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On Stats, Narratives, and the New Jersey Devils

Being a fan of the New Jersey Devils or some other hockey team or some other sports team or some other anything by itself is irrational.

We appreciate the highs from when the Devils win games. We are happy to see them succeed, even though we may not have done anything directly to earn a result. Moreover, we probably didn't do anything to deserve seeing our favorite team score goals, make defensive players, win games, and win championships. That happened because of what the team did - nothing I write will make that happen, much less whatever else that I do. But it feels so fantastic to see it happen. By the same token, we are disappointed when the Devils lose. We can feel angry, frustrated, despondent, and so much more about how they lost, why they lost, and the simple reality that they just lost a game or several games. Again, even though we didn't do anything that would change the score or anything to deserve seeing what we just saw, we feel worse for it. Like most feelings, this is irrational, and so some people "get it," some people never will, and it couldn't happen any other way. I accept, embrace, and encourage this. Go support the Devils if you aren't for some bewildering reason.

What I don't think is so irrational is trying to understand why the Devils won or lost a game, or how good the team has been relative to the league, or how good or bad a player is based on what they've done in the past. It is for this reason I tend to utilize advanced stats when appropriate. What follows after the jump is a collection of thoughts why I reject narratives with respect to the New Jersey Devils and tend to favor stats in analyzing the team we all love and support. Consider it an explanation of sorts of where I'm coming from.

Stats. They're certainly not perfect, they're not always complete, and I sometimes don't use them as well as I could. Yet, they provide much more insight than just the standard stats that you see at; and infinitely more insight than a narrative provided by the media or even just a few fans trying to come up with a satisfying explanation.

Not many hear or want to hear that it was just good fortune or a result of consistent pressure or anything that can be backed up within a game. While the stats may not be perfect or easy to explain, we end up with narratives. Stories about a player's "heart" and "passion" making a difference, as if the opposition or his teammates didn't care as much as him. Highlighting momentum shifts by certain events like a fight or a big hit, yet while ignoring any other meaningful events between the highlighted event and the moment of victory or defeat.

For an example of the first, We all loved Scott Stevens destroying Eric Lindros in Game 7 of the 2000 Eastern Conference Final. But what gets lost from that hit is that happened in the first period and with the Devils already up 1-0. The Flyers tied it up in the second period, and the Devils had to be quite careful until Patrik Elias scored the go-ahead goal late in the third period. As legendary as that hit was, the game wasn't New Jersey's for the taking. The Flyers didn't lay down and let the Devils skate over them. It was a tight affair, hit or no hit. It's a great story, a fine narrative, but it doesn't do the actual game justice.

That was at least a narrative that is well regarded in Devils lore. Here's an example of how narratives can be constructed to hurt a team. Remember that Scott Burnside article shortly after John MacLean was fired that I tore through on Christmas Day 2010? It was all in an attempt to put a narrative together, about how the Devils were doomed, Lou was losing it, and they're a terrible organization. I broke it down because it was decidedly not true. Much of his criticism and his narrative was based on a getting basic facts wrong, selective evidence, and generally poor reasoning. This was an attempted narrative at worst, crap like that article by Burnside.

How about a third, historical example of a narrative standing the test of time? Long time Devils fans should all know too well how pervasive a narrative can get regardless of how true it is. I only need one word to remind you all: trap.

Ever since 1993-94, the Devils have been tagged as the trapping team. The group that brought to hockey the neutral zone trap. The franchise that ushered in a defensive era of hockey. The squad that bores other team's fans and reporters to tears. That four letter word has been the Devils' scarlet set of letters for almost 18 years. 18 years! It's a meme that could vote this November if it were a person. It has been used to lazily tag the Devils regardless of what system the Devils were running, how successful they were on offense, and even in coaching the team. As a narrative, it's also a double standard. It regarded as a fault for the Devils, yet when the Tom Renney-coached Rangers ran a 1-2-2 to decent success or in a number of Penguins games from this past season utilized it, it's considered good defensive hockey and with no fault attached. Yet, for the Devils, it's quite simple: they trapped their way to success - regardless of whether they instituted a trap in the game or won by some strategy or other means. You can ignore what real changes the Devils made in their tactics, as it's assumed it'll be a trap anyway. It's frustrating to see, hear, and read; yet, it persists like an oil stain on a driveway.

