In Praise of Staying the Course and the Vancouver and San Jose models

Cam Charron
March 19 2013 11:59AM


Joe Thornton and Roberto Luongo discuss how playoff success is over-rated.

If there's an NHL organization I can look at that has shared the same level of successes and failures over the past decade as the Vancouver Canucks, it's the San Jose Sharks (although the Sharks are a group that has somehow withstood more moments of wretched heartbreak and appear to be on a faster track out of contention.)

The randomness of a playoff series or a playoff tournament changes so many perceptions about how teams are built. This isn't just about how the Canucks failed to ride the percentages in a seven-game series with the eventual 2011 Stanley Cup Champions. This is about how, over years, singular seasons of a franchise become a bright beacon illuminating the success and process of a management group.

Read on past the jump.

By the time 2007 rolled around, the Detroit Red Wings had lost Brendan Shanahan, Steve Yzerman and Sergei Fedorov, the key members and core components of the Detroit Red Wings teams that had netted three Stanley Cups in six years. By that time, the keys to the franchise had been handed to Nicklas Lidstrom, Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg.

In the early years of that core, the Red Wings managed little success in the postseason despite dominance over the Central Division. In 2003, they were swept in four straight by the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim as a No. 1 seed. In 2004, they lost in six games to the Calgary Flames. In 2006, as Presidents' Trophy winners, they fell in six games to the Edmonton Oilers and in 2007 were feasted on by the juggernaut Anaheim Ducks of 2007.

Google doesn't turn up very many results from prominent columnists around the time of the 2007 playoffs, but I do recall the prominent narrative being that the Red Wings and their new core simply didn't have what it took to win. No team could be led to the Cup by Europeans. You needed Canadian toughness exhibited by Anaheim, the goaltending exhibited by Carolina or the determination of a veteran such as Dave Andreychuk exhibited by Tampa Bay. I remember this being the narrative because I distinctly believed it—when former Kamloops Blazer Scott Niedermayer lifted the Stanley Cup above his head on June 6, 2007, he became the 80th North American captain in 80 seasons to do so.

Something else happened in the sports world that season and it was only after the Ducks eliminated the Red Wings that I saw the connection. That previous February, Tony Dungy of the Indianapolis Colts defeated Lovie Smith of the Chicago Bears in the Superbowl. That was monumental because Dungy became the first African American coach to win a Superbowl title. To that point, though, it occurred to me that I'd never heard the narrative "a black coach can't win a Superbowl" to the same extent that "a European captain can never win a Stanley Cup". In fact, why did one of the statements sound so absurdly racist, but the second was a prominent talking point?

The 2008 Detroit Red Wings did win the Stanley Cup, and Lidstrom became the first ever European captain to win one, and they did it as one of the most dominant teams we've seen. We only have five seasons of reliable puck-possession data (well, six if you count the 2002 season, where statistical emeritus Vic Ferrari actually tracked zone time, and it was there he made the connection to the shot clock) and the Detroit Red Wings of 2008 are the best team at that.

Years later, the '08 Red Wings are the only team of the Lidstrom-Datsyuk-Zetterberg era to win a Stanley Cup, but the Detroit model is still praised.

Cool. So what does that have to do with the Sharks and the Canucks? The key is that the Sharks and Canucks are the poster children for teams that can't seem to take that next step, that they're missing some required element. The Sharks have made the playoffs eight consecutive seasons, losing three times in the Western Conference Finals, three times in the semis and twice in the quarters, including the season they won the Presidents' Trophy. Joe Thornton, the league MVP in 2006, and Patrick Marleau, the franchise leader in games played, goals and points, frequently get criticized for their accumulated disappearing acts in the post-season.

It's a familiar refrain to what we've heard in Vancouver through three years of playoff failures during the Marc Crawford era and through four years of the Mike Gillis era. I heard lots of things on the Team 1040 that I didn't necessarily agree with about Markus Naslund between 2002-2004 (the "we choked" speech ranks up there with "we'll take the ball and we're going to score" as one of the most annoying sports clips) and I heard lots of things on Team 1040 that I didn't necessarily agree with about the Sedin twins between 2002-2009.

What's the defining element that the Sharks and Canucks lack? They're just the teams that failed to luck out, who have had good squads and never won because only one out of 30 teams can win it each season. When Naslund was the Captain, you could blame it on the European captain. Since the hockey world is more enlightened than it was back in 2004, that's no longer the case.

