Setting and Measuring Expectations: The Leafs Coaching Staff

No Strategy yet HPIM0785
In search of a clean slate for the X's and O's

For Leafs fans, the upcoming season will be an important one. Though it is (once again) extremely unlikely that the Leafs could win the big silver beer stein on offer at the end of the postseason tournament, fans of the team will be watching very closely for signs that any of the existing questions about the team might be answered. We’ll dig through the statistics like the oracles of old pawed through goat entrails, looking for evidence that augers well for a brighter future ahead. It is pretty safe to assume that Brian Burke and his staff will be engaging in a similar process.

Many of those questions concern individual players: what, for example, can we realistically expect from players like Jonas Gustavsson, Luke Schenn, Tyler Bozak and Nikolai Kulemin, all of whom are approaching their likely peak athletic potential in the next few years.   Other questions concern more collective issues:  what improvement can we expect from the Leafs’ power-play and penalty killing units?

All of those questions merit discussion, but they all relate to issues about the players; with Ron Wilson entering his third season as Maple Leafs head coach, and keeping in mind that last season in particular represented a disappointing step backwards, it’s safe to say that questions must also remain about the suitability of the current staff for the task ahead.

One of the things I like most about the hockey blogosphere is the very strong tendency to attempt to quantify, measure and make concrete and expressible these sorts of issues.  When we speak of “issues” and “questions” about the coaching staff, the reality is that there must be some set of performance metrics against which it is reasonable measure the observed outcome of this season, in an effort to dispassionately judge whether the coaches are making a discernible difference in the team’s play (and whether that difference represents an improvement).

Statistical analysis isn’t my strong suit, and I don’t pretend to have the facility with numbers that many other hockey bloggers have ably demonstrated, but I thought I’d try my hand at attempting to cobble together an answer to this last question.  What types of numbers should we look for when attempting to grade Messrs. Wilson, Hunter and Acton at the end of this season.  Please accept this analysis for what I hope it is:  a starting point for the discussion, and a jumping off point for others with the statistical chops that are absent from my toolkit.  Criticisms, comments and refinements are welcome – put ’em in the comments below!

I wish I could figure out a way to embed the tables I compiled directly into this post, but two hours of futzing about with Google, Google docs, WordPress, Excel and Numbers have failed to surrender any such secrets, assuming they exist.  Unfortunately, therefore, I have to just insert a link to the table I compiled.  All data are sourced from hockey-reference. com.

I thought the most logical place to start in assessing the performance of the coaches would be year over year changes in goals for and goals against.  I compiled the goals for and goals against data for all 30 teams in each season since the lockout, calculated the percentage change in each from the previous year.  I then tried to normalize the percentage change data by calculating the average change each year and the standard deviation of the data.  I then selected out those results that lie between one and two standard deviations away from the mean (classified as “moderately exceptional”), and those results that lie two standard deviations or more away from the mean (classified as “significant”).

Link to Google docs spreadsheet re: YOY data: change in GF and GA

Assuming that the year-to-year changes are normally distributed, if I remember my statistics class correctly, the results that are interesting are those that fall more than one or two standard deviations from the mean. Those are the results I mentioned above, with the moderate desirable increments marked in light green, the significant desirable increments marked in dark green, the moderate undesirable increments marked in pink, and the significant undesirable increments marked in red.

If I’m reading all of the data correctly, it would appear that the standard deviation of the Goals Against data is typically between about 9 and 12 per cent.  Thus, an increase or decrease of anything less than 9 to 12 per cent, statistically speaking, represents the mushy random middle, results in the 68% of data that cluster around the mean in a normal distribution.  If I am applying the theory correctly, it would be unwise to come to any conclusion that the team’s performance had either improved or deteriorated based on data of this nature.  To make that sort of judgement, I would suggest that to even make a weak judgment about significant differences in performance, we would need to observe an increment (or reduction) of between 9-12% and 18 to 24% (these would be the results between one and two standard deviations from the mean).  Variances of more than 18 to 24% from last year’s data could confidently be said to represent a clear indication of differential performance.

Two thoughts come to my mind: first, it’s important to keep in mind the (perhaps obvious) but important point that increases or decreases in a team’s goals for or goals against are not solely attributable to coaching.  In fact, it’s probably a live question whether coaching can be said to have a demonstrable effect upon the results at all.  Certainly, the old saw is that “you can’t teach scoring,” though it is generally believed that coaches and their systems can and do have a more pronounced effect upon the defensive side of the game (and, by extension, the goals against ledger).    If anyone has any thoughts on how to examine the evidence in that regard, I’d love to hear about it.

Second, the numbers involved are fairly large. I think the data seem to be telling us that wide variances in the numbers may be expected from year to year for purely random (or at least statistically uninformative) reasons.

If that last conclusion is correct, unless there is an enormous change in the Leafs goals against totals this year (more than +/- 20%, which in practice would translate into about a 54 goal change either way), it seems that we ought not to make any judgements about the performance of the coaching staff based upon these numbers.


