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article imageOp-Ed: Do we really need analytics to tell us Dion Phaneuf stinks?

By Rocco Pendola     Sep 11, 2014 in Sports
A new analytics-based study of NHL defenseman ranks Leafs' blueliner Dion Phaneuf in the bottom ten. It took a lot of work to come to this and other similar conclusions.
The research out of MIT, summarized by Sportsnet, ranks National Hockey League defensemen on the basis of how effectively they clear the puck and lead transition into the offensive zone. It's worth a read, however it made me do a double take with respect to the emergence of data-driven decision making in the NHL.
First, I'm not one of these anti-data guys. In fact, I'd call myself pro-data. When I wrote for financial media Website TheStreet.com, one of my major themes was leveraging data generated by Internet radio to help bolster the music industry. During the seven-plus years I spent in college, I was knee deep in both quantitative and qualitative research. I see the value, however it's often useful to take a step back when you the get the feeling something is about to become the end all and be all in some NHL organizations.
It didn't take a meticulous study to render the conclusion that Phaneuf has difficulty clearing the puck. That's been a major source of the Leafs' problems for years. It came to a head during the round one playoff collapse against the Boston Bruins. And it continued unabated throughout last season.
I'll never forget watching the texts pour in as the Leafs led the Bruins 4-1 in that Game Seven. Shocked friends were congratulating me -- Toronto was not only headed to the second round, but they beat Boston to get there. I responded to each message the same way -- the game's not over yet. Because I had been watching the Leafs all regular season long. And I had seen them make the same mistakes -- over and over again -- that I saw them making, even with the lead, against the Bruins, particularly on defense.
Over the last two seasons (and even before that if my memory serves me), the Leafs have done a horrific job clearing the puck from their own zone. How many times have you seen a Leafs D-man (Phaneuf or somebody else) fumble the puck behind his net or get the puck to the blueline only to see it immediately turned back for a scoring chance for the opposition. When the puck makes it out of the zone to neutral ice, the imprecise data I keep in my head shows that it, more often than not, did not turn into scoring chances for Toronto. The Leafs' goaltending hasn't helped much as it, namely James Reimer, made a habit out of giving up bad rebounds. And let's not forget about the team's weakness in the faceoff circle, particularly in its own zone, which does no favors for defensemen trying to move the game in a favorable direction.
We saw the aforementioned happen all year prior to the Boston series. All of the above played a major role in the Game Seven collapse. And it didn't let up much throughout last season, not even when the Leafs were winning. If I can see that ... if you can see that, hockey people can see it without the benefit of statistical intervention.
That's not to say there's no room for advanced stats in the game. There is. While the process of collecting the data can be painstaking for the data collector, the results help NHL folks who make decisions and, maybe more aptly, confirm what they already know (or are busy denying). They help connect observations like the ones I make in this article to something more precise. To an overarching, objective look at the phenomenon in question. What does the larger landscape look like? And how should it influence not only my decision-making, but my emotional connection to a player or style.
Ultimately, analytics doesn't tell us whether Phaneuf stinks or not. We watch the games. We see the defense struggle. From there we have to factor in other largely qualitative variables (e.g. quality of the pairing, the overall D, the goalie, defensive zone faceoffs) to determine how much we can blame an individual player for his corp's fate. If the supporting cast was better, would Phaneuf stink less or not stink at all? The answer to a question like that still comes down to smart hockey people making hockey decisions on the basis of what they see. And, clearly, the Toronto Maple Leafs have been doing a poor job in that department for quite some time. Advanced stats isn't going to remedy this deficiency.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of DigitalJournal.com
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