Tuesday, 4 March 2014

To think about: the un/expected friendships within the team


The game day skate open to the public had been going on for a few minutes, and Paul MacLean called the entire team in to the centre to stretch. The Ottawa Senators arranged themselves in a haphazard circle facing centre ice; they stretched at their own pace, sometimes paying heed to MacLean, sometimes chatting to their neighbours.

A pair to the right caught my eye: Zibanejad and Conacher stretched side-by-side, faces turned toward each other with a very short distance of ice between them. They talked, animatedly.

Later on in the skate, during a three-passes-then-shoot type of drill, Bobby Ryan skated out of his line toward where the centres were practising faceoffs, drifting, not really going anywhere in particular. Quickly enough, he was joined by Marc Methot, and they strolled from one blueline to the other, dangling their sticks and chatting.

Neither of these pairings were friendships I would have expected to spring up. But the very fact that I had a preconceived notion of what friendships should have formed suggested a concrete thing: I viewed this hockey team as more than individual components in a larger machine. I considered them in relation to one another, personally. This was a thought I was interested in exploring.


It’s natural, to a degree, to romanticize the players in a sport one loves, so as to render them more likeable and also more relatable. We form impressions of their personalities off tweets and team media interviews; we decide that tough guys are funny or that four-time 30-goal-scorers have thick skin. Thus it follows that we extend this romanticizing to the interpersonal dynamics of the team: who gets along with who, and who doesn’t.

There is much appeal in the idea of a “bromance” between certain favourite players. Not only does it signify implicitly that the players involved are intertwined irremovably in the fabric of this team, it seems to trigger the empathetic side of the hockey fan within us. Because we care for these players, on whatever level, the idea that these two players have found platonic love is by proxy satisfying and enjoyable.

Of course, the best part about conjecturing potential friendship between players is that there’s always a likelihood they’re real. A team full of people that spends seventy percent of the year together will inevitably form a veritable network of bonds within the boundaries of the locker room, the airplane and the rink. Imagining always abounds with possibilities; and perhaps the prospect of being corrected and learning which friendships exist in actuality is even sweeter.


This is also true for the unexpected friendships. Certain players are presumed to be on excellent terms, exemplified by Erik Condra’s asking Karlsson about his “Swedish friend” (referring, rather ambiguously, to Lehner) in a video completely unrelated to Sweden or friends. Last year, Silfverberg and Zibanejad were an item, if you will, due to their shared home country and their rookie statuses. Wiercioch and Turris are not an unpredictable pair, considering their native cities and their good ol’ Canadian-ness. Friendships are formed off of common grounds, and it’s often easy to pick out potential commonalities (as easy as it can be to envisage friendships between people whose off-ice personas are far less accessible to us as their on-ice personas).

But Zibanejad and Conacher is a little more unforeseen. They’re both in their second year with Ottawa, but beyond that—what is there? Zibanejad played in the Swedish league; Conacher played on the American college market. Conacher is old enough to be engaged, while Zibanejad is still young enough to be called an up-and-coming superstar. The only response available to us is that their personalities have somehow clicked: like true blue chemistry, they’ve become genuine friends.

And that idea is as intoxicating as any of the set-up friendship. Intangibles are both shunned and exalted in the sport of being a hockey fan, but in the end perhaps it’s off the ice where they shine the best.

Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Back from the Olympics: an EK update.


As items on a how-to-have-a-good-time checklist, "Hang out with Daniel Alfredsson twenty-four-seven" and "Play with a defence partner who isn't Cowen-calibre" do very nicely. Erik Karlsson seemed entirely jubilant during the length of his Sochi sojourn, and even his eBay comment on his silver medal could be taken in a potentially joking interpretation. Almost in tandem with that, he was named best defenceman of the tournament. If there was ever a tangible way to measure whether predictions of EK soaring no the big ice came true, this would be good enough.

The focus now shifts back home. Questions of transitioning and trades begin to cascade once again, loosened from behind the dam that was the Olympics, and Karlsson's standout play and subsequent recognition make him a natural centrepiece for these questions. It's too far a stretch to believe that our dear Eugen Melnyk had a brainwave watching him play and suddenly understood the importance of pairing centrepiece flowers with similar blooms of complementary colours, but we still have one more day during which to fervently hope that our defence combinations have somehow magically anmeliorated before our first game after the break. (It's against Alfredsson's Detroit mobster gang Red Wings, no less.)