From Elliotte Friedman's CBC piece about advanced statistics earlier this month:

One of the biggest issues with analytics is that its most hardcore followers tend to discount things like "heart" or "clutch performance" because they are not quantifiable. That's a bad idea in hockey, which is so highly dependent on one-on-one battles. Meanwhile, Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane, the hero of Moneyball, blamed his team's playoff failures on "luck." That's a cop-out.

I like Elliotte a lot, and he's been one of the key guys in the mainstream media who has directed casual fans to the work of Gabriel Desjardins & Co. through his 30 Thoughts weekly column at CBC. That said, I think that suggesting that losing teams lacked a special substance to put them over the finish line is also a cop-out. The facts in relation to the media narrative surrounding the A's are laid out hilariously in the penultimate chapter of Moneyball:

The moment the play-offs began, you could feel the world of baseball insiders rising up to swat down the possibility that the Oakland A's front office actually might be onto something. The man who spoke for all insiders was Joe Morgan, the Hall of Fame second baseman, who was in the broadcast booth for the entire five-game series between the A's and the Twins. At some point during each game Morgan explained to the audience the flaw in the A's thinking—not that he had any deep understanding of what that thinking entailed. But he was absolutely certain that their strategy made no sense. When the A's lost the first game, 7-5, it gave Morgan his opening to explain, the the first inning of the second game, why the Oakland A's were in trouble. "You have to manufacture runs in the postseason," he said, meaning bunt and steal and in general treat outs as something other than a scarce resource. Incredibly, he then went on to explain that "manufacturing runs" was how the New York Yankees had beaten the Anaheim Angels the night before.

I had seen that game. Down 5-4 in the eighth inning, Yankees second baseman Alfonso Soriano had gotten himself on base and stolen second. Derek Jeter then walked, and Jason Giambi singled in Soriano. Bernie Williams then hit a three-run homer. A reasonable person, examining that sequence of events, says, "Whew, thank God Soriano didn't get caught stealing; it was, in retrospect, a stupid risk that could have killed the whole rally." Joe Morgan looked at it and announced that Soriano stealing second, the only bit of "manufacturing" in the production line, was the cause. Amazingly, Morgan concluded that day's lesson about baseball strategy by saying, "You sit and wait for the three-run homer, you're still going to be sitting there."

Paul DePodesta, one of the protagonists of the book, sits down with Michael Lewis at the conclusion of the postseason and points out that the A's actually scored just as many runs during the playoffs as they did in the regular season: what changed was the pitching. Generally, the narrative never matches the facts.

Much of this comes off of memory, but the way I see it, there have been eight real good regular season teams in the last eight years: Pittsburgh, Chicago, Vancouver, San Jose, Philadelphia, Washington and Boston. In praise of the Sharks and the Canucks, neither team has done too much to affect their core despite having not won titles. Philadelphia and Washington both panicked and abandoned what they had built. Jeff Carter and Mike Richards, franchise cornerstones, were traded away. The Capitals, who drew rave reviews for their 2011 offseason and subsequent 7-0-0 start, hit a PDO skid, fired their coach, and have yet to recover. (A lot more went on with the Capitals. Check out this excellent piece from Japers Rink about the team's reaction to running into a red-hot Jaroslav Halak in the 2010 playoffs)

Abandoning the elements that made the team great in the past because the focus is on results is no way to guarantee future results. The Canucks haven't exactly had a choice in their struggles. Former positions of strength, the powerplay and goaltending, have been cold to start the season. Over the recent 2-6 slide, Canuck goaltenders have stopped just .896 of shots at even strength. Meanwhile the powerplay's inability to generate shots is a huge source of concern.

Despite the recent struggles of the two clubs (they're both on skids that have left them at 8th and 7th spots in the conference), San Jose and Vancouver wake up this morning with Fenwick Close percentages of 51.2% and 53.7%. The Canucks are ranked 6th in the league in one of the most predictive statistic the sport has to offer, a statistic more predictive than win-loss records or goal differentials when you're looking at a longer stretch of games. The process is mocked, but it's there. There's this lifeless heap of a team that for the last two games has controlled play, put up scoring chances, even as they've lost by a combined score of 8-3.

