Friday, June 29, 2012

Dan Hamhuis: Behind the Norris Trophy scenes

This post may be about a week too late, but this is the off-season, man... I exhibit no guilt in being two major NHL events behind.  Hopefully you don't mind.

Try, if you will, to suspend all current thoughts swirling in your head about Brendan Gaunce and Pavel Bure.  Then see if you can recall all of nine days ago, when the NHL doled out their annual awards, celebrating the league's very best with the utterly irrelevant esteemed likes of Matthew Perry and Nickelback.  But forget the telecast.  If you were wise enough to watch something else last Wednesday, perhaps, like me, you opted to simply review the voting results online.  If you are lucky enough to actually locate it, the full results for each trophy – down to every last fifth-place vote – are a resource that can sustain your attention far longer than the actual awards broadcast.

While it's always interesting to see just how close or distant the voting was between the winner and two runners-up, often times the more intriguing results are found after the top three.  Case in point is the balloting for this year's Norris Trophy.

Source: Yahoo! Sports article from Puck Daddy

Among the many ways one could hyper-analyze this list beyond the three nominees, here are just a couple to start with: At fourth overall, Alex Pietrangelo has achieved elite status in just his second year in the NHL.  (Can anyone remember at which point in the season that actually happened?  I cannot.)  That accomplishment segways nicely into the complete absence of Drew Doughty on this list, which effectively contrasts his regular season performance from that of the playoffs.  While not one of 149 voters thought he ranked among the league's top five defencemen this regular season, by the time he was lifting the Stanley Cup two months later, he was probably in a two-way tie with Dustin Brown for Conn Smythe runner-up.

But this article is about neither Pietrangelo or Doughty.  Unlike last June, there was literally nothing for Canucks fans to get excited about for this year's NHL Awards.  So if you're looking for a consolation prize, Vancouver, you did indeed see correctly: At 10th overall in Norris voting, the Professional Hockey Writers' Association (PHWA)¹ gives you the Canucks' own, Dan Hamhuis.

For all the fans out there blasting Gillis for letting
Willie Mitchell go now that he's won a Cup with L.A.,
remember that he wisely signed Hamhuis in his place.
While it's admittedly hard to get excited about a 10th overall ranking – from one perspective, it highlights the longstanding absence of a Canucks defenceman actually capable of winning the Norris – consider the names that Hamhuis finished ahead of: Duncan Keith.  Keith Yandle.  Dan Boyle.  All three defencemen enjoy far higher profiles and the implicit expectation to produce 50-60 points a season.  Mind you, none of them had particularly great seasons by their own personal standards, but they all recorded more points than Hamhuis and are no slouches in their own end.  The fact that the NHL's writers collectively voted Hamhuis ahead of those three offensive juggernauts speaks volumes for his defensively-responsible game.  (It's also interesting to note that Alex Edler, who Canucks fans chose over Hamhuis for the Babe Pratt Trophy as the team's best defenceman, finished 15th.)

With a $4.5 million cap hit, Hamhuis doesn't exactly fly under the radar, but his style of play has seldom attracted the league-wide attention it deserves.   At 23 points over 64 games in his first season with the Canucks, he did not draw a single voting point in 2011, when he was arguably just as valuable to the team's back-end.  So while Hamhuis' real vote-getter was presumably his defensive game, the 14-point improvement in his statline certainly helped to attract more attention to it.

I anticipate that many outside of Vancouver would argue that Hamhuis' name on the above list is no more than an anomaly.  To that, I would first give to them Dan Girardi's two first-place votes to figure out.  If Hamhuis is an anomaly, then Girardi at sixth overall is... what?  A UFO sighting?  But mostly, I'd accuse them of something we're probably all guilty of.  The fact is, we will always overlook sound and reliable defence in favour of flashier end-to-end rushes and more explicit point totals.  While the PHWA gave Hamhuis his due (two second-place votes), by awarding Erik Karlsson the Norris (66 of 149 first-place votes), they also implied that, in expert hockey wisdom, you don't have to be world class in your own end to be deemed the best defenceman.

There is really no objective way of quantifying a player of Hamhuis' ilk in the same way that points do for an offensive defenceman.  It's a subjective call, which likely gives the powers-that-be a little less confidence in voting for a stay-at-homer.  The league awards the Selke for the equally subjective best defensive forward; why not establish a new trophy (to go with a long overdue one for the assists leader) for the best defensive defenceman?

