May 18th, 2010
2:19PM UTC

On Bounces

Or, "Why Windsor Doesn't Scare Me"

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.

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9 Responses to “On Bounces”

  1. Gerard says:

    I dunno, I still don’t buy luck. Things out of the player’s control? Sure.

    But is a player lucky because his SH% has gone up? There are a lot of factors there. Psychologically speaking people who are on a roll tend to stay on a roll. If things are coming easily they will come more easily because instinct eliminates any sort of conscious thought.

    I’m totally fine with saying that a good chunk of a goalie’s performance (stats-wise) is out of his control — you can be the best goalie in the world, but a Strudwick/Staios combo will kill you regardless. But is it luck? is it bounces?

    I’ll give you weird hops off of the ice. I might even also give you weird deflections off of the boards (except Al Mac used to do that on purpose, knowing exactly where to hit). But tips that are just wide, posts, deflections off of the D? That’s not a bad bounce. That’s an unfortunate byproduct of where the player happens to be standing and the trajectory of the shot. It’s entirely within the player’s control.

    But players make mistakes. They’re not robots. And the modern game is a game of mistakes. Whomever makes the most mistakes generally loses (also why I don’t buy the outshooting argument. You can be horribly outshot while still making less mistakes than the other team).

    I just can’t call that luck.

  2. Doogie2K says:

    Is it really within a player’s control, though? At a certain point, the fine control required for that would seem to be to be outside the realm of what humans can reproduce. I mean, a slap shot from the point going off the post as opposed to in the net? What’s that a difference of? A quarter of a degree (arctan of 3″ and 60′)? Is that degree of granularity in motor control even achievable, especially with a long implement moving at high velocity? Plus, with how much a puck can roll, waver, or dip off a shot, a tip becomes really hard to predict. That’s why they’re hard for a goalie to stop, but it’s also why they’re hard to pull off. How many tips did Smytty put in, versus how many did he put three inches wide, or two feet high, or right into a goalie’s chest, or what have you? Even when Al Mac (or Lidstrom or whomever) was firing it off the end boards to the guy on the back door, he didn’t hit the same spot every time: sometimes he missed altogether, while the ones that worked hit within an area of the boards, the magnitude of which I would guess to be in the realm of a couple of feet. I’m not convinced human motor control is that fine, or else we’d never see an unforced puck-over-glass penalty.

    Of course players make mistakes. I would never argue otherwise. Nyren’s “pass” to Hall that set up Goal #4 is a Grade A example of that. What I’m saying is, in a close game, between two well-matched teams, sometimes it’s not a mistake, but a bad bounce, or one too many bad bounces, that does you in. I felt, just in watching the game, that this was the case, but you could equally make the case that if Nyren doubles back and finds a new outlet, the Hitmen don’t go down two to start the third, and maybe they come back and force OT or win, instead of dropping 6-2. I think both are valid interpretations, but that could just be me.

    As for fluctuations in shooting percentage, I think part of it is luck, but part of it is psychology and physiology, too. In that, I remain in disagreement with the Eulers, and probably always will, simply because there’s no way to tease out the difference between landing on the right side of that quarter-degree angle on the shot, having a puck hop off the ice, posts, and legs in the right sequence, and having your mental and physical focus completely in line for a period of time. I also have no interest or desire to even try, because I don’t think any of us are qualified to determine when a player is focused or confident (or unconfident or a cancer in the room or whatever the hell), versus when he’s “getting the bounces” (or not), or even whether one causes the other.

  3. Gerard says:

    I’m not sure why something needs to be reproducible to be within the player’s control. And how, exactly does an unforced puck-over-glass penalty act as an example for motor control? I’m sure if you polled the players as they hit the box, they’d say they made a mistake, or that their aim was off. And obviously tips are hard to judge, and especially if you’re using a curved stick (as everyone does these days) timing is crucial. That doesn’t make missing the shot bad luck. It makes it a difficult tip that you didn’t quite make because you made a mistake in timing or positioning.

    I mean, you seem to be arguing that “it’s really hard to be accurate” = luck, which it doesn’t. Take badminton, for example. It’s also a game of mistakes. While I was twice as fast and could hit the birdie twice as hard as some of the seniors I would occasionally play, they’d kick my ass more often than not because they had decades of practice at positioning. If my smashes were off by 1/4″, they’d usually be returned to a place 1/2″ out of my reach. That’s not luck. That’s skill.

    Human motor control can be that tight. People don’t train enough for it to get there as a general rule. I know a few guys who can consistently put slapshots in the top corner of the net when they’re unpressured. Add a bit of game pressure to that, and the accuracy changes. Is that luck? Is it luck that the pass was a bit off and you didn’t have time to adjust the puck on your stick completely before firing the shot off? No. It’s either an off pass or an off receive.

    I’m not arguing about this game in particular. Sometimes the score really doesn’t reflect the play. I won’t argue with that. What I will say is that I think there’s a big difference between capitalizing on mistakes and luck. The weird goal in that Avs/Sharks game wasn’t luck. It was a player who just happened to get a piece of the puck as someone else was trying to put it behind the net. Whether or not getting a goal was his intent, it wasn’t luck. It was physics.