If we all acknowledge and agree that Jared Cowen is not a suitable defence partner for Erik Karlsson, the issue becomes one of deciding what to do with Cowen, and what to do with Karlsson. There are rather specific duties that come with playing alongside Karlsson, namely covering for EK's rushes and pinches and recovering the puck securely enough to allow Karlsson to launch out of the defensive zone. It isn't the most fun or most glamourous job, as Marc Methot (who did it pretty well, too) can attest.

The Sochi experiment that put Karlsson with promising Coyotes defenceman Oliver Ekman-Larsson ended bizarrely after a productive first game; Karlsson ended the tournament with the second-most icetime overall on the team, while Ekman-Larsson wound up with the least amount of icetime among defenders save Henrik Talinder, who was in and out of the line-up. That tiny sample size does not dispute or support the idea that a similary mobile, free-wheeling defender could work with Karlsson, but unfortunately, now that he's back in Ottawa, the idea fades to a near impossibility.

At least, it's an impossibility if we turn internally, and so it makes sense that the trade speculation is rising high like a muggy fog on a highway. However, perhaps "trade wish fulfillment fantasies" is a somewhat more accurate term. It's next to impossible that Ekman-Larsson is up for grabs, considering his 6-year contract with the Phoenix Coyotes. Quality top 4 defencemen aren't available in the NHL simply because they would be playing for their teams as long as the team isn't about to embark on a fire sale. As such, there could be no other possibility than to turn internally for a few pieces to complement our Norris Trophy winner.

It's at this point that I suggest pairing Cody Ceci with Karlsson. In reality, Cowen has only about half a year to a year's worth more of experience than Ceci, given the former's injuries, and Ceci is also less hindered with franchise expectations and a loaded contract hanging over his head. Furthermore, Ceci has seen only slightly easier zone starts than Cowen, with O/Dzst percentages of 52.3% versus 50.1%. And given that Karlsson gets the easiest zone starts of all defenders except for Wiercioch, pairing Ceci with Karlsson would likely not worsen the defence overall.

But then what about Cowen? Putting him with Phillips would probably result in a penalty kill situation where pointing at a man to cover becomes the name of the game. Ideally we would have a second-pairing player, the role Sergei Gonchar played last year, who could take care of the still-growing youngsters. This prompts the suggestion of trading for a second-pair blueliner who is at least semi-competent and not over, let's say, 32 years old. (Once again I ask: exactly how did the Senators organization expect Joe Corvo to fit in?)

We might have the best defenceman in the league, but unless Bryan Murray makes a surprise move, it seems as though our D-corps may be stagnated before it hit its prime. This isn't the kind of defence a playoff-contending team would want, and Erik Karlsson can only do so much. This is all yet speculative, but once the Senators are back in the swing of the season and charging full steam ahead, it could be you-are-what-you-are time for our defence.

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Golden Linings/Crimson Bindings: the centres' faceoff prowess

A feature looking at the recent positives of the Sens' play.


A glance at the NHL's faceoff leaders shows that the Ottawa Senators are sitting snugly at 9th place. This has been evident over the season, and has perhaps been the duet partner in consistency to the Sens' surprising, and welcome, offence. (We're on pace to be shut out just once more in the season's last 25 games, for a season total of three blankings.) It's become just about commonplace to see >50% numbers from our main centres Jason Spezza, Kyle Turris, Mika Zibanejad and Zack Smith.

And indeed, so far all four are 50% or plus; Mika's exactly even at 50% (with a very low 210 total faceoffs), Turris is a wee bit higher at 50.5%, Smith is a strong 52.8% and Spezza's flying high with 54.5% of faceoffs won. Captain Jason's already at 1010 faceoffs (Turris is just behind at 1009). These sample sizes suggest that the players are delivering at their expected output, and indeed, Spezza has been over 50% in faceoff wins in every single one of his seasons except for his first full rookie season. Zack Smith's and Kyle Turris's season sample sizes are much smaller (not to mention Zibanejad's), but given that they've gone through a substantial amount of faceoffs already and faceoff% have been proven to be relatively repeatable, they can be expected to continue above the 50-marker.