Contrary to popular belief this particular version of the Canucks is a good hockey team that has generated opportunities to score and controlled gamers better than their opponents have over the last while. That also sounds like a cop out, or forgiving the team for not adding another scorer, but it really isn't. This is the same way I grade every team, the same way I forgave Los Angeles for making bold offseason moves last summer that didn't pan out until they added Jeff Carter, the same way I forgave Montreal in the first half of last season, and the same way I didn't jump on the bandwagons of the Minnesota Wild or Toronto Maple Leafs when they were in playoff positions.

Over the long run, sticking with "the Vancouver model" of waiting will lead to better results than the Philadelphia and Montreal models of changing everything when the going gets tough, and leaving your NHL core absolutely barren for the next team. (Incidentally, new Habs GM Marc Bergevin has done a fantastic job cleaning up Pierre Gauthier's mess. He was able to trade away Erik Cole, meaning he can use his second amnesty buy-out on Tomas Kaberle. If you click that link above, you'll find last year's Habs are quite similar to this season's Canucks: a good even strength team that couldn't score a powerplay goal. When they fired Jacques Martin, they went right into the toilet)

The Canucks and the Sharks - two teams that get mocked for having success in the regular season - are seemingly in danger of missing the playoffs at the moment. This is a regular season for the Canucks where nothing seems to have gone right. They've been hit with three injuries, the weakest goaltending the team has seen since the Alex Auld era, all despite out-shooting and out-chancing the opposition in close-score situations. For the Sharks, their problems date back to last season, when despite being the 7th best possession team in the NHL, nothing was going in. They scraped their way into the playoffs, died on the rock, started out hot this season and went cold. They'll still be judged for playoff success and I wouldn't count them out either. Behind Chicago and Los Angeles, the Canucks and the Sharks are both in a second tier of four teams along with the Red Wings and Blues who, based on puck-possession numbers, are in good positions for playoff upsets.

The way to end this, could be hilariously to link to the piece where George McPhee suggests that Dale Hunter, who replaced Boudreau and took them no further in the playoffs, "taught this club the 'how' to win … the 'how' is being a team and sacrificing and he sure got that out of this club".

In retrospect, the quote looks silly. You can't teach winning, and you can't make decisions for emotional reasons and expect them to pay off more than they don't. If the Canucks fired their coach and got rid of three of their big contracts on defence in Alex Edler, Jason Garrison and Kevin Bieksa who have faced their share of heat this season and that doesn't work out, then you're in a worse off position than when you started.

Again, the narrative rarely ever matches reality. Lessons learned from the 2008 Red Wings, who stuck with an "aging" "soft" "european" core that had a lot of regular season success, and never won a thing.

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Cam Charron is a BC hockey fan that writes about hockey on many different websites including this one.
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#1 Jeff Angus
March 19 2013, 12:08PM
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Good stuff, Cam.

That is my major gripe with those who say "no one has ever won with Moneyball." A lot more goes into winning a trophy than having the best team - luck and injuries, to name two.

And Moneyball is just a buzz word for efficient asset management under a restrictive environment (in the NHL, that is the cap, with Oakland, that was a low team budget).

Knock on the playoff door enough and eventually something good will happen.

Washington's last five years could be written into a case study in mismanagement and why change for the sake of it isn't a good thing.

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#2 Dave
March 19 2013, 12:30PM
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Agree with Cam and Jeff's comment. I think Gillis was recently quoted as saying something to the effect that you want to have a team that will be in the mix often and eventually you're likely to succeed.

It's hard to stay true to that mentality when you hit cold streaks, but it's the right thing to do, especially when the alternative is to make reactionary decisions that don't help the team.

What's hard for me to figure out, especially in a sport as complex as hockey, with Moneypuck in its infancy still, is when are the times that intuition matters. It's hard to ever be sure. We know after having the "greatest leader" of all time, Mark Messier spend two years in Vancouver that it's easy to be misled. And that's even more true when the outcomes are better.

But there clearly are times when the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. You don't have to look much farther than the Sedins for a compelling example. It's not a proven fact, but it's hard to deny that they wouldn't have the success they had without one another, both for on ice chemistry, but also off the ice.

I'm all over the argument that data trumps a lot of foolish narratives, but it's also worth trying to preserve some baby with the bathwater, it's just so hard to tell them apart sometimes.