Stop the Internets, I Want to Get Off

I can’t stop laughing about this comment, a delectable treat appurtenant to another brilliant piece in today’s National Post by Sean McIndoe of Down Goes Brown fame.

DGB is always funny, and his piece in today’s Post is no exception.  Understand that I mean this when I tell you that notwithstanding DGB’s brilliance, the biggest and best laugh for me came after I happened to glance at the comments section (something I normally wouldn’t do at a newspaper site, for fear of having stupidity burrow through my eyes into my brain and turn me into a Hamilton City Councillor).

I’ve transcribed it here because I’m afraid the National Post will do a disservice to the history of humour in this country and consign this most excellent piece of humour writing to the digital dustbin.  In the piece, DGB sets out the good, the bad and the prognosis for ten currently unsigned free agents.  It features predictions that Darcy Tucker will sign with “Sami Kapanen’s sweat drenched nightmares” and opines that Anti Niemi was the “most over-rated Stanley Cup winning goalie in the entire league last year”.  Beneath DGB’s estimable roster of jokes, though, some ingenious wag has written:

“the most over-rated Stanley Cup winning goalie in the entire league last year.”

Now, I pride myself on knowing more than just a little about hockey having spent the last nearly 50 years involved in the sport….but please, educate me….how many other Stanley Cup winning goalies WERE there in the league last year?? I’m not arguing he was over-rated as surely this was just another example of a goalie getting hot at just the right time but please, this statement makes NO sense what-so-ever.

I love this comment as an exercise in humour writing.  It strikes the perfect balance of comic indignance, arrogance and full-throated idiocy.  Displaying a masterful talent,  the author delivers his belly laugh by crafting the comment in such a way that the “commenter” supposedly takes issue with the quality of analysis inherent in only one of DGB’s  jokes.  In this way, the author reveals indirectly that the commenter has  entirely missed the point, greatly enhancing the general comedic effect. The reader is left with the mental image of an arrogant and angry man who is prepared to accept that Mirsolav Satan was an “alternate on the NHL’s milennial all-Miroslav team” and that Jose Theodore tells “made up” stories about winning the Hart Trophy, but who will not let the Niemi analysis pass without an angry outburst.  Like I said, DGB’s piece had some great jokes in it, but this…this is something else.  It’s a masterpiece.  Only a talent of Leacockian proportions could concoct such a tremendous jest and then nestle it modestly and unceremoniously beneath the article, a comic delicacy awaiting your discovery as a hilarious and preposterous surprise.
It is made up, right?  No one actually mistook DGB’s piece for a regular sports article, right?

Brian Burke is Rocky: NHL Trade Deadline 2009

The 2009 NHL trade deadline came and went at 3 p.m. today.  You can find a complete recap and analysis here;  briefly, out the door go Nik Antropov and Dominic Moore (in return for draft choices).  In the door comes former Sens goalie Martin Gerber, who was claimed on waivers as a stopgap measure as it was revealed this morning that goaltender Vesa Toskala has been playing injured and will undergo season-ending surgery on his hip and groin tomorrow.  Judging by the general reaction (check this one out) of many of the folks in the Pension Plan Puppets discussion threads, there is a sense of disappointment out there.

I confess that I am having some difficulty understanding that sense of being so tremendously let down;  to me, it seems like people have missed the point of the Leafs’ participation in this exercise. It’s a little like being upset that Rocky didn’t knock out Apollo Creed in the first movie of that series.  The Italian Stallion was never going to actually beat the Champ in that first fight;  he wasn’t a legitimate contender, he was a tomato can whose stated goal was to simply go the distance.  When he achieved this goal, it was a victory for him in the sense that he achieved his goal.   It was a victory for us because it made possible Rocky II and its beach training scenes set to Survivor’s Eye of the Tiger.

So it was with the Leafs today; Brian Burke didn’t swing a trade to bring John Tavares straight from the OHL into Maple Leaf Blue & White.  He didn’t use some Creole voodoo spell to raise Syl Apps from the dead and bring the Leafs their first zombie captain since Rob Ramage.  He didn’t knock out Apollo Creed today.

“A couple of second rounders and a fourth?” some say, peering at the results like Charlie Brown into his Hallowe’en trick-or-treat bag, “We [Leaf fans] got screwed.”  Burke didn’t revitalize the franchise with a single trade today, but if you expected that result, you were deluding yourself all along.  Prepare yourself for a lifetime of disappointment, because Doug Risebrough is probably not going to be allowed to trade Doug Gilmour again anytime soon.

