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SOMETIMES THE MATH IS SO GROSS, MAN

Don't let advanced numbers cloud your vision on how the sport of hockey should be played.
Saturday, 02.08.2014 / 11:40 AM
By Anthony SanFilippo - Philadelphia Flyers Inside Reporter / Flyers Inside Out
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Flyers Inside Out
SOMETIMES THE MATH IS SO GROSS, MAN
PHILADELPHIA – Normally, in this spot on the blog I give you a locker room take following a game. Usually I pick out a player or an aspect of the game, focus on them and then add some post-game notes on the bottom as little nuggets for you to take with you.

But today will be different. Today I need to go on a bit of a rant because I need to clear up some misconceptions about the Flyers defense – and really, hockey defense in general.

It all started with Craig Berube’s decision to start Andrej Meszaros in the Flyers 2-1 win over Calgary Saturday in place of Erik Gustafsson.

The pair have been pretty much going back and forth all season as the Flyers No. 6 defenseman and at times have played really well – and others they’ve struggled.

But Gustafsson has played really well lately, no doubt. He has played bigger minutes than expected, solidified the third pair with Luke Schenn (who likewise has been excellent, but that’s another blog for another day) and overall contributed to the success of the team.

So, when coach Craig Berube chose Meszaros to replace Gustafsson in the lineup against Calgary, the Flyers Twittersphere exploded in disapproval.

I tried to explain that Berube likes keeping everyone involved in games. He likes playing all seven defensemen (we’re not including Hal Gill, who has a completely different role with the team). He likes getting his extra forward, Jay Rosehill games from time to time.


And after the game, he said he wanted Meszaros in the lineup because he brings a little bit more of a physical element to the game than Gustafsson – a point we’ll get to in a minute.

Meszaros then went out and had a very good game. He played 21:24, had two hits, three blocked shots and picked up an assist (he originally had two but one was taken away after it was determined a goal originally credited to Claude Giroux went off of Scott Hartnell, knocking Meszaros out of the scoring – although he was on the ice for both Flyers goals).

Which then led to the argument that Meszaros shouldn’t have replaced Gustafsson, but rather Nicklas Grossmann.

Without getting into great detail here, the argument is Grossmann struggles to carry the puck out of his own end, turns over the puck and takes penalties. There are also complaints that he’s slow and that the things he gets credit for – like hits, blocked shots and pinning forwards along the boards – are not necessarily positive statistics.
These are complaints from advanced math folks in sheep’s clothing.

This argument went on the whole game.  I have to admit, I probably shouldn’t have let myself get sucked into it, but the fact remains that it seems too many people these days are getting caught up in the world of advanced statistics in professional sports, and sometimes, that clouds rational thought.

I should point out though, that as a stat geek myself, I don’t mind the advanced numbers. As a matter of fact, you’ll find I use them to support a point from time to time. I think there is definite value in what they have to say.
With that said, I can’t, under any circumstance, accept them as a tell all, especially for a sport like hockey where there is so much that is immeasurable.

A lot of what makes Grossmann a must-start regular on this Flyers defense corps falls into that immeasurable category.

Sure, we can use hits and blocked shots as some sort of measure, but those are often dismissed by the advanced math folks as more indicative of players who are playing too much in their own end and aren’t good with puck possession, and the numbers play out that the better puck possession teams are more successful.

That last part might be true. Actually, it’s not a “might be…” because it is. Teams who drive the play and are on offense more frequently tend to come out on top more than they lose. The nature of the game is to outscore your opponent, so yes, that makes sense.

But when the advanced math folks decry traditional stats – like hits and blocks – it annoys me because this is when I feel they can’t see the forest for the trees.

In other words, while puck possession and generating shots are ultimately what wins games, a team, its fans and even its fan mathematicians can’t expect a team to drive the play and possess the puck for 60 minutes.

Therefore, you have to anticipate that the other team is going to have the puck sometimes too. And when they do, you are going to want your team to be able to do what they can to get the puck back.

There are several ways to do this and among them are hitting players to separate them from the puck, or by blocking shots ad gathering the loose puck to take possession for yourself.

To try to suggest these aren’t integral parts of a defensive game of hockey is ludicrous. It’s the very fabric of the game. It’s how it’s been played for years. It’s why you always hear coaches talk about taking away time and space – there’s no better way to do that then by knocking a guy off the puck, or getting in the way of a shot and preventing it from going on goal.

Grossmann ranks 37th in the NHL in hits (third on the Flyers behind Luke Schenn and Zac Rinaldo) and fourth in the NHL in blocked shots. Those are important figures.

Why?

Because if your team isn’t in control of the puck you need to do whatever you can to prevent goals. Grossmann being among the best in the league in both categories, suggests that he is adept at that.
But that’s not all.

What about the work he does pinning guys against the glass, or out-muscling players in front of the net? Those aren’t measured statistically, but certainly are just as valuable as blocks and hits.

The point being, if you blindly follow the work done with pencils and calculators, you would want teams consisting of six puck-moving defensemen with speed.

If that’s the case, then why doesn’t any team in the NHL try to employ that kind of spread? Why then do big, physical players still exist in the game?

Because at some point, somebody has to play defense, that’s why.

Grossmann is a positionally sound defenseman. He’s a rock on a very good Flyers penalty kill. He gets in the way of shots. He’s got a physical brand of hockey to his game that is needed.

It’s why most teams employ not just one, but two physical, stay-at-home defensemen. Because usually, one isn’t enough.

So why doesn’t  Grossmann sit and Gustafsson and Meszaros play?

Because it would be a detriment to the Flyers defensively. And there’s no algorithm that can tell you otherwise.

To contact Anthony SanFilippo, email asanfilippo@comcast-spectacor.com or follow him on Twitter @InsideTheFlyers

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  TEAM GP W L OT GF GA PTS
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2013-2014 REGULAR SEASON
SKATERS: GP G A +/- Pts
C. Giroux 82 28 58 7 86
J. Voracek 82 23 39 11 62
W. Simmonds 82 29 31 -4 60
S. Hartnell 78 20 32 11 52
M. Streit 82 10 34 3 44
B. Schenn 82 20 21 0 41
M. Read 75 22 18 -4 40
S. Couturier 82 13 26 1 39
V. Lecavalier 69 20 17 -16 37
K. Timonen 77 6 29 5 35
 
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S. Mason 33 18 7 .917 2.50
R. Emery 9 12 2 .903 2.96
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