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#3 wesley
March 19 2013, 12:33PM
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far too sensible to get printed in the mainstream media. what do you think you're trying to do? calm everybody down? have us understand the metrics of sport so that we never get worked up and click pages all over the web to express our catharsis? if so, thanks. i have lots of other things to get done now.

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#4 Mantastic
March 19 2013, 12:55PM
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how can you really compare the red wings to vancouver or san jose? their team composition is completely different. a hall of fame defenseman that could easily be called the top 5 defenseman of all time, really does make all the difference.

the 2008 red wings were a very complete team, able to control all 200ft of ice with their 4 lines. vancouver's team is predicated on having very specialized lines put in optimum situations to capitalize, hence the favourable advanced stats numbers over the years in regular season (a large sample size) but once you bring stats into playoffs, (significally smaller sample sizes) you bring much more variability (chaos) in all of prediction stats/models.

anothering thing about staying the course has to do with the age of the core group. both SJ and Van key players arguably, are past their prime, still above average players but they aren't going to get any better. i would only believe in staying the course when you have a younger team (Blues, Penguins) but when you start regressing, you will need to supplement/augment your team.

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#6 Cale
March 19 2013, 01:14PM
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I guess my question is, how long do you stay the course? How long do you stick with the same cast, underperforming game after game, before you decide it's not a slump but rather something deeper?

Now, I'm hardly the president of the Fire AV Fan Club, but when a team continues to underperform for as long as these guys have the bench boss becomes an obvious place to look for a fix.

There's something to be said for a steady hand on the tiller, but not when the ship's headed for the rocks.

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#7 Dustin
March 19 2013, 01:24PM
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Excellent, well thought-out article. I can only hope that you are right on all accounts, and that the Canucks use the playoffs to even out their numbers.

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#8 Curtis
March 19 2013, 01:39PM
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Cam,

I'm curious if we could see Gillis go further down the path he's already on. You correctly identify the Capitals and Flyers as making rash, poor decisions to try to correct what looks like a %s driven slide. But the error they made was what the changes were, in Washington's case firing a good coach to hire one with a reputation as a gritty, tough guy, or in the Flyers' case moving two of their best forwards because of their off-the-ice behaviour and perceived inability to "get it done in crunch time."

If Gillis targets an even more analytics friendly coach, he can try to change the narrative on his team without sacrificing the sound decision making and deployment strategies that Vigneault employs. Not saying it's easy, but just that the flaws in the behaviour of PHI/WAS wasn't that they simply made changes it was that they made the wrong changes.

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#9 Knockdown
March 19 2013, 01:42PM
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Great article.

I think you should take your time to write about the shortened seasons scheduling and the effect of a lack of games vs the east on the Canucks. As well as the implications of 30vs east games next season. If I remember correctly vancouver mows down on the east like the NW division.

Good work as always.

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#12 Unknown Comic
March 19 2013, 02:53PM
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Good work Cam. Too bad you have to spend so much more time explaining the idea to some who can't grasp it or want to distort it to fit their agenda.

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#13 Mantastic
March 19 2013, 04:18PM
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@Cam Charron

"I think building a hockey team requires patience. Teams in recent years that have tried for quick fixes have more long-term problems. Philadelphia and Washington are both tremendous examples for why you can't weight a bad patch of games against your whole body of work."

i do agree with this comment but LA is an example against it.

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#15 Good stuff
March 19 2013, 05:28PM
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Great article as usual.

Perhaps the bandwagon fans should try to comprehend this article before a "Fire Av" chant breaks out at R.A.

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#16 dan
March 19 2013, 06:35PM
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Your spinning narratives like all others.

fact: * fenwick Tied is more predictive than Fenwick close & they are 10th 1% out of fifteen

(Jlikens http://objectivenhl.blogspot.ca/2011/03/loose-ends-part-i-predictive-validity.html)

And at 60 games there IS no sig. difference btw GD & Poss. Stats!

You say: They're just the teams that failed to luck out, who have had good squads and never won because only one out of 30 teams can win it each season

You have a hidden assumption that playoff hockey is no different than reg. hockey?

It is reasonable to suggest that line matching & strategy plays some role in hockey outcomes..