This is excellent for the team on many fronts. Statistical work has been done to prove that teams who win a faceoff have an advantage in possession for at least 30 seconds after the faceoff win, and although there isn't a distinct correlation between faceoff wins and points, the overall relationship is a positive one.
Sens in red.
(Outliers include the bottom-most data point, the Winnipeg Jets with 61 points/45.8 FO%; the right-most data point, the Anaheim Ducks with 85 points/49.1 FO%; and the second-top-most data point Nashville Predators with 59 ponts/53.2 FO%.)

The benefits of having all four centres able to win fifty percent of draws on any given night is evident when considering the different roles that the four lines play. Tales of faceoff specialists like Manny Malhotra and Zenon Konopka (remember him? Shout-out to his rabbit) being started almost exclusively in the defensive zone represent zone-start tactics taken to an extreme. Checking lines are often given the unceremonious job of starting in the defensive zone and getting the team into offensive or at least neutral territory.

The Sens are no different: outside of Eric Gryba, Smith takes the most defensive zone starts, with an O/DSt% of 43.5%, on the entire Sens team. Next is Turris (not Smith's usual line partners Neil and Greening, which seems a little odd, but MacLean has placed Smith all over the place recently), who's also facing very difficult competition along with the rest of his line; this speaks to the overall brilliance of MacArthur-Turris-Ryan, really. Spezza is getting cushier starts, and in addition he doesn't play on the PK, but his numbers mean that should MacLean need to, Spezza would perform perfectly fine anywhere on the ice, really.

In essence, faceoff expertise in the centres allows our team to run balanced lines without the need to rely on a specialized role-player (e.g. Konopka) who is otherwise useless. This advantage extends through to all aspects of lines and strategies when it comes to deploying certain men on the ice to achieve a certain effect; "win a faceoff and get off quick" no longer becomes a part of our desperation-play repertoire. If there are tangibles which help you win games in as-of-yet intangible ways, then faceoffs are one of them.

Saturday, 1 February 2014

Players, stats, coaches and we the fans: the relationship between the four


A somewhat tepid video was released by the Sens a few days ago, asking various members of the team to describe certain hockey terms in three words or less. This produced the expected awkward pauses as the poor players chosen to be questioned had to reframe the term chosen in the unfamiliar context (i.e. a three-word-or-under synonym), and there were also the usual tiny gems of insight into a hockey player's mind where they were least expected. For example, when Lehner was given the term "top cheese", he said, "High glove", providing an interesting glimpse at the way a goalie thinks about various types of shots — namely, how to save them, rather than how to deliver them.

The one thing that really led my thoughts down a rabbit hole was the complete ignorance of the team regarding the word Corsi. Once it was clarified to be something to do with stats, Chris Neil and Matt Kassian immediately rejected it (understandably, since as fighters they are not flattered by stats); Craig Anderson said he'd never heard of the term before (also understandable, given he's a goalie); and Erik Condra — the player for whom Corsi is probably the most important — didn't fully answer the question, intriguingly enough.

Though it seems a little off-kilter at first to think that professional hockey players aren't aware of their own measures statistically, this makes some sort of sense after a bit of thought. Statistics are merely metrics that determine the output of a player's game; they really have little to no role in helping a player improve. Knowing what level one is playing at is helpful, yes, but so far stats don't actually provide any kind of solutions to ameliorating players.

Possession numbers like Corsi and Fenwick do next to nothing in aiding a player to improve. In fact, the very point of these possession metrics is that they provide a way to quantify skill and talent; it doesn't go both ways. Working on skill and talent will give you the numbers, but at best working with numbers will only give you a good estimation of the skill and talent, and not actually the information needed to improve.

This is why the coaching system is all-important. It's known that most, if not all, coaches take into account at least the most basic of fancy stats, like shot attempts (one step up from your layperson's shots for). They take this information, reconcile it with their understanding of how their players play and then coach them the best they can in the way that they believe will improve their game (and hence their statistcs). Because coaches must both evaluate and help improve, they utilize stats. Because players actually and thus are focused on improving themselves, stats are tangential to their purpose.

And because the only thing we can do as fans is to evaluate, statistics mean much more to us.

The average fan is very invested in a lopsided relationship which resembles fantasy hockey in that everything rides on something no one has any control over, except that we're betting our emotions on the results of a random game instead of money. Because we want our team to win, we want a good team and good players, and thus we search for and implement measures of quality. Since we have no control over the events that occur, we can only judge them retrospectively and quantify them to the point where we can form opinions and wax eloquent with them.

