How luck and results can complicate pre-season NHL player evaluation

Seattle Kraken players Dennis Cholowski (27) protects the puck from Adam Larsson (6) during NHL hockey training camp at Kraken Community Iceplex on Thursday, Sept. 23, 2021, in Seattle. (Amanda Snyder/The Seattle Times via AP)

It’s Ryder Cup week in the golfing world, which pits the USA against the best from Europe in a head-to-head battle, giving us the rare occasion (it’s every two years) where golfers have teammates. Patrick Cantlay is an American golfer who was asked about the recent run of European victories, and he gave an answer that’s relevant when considering hockey in general, but I thought was a particularly apt way to consider pre-season hockey.

He uses the card game “gin” and the idea of games being “chancy” in general to make his point about Europe winning seven of the past nine matchups over the previous 20 years (all of this also translates to “we don’t think they’re actually better than us even though they win,” but that’s not my point here today):

“So I’ve read a few gin books,” Cantlay said. “Let’s see if I get it right. If you play enough gin hands a one or two per cent difference in skill translates to almost an assured win over many, many, many hands of gin. But you could have a big difference between somebody, maybe a 60 to 40 per cent skill level difference, and gin is still chancy enough to where you could play 10 hands and lose six or seven of the hands to someone that’s much worse than you, skill-wise.

“Really there’s only two—these matches are only played every two years, and golf is very chancy. So would it surprise you if the U.S. went on a similar run to what Europe has been on for the next 20 years? Wouldn’t surprise me. You go to Vegas and you play roulette and the chances are 50/50 but skewed toward the house a little, it could hit red six times in a row, but that’s not abnormal. You flip a quarter it would be weird if the quarter flipped tails, heads, tails, heads, tails, heads. Then you would think something trippy was going on.”

This astute observation touches on a fundamental divide between the hockey analytics world and well, the rest of the hockey world. The analytics community is much more inclined to consider the chance in outcomes. In a low-scoring sport like hockey – with so much action and potential for randomness – it’s quite literally the most chancy of the four major North American sports. Heck, half the plan on offence is to cluster it up at the net, get the puck to that area with some pace, and hope to play horizontal Plinko.

This consideration brings me to the pre-season, and the perspectives of both the player and the team when figuring out how to assess things in the early going. A few weeks and a handful of games isn’t many spins of the roulette wheel.

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I played right wing and found myself in a “tryout” position pretty much every year of my career save for college, though even there you’re jockeying for position within your own team. And I can directly report that my success in tryouts was rarely tied directly to my level of preparation, or even my ability to play in the league for which I was trying out. I had much more offensive success at a WHL camp than a junior A camp in the same year, just weeks apart. I was far better at the Islanders NHL camp than I was at the Sound Tigers AHL camp. And the reason for that, according to much soul-searching and consideration, was that I got an awful lot luckier during those WHL and NHL camps, not that I fit there.

I mention that I played right wing, because as a forward you’re more at the mercy of luck there than at centre, where you’re asked to physically go get the puck more often (you’re involved in more confrontations where you can win it back), at least in the defensive end. Often, as a winger, you stand where you’re told in the D-zone until the play either breaks in a way that you’re able to influence, or not. There are whole games as a winger where you get nothing accomplished, but you never really had the opportunity to in the first place. I’d say it’s much more like Texas Hold ‘Em (I don’t know how to play gin), where you get dealt a couple cards, and you can only do so much with what you get. The best players can do well with bad cards here and there, but if you get them often enough, your chances at success are badly hampered.

I’ve been thinking about this as I see all the players that are on PTOs right now (professional try-outs), because often the guys who get brought in on these short two-week contracts are wingers, skilled guys who might be able to do something (they’re usually skilled enough) and have just a short window to show that they can.

It can be hard to suss out in practices – under no pressure and often alone on the goalie – who’s going to be of most use in a game. And for wingers – I admit, I’m thinking of what’s up in Toronto here with Nikita Gusev, Josh Ho-Sang, and even Nick Robertson – so much of what happens during those two weeks comes down to the randomness of whether a puck coming out to the point jumped the stick of a defender and gave said player a breakaway, or if the D-men caught the pass, shot it wide, but banked one in the net. In either case, the defending winger can’t do much, but how he’s perceived changes.

Coaches aren’t stupid, of course. They’re not oblivious to the role that luck plays in the pre-season. During my time with the Marlies I saw how development camp worked, and got to see how players were discussed, and of course it’s considered. But at the end of the day, results are results, and if one guy scores twice in the three games and the other gets blanked, you have to have those internal conversations. Was the guy who scored just skilled about getting himself into good positions to score? Does the guy who got blanked just not have it? And hey, when a guy gets lucky chances, he still has to do something right to finish the job. Tangible results always win in the end, so luck still matters.

Teams now are much better about putting try-out players in a position to succeed than they used to be. It used to be that if you were a fringe guy you skated with other fringe guys in a limited role, and had to blow someone’s mind to impress. In Texas Hold ‘Em terms: Here’s your 2-7 off-suit, time to bluff your way into a few winning pots, or your time at the table will be up quick.

Looking at Toronto’s pre-season roster, Ho-Sang is playing alongside John Tavares, Nikita Gusev is skating with two established NHLers in David Kampf and Ondrej Kase, and even new guy Nick Ritchie is getting a chance to succeed right away alongside Mitch Marner. The teams don’t want to get to the end of the two- or three-week decision period and have those guys say “How was I supposed to show you I can play skating alongside two ECHLers?” Teams want to remove the luck factor, where guys would need bounces to even get to display their skills. Quality linemates eliminate some of the need for luck on the offensive side of things.

What makes the whole evaluation process harder for teams, though, is that pre-season hockey games might just be the chanciest ones of the year. Scoring chances show up in hockey when players make defensive coverage gaffes, and at the start of the new season, you have guys on new teams in new systems with new linemates and new coaches, and sometimes errors happen that aren’t just little oopsies, but instead the kind that provide random oceans of room to a guy who didn’t do anything to earn it.

Jeff Marek and Elliotte Friedman talk to a lot of people around the hockey world, and then they tell listeners all about what they’ve heard and what they think about it.

So in a couple weeks NHL staffs will have to make that call. Yes this guy scored, but we worry he doesn’t create chances well, and he was just gifted a couple. No that guy didn’t score, but he created a few looks from nothing that will probably pay off down the road. You’re trying to focus on the process as well as the results, as difficult as that can be. Players need to internalize this to some degree, too – goals and assists aren’t everything if you play well.

In theory.

One of the great parts about actually making a hockey team is no longer being at the mercy of utter randomness. If you believe that you are a good “gin” or “hold ‘em” player on the ice, and that your ability will show itself over many, many, many hands, you just need a team to give you a prolonged chance to see enough hands to prove it. Unfortunately for some players, whether they’re given enough time to show what they can do or not can come down to what’s essentially the flip of a coin.

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