John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

Numbers and Narrative: Why can’t we have both?


I swore to myself that I would not write about the two sides of hockey on this site. Alas, my will eventually broke down and now I write to you, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, about the growing divide that exists in hockey. The divide between numbers and narrative has become something of a debate for the meta fans and most columnists. On one side are the columnists (really the MSM), who clutch onto narrative like a baby clutches her milk bottle. They want you to know why Tyler Bozak and Phil Kessel have undeniable chemistry, Randy Carlyle is a much better coach than Ron Wilson, and why Phil Kessel earned his extension off a playoff series vs. the Boston Bruins.

On the other are the dreaded “numbers guys” (Grrrrr), the ones who want to rain down on fun the instant it doesn’t compute to their fancy arithmetic calculators. They’ll scream to the heavens how Randy Carlyle is having success basically on having goalies who actually stop pucks, compared to Wilson who had Vesa Toskala, Jonas Gustavsson and more. They’ll yell that basing Kessel’s extension on a small sample size compared to his brilliant regular season numbers is lunacy, and how Bozak is a an average hockey player who drags down Kessel’s production, kind of like how some roommates sponge off the other and claim that they’re contributing to the household through non fiscal ways like “energy”, “vibe” and whatnot.

There have been numerous instances where the combination of numbers and story-telling created an uneven and at times violent homogeneous mixture, the likes of which you find when you mix oil and water together. Earlier yesterday, while some of you perhaps were still asleep or enjoying your favourite breakfast cereal (I personally go with Fruit Loops; it’s cereal cocaine), Nick Cotsonika, an NHL writer for Yahoo! Sports, vented a little on Twitter on how stats and snark to him are taking the pure joy and innocence from the sport he loves:

Stats, cynicism, snark are taking fun out of sports. If something is unsustainable, that doesn’t mean it isn’t remarkable. It means it is.

Putting the word “stats” in that tweet created an unintended response that sort of makes my point. (1)

I’m not ripping stats or facts or smart analysis. Narratives should be based on reality, not fantasy. (2)

But sorry, I get tired sometimes of the endless I’m-right-you’re-wrong debate on how to view the game. (3)

You point out Giguere has a crazy SV%. Yes, it’s unsustainable. I know. It’s still amazing. It’s why it’s amazing. (4)

Just to clarify as well, Nick’s reasons for amazement is also tied into Jean-Sebastien Giguere performing as well as he has with the smaller pads and being as old as the show Roots. Look, I can’t tell you what is and what isn’t amazing, that’s for you to decide because freedom of choice and will are options we have as citizens. I personally don’t find a three-game save percentage outlier impressive, especially since it’s coming from a goalie who’s been mediocre since 2007-08.

In terms of Nick’s apathy with the unevenness that hockey debates lend themselves, I’ll say this with the numbers crowd (since I reside there as some commenters on this site suggest); we can get insufferable to deal with. I fully admit it. We can be obnoxious at times and really dismissive with others. We do this because the idea of story-lines that aren’t actually backed up by analytics or are just based on laziness is infuriating. I personally can’t stand any hockey writers who write for The Star or the Toronto Sun because most (if not all) of their columns are just based on using tired cliches like leadership or giving tags to players as good defensive players just because they back-check on occasion. As bad as their columns are, they’re even worse on Twitter or on other mediums like radio or television where they rip “statistical geniuses” for basing their assessments on them fancy calculators and such.

Full confession: I suck at math. I nearly failed Grade 11 math and on the whole, I hate the subject. I find it amusing that now I get accused of not watching the game because I base my assessments more on numbers and trends that I can identify. Again, I didn’t do well in Grade 11 math! There isn’t one way to approach analyzing the game of hockey. Take for instance Justin Bourne from Backhand Shelf. He’s a former college and semi-pro hockey player who also doubles as one of the best writers in the business, and has been for a while. He knows much more about the game than I do and his Systems Analyst posts are excellent in breaking down specific plays that most fans wouldn’t be able to do. You wouldn’t associate him as someone who’s a “statistical genius”, but rather a writer whose experience as a player allows him an advantage of being able to identify the different types of forechecks and power play set-ups that exist. He’s an example of a writer, who while recognizing the part that analytics play in, writes in a way that more resembles an experienced teacher in a field he’s had numerous experiences in.

Steve Simmons on the other hand is an example of where narratives go wrong. A writer whose only purpose is either to troll his readers or pander to the lowest common denominator. For example, he wrote this on October 12 mocking the “statistical geniuses” who dare say a bad thing about Dave Nonis:

The online statistical geniuses, who make their hockey assessments via charts and graphs, all but murdered Dave Nonis when he traded for Jonathan Bernier.

They screamed in unison: The Bernier deal made no sense. Because the Maple Leafs had a long-term keeper in James Reimer in goal. He had the numbers to prove it.

At the time of his writing, Bernier had a .946 save percentage in all situations. Since then? The number has gone down to .936 and, over the last three games, .921. Bernier has regressed and will regress more to the mean (that .936  is still stupid!) because:

  • He only played in 62 games before this season
  • He faced only 1802 shots over his career

By the way, remember when James Reimer had that great half-season in the 2010-11 season? Wanna know his save percentage from his first seven games? It was .932. Goalies are prone to streaks like that. The NHL is built on that.

In a perfect world, the two sides would make up and come to an understanding that analytics should not come in the way of a good story and vice versa. The reality is that probably won’t happen. There was a time when analyzing hockey was primarily based on narratives and anecdotal evidence that analysts or writers could churn. With the way sports has evolved into a science, we’re embarking on an era where the opposite will be true. The real question is whether columnists, who base themselves in the anti-stats corner, are willing to evolve or become a footprint for the next generation of writers and analysts.

Tags: Fancy Stats Narrative Toronto Maple Leafs