Call it the Rod Langway Trophy, in honour of the Montreal Canadiens/Washington Capitals shutdown defender from the 1980's.²  Then sit back and just watch the nominations pour in for number two in blue and white.


¹ The PHWA is responsible for picking the Norris Trophy, as well as six other major NHL awards.
² Langway accomplished the rare feat of winning the Norris Trophy in back-to-back years (1983 and 1984) as a shutdown defender.  In his award-winning seasons, he scored no more than 32 and 33 points.

*See the discussion regarding this article on the forums here.

Friday, June 15, 2012

The Cup-winning model... It's not all black and silver

Another year, another Cup winner.  Another off-season for fairweather fans and professional analysts alike to lose perspective on any success their teams may have recently enjoyed.  (Look under: back-to-back Presidents' Trophies and a Campbell Bowl in two years.)  Unless you're basking in the aftermath of a Stanley Cup parade right now, it's time for the annual "If you can't beat 'em, copy 'em" game.  Fortified by Boston's previous success, enter the era of the L.A. model: Size and goaltending.  An ability to score is a given – this isn't 1999 anymore – but it seems now that your top players require the ability to deposit both pucks and bodies wherever they please if you want to win 16 games between April and June. 

In other words, if your captain can't play like Dustin Brown, who led the playoffs in points and hits, practice your golf swing.  Imagine Vancouver's horror.  Suddenly the finesse and puck possession formula championed by Detroit and emulated most by the Canucks is obsolete, right?  (You mean we can't Sedin our way to the Cup?)

To respond to this growing stream of thought, here's a brief history of NHL analysis in the past five years alone:

The Ducks win in 2007 and the mantra is established to "Get bigger."  A high-profile goalie is also obviously a must.  Then Detroit and Pittsburgh stickhandle their way to the Finals in back-to-back years and size is effectively de-emphasized for skill and puck possession.  The obligatory "high-profile goalie" in net was Chris Osgood.  Chicago continues along the same vein, relying more on skill than size, while being backstopped by no less than Antii Niemi.  Fast forward to the past two years as Boston and Los Angeles re-flip the script for the goaltending-and-size combination to take prominence once more.

These trends are clearly short-lived, but when the nightly analysis on Sportsnet and TSN get going again in September, I'll bet that more than a few of the former players and coaches out of NHL jobs the esteemed experts of the league are gonna start counting teams out based on how dissimilar their rosters are to Los Angeles's.

For all their in-depth knowledge, it will always be easier to deal in straightforward and simple maxims:  Size wins championships.  Defence wins championships.  Build around your goalie.  Don't build around your goalie.

The reality is, if a team with a completely different style and roster composition than the Kings doesn't win the Stanley Cup next year, one probably will the year after.  Where the Broad Street Bullies succeded in the 70's, so did the free-wheeling Oilers the following decade. 

This isn't gonna cut it for most Canucks fans – succeeded league-wide in jadedness by perhaps only Toronto – but the lesson is to stay the course.  I fully understand that said course is approaching a half-decade, but at no point in this Cupless streak has the team been this close, this often.

For those calling to blow up the roster to look more like Boston or L.A., I'd hate to be you when another puck possession team inevitably wins the Cup.  The only thing that Anaheim, Detroit, Pittsburgh, Chicago, Boston and Los Angeles all have in common is that none of those fool-proof rosters won twice in a row.

But if you must insist on reducing it to a simple formula, best to follow the find-team-chemistry-and-get-hot-at-the-right-time-while-getting-above-average-performance-from-all-your-players model.  Although the analysts might be on to something, cause that's significantly less catchy.


Tuesday, June 05, 2012

The road to Stanley goes through Vancouver

With the L.A. Kings up 3-0 in the Stanley Cup Finals, it looks like any remaining games against New Jersey in this series are all but a formality.  Congulations Dustin Brown and company for rendering the entire 82-game regular season schedule utterly useless.  When the Kings win their 16th win of the post-season in the next few days or so, they will become the first team in NHL history to win the Stanley Cup as an eighth seed.  A supremely impressive stat.

However, implicit in that achievement, another almost equally baffling story continues to develop.  Eighteen years in the making, it goes as follows: Teams that beat the Vancouver Canucks in the playoffs go on to win the Stanley Cup at a 73% success rate.  Of the 11 times the Canucks have qualified for the post-season since 1994, they were ousted by the eventual champions on eight occasions.  More recently, if you jump the gun like the rest of the hockey world and include the L.A. Kings, the rate increases to 100% in the past three years.  If you're a team planning your championship parade route, make sure it includes a stop in Vancouver.