I don't know about you, but as those three examples show narratives don't do it for me when it comes to the questions of why and how the Devils perform on the ice. My curiosity is not satiated by something that is usually unsupported by something objective. The longer I've watched hockey and have written about it, I've gravitated more towards stats. They aren't reliant on what a person sees on the ice or chooses to remember. They can be held accountable. With the growth in advanced stats and their accessibility through resources like Behind the Net and Time on Ice, it's actually possible to go deeper than what the league publicly publishes to see who's doing good by the underlying numbers. It's all fascinating to me that so much work has been done to current stats to see what else they can say.

Here are some examples of the benefits of advanced stats and research into current ones. I know Elias was a good player, but thanks to Corsi, I have a better understanding of how good he really has been on the ice (and how important, too). We can even break down who benefits with and without, say, Travis Zajac or some other player if we so desire. Due to zone starts, I can learn who's getting protected and who's not on a team - moreso if I also consider quality of competition. Thanks to Gabe Desjardens, we know shooting isn't controlled by talent alone - sometimes, things just don't go your way. That last bit was a little hard to swallow, but that happens a lot in sport. Bad luck alone can undo a great performance, and it's frustrating to see it play out as little can really be done about it - also as an explanation.

The most exciting part about stats is that there will be more breakthroughs in the future. If something can be counted, it can be measured - so why stop with what's out there? Why not scoring chances, which some bloggers already do for teams they support? Why not zone times, like the NHL used to publish back in the day? How about counting soft goals allowed by a goalie? How about recording who makes a breakout pass and whether it's successful? Why not individual passes, even? These would not be necessarily perfect either, but the stat and requisite analysis can say a lot more about what goes on in a game or how a player/team has performed than some guy proclaiming to be an expert saying something about being a "warrior" or a "winner" or a "whiner" or something to come up with a nice-sounding explanation that may not hold up under further scrutiny.

I can understand the defensiveness that comes with a narrative being argued against or even straight up busted. Again, who wants to hear what they don't want to hear? Yet, if the facts run counter to what we think, then we either better provide some good evidence to support ourselves in spite of said fact, be ignorant and stubbornly hold onto what we think, or accept that we may have had it wrong. Rationally, the last option makes sense; yet, by feeling we want to do the first two instead. It is a struggle, in a sense. That's why guys like Tom Benjamin should be called out when they denigrate an advanced stat they don't understand, as done here at Arctic Ice Hockey by Ben Wendorf. That's why posts like this one from PPP user Plea From A Cat Named Felix are interesting, eye-opening, and important for further understanding. The writer basically summed up the whole point of this stance poignantly:

When evaluating any player we need to be aware of confirmation bias and ensure that we use as much evidence-statistical, situational, and intangible- from both sides of the argument to form your opinion.

Being a fan is irrational. Our opinions need not be.


To summarize, I am a New Jersey Devils fan, and as such I want to see them attain the glories of victory. I want wins, division titles, conference titles, and Cups. Therefore - not however - I am more interested in the actual facts of what the team/player is, how they are doing, and what they have done to set expectations appropriately. When they sign a player, does it improve the team and why? When they make a trade, does it help the Devils? When a line is put together or used in a certain matchup, did it succeed or fail and why? These are the questions I am interested and so I write in trying to answer some of them. It is from this mindset that I care who's on the fourth line or what the cap looks like or who signed a contract even if it's for less than $1 million or many of the other things that Devils fans are or are not concerned about all year. I want to see the best Devils team possible, so it all matters. Facts will provide these answers better than conjecture, and so I am interested in stats and use them when I think they make the most sense or to support a conclusion or a viewpoint.

Essentially, this is an explanation of sorts of why I am so interested in stats over narratives and how this carries into many of the posts I have written on ILWT over the past few seasons. I understand that my mindset isn't like everyone else's (that's probably a benefit), and so I try to explain what I can when appropriate. I will be the first to tell you that I am not at all perfect or even all that good at it. I tend to think of the question, do the research, and then write up findings if only to check against my own biases and irrationality. That makes me a consumer of stats, not a provider. Over time, I'll get better at it, I hope. Still, even with it's flaws and my potentially flawed usage at times, I believe better conclusions and discussions have come out of it.

And so the attempts to be rational about what I am irrational about will continue. Thank you for reading and indulging in some of navel-gazing.