This is just step one of the process.  Rocky wanted to make it to the end of the fight;  Brian Burke’s goal today was simply to re-stock the draft pick cupboard as capably as he could.  Judging by the trade of Ales Kotalik to Edmonton, (for which Buffalo received a second-round pick) the return Burke got was market value or better;  the Rangers gave up a 2nd rounder and a conditional pick for Antropov, a player of more or less comparable value. The same yardstick suggests that Buffalo may well have overpaid for Dominic Moore, a useful player, but not a standout.  Burke also got creative and found a way to essentially turn cash into some additional hockey assets;  in one other trade, the Leafs acquired a 4th round pick from Tampa and took on the expiring contracts of Olaf Kolzig and Jamie Heward (both of whom are out indefinitely with injuries) as well as an injured prospect and former first-round pick by the name of Andy Rogers;   the transaction was accomplished essentially by the Leafs agreeing to take on the salaries of the injured players (and giving up a minor league prospect, I suspect to make the trade “legal” under the NHL’s rules) in exchange for the pick and prospect.  In this way, Tampa (it appears) will qualify to receive revenue-sharing money and the Leafs turn an asset they have lots of (cash) in to assets they find themselves needing (picks and prospects).   Overall, Burke managed to get a fair price for the assets he had to sell, and managed to creatively manufacture a little something else that might just turn out to mean something down the road and cost us nothing in terms of hockey assets.

Step two of the process comes after the Cup is awarded to someone else.  The plan will unfold a little more at the draft and during the upcoming free agent season.  Burke has given himself plenty of salary cap flexibility to build the team he wants to have over the next couple of years.  Like many others, I strongly suspect he has his sights set on Rick Nash the year after next.  In the meantime, he can choose to deal Kaberle and/or Kubina if he feels the need to do so and gets the right offer or offers.

Brian Burke stuck to the plan today.  He did what he needed to do to begin the rebuilding of the team in earnest.  He managed to avoid losing Antropov and Moore for nothing; perhaps more importantly, he managed to avoid failing to move Antropov and getting himself into an uncomfortable negotiation as a result, with Antropov holding all of the cards in that little poker game (if Antropov isn’t traded, with his contract expiring at the end of the year, the pressure on Burke to re-sign him rather than letting him walk for nothing would have been immense.  Antropov would have been in the driver’s seat in that negotiation.)

So Burke did what the plan asked of him.  He didn’t lose sight of any of the objectives.  He achieved his goal.  He should now feel free to stand in the middle of the ring and shout, “Adrienne!”

Blog Interrupted: Explanatory Explanation Dept.

Yes, yes, I know.  I’ve been neglecting you for a few days.  Aside from the occasional tale of nocturnal chaos, it’s been pretty slim pickin’s around here.

As usual, it’s been busy , but I’m not going to rely on that old excuse for my postFAILage.  I’ve been doing quite a bit of writing over the last week or so, just not for this site.  For starters, I have finally completed the script I mentioned some time ago.  Tough slogging for me;  not the kind of writing I’m used to doing at all – it needed to be informative and authentic, but youthful, was based primarily around dialog and I was pretty much completely unable to use any profanity – so I found it very difficult.  Anyway, that’s one project finished (sort of*) which is something I am going to choose to be proud of, seeing as I am still laughably “working” away at NaNoReMo 2008.

In addition, I’ve been working on a piece about the NHL trade deadline and the reasonable expectations that Toronto Maple Leaf fans should have of their angry Irish overlord Mr. Burke over the next few days as the rebuild begins in earnest and – perhaps – various pieces of the team are dispersed across the continent in an effort to re-stock the MLSE cupboards.  It’s not finished yet;  I am hoping that a good night’s sleep, a hearty breakfast and a nice pot of tea will do the trick in that regard early tomorrow morning.  I will post that as soon as I am finished;  hopefully BEFORE the trade deadline actually passes…

I’ve also been moved to put virtual pen to paper on a few occasions over at Leaf-fan uber-site Pension Plan Puppets.  It’s been a busy week over there;  first, there was the return of Mats Sundin to the Air Canada Centre last Saturday night, an emotional evening for all Leafs fans and an event that had us strangely and bitterly divided about how to receive our former Captain.  I spent quite a bit of time defending Sundin and encouraging anyone who would listen to take the longer view and give Mats his due when he stepped on the ice (and I’m pleased to report that Leafs fans chose to do exactly that when Sundin was feted with a tribute video at the first TV timeout during that game.  Then there was the whole  “Brian Burke” controversy, during which Down Goes Brown nearly broke the Internets by continuing to tweet as “Brian Burke”, making humourous and insulting observations about various people around the NHL in a tour de force of parody;  the problem was that some people didn’t get the point of the joke and couldn’t find their ass with a map and a flashlight, never mind grasp the nature of DGB’s jest.  There were also three game threads to enjoy in the virtual company of my homies the Triple P peeps.  The last of these games – versus the Islanders on Thursday night – also produced the outrageous Brendan Witt elbow to Niklas Hagman’s head.   I wrote a quick piece last night (posted at PPP) about the usefulness of the Tie Domi/Scott Niedermayer incident in the 2001 playoffs as a useful comparator for measuring the appropriate suspension that Leafs fans were sure had to inevitably be coming.

