Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Regressing to the Mean, But the Mean is Not Static

There is a concept often used in advanced hockey analytics called 'regressing to the mean'.  All hockey players experience performance variability throughout the season.  Sometimes you are on fire, sometimes you are in a slump.  That area in between is the average, otherwise known as 'the mean'.  Regressing to the mean is used in reference to long term performance that is dramatically different than the mean, and it is a tool to try to detect whether a team is on an unbelievable run, and will come back to earth.  There are those that will say that the Colorado Avalanche is regressing to the mean this year, after playing well above their average performance for much of last year.

A failure to understand this concept has treated the Blue Jackets poorly, by deceiving Scott Howson as to what was going on around him.  It was the 2009-10 season, the year after the first run to the playoffs.  Two teams, Colorado and Minnesota started 2009-10 really hot.  The 2009-10 Colorado team is used as an example in the hockey analytics site, Behind the Net.  With a young Chicago team flashing by everyone on the way to its first modern Stanley Cup, and Colorado and Minnesota apparently experiencing great success, Howson determined to make the CBJ younger and faster, like these other teams.  As the CBJ experienced a fatal December swoon, and shortly thereafter both Minnesota and Colorado crashed back to earth (regressed to the mean), Howson determined to part ways with his stodgy old coach Ken Hitchcock, in part because, 'he can't coach the young players'.  Had Howson forced Voracek and Brassard back down into the AHL, restocked with veterans that Hitch loved, they might have returned to the playoffs in 2009-10.  Instead he pushed Jake and Brass along a little bit too soon, and it has taken them many years in the pros, and a trade to another team to start to find their level.  Arniel was disastrously brought in to coach up the young guys, and before the dust had settled there were fan protests outside of Nationwide Arena.

So what does that mean for today?  It has a lot to do with how I feel about our playoff chances.  This isn't the first time I've thought 'stick a fork in 'em, they're done' about the current group of hockey players.  And they have relentlessly proved me wrong.  Not that proving me wrong is a real high bar, but....  Anyway, it has to do with our concept of what 'average performance' is for this group.  For whatever reason, the entire roster has been remade, with Tyutin and Boll as the only remainder of the group that 'quit on Hitch' in 2009-10.  What then is this current group's average?  Well for one thing, it involves being in last place.  But on the other hand ....

In 2012-13 truncated season, with a dramatically retooled roster, this team started poorly, but came roaring back into the playoff hunt.  Faced with a brutal road trip to end the season, the won all but one of those games, narrowly losing to the Kings.  Returning home to face the Predators in the season finale, they won, only to miss the playoffs by one point.  A stirring season for this new group.

In 2013-14, again the group started poorly, in a compressed Olympic season.  With little time to practice, as in the truncated season, a poor start coupled with an inability to handle dynamic speed from the elite teams, held the group back until the flip of the calendar.  Then once again, they came roaring back to force their way into the playoffs, and succumbed after recording the franchise's first playoff wins, and forging a new crowd dynamic in Nationwide Arena.

Here we are in 2014-15.  A horrifying string of injuries contributed to a poor start, but once again they are playing good hockey and have climbed back into the playoff race, currently 6 points behind Toronto, with a 4 point game against the aforementioned foe on Friday night.  They are back in it.

You do it once, WOO HOO!  YOU'RE AWESOME!  Great year fellas!  You do it twice, but a little bit better, and its starting to look familiar.  You do it three times, and it is the average.  And if this is the average, one thing I like is that they keep moving the average upward.  Craziness the first year.  Can't really handle the elite teams the second year.  This year they are at least experiencing some success against the elite teams, in spite of the injury situation.  As this group gets more experience with one another, they are improving their mean, and there is real reason to think that it is sustainable over the long haul.  Most of those reasons are in the AHL or Junior hockey right now, and will come along when they are ready.  But the core of players has shown an ability to absorb adversity, and rise above it, which is a necessary quality for anyone with any designs on winning a Cup.

I am fascinated by the run of players that have hit 500 games in their career this year.  Johnson, Dubinsky, Foligno, Wisniewski all have played their 500th game this year, and Tyutin played his 700th game last night.  These guys are established pros now, but are all still in their late 20's.  They are poised to play some of the best hockey of their careers over the next 200 to 250 games.  This is the core of the team.

To put some context to this thought, I want to compare it with a Detroit Red Wings team that came to town sometime in the first two or three years we had the franchise.  This was before the first lockout of the new century.  That Red Wings team brought no less than 6 players who had played over 1000 games, and here we were, a fledgling franchise with a few hundred games to our history.  That group had played together for years, and moved as a fluid unit.  Federov was still playing for the Redwings in those days.  Needless to say, it was a fairly effortless victory for the Red Wings.

Now think about Wiz, Jack, Dubi and Nick, in the future, all approaching that 700th game after playing together all that time.  They have showed that the familiarity can result in movement of the average.  Just think how they can move it in the future.  This could be really good.  Then you start hanging the talent in the pipeline around that core, they have a chance to be a very good team.

Our team is not an elite team.  Just look at last night's game to get a feel for that.  They are a middle of the road team, playing other teams that want to win too.  But they seem to have that extra something, (cough, Bobrovsky, cough) that allows them to pull out these wins.  And that was a really good one last night.

To find the playoffs this year, this team has to essentially repeat the success it had in December in January.  All that does is poise them to need the same kind of success in March and April.  If the injury situation improves, they may be able to do something.  It will be very interesting to see how the do, but I think they are going to continue to move the average up.

The mean is not static.  And as the core of this team continues to play together, weather adversity, and continue to win, regressing to the average will mean winning hockey.  And winning hockey, leads to other, desirable things.

It promises to be a really fun second half of the season, and we will know at the end where the mean is going to be.


1 comment:

  1. The start of all three seasons also had another component that is common. In all three seasons, there was a learning curve. In the strike season, a brief training camp with a new system. Last season a bevy of new players to fit in. This season, because of injury, again a group of new players to get introduced to the system. It seems as though the time for adjustment has been 15-25 games each year. This newest group is starting to play cohesively and as veterans come back, they simply add to the dynamic of the team. My rose-colored glasses( or union blue, as the case may be ) tell me that this season is far from over. Other teams have yet to have the injury bug or other roster related problems. That may be the great equalizer down the stretch. The Jackets will also start to see more of the oppositions starting goalie as things get more interesting. Any way you slice it, it should make for an enjoyable ride. C ! B ! J ! C ! B ! J !


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