The numbers game: My eyes and ears still tell me more about a hockey player than Corsi or Fenwick

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When I watch Dustin Byfuglien play hockey, I see a combination of power and dominance, dash and daring. I also see a man marching to his own drum, which is to say a player prone to mental escapes and going rogue. I see mistakes, major gaffes that too often result in the puck finding its way into the back of his own net.

What I don’t see, are his Corsi and Fenwick numbers.

When I watch Andrew Ladd play hockey, I see determination and intensity. I see a night of honest, earnest toil. I also see a tendency toward brain cramps that too often result in petty penalties, particularly in the offensive end of the rink.

What I don’t see, are his Corsi and Fenwick numbers.

When I watch Evander Kane play hockey, I see speed and strength and I see gravel in his guts. I see a reservoir of raw skill and an unyielding will to succeed. I see boundless, youthful enthusiasm. I also see the erraticism and cheek of youth.

What I don’t see, are his Corsi and Fenwick numbers.

That doesn’t mean I walk in lockstep with Steve Simmons, Dave Shoalts and other card-carrying members of hockey’s Flat Earth Society who engage in unseemly squabbling and sandbox-style name-calling with those who promote new-wave analytics.

More to the point, I distance myself from them. I find them to be dismissive, full of disdain and full of themselves.

I mean, in a discussion about the numbers nerds who have infiltrated the National Hockey League and populate the blogosphere, Sun Media’s Simmons unfurls plumage with 50 shades of pomposity, saying, “They think I’m a moron, to be honest. Not someone who’s covered the NHL for 34 years, not someone who coached hockey for 25 and is a level 3 instructor, not someone who ran hockey schools. I’m a moron.”

Shoalts, meanwhile, confesses to a deep-dish dislike for “Most hockey analytics geeks. Aside from having no sense of humor, they all act like they are the true sages of hockey simply because they came up with a few equations to state the obvious. The team that has the puck most usually wins. No kidding, Sherlock. That’s been true since Lord Stanley was talked into spending 35 bucks to buy a certain cup.”

The Globe and Mail scribe also catalogues stats-savvy types under the descriptive “kind of annoying.

The temptation, of course, is to lob grenades in their direction, because the stats discourse shouldn’t be a personal tit-for-tat tally of how many hockey games you’ve witnessed from the press box or which group possesses a healthier sense of humor. It should be about the degree of merit and value of numbers, when placed against the merit and value of intangibles.

In one sense, I am onside with the Flat Earthers, in that I use my eyes first and foremost in any evaluation of a hockey player. I look at Winnipeg Jets‘ prospect Nikolaj Ehlers, for example, and I don’t need Corsi and Fenwick to tell me there is a lengthy, productive NHL career in the dynamic Dane’s future. The skills are obvious. So here’s what I need to know about Ehlers: What is his compete level? What are his work habits? What fuels his engine? What is his intelligence level? Is he a team guy or a me guy? Does he come undone in dire circumstance?

Stats can’t answer those questions. Ice time will.

Having said that, once there is enough of a sample size, the numbers will tell me if I want Ehlers on the ice for a faceoff in the defensive zone when the Jets are protecting a one-goal lead. That’s the value of numbers.

The idea is to play to your strengths and to your opponent’s weaknesses. In many instances, numbers can tell us this. But so do intangibles. Unlimited talent is wasted on a player who doesn’t give a damn or who is a cancer in the changing room. A player of lesser skill can be of equal, or greater, value to a team due to his work ethic.

Personally, I place higher worth on the intangibles. What my eyes tell me. What I hear from people who know. Let me put it this way: Bobby Orr was the best hockey player I’ve ever seen and I don’t have a clue what Corsi and Fenwick would say about his game. I just know I want him on my team.

rooftop riting biz card back sidePatti Dawn Swansson has been writing about Winnipeg sports for more than 40 years, longer than any living being. Do not, however, assume that to mean she harbors a wealth of sports knowledge or that she’s a jock journalist of award-winning loft. It simply means she is old, comfortable at a keyboard (although arthritic fingers sometimes make typing a bit of a chore) and she doesn’t know when to quit.
She is most proud of her Q Award, presented to her in 2012 for her scribblings about the LGBT community in Victoria, B.C.

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