We can prove for example that in a extreme example Sedins vs 4th line players would be very advantageous for Nux.

AND!! the fact that you play up to 7 games vs same opponent implies that this small edge can be magnified! Therefore coaching in playoffs and strategies & special teams can be more important. (think of playing multiple hands in blackjack with same deck)

Also the Bettman Loser pt also changes the way the game is played due to the change in reward...(the sports analytic institue) has a great paper on this) Of course, luck still has a role but not as much as reg. season.

Also if you analyze coaching changes there an average ~10% improvement - some is PDO But there is an argument that coaching strategy can increase PDO..in short term until other coaches can figure out a defense against new ideas..This is one of the reasons why coaching changes have been so effective with talented teams...

finally The Red Wings Have truly been unlucky playoff fenwick tied ~63,56,50,55,59

Truly elite..they could have easily won 1 or two more cups!

The Nux

51 57 55 45 missed playoffs @ vs ANA (no stats available) but hard to imagine over 50%?

so lots of work ..but a clear narrative behind it?!

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#17 Josh
March 19 2013, 09:47PM
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Panic averted...

for now.

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#18 nanodummy
March 19 2013, 11:44PM
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@Mantastic

Uh, am I wrong, or didn't LA build a core out of Doughty, Kopitar and Brown and Quick and then augment it with shrewd trades made with a cupboard full of prospects after a very slow rebuild?

I mean Mike Richards is certainly a core-type of player, but I think the philly fire sale was luck more than sound team building strategy (you can't count on a top centre just falling in your lap for a handful of prospects).

I'd say that the Kings have followed the same model as the Hawks and the Pens: get good draft picks, luck out to have them become elite and manage their salaries properly (cough, edmonton, cough). The Blues look to be climbing that path as well, although whether they'll be a Pitsburgh or a Vancouver has yet to be seen.

I think Boston may be the only top level team that has successfully blown itself up and come back stronger in the post lockout era.

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#19 Mantastic
March 20 2013, 10:20AM
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@nanodummy

yes, you're wrong. Advance stats difference between to the 2 teams defies the stay the course mantra, as Cam agreed to as well. Mike Richards, Jeff Carter in. Wayne Simmonds, Jack Johnson out. those are huge personnel changes, top pairing D-man, elite 2nd line players.

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#20 nanodummy
March 20 2013, 04:00PM
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@ Mantastic

The situation with Richards and Carter is anomalous. How many other teams have dumped that kind of talent in one season? How many examples can you point to in the last 7 years of a team trading 2 blue chip players in their prime? Tampa Bay's Lecalvalier salary dump basically, which caused the team to bottom out.

Thornton, Kessel, Pronger, Richards and Boyle are the only blue chip trades that leap to mind there, and two of those trades were San Jose's.

Either the Kings are emulating the Sharks model by building a contender through drafting a core (Marleau, Murray, Couture, Pavelski) and then acquiring elite talent (i.e. adding Thornton and Boyle, Burns, Neimi, Heatley) or I'm missing something here.

Boston is the only team that I can think of that shed 2 top centres, a top winger, an elite goaltender and several top 4 defenders and still came back with a contender year after year without any splash acquisitions .

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#21 nanodummy
March 20 2013, 04:01PM
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@ Mantastic

The situation with Richards and Carter is anomalous. How many other teams have dumped that kind of talent in one season? How many examples can you point to in the last 7 years of a team trading 2 blue chip players in their prime? Tampa Bay's Lecalvalier salary dump basically, which caused the team to bottom out.

Thornton, Kessel, Pronger, Richards and Boyle are the only blue chip trades that leap to mind there, and two of those trades were San Jose's.

Either the Kings are emulating the Sharks model by building a contender through drafting a core (Marleau, Murray, Couture, Pavelski) and then acquiring elite talent (i.e. adding Thornton and Boyle, Burns, Neimi, Heatley) or I'm missing something here.

Boston is the only team that I can think of that shed 2 top centres, a top winger, an elite goaltender and several top 4 defenders and still came back with a contender year after year. They haven't stayed the course, but their management has made the right moves.

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#22 nanodummy
March 20 2013, 04:04PM
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Well, I somehow posted my thoughts while editing, please disregard that first post, apologies.

Also, post script: Jack Johnson is not a top pairing defender anywhere but a bottom feeder.

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