Tuesday, January 27, 2009

It's just an illusion caused by the world spinning round

I don't mean to pick on Jeff Blair, but I was lured into reading his article about the Minnesota Wild this morning and am left rather puzzled as to why it was filed or what Blair's point might be. Of course, I could just be having reading comprehension issues this morning.

I'm an unrepentant fan of Money Ball the book (in fact anything written by Michael Lewis) and I also find the work of Bill James fascinating. I know I'm not alone in wondering what role advanced statistics have in the NHL and in helping GMs identify value (e.g. players performing higher than their cap hit) in an inefficient system (the NHL).

Given that the NHL is the only sport with a hard cap and guaranteed salaries, you'd think there would be an insatiable appetite for fresh insights and new approaches, especially now that several GMs (Howson, Gillis and Risebrough) are looking at new ways to build a team.

But back to Blair. He finds himself with the Leafs in Minnesota and he's got access to Wild GM Doug Risebrough and he turns in this little bowl of sadness:

MINNEAPOLIS — The epitome of the feisty player who makes the game's dinosaurs go all dewy-eyed, Doug Risebrough — who once ripped Marty McSorley's jersey to shreds in the penalty box in one of the more memorable chapters of the Battle of Alberta — now carries a backpack and talks in Moneypuck.
That's a great lede. The juxtaposition of the sweater tearing goon with the book reading, stat loving, GM is solid.

He will patiently explain the need to "react quickly in your own time." He will talk, as he did Monday, about how the Minnesota hockey market "understands the balance between defence and offence," and if you need to figure out what he thinks about the Minnesota Wild, all you have to do is go to the club's website (wild.nhl.com) and there you'll find a hockey operations blog and "Thoughts about our team at the all-star break, by Doug Risebrough, president and general manager." No need to have your message distilled by the media. It's all there. Not quite the thoughts of Chairman Doug, but a dispassionate analysis, in this case, of why his team is scoring less along with an obvious and repeated defence of personnel decisions made in the off-season.

Ok, first of all, there's way too much crammed into this paragraph. Secondly, Blair has several opportunities here to offer up something interesting and he whiffs.
  1. Does he speak to any Wild Fans to see if they do indeed understand the balance between defence and offense? Can he contextualize the feelings of the Wild fan base writ large?
  2. Whoa, a GM is adopting modern(ish) technology to by-pass media filters and speak right to his audience, this is cool isn't it? Are other GMs doing this? What does this mean for fans? For the media? Does Risebrough even write it or is it ghost written? Why the blog? Did Risebrough think the Wild couldn't get their message out? Was it being too filtered? Too much media reinterpretation? Sadly Blair doesn't weigh in, he's on to other stuff...
Blair continues...

The Wild do things like this, either Risebrough or director of hockey operations Chris Snow, a former baseball beat reporter with The Boston Globe. Three fewer wins than last year, an equal number of overtime losses, but six places lower in the standings and they can make it all make sense.
Um, that first sentence needs a bit of work (why the passive voice?) but that second sentence is a killer. How hard is it make sense of the Wild's current place in the standings? Seriously, in four words: "The West is tight." Who would have thought Phoenix would be in fifth?

When the Toronto Maple Leafs meet the Wild Tuesday night at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, they will face a team that on the surface appears to be one of the most nondescript in the NHL, without the type of identity crisis that afflicts the Leafs.
Blair mistakes boring with non-descript. Ask any hockey fan to describe the Wild in three words or less and "defence" "trap" and "low scoring" will be mentioned with more frequency than a Hab or Sens fan dropping "1967" on Leafs Nation.

It isn't exactly comforting, but the Wild know who they are: ninth place in the Western Conference; their best forward, Marian Gaborik, possibly due back in town Tuesday after a rehabilitation stint following hip surgery, but still weeks away from a possible return; and a simmering contractual issue with free agent to be and all-star goaltender Niklas Backstrom. This for a team that had Brian Rolston and Pavol Demitra leave to free agency.
No Mr. Blair, that's not who they are, it's where they are.