The last 11 teams to eliminate the Canucks since 1994
and their usually successful fate

But what does it all mean, Basil?  Besides the obvious Messier curse, nothing of major significance, really.  However, it does say something about the nature of Vancouver's latest playoff disappointments.  For the better part of a decade, the Canucks have developed into somewhat of a perennial contender.  Since the team's liberation from mediocrity circa 2004 (thank you Markus Naslund), Vancouver has been chosen on several occasions as a Cup favourite.  But despite the quasi-annual hype – peaking around the lockout and again in the past two years – the team has but one measly trip beyond the second round since then to boast of.  As a result, the prevailing widsom surrounding this group has often been that they cannot play to expectations in the post-season.

I understand this requires a certain kind of perspective, but when you consider just how often the Canucks' conquerors go on to prove their ultimate worth, the average fans' yearly pill of disappointment becomes at least a little easier to swallow.  On the record, Gillis begs to differ (for presumably professional reasons), but the team's first-round exit this season does take on a different meaning now, given L.A.'s success.  Imagine the Kings went on to be swept by the Blues.  Or that the Flames' semi-upset of Vancouver didn't result in them becoming Western Conference champions in 2004.  Logically, those losses become far more dubious.

So take solace Canuckland; take it wherever you can.  Ultimately, it's not much more than a briefly interesting stat you look at and go "Huh."  But the off-season is long and not every team can use "we were beaten by the best" as an annual excuse 7.3 times out of 10.  For all the glass-half-fullers out there, you're welcome.  Take it and run!  For the rest of you, sorry I even brought it up...


*See the discussion regarding this article on the forums here.

Friday, June 01, 2012

The L.A. Kings -- Not a Cinderella team

Nobody following the playoffs this year needs to be reminded how the L.A. Kings are doing.  The team from Hollywood has written a script worthy of their locale: Top three teams in the West vanquished.  Second eighth-seeded team to ever qualify for the Finals.  Three wins away from the perfect underdog story.  Lookout Dodgeball.

Although I think Vince
Vaughn's character in this
movie is way too nice to
be Dustin Brown...
However, as unlikely as your standard Cinderella story initially seems, between 2002 and 2006, a poorly-seeded team had annually qualified for the Stanley Cup Finals – in order, the Carolina Hurricanes,¹ Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, Calgary Flames and Edmonton Oilers all finished with bottom-three records in their conference.  When you include the current feel-good team of the year, the prevalence of a Cinderella team in the Finals is exactly 1-in-2 for the past 10 years.

With this in mind, are the 2012 Kings really that surprising?  Is their performance really that unlikely?  The answer is as emphatic as a Dustin Brown blindside to the head and/or knee: Yes!  Here’s why.

If teams like the 2006 Oilers and 2002 Ducks represent what Cinderella squads are supposed to look like, the Kings aren’t one of them.  Unlike the other four bottom-ranked teams to make the Finals in the past decade, L.A. has blitzed their way through the playoffs with a current 13-2 record.  Within recent memory, your standard issue surprise team has had to scrimp and scrape their way to a shot at the Cup with one-goal games they didn’t deserve to win and the supremely elevated play of little else than their goalie (See J.S. Giguere).  Ultimately, they were outplayed and overmatched for the better part of 20-25 games.

But this year’s Cinderella edition has consistently either matched or surpassed their higher-ranked opponents in all aspects of play.  No, the Kings probably wouldn’t have achieved this level of success without Jonathan Quick in net, but they are anything but a one-man show.  L.A. has more depth, talent and efficiency than any of their underdog predecessors ever had in their improbable runs.  Statistically, the Kings have outscored their opponents 43-23 and outshot them by an average four shots per game.

The Kings' current win-percentage, goals for/against and shots for/against, in comparison
to the four most recent "Cinderella" teams.

Sixth, seventh and eighth-placed teams can routinely make the Finals.  That’s not what makes the Kings special; it’s that they’ve done so with the level of play of a first seed.  Often times, L.A. has won convincingly.  All of the time, they’ve done so with their opponents’ bodies lying on the ice.  If not for their eighth-place ranking, nobody would ever name them after a Disney princess. 

The L.A. Kings have proved that they simply aren’t underdogs.  The hockey world expects this team to beat New Jersey.  And in that sense, that is surprising for an eighth seed.  That is a big deal.


¹The Hurricanes were seeded third by virtue of winning the annual Southwest Division lottery, but had actually finished with the eighth-worst record in the East.

*See the discussion regarding this article on the forums here.