Although the NHL maintains that it is cracking down on disgraceful and gratuitous cheap shots like this, the kind that endangers the health and safety of the players that put the bread on the suits’ feasting table, there was nary a mention of this incident in the press coverage early this morning.  What mention there was in the papers was only as necessarily incidental to explaining how it came to pass that both the Leafs and Isles scored in the course of a major penalty imposed upon Witt in the 3rd period.  In fact, there was virtually no discussion of the incident at all until after the NHL imposed – in its infinite wisdom – a 5 game suspension on Witt.

I spent much of this evening writing about this last decision;  as it happens, Witt will serve his suspension just in time to return for the rematch festivities in Toronto on March 10th.  I refuse to believe this is a mere coincidence, and I am appalled by the league’s ridiculous decision to arrange things so as to enable Witt to play in this game.   That, as they say, has put the cat among the pigeons indeed.


*of course, there’s the inevitable re-write to do now.  And filming.  And editing.  So…..more projects.

Mats – BFF? Ur 13 ready netime, kthxbye – BB

From an article in today’s Globe by Tim Wharnsby:

One of Burke’s first items on his to-do list will be to contact free-agent centre Mats Sundin, and garner his interest in returning to the Leafs next month. With the addition of Lee Stempniak, Sundin could play on a line with the newcomer and right winger Nik Antropov.

My initial reaction was one of excitement.  I am wondering if that is appropriate or not, keeping in mind that any icetime distributed to Sundin is TOI that’s not going to one of the younger kids.  No doubt, Mats would eat up a lot of quality, important game-situation minutes.  Players we’re trying to develop need those minutes sooner or later.

If we can’t win this year by adding Sundin – and we can’t – then why delay the development of the others?

And why do I still have my fingers crossed for his return?

Update: Damien Cox has his Thursday mailbag at the Star’s site:

Q: Hi Damien,

If Brian Burke becomes the GM, would he go and sign Sundin? Who you think he will make the team’s captain? Thanks.

Kirupa Kathir, Brampton

A: It would make no sense to sign Sundin from a variety of standpoints, and I can’t imagine Burke would pursue that strategy. What would be the point? As far as team captain, unless it’s Luke Schenn somewhere down the road, the Leafs probably don’t own a player capable of wearing the “C” right now.

Ladies and Gentlemen, it’s Wharnsby v. Cox, down in the mud at the Silverdome (-ilverdome, -ilverdome).  We’ll sell you the whole seat, but you’ll only need the edge!

Brian Burke: Is You Is Or Is You Isn’t?

As much as I hate the suits at MLSE with the white hot burning heat of a thousand suns, I can’t quarrel too much with their deliberate pace on this hiring decision to date.  It’s a tough decision, and one that will have far-reaching consequences for the future of the organization.  The reason that I despise the current board is, of course, its abject failure to avoid meddling with the affairs of the hockey team over the last few years, coupled with its failure to install a chief executive Brian Burkewith sufficient vision and experience to plan for success in the post-lockout environment.  That having been said, it would appear that the board has, since the firing of John Ferguson Jr., made the right decision: to correct its mistake in that regard and hire a top-quality chief executive to whom control over the hockey operations will be ceded.  In other words, MLSE has decided that maybe they ought not to do this job themselves.  I congratulate them for making the right call at this critical first step of the decision-making process;  it is so obviously the right decision, it’s kind of like congratulating your kid for deciding (for the third day this week!) not to eat a jar of paste while at school, but it’s important to celebrate even modest successes with those who have intellectual challenges and to positively re-inforce behaviour we want to encourage.  So yay, MLSE!

Step two of the hiring process was to find the right person to replace John Ferguson Jr.  Apparently unable to locate a person with the right credentials on a permanent basis last spring, the club turned to Cliff Fletcher and asked him to act as steward of the club’s fortunes during the initial stages of the rebuilding process. In doing so, the Leafs successfully managed to put one foot in front of the other. (Again, yay!)  Fletcher has, it must be said, acquitted himself quite well since his appointment: he made a deal on draft day that got the Leafs into position to pick up Luke Schenn;  he signed Niklas Hagman and Jeff Finger; for every questionable acquisition (Ryan Hollweg), there has been a great pickup (I’m looking at you, Mikhail Grabovski); for every Jamal Mayers, a Mike Van Ryn. It is too early to say whether these players, and others (such as recently acquired Lee Stempniak ) constitute the necessary pieces of the puzzle, though it is unlikely that they form the core of a Cup winning team.  To get there, some of these assets will have to be moved elsewhere, and fresh talent added to the basic building blocks at a later date.  At this stage, as we’ve been told by team officials, it’s not about wins and losses:  it’s about changing a culture of entitlement that had settled over the dressing room – a debilitating malaise that somehow begun interfering with the players’ performance.  At step two, Cliff Fletcher earns the MLSE another passing grade.

Wendel: Call Me, We’ll Hang Like a Banner.

Wendel ClarkWendel Clark is having his jersey number honoured by the Toronto Maple Leafs in a special pre-game ceremony tonight at the Air Canada Centre.  I have to mark the occasion here, because anyone who knows me knows that Wendel was by far and away my favourite Leaf (which means my favourite hockey player) of all time.

