd like to also take a moment to tell you how much I enjoy this blog and particularly this post. I enjoyed the dissenting opinion given with the humble respect for your fellow blogger (I really like Falconer too). This post gives us the balance and a human face to the numbers that the Falconer is able to throw out so well. Both blogs are on my daily reading list. Keep up the great work

Big Shooter said...

Cool, Daculafan. Thank you, I will take full credit for this post although I had nothing to do with it.

Morty and I were talking last night, and it was agreed that his posts typically go from point A to B to C to D. Very Slava Kolzov like. My posts go from point A to point Z and in the middle someone is getting called a Weenie (but never my fellow Thrashers blogs). In Morty's words, "a little Dale Hunter'ish... and I'm OK with that, he is my favorite player of all time.

For the record, I agree with Morty. Stats are a guideline, Kovy brings so much more to the table that you can't see in a +/-. That being said if the Chronicle ever tried to do stats like our friend the Falconer, we would all be in for a good laugh. We's not so gud wit teh numberz.

Mortimer Peacock said...

The Falconer's command of statistics makes Chuck Norris cry. needless to say we're a bit out of our depth when we try to do statistical analysis.