If Neil were to reflect on the perspective of a fan a little more, I feel confident that he could understand why "losers" pay so much attention to statistics. Learning all you can about a team is an inherent aspect of the average fan's look-can't-touch perspective, and statistics figure in quite naturally.

When you think about it, the entire concept of being a fan is a little wonky; we invest ourselves for no particular reason in the actions of a certain group of players over whom we have absolutely zero influence, and allow them to dictate our emotions in return. Looking at it this way, it makes a little more sense why players might fail to see why stats are important to fans. We've dedicated our time and effort into understanding these people, from their shooting tendencies to their family habits; they don't reciprocate. It's always been a one-way street.

Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Playing the rookies and the Sens' line combos


Even though Ottawa’s been one of the luckiest teams this season in regards to injuries, it still feels as though we’re playing too many rookies every game. This is mostly true on the back end, where only two players out of six any game are older than twenty-five years of age; among the forwards, the invasion of Rookie Noobness varies widely depending on how high Paul MacLean has set his blender on, along with the degree of blindness to which he’s turned to certain With Or Without You statistics for certain forwards.

Probably the biggest change among the rookie line-up is the pre-emptive (non-literal) demise of Mark Stone. The hole on Jason Spezza’s wing was starting to resemble player #61 somewhat clearly, complete with glittery intangible “chemistry” and all, before Stone was hurt in practise. (Sigh.) The once-again vacant hole in the lines got St├ęphane Da Costa called up, but not to play with Spezza; instead, MacLean decided to utilize another centre by plopping him in with Neil.

Now, it’s pretty much a ritual by now for AHL players to pass through the horrible rites of Surviving Being On A Line with Chris Neil. But Da Costa is probably a lot farther than most call-ups from the grinding purpose of the fourth line given his stature and reputed skill set; it’s impossible to imagine that the organization envisions that as his permanent role.

There seems to be two possibilities for Da Costa right now: either the Sens are showcasing him in hopes of moving him as a piece in a trade, or he’s been called up to plug a temporary hole and will most likely be back in Binghamton much sooner than later. His two goals last night showed he can be somewhat effective when playing with actually good hockey players, which aids his case in the former situation but makes the latter harder. Regardless, at the moment it’s possible that he might be good enough to enable some line-shuffling and get Colin Greening of Spezza’s wing.

(Greening is by no means a rookie, considering his previous two full seasons. But his WOWY numbers with Captain Jason are the lowest of a rather dismal set of figures when it comes to Spezza, and looking at his average possession numbers, it’s more and more clear that he is unable to drive possession the way his same-age, same-#-of-games-played teammate Erik Condra does. Putting Condra on Spezza’s wing might actually give us more goals, just from the ability to stay out of the defensive zone and in the offensive zone which Condra will give Spezza.)

So it’s official for Cody Ceci: he’s staying with the big club. Congrats to him! …Except his numbers haven’t been exactly better than Wiercioch's or Corvo's, either of which is sitting any night to make room for Ceci. Granted, he’s been playing with Chris Phillips (a crazy 60.8% of the time), who is 18 years older than him. At this point, though, there’s no one else on the team that can make Ceci better, not while Methot and Corvo remain the only other veterans. Wiercioch and Gryba round out the Youthfully Chubby Cheekfest going on at the blueline, and there are actually no three-pair D combinations available to the Sens right now that won’t make you squirm uncomfortably unless you sit Cowen:

Karlsson – Methot / Wiercioch – Phillips / Ceci – Corvo

That’s the rookie-veteran pairing structure right there, but I don't think there will be much disagreement if I say that the only true top-4 defenceman is EK65. Our rookies are young, and the only real way to average out the inexperience is by trade, which is always a more cumbersome solution pathway than letting the rookies develop themselves.

To end on an upbeat note: Mika Zibanejad is basically Boy Wonder at this point. Though he's only in his second season as well, his game seems to have evolved perfectly for the NHL level. He seems comfortable playing any kind of role, from Spezza's wing to an "energy" third line with Michalek and Conacher, bringing a startling balance of physicality and puck skill to whatever line he's put on. A year ago, I would not have imagined Zibanejad becoming the player he is today. And it's a very good thing.