I remember well his first year or two in the league, the way he played with fearless abandon, launching a smaller man’s body at the opposition, causing big-man’s devastation, fighting any who dared challenge him, and scoring goal after goal with a laser beam wrist shot.  Add on top of that the fact that he was an aw-shucks farm boy from Kelvington, Saskatchewan who seemed genuinely thrilled to be playing for the Toronto Maple Leafs, and it was no contest:  Wendel was my man.

I wasn’t alone, either. There was something about Wendel. He just seemed to fit with the Leafs and to make things right.  That is saying an awful lot when you keep in mind that the Leafs of the late ’80s were, to put it mildly, a dysfunctional lot, being the plaything of an egocentric, spiteful millionaire who wanted people to love him as much as they loved his sad-sack joke of a team.

Hear me out on this.  In those days, pretty much every telecast of a Leafs home game included the obligatory shot of “The Bunker”, a concrete block box with a glassless window in one corner of the Gardens where Ballard and his long-time companion King Clancy could be seen watching the game, eating popcorn and generally yukking it up.  That little scene encapsulates, in so many ways, what it meant to be a Leaf fan then:  watching the sacred being profaned, looking on as a historically powerful franchise endured  a series of indignities in the present.  There was the hated and hateful Ballard rubbing elbows with a living Leaf legend, one of the greatest players of the early NHL, a guy who was seen by many as the original heart and soul of the franchise, maybe even the entire league.  In 1976, Stan Obodiac’s book The Leafs:  The First 50 Years, described Clancy as follows:

Had a horse named Rare Jewel not won a certain 1930 race, Clancy might never have become a Leaf.  The horse was owned by Conn Smythe, who won a bet on Rare Jewel and used the money as part of a $35,000 and several player package to acquire Clancy from the Ottawa Senators, where he was making $800 a season.

A small, aggressive defenceman, Clancy was the leader of the mightly Leaf teams of the 1930s, a three-time All-Star who was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1958.  He was  a top NHL referee for several years, a coach at Cleveland and Pittsburgh, and the Leaf coacch from 1953 to 1956.  When Imlach came to the Leafs, he moved Clancy up to the front office, where he’s been ever since.

Clancy was colourful;  he was a living hockey connection to the glory days that had begun in earnest when Conn Smythe raised a barn at the corner of Carlton and Church and thereafter put his indelible managerial stamp on the team;  Clancy was grit, determination, history, class and humour all in the form of one craggy-faced, impossibly frail but enduringly optimistic gentleman. He had an unforgettable smile, and an almost cartoonishly cliched Irish gleam in his eye.  And here’s the thing:  Clancy loved Wendel Clark.  I can remember seeing a large photograph in the window of Doug Laurie Sports (the store inside Maple Leaf Gardens)  probably in early 1986, that showed Clancy hugging Clark from behind, arms wrapped around Clark’s neck.  Both men smiled broadly and very obviously genuinely.   Clancy told the papers that Clark was the best Leafs rookie in 50 years.  There were so many appalling things going on with the franchise at this time – we were in the middle of the Gerry McNamara era, but with the Clark-Clancy connection, it seemed as though in this one small way that things were right within the world of the Toronto Maple Leafs.  Small victories and minor blessings were what we lived for in those days;  it’s all we ever got, and precious few of them at that.  (Update:  Since I wrote this, the NHL network has posted Mike Ulmer’s interview with Wendel;  during part 2, he discusses his relationship with Clancy).

In the fall of 1986, Clancy fell ill;  he had his gallbladder removed and began suffering from an infection following the surgery.  On November 10, 1986, he died at age 83.  It was the end of a historic era at Maple Leaf Gardens, but also the beginning of a period of hope;  Clark had begun his second season with the Leafs, and all indications at the time were that Toronto had acquired a remarkable hockey talent.  The torch had been passed,  whether Toronto knew it or not.  The heart and soul of the Blue and White now wore #17 and was skating on the left wing, regularly thundering larger opponents to the ice with his cataclysmic bodychecks or with his fists of fury.

I say “whether Toronto knew it or not” because a lot of people forget that the City’s  love affair with Wendel went off the tracks for a while.  The kid risked his own health every game;  hell, that’s inaccurate.  There was no “risk” involved, he actually sacrificed his own health on virtually every shift he played because of the way he played, but there was a time when – with the back woes chronically nagging him and keeping him out of the lineup for large portions of entire seasons – there were those who doubted Clark’s commitment and drive.   My own personal admiration for Wendel was solidified more than ever in this period of time – I remember one night in the late 80s going to a game at the Gardens when Clark hit a New York Rangers defenceman by the name of Bruce Bell very hard behind the net;  I think this is the same Bruce Bell that Clark almost killed a couple of years earlier when Bell played with St. Louis.    The night I saw Clark hit bell, both men tumbled to the ice behind the Ranger net, and it was obvious that Bell wanted to fight when they arose.  Bad decision.  I happened to be taping the game that night, and somewhere in my collection of VHS tapes, I have the clip that shows (with the assistance of slow motion) the very instant that Bell realizes he is about to have the geometry of his face re-arranged as a result of this subpar decision-making.  One other moment in particular  that I remember is the day that Clark nearly killed New Jersey’s Slava Fetisov because Fetisov had taken out Clark’s knee.  if you watch the clip,  Wendel crumples to the ice from the Russian’s low bridge.  What we didn’t know at the time is that the Russian had torn a ligament in Clark’s knee.  Despite the injury, Clark rises to his skates, grabs Fetisov, and attempts to execute him with a single punch, the force of which nearly propelled the Russian downwards into a common grave with whatever other mysterious corpses may lie buried under the Meadowlands.