    And just in case you’re going to get on my case re: bounces vs luck, you can choose whichever word you like. Bounces and luck exist in sports, sure (just like big goals and big saves ;)) but actual bad bounces or bad luck rarely happen more than once in any given game and usually not even that once.

    That is, if we refer to luck or bad bounces as factors outside of the players control. What most people refer to bad luck is generally just players not having good enough reaction times or fine enough motor control.

    Now if you want to argue that if someone is incapable of having that reaction time/motor control then it should be considered luck regardless of whether or not it could be under the player’s control, I get it. I disagree with that definition, but I get it. But to make that sort of assertion you need to be able to confidently say what is within the realm of physical possibility for that player, and that’s a tough argument to make.

    Last weekend I played net behind some really, really bad defence. I got burned on things that I had no chance on and I got burned on a few things that I should have had if I weren’t assuming my D was useless (and so I tried compensating for them). But one goal was a deflection off of one of the guy’s legs and for the life of me I can’t call it bad luck. If his positioning was better, I’d have had the shot. If I’d had better positioning I would have had the deflection regardless (I took a bit of a nap because the shot looked dead on until he stepped in front of it). It wasn’t bad luck. it was both of us fucking up at the same time. Sure, I could say that it was out of my control because I wasn’t expecting him to step in front of it, but realistically had my angle been better for the net (covering the net generally rather than covering the shot specifically) I would have had it.

    Note that none of this is saying that the Hitmen will lose. Just that there were enough capitalizations on errors to sink the team that game. It happens. That’s why the playoffs are always a bit of a roll of the dice.

  4. David Staples says:

    Good post.

    Of course, it wasn’t the fresh-faced hockey stats guys of the Oilogospher who came up with the concept of “luck” having a major influence in events.

    Athletes have known luck is a factor for some time, given their well-known proclivities toward superstition.

    Hundreds of years ago, Machiavelli had a few things to say about luck.

    Fortuna is indeed a big player in an NHL playoff game. But I’ll go with Machiavelli here, and continue to believe that the young princes of NHL, whoever they are, should be able to tame her with their aggression and audacity and win the big game.

    And I’ll continue to believe that the best team of a particular playoff season (as opposed to a regular season) almost always wins the Stanley Cup.

  5. David Staples says:

    So you’re saying hockey used to be like an old-style table top hockey game, where you could actually make plays and the best player usually won, and now it’s like one of those bubble-topped games with those players with the big sticks that you find in a bar?

    I agree that there’s likely more parity in the league, though I’m not sure that the bottom players have become closer in talent to the top players.

    Taylor Chorney vs. Alexander Ovechkin, one-on-one. Hmmm….

  6. Gerard says:

    It’s been a while but I think Machiavelli was talking about luck in the “right place at the right time” sense. Some people are fortunate enough to stumble into a community that best fulfills all of their goals (BIll Gates & Steve Jobs, for example). While it’s occasionally possible for one to seek out a community after the fact, the very Great inevitably happens when you happen to be in the right place at the right time without trying to be. Serendipity. Trusting on that luck or resting on your laurels once you’ve found it is a recipe for disaster.

    But that’s a much larger system than hockey. With coaching and specific positions you should be able to always be in the right place at the right time. Most won’t be, but your Lemieuxs, Kurris and Gretzkys all seem to know exactly where they should be and where everyone else should be as well. It’s what makes the Sedin sisters’ telepathy deadly. Positioning and anticipating the play (which might both be the same thing) is what really separates your Ovechkins from your Chorneys.

    Anywho, it all depends on your definition of luck. Is luck being in the right place at the right time? By accident or on purpose? Is luck just anything that is outside your direct control? Or is luck just where theoretical physics leaves reality — where we stop assuming that the ice is a uniform surface and pool-table mechanics no longer apply?

    We each seem to be using a different definition of luck, and I think that’s a pretty common problem. Luck is a big term and these three definitions aren’t the only definitions out there. If there were a catch-all category that all of these definitions fit into, that’d be great, but unfortunately I haven’t found a definition broad enough that isn’t “normal, day-to-day life.” Not that most of your day is filled with luck, but just that if you throw together all of the definitions of luck that people have floating around in their heads it ends up comprising just about everything you do in a day which kind of leads to “everything and nothing is luck.”

    But obviously I prefer my definition because it eliminates that possibility ;)

  7. Bookie says:

    There are probably a thousand or more chaotic events every game (what we generically label bounces).

    Given that chaos has no preference for one team over the other, we can say that each event has a 50/50 chance of benefiting one team over the other. Some of these will mean that a puck does not go offside, others will determine possession and the odd one will determine a goal. If 2or 3 of these goal ones go the way of one team (quite possible)) that does not take away the fact that there are many other moment that lead up to each scoring chance.

    Over time – certainly over a season – these effects should work out pretty close to 50-50 for each team (simple probability).

  8. […] how you view momentum in a game.) I wasn’t scared of facing Windsor, as such: I maintain that we could’ve beat them, and if nothing else kept the score close. But I do wonder if we really deserved to win, […]

  9. […] Here’s a great post on bounces and luck in hockey. And here’s Terry Jones on the Oil drafting Taylor Hall. And […]

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