In the local media, some sniff about a "smartest kids in the classroom" thing that might segue into something resembling baseball arguments about Moneyball. It's not just failure that undermines being newfangled; so can treading water.
Some of the local media don't like Risebrough's attitude, ok. But what's the meat of these arguments? Who's on which side? What can we learn, if anything, from this new approach or it's detractors? Sadly, it's nothing that Blair wants to share...

Two first-round exits in consecutive playoff years require some spinning to constitute progress to the average fan.
Spinning. Really? GM gets a blog and suddenly Blair is re-living 1990 and the War Room. Is San Jose spinning after numerous playoff choke jobs? Are the Sens spinning? When is it spinning and when is it offering explanations? (I'd wager in the Wild's case it's spin as it attempts to go right to to the fans via a blog without the great big brains of sports journalists as intermediaries.)

Riseborough. points out that his team is 24th in goals for this season and second in goals against. And (all you dinosaurs look away): "As we must, we are taking fewer penalties than all but two teams and killing the ones we take at the second-best rate in the league."
Um, dinosaurs? What? Older hockey fans can't understand or don't want to understand that penalties hurt your team? These so-called dinosaurs don't get (or don't want to get) that it's good to have a strong PK? I have no idea what Blair is on about here.

The key is getting some goals 5-on-5, where the Wild have just 62 goals, tied for lowest in the NHL. "In the previous three seasons, no player in the league scored at a greater rate at even strength than Marian, 1.61 goals per 60 even-strength minutes - compared to 1.58 for Alexander Ovechkin," Risebrough writes.

That's a really solid insight from Risebrough. More than 2/3 of every game is played 5-5, it makes perfect sense that all teams should want to increase their scoring rates during 40+minutes of play. Be great if my local sports page could provide this type of insight and, most importantly, give it the proper context so all fans (including Blair's so-called dinosaurs) can enjoy it.

Risebrough believes that the key to success in the salary-cap era is spreading out risk. So he did that in the off-season, taking the $11.75-million that it cost other clubs to sign Rolston, Demitra and Mark Parrish and spreading it out (plus $1-million more) among five players who have outscored the departed.

Another great insight on team building, albeit buried past the mid-point of the article. Amazingly, Risebrough's approach looks like it's working too - he spreads the risk and gets better performance. Wouldn't it be great if we had a comparator here, like I don't know a few teams that didn't spread the risk and are near the bottom of the standings (Ottawa, Tampa). And as the local club is going through a re-build, why not ask Burke his take on risk management?

In the end, he believes it wouldn't matter if Gaborik was healthy, and it looks the same from the dressing room as from the executive suite. "All those 2-1 games add up," defenceman Nick Schultz said yesterday. "Any little mistake, you know? It's never just a matter of 'Oh, they got another one, so we'll get one and even it out.' "
A player and a GM on a different page? Stop the presses. A player who knows where it's deficiency might be and who'd like the talent to help, that's not exactly new. My beer league team would like our goalie to come out of the blue paint some time this year too.

Head coach Jacques Lemaire shrugged in response to a question about the lack of offence. "What do you do?" Lemaire said. "You have to be better somewhere, naybe the power play. The first 25 games or so, it was our power play that carried us. But you know, you can't keep that up all year. You have to start scoring 5-on-5."
I think Lemaire is absolutely right and it's a shame that Blair hasn't decided to explore the GM and Coach's insight of the importance of 5 on 5 play.

And this is who the Wild are. If you doubt it, check the GM's blog. Minnesota is "playing to its identity," Risebrough writes, without relying on hooey about grit or chemistry, to a fan base that apparently understands but might be prepared to ask hard questions about why that's the case. The guess here is Risebrough's ready for them, fingers poised over his laptop.
Yuck. Is this who Blair is? I don't doubt it but I won't be checking out much more of his stuff if he continues to phone it in. Talk about a missed opportunity...I'm sure Blair is ready for more, fingers poised over his laptop too.


  1. He had the kernel of an awesome story there: how does a man go from ripping sweaters in the penalty box to running a hockey club while toting around Money Ball? It's such a shame he missed it.