I met Wendel at the Madison, a pub near the University of Toronto one night in 1986 or 1987.  I was alarmingly intoxicated and, emboldened by drink, I wandered over and slurred something incoherent about how I respected his style of play and offering to buy him a beer.  He laughed and – I know this sounds difficult to believe, but he did say it kindly – told me to “beat it, kid.”  It wasn’t until several years later that it struck me how funny this was:  I am older than Wendel Clark.

By the time 1993 rolled around, Wendel was finally recovered from his injuries and he seemed – at last – to be reaching his potential as he entered the prime of his career.  Sean at Down Goes Brown has done an excellent job of chronicling Clark’s career in this period, especially the 1993 playoffs.  There was Game 7 against the Blues in the Division Final (when Wendel’s wrist shot nearly decapitates Curtis Joseph);  there was Game 6 against the Kings in the Conference Final, when Wendel scored a hat-trick to lead the Leafs back from a 4-1 deficit (I happened to be driving home from my own hockey game that night, down Carlton St. and past Maple Leaf Gardens when Clark scored to tie it – there was an instant roar audible in the city, people were hooting and hollering in the bars and jumping up and down on the streetcars).  I was lucky enough to be there to watch Wendel play one of the greatest games I ever saw a man play in Game 7;  Clark took the team on his back in that game and – but for an unlucky goal that Gretzky banked in off Dave Ellett’s skate, I am sure that Wendel would have lead the Leafs to glory in the Final.

There were signs that my devotion to Wendel was unhealthily strong.  I knew his parents were Les and Alma.  I celebrated his birthday every October 25th.  I knew he had a dog named Kylie.

I was as shocked as everyone when Wendel got traded before the ’94-’95 season.  I held that against Mats Sundin for a long time.  I was at the Gardens the night he came back to town as a member of the Islanders, and privately mourned the indignity of #17 wearing that ugly Captain Highliner atrocity that the Long Island crew were sporitng at the time.  I defended the trade that brought him back to Toronto, and cheered the night he returned and scored a goal.  I was saddened when he later ended up in Tampa, Detroit (ugh) and Chicago.  I remember the night of the final ovation at the Air Canada Centre, when it had become clear to everyone that Wendel’s body had given out on him long before his heart ever did, and that as a result he would soon be sitting in the seats with us, an alumni member waving to the crowd as “Welcome Back” plays over the p.a.

A couple of years ago, my in-laws managed to pull off a major coup for me.  My father-in-law is an accomplished coach, and had some connections to Wendel’s old Notre Dame coaches.  He managed, through that connection, to get it arranged that he could meet Wendel and bring him a jersey to autograph – they then gave me the signed jersey as a Christmas gift.  As an aside, in order to accomplish this task, my father-in-law was provided with Clark’s phone number and had to call him to arrange their meeting.   The signed jersey is one of my most treasured possessions, and I am very jealous of my brother-in-law (a dirty, dirty Habs fan, of all things) who went along with my father-in-law to meet Clark and get the jersey signed.

I read in the Toronto Star this morning that the Leafs are passing out fake fu manchu mustaches to all the fans attending tonight’s game, and encouraging them to wear the ‘staches during the banner ceremony.  What a great touch, something light-hearted and cheerful in honour of the greatest Leaf I ever had the pleasure to watch.  I wish very much that I could be there tonight, but I can’t.  I’ll be recording the game for posterity on my PVR, and though I plan to wear my autographed jersey as I watch the ceremony, I need to be careful.  I have a feeling at some point during the tribute, there might be a bit of dust in my eye, and I don’t want the ink on the autograph to run.

So congratulations, Wendel, on the occasion of this banner-raising.  I’m still willing to buy you that beer some time.  Call me – through my father-in-law, you’ve got the number – and we’ll hang for a bit.

Maple Leafs Twenty Questions: Funsize Edition

All-time world champion non sequitur (in that, in addition to being unrelated to the topic, it “follows” nothing):  My Dad, who seems to be working hard to secure a position as worldwide press agent for HiR:tb, tells me that there’s an army of people out there reading the blog and enjoying what I write.  That’s terrific to hear – and I’d love it, if you’re one of those folks, if you’d leave a comment on the site so I can prove to my wife that all this time spent tippy-tapping away on the keyboard is worthwhile in somebody’s opinion.

