Hockey sabremetricians (or as I call them, “the Edmonton Eulers,” since most of them seem to be Oilers fans) would generally say that the outcome of a typical game, or a playoff series, or a hot streak, or a career year, is strongly influenced by “luck.” It’s easy to see why this is an abhorrent concept for most sports fans: the whole idea is that the best team should win most of the time, that talent and effort should win out over something as finicky and ethereal as “luck” every time. I think part of the problem is simple semantics: replace “luck” with “bounces,” and I think a lot more people would understand and appreciate that perspective. It lines up with what we see, and it lines up with what coaches and players and talking heads say after the game. “The effort was there, we played our game well, we just didn’t get the bounces tonight.”
After a lot of thinking, I’m beginning to feel like they’re right, at least to some degree, for a couple of reasons. For one, the talent disparity that we used to see in evidence whenever the Montreal Canadiens played, say, the Kansas City Scouts is largely gone. Yes, at the extremes, there’s still a clear difference between good and bad — anyone who’s seen a Blackhawks-Oilers game in the last two years can attest to that — but on an average night, the difference between two teams is much more granular than it’s ever been. Part of that is due to improved scouting, as teams scour not just the wilds of Canadian junior, but European junior and pro leagues, American college and high-school, and even occasionally (though all-too-rarely) Canadian university hockey. Good players are everywhere, and while you can question the decision-making and efficency of some teams, there’s no question that most of the stones are at least getting turned over, and that there’s talent to be found under every one of them. There’s also the fact that coaching, athletic training, and psychological training are much better now than they’ve ever been. Players get feedback on what they did wrong, can see the video of the error for themselves, and know what to do for next time. Guys can spend a dozen hours or more per week in the gym, building their aerobic base and their strength. Players learn how to deal with hostile crowds, can talk to trained professionals about their confidence and about off-ice issues that can prove to be a distraction. All of this leads to the average NHLer being much more skilled, fit, and resilient than they’ve ever been, and there’s much less disparity between the best and worst in at least the last two categories — and arguably the first, as well — than we’ve ever seen. And then, of course, we have the redistribution of talent brought about by the salary cap, which teams are still learning the ins and outs of five years later. All of this leads to a situation where it’s much more likely that the outcome of a game, for example, can hinge on a fortuitous bounce one way or the other, because on any given night, there’s not that much to choose from, relative to 30 or 40 years ago.
The other main reason is that high-level hockey seems to be a barely-controlled chaotic system, which I think is a product of the way the game’s developed over the last half-century or so. In that time, we’ve seen the introduction of the slap shot, drastic changes to goalie equipment and play style, meaningful east-west play, heavy shot-blocking, composite sticks, and mid-air redirection of the puck as an intentional play, to name just a few things. Many of these changes come in a sort of delayed chain-reaction. Slap shots begat changes in goalie equipment. Changes in goalie equipment combined with the butterfly style led to much more shot-tipping. The evolution of the modern east-west game — not just skating up and down your lanes, but cutting across the ice and creating holes through both skating and puck movement — started by the Winnipeg Jets of the 1970s and perfected by the Edmonton Oilers of the 1980s, made it difficult to play man-to-man defence, especially for the more lumbering brutes of the defensive trade, necessitating more shot- and pass-blocking, from all members of the lineup. Combine these changes with worsening ice conditions — especially in warmer climes and during the latter stages of the playoffs, as the weather gets warmer everywhere — and increased overall athleticism — leading not only to faster players and more violent collisions, but more abuse to the aforementioned ice through the course of a game — and the puck winds up spending much of its time hopping here, there, and everywhere, rolling, flipping, on end, what have you. Sometimes unpredictable things happen like, say, the puck hitting a rut on its way in from centre ice and hopping over a goalie’s glove, or a puck pinballing in off three sets of legs in front of the net. At a certain point, physics takes over and there’s little you can do to predict it.
All of which leads me to last night’s game between the Hitmen and the Spitfires. Sure, it ended 6-2 Windsor, and appeared for all the world, from the boxscore, to be the coronation of the first Memorial Cup repeat in 15 years. If they can abuse the only team that appeared to be any real competition to them going in, what hope does anyone else have? Except when you actually watch the game, it becomes clear that bounces played a huge role in the final outcome. The first Windsor goal came off a Michael Stone shot-block: the puck bounced just under his ankle, in the tiny space that was there, and fooled Martin Jones. The second, just a minute or so later, deflected off the stick of a backchecking Ben Wilson. It’s 2-0 five minutes in, a hole from which the Hitmen never recovered, but it was off two unfortunate bounces. From there, I felt it was actually a fairly evenly-played game, with both teams getting their share of the bounces: a shot that rang off both posts behind Martin Jones and out at one end, a tip by Matt MacKenzie going two inches wide because the puck started rolling mid-pass at the other, and so forth. A ton of close calls that could’ve been in or out, based on ever-so-slight variances in human performance — so small as to be irreproducable — or the condition of the ice or what have you. From the four-minute mark of the first to the 19-minute mark of the third, the balance of scoring was 3-2 Windsor. That was the game I saw, and that game in no way resembled the 6-2 final scoreline.
Sure, some nights a team gets outplayed, full stop…but others, the bounces go the other guys’ way and obscure the balance of play. Maybe I’m being a blinkered fan here, and maybe I’m not lending enough credence to score effects, but what I saw last night was a team that could compete with the best in major junior, that suffered just a couple of breakdowns, but otherwise played an admirable road game without their best forward. If they play Windsor again on Sunday, with Brandon Kozun healthy enough to play, I see no reason to think that they can’t win the Memorial Cup. That doesn’t mean that they will, of course, but it does mean that the gap between the Windsor Spitfires and the Calgary Hitmen is not what yesterday’s score would have you believe.