Thanks to their success over the past seven years, the Chicago Blackhawks have developed one of the most diverse and talented groups of writers tasked with covering them. In order to take advantage of that roster of talent, we sought out some of the best writers in the city to talk to them about where the team is headed, and what topics they prefer to focus on when they cover the club.
In this edition, we chat with Jen Lute Costella from the blog Second City Hockey. Jen is one of the best statistical minds in the Twitterverse (you can follow her at @RegressedPDO), and she makes advanced hockey metrics accessible for fans willing to develop a deeper understanding of the game.
Madhouse Enforcer: Baseball has been the sport where advanced metrics have taken off the most with guys like Billy Beane, but hockey is arguably the sport in which the usage of those stats is growing the fastest. In your work you use these metrics a lot, and I'm curious to know what kind of reception you get from hardcore hockey fans when you present the information.
Jen LC: The vast majority of the responses I get to the use of more progressive hockey stats is positive. I think most people realize how useful they can be in helping to evaluating players and teams. I can certainly understand if some people are not overly interested in them since some choose not to exercise their fandom in that manner. I do not care for the “stats don’t mean anything” arguments I see sometimes, because that is just completely inaccurate.
I occasionally get responses that boil down to “Just watch the games, nerd”, but my sense is that the people who actually say that don’t have any idea what goes into the stats themselves. I know lots of “nerds” who like stats and I’m fairly certain they all watch an obscene amount of hockey. The whole “eye test” vs “stats” debate is essentially a farce if you ask me. I think the people who harp on the eye test are those who think that analysts using stats are completely ignoring systems analysis and that is just not true. I’ve yet to meet a person who uses stats who actually believes them to be the “End All Be All” of hockey analysis.
My favorite “watch the games” comment came in response to some information I was discussing regarding zone entries during the playoffs last season. Apparently, that person didn’t realize when he said it that there’s no real time zone entry data I can just look up and write about. I had to manually track zone entries for every game to get all of that data. Since that usually requires me to watch the game twice (sometimes tracking in real time is a pain when it