PPP has sought some help answering a series of five questions directed his way by certain mischievous Oiler fans. Here are the five questions, with my proposed answers.

1. What is the consensus amongst Leaf fans about the Sundin situation?

Divided. Those who advocate staying the course worry that Sundin’s return would provide little benefit (as far as team success) and delay or derail entirely the development of young forwards gobbling up prime minutes in important situations. Those who don’t see the team obtaining a top five draft pick anyway want him back to teach the youngsters the way. Those who are cannibals think he looks delicious.

2. What is the worst deal in the past 5 years that the Leafs have done? What has been the best?

The worst on-ice deal has to be Red Light Raycroft. Colorado Avalanche fans (both of them) are by now learning that with “Razor” (cough) in net, the “scoring area” now includes all four corners of the rink, most washrooms on the mezzanine level of the arena, and a substantial portion of the state of Colorado. There are no guarantees that Tuuka Rask (who the Leafs traded to get Raycrap) will ever be Martin Brodeur v. 2.0, but that deal perfectly symbolizes the ineptness of the JFJ management regime: JFJ evidently failed to foresee that Ed Belfour would age, because he failed to have a suitable successor ready to take over from within the organization; he then badly overpaid for Raycrap (both by way of trade and by way of mammoth contract), a goalie whose “talent” he over-estimated; to fix his own mistakes in that regard, the Leafs were then required to trade for Vesa Toskala. The best deal may well be Cliff’s most recent Risebrough: a 2nd-rounder for Mikhail Grabovski.

3. How does it feel knowing that the last Stanley Cup that the Leafs won was when there were 6 teams in the league?

How did it feel when Chris Pronger and his wife basically hocked a loogie on the statue of Gretz out front of the Rexall Place/Skyreach Centre/Edmonton Coliseum/Northlands Coliseum? How did it feel when Roli the Goalie got steamrollered in Game 1 of the ‘06 Final, following which the Oil coughed up a three-goal lead and went on to lose the series in 7 games? That’s gotta hurt. Anyway, take those feelings, transplant them on a fan base that actually keeps coming to the games when the team doesn’t have a freakish run of success, and you get the idea. Laugh it up out there, Oiler fans – at least our team never lost the Cup to a bunch of itinerant hillbillies.

4. Rumor has it that Cliff Fletcher is 612 years old. Is this a concern for Leafs fans?

It is true that Cliff Fletcher is so old, he was once a contestant on a game show where the big prize was “fire”. Nevertheless, the front office is one place where the “wily veteran with a track record of success” is much preferred over the “promising but unproven talent”: see the entry in Failopedia for “Ferguson, John Jr.”. By the way, hope that Steve Tambellini thing works out for you guys. Really.

5. Do you hold out hope for Brian Burke coming to town?

I personally want Brian Burke to come town about as much as Kevin Lowe would like to carpool with the guy. Burke’s record – both as it relates to the draft and his ability to assemble a well-rounded team (or even one NHL calibre starting goalie) is doubtful, as I’m sure the seven time Stanley Cup Champion Vancouver Canucks would agree. His record with the Ducks raises questions about his ability to manage the cap, though Niedermayer and Selanne have to bear some of the blame for that. It would, however, be fun to watch Burkie berate the local mittenstringers like a drill sergeant with PMS on a daily basis. Put me down for “meh.”

Jason Blake: When More is Less

Tonight, over at Pension Plan Puppets, in the Leafs/Bruins live game thread, mf37 posted some numbers about Jason Blake’s shooting percentage.  Essentially, the stats indicated that, between 2003 and 2007 (i.e. during his final seasons with the Islanders), Blake’s shooting percentage doubled (and in ’07 nearly tripled) over his then current career average.  Since joining the Leafs (and signing a hefty five-year contract – curse you, JFJ!) his shooting percentage has dropped to a number so low, you’d think it was expressing a person’s chance of getting hit by lightning while winning the lottery, being abducted by our alien overlords and riding a three-legged dog backwards to a nineteen length Triple Crown victory.

It got me thinking…

Observed phenomenon: Jason Blake takes a lot of shots from “the perimeter”, which is a polite way of saying that he was standing in the parking lot and unable to directly observe his intended target at the time of launching.

Known facts, and important (but blindingly obvious) inference to be drawn from them: NHL goalies (with the lamentable and all-too obvious exception of Andrew Raycroft) are not blind.  Most of them (again, except for Raycroft) have the ability to exert some amount of control over the movement of their extremities.  As a result, NHL goaltenders only infrequently whiff on shots taken from different continents.  Shooting from long distances is not, therefore, an effective strategy of scoring goals.

