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.


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