Thursday, October 13, 2011

Desire and Success

(I wrote the rough draft for this short post at the end of last season but never ran it, and was recently reminded of it while watching the Winnipeg Jets get beaten 5-1 in their home opener by the Montreal Canadiens. That was not entirely the same situation as the one described here, given that Montreal was certainly looking to add two points just like every other team this early in the season, but one still would have thought that the Jets players would have that extra motivation to kick off a new era of NHL hockey in Winnipeg with some success. Nevertheless, they still came up four goals short.)

There are abundant cliches in sports that attempt to relate winning to effort level. How many times have you heard an announcer say something like "they just wanted it more" in an attempt to explain why one team emerged victorious while the other team did not?

I've posted before about effort-based explanations being largely ridiculous at the professional level given the stakes involved, but there are some situations where there is in fact a clear imbalance in incentives between two teams, such as late in the season where one team is already out and the other is facing a must-win game. What happens in that case, does the team that wants it more always win?

During the last weekend of the 2010-11 regular season, three teams (Carolina, Chicago and Dallas) all controlled their own destinies and all only needed to win their final game to clinch a playoff berth (the Hawks actually only needed to get to OT). None of their opponents had anything to play for, as all three of them were either eliminated or could not change their playoff seeding. Carolina and Chicago were playing in front of their home fans, while Dallas got a non-playoff opponent in the Minnesota Wild. In addition, Detroit was the only one of the three opponents that went with their starting goalie. In every case, the situation looked very favourable for the team that needed to win to get in, especially if "wanting it more" is a good predictor of success in the NHL.

Those three teams combined to go 0-3. Every playoff home date is worth millions to their franchises and earning the opportunity to compete for a Stanley Cup has huge intangible benefits to NHLers yet all three teams squandered their chance. The Chicago Blackhawks did manage to qualify for the postseason, but only because they got lucky when Dallas also failed to seal the deal.

The statistical case for the heavy role of luck in hockey has been well-made, but there remains a resistance for many traditionally-minded hockey fans to accept numbers-based conclusions. That's why sometimes it is good to use other types of arguments (I particularly like the game-charting ones, like this one, for example, because they can't be simply dismissed out of hand by the people who have an ingrained anti-stats outlook). I'd submit that the fact that a team can have a skill advantage and home ice advantage and a starting goalie facing an opposing backup and a huge advantage in incentives and yet can still lose the game is a simple yet powerful observation that supports the heavy role of luck in the sport of hockey.


Chris Collision said...

One wonders if there's a third factor besides "luck" and "desire", that we could call "nerves". Anecdotally, I think it's hard to deny the existence of choking--I know that I learned playing darts that it is extremely difficult to have a smooth throwing motion when I'm nervous, and from close calls in traffic, I know that excessive adrenaline can make it hard to ride my bike skillfully and in a controlled way--and I think one thing your post hints at is that a bunch of voices saying "we need this game to make a ton of money and our destiny is completely in our own hands" might make some players perform somewhat worse...

Anonymous said...

I thought it was easier for the Rangers to clinch last year over the Hurricanes because they didn't control their own destiny. The Rangers were the ones who had to win and they did making the Hurricanes very nervous and anxious knowing it's a must win game. But in that situation you would obviously want to be Canes' controlling your own fate.