Statistical evidence:

This is what has to say about what Jason Blake has done in his career, in terms of offensive performance:

Season Team GP SOG/G S Pct. AVG TOI
1998-99 Los Angeles Kings 1 5 20 17:13
1999-00 Los Angeles Kings 64 2.05 3.8 11:17
2000-01 L.A./NY Islanders. 47 2.13 5 13:40
2001-02 New York Islanders 82 1.66 5.9 12:54
2002-03 New York Islanders 81 3.12 9.9 17:38
2003-04 New York Islanders 75 3.24 9.1 18:49
2005-06 New York Islanders 76 4 9.2 18:47
2006-07 New York Islanders 82 3.72 13.1 18:09
2007-08 Toronto Maple Leafs 82 4.05 4.5 17:49
2008-09 Toronto Maple Leafs 13 4.07 3.8 16:35
Career 3.08 8.1 16:22

Legend: GP = Games Played, SOG/G=Shots on Goal per game, S Pct.=Shooting Percentage, AVG TOI=Average time on ice.

Throw out the ’98-99 season (small sample size) and this year (small sample, incomplete data), and you’re left with 8 (more or less) complete seasons to consider.  Here’s what I noticed:  beginning in 2002, Blake’s average time on the ice per game goes way up – increasing by almost 40% from about 13 minutes a game in ’01/’02 to almost 18 minutes a game in ’02-’03.  Also in 2002, the goals start to bang home for Jason, as his shooting percentage jumps to 9.9%;  prior to that, Blake was lighting the lamp at something like a 4 to 6% clip.  Blake’s average ice time stays pretty steady, from then on, in the 18-19 minutes per game region.

Now look at what happens to his shots on goal per game.  That figure jumps from a career low 1.66 per game in  ’01-’02 to 3.12 per game the very next season – the same season his average icetime increases by 40% per game.

What the numbers show is that beginning in 2002/03, Blake was spending about 40% more time on the ice than he had before, but he began shooting the puck about twice as often as in the past.  That’s a lot of extra shots, proportionally, to fit into the extra ice time.  For a few years with the Islanders, it seems to have worked out because he was scoring goals roughly twice as often too, at the 9 – 13% clip.

Consider these numbers in the context of a hypothesis:  a tired skater is more likely to shoot the puck from a long distance. Rather than skate and drive towards the net, a fatigued player will – more often than not – elect to shoot from where he is when he receives the puck.

Blake is playing about just a bit less now than he did in his final years with the Islanders (the years of 9-13% shooting success).  He is shooting the puck about the same number of times, on average, if not a little bit more.  We have observed that – since he’s been in Toronto, anyway – he frequently shoots the puck from long distances.  It is unlikely that Blake was shooting from these distances while in Long Island;  it simply beggars belief that they’d be going in as frequently as they did for him;  it would take a major league marathon of sustained and repeated whiffage by a series of goaltenders, over a period of four years, for that to be true.   The key point is this – the long shots we’ve seen Blake take as a Leaf aren’t being taken in addition to the blasts he habitually took when he was an Islander.

Rather, I think the data suggest that Blake is currently replacing shots from closer in to the net  (i.e the quality shots he took as an Islander) with long distance bombs that have little or no chance of success.  One obvious explanation for that phenomenon is related to the “tired players take long shots” theory.  In short, the numbers suggest that  – now in his mid 30s, and with well-documented health concerns – Blake may well not be up to the challenge physically, and that fatigue or lack of conditioning is preventing him from scoring at the rate he previously did.

Discuss.  Am I missing something?

The Hockey Gods

Yesterday, I foolishly opined that the hockey gods had turned their malevolent attentions upon Ottawa fans, leaving Leaf fans alone to suffer another long, hot summer while the hopes and dreams of the Capital City bunch were crushed in agonizing fashion.


I tuned my virtual Intarwebs radio in to the Leafs/Senators game tonight, deliciously anticipating the beginning of the end for our cross-province rivals from the National Capital Region. It’s now just shortly after 9 p.m., the Senators are missing Daniel Alfredsson and Mike Fisher and were at one time being outshot by the Leafs, but with 3:30 remaining in the second period it’s 4-1 Senaturds and my pathetic Leafs cannot seem to muster even a faint whiff of offence that might suggest comeback.

It seems that the hockey gods, far from abandoning their mission of humiliating the Leafs and their fans – oh, fer Chrissake, it’s 5-1 Ottawa now – the gods chose instead to pummel their plaything and then appear to leave it for dead, feigning an intention to concentrate on the despoilment of another, only to reveal a further and more frustrating, disappointing and degrading level of losing for the chaps in blue and white.

I am really trying to figure out why I shouldn’t go downstairs and pound the brains out of my head with an iron bar as punishment for my own stupidity. How could I have hoped and believed that the Leafs would give me even this tiny joy in a woebegone season? I mean, Lord God and Sonny Jesus in a Sidecar, this was a year that began with one of our top-two D-men confidently and forcefully golfing the puck into his own net in overtime. Did I really expect this team to close the deal in a game like this?


What sacrifice do you demand for our release from your ever-lasting wrath, o cruel and capricious hockey gods?  The blood of a fatted calf?  How ’bout Kyle Wellwood instead, would that do?  What about Johnny Pohl and a second round draft choice in the ’09 draft?   Send us a sign – enough with the famine and pestilence, couldn’t we just go with a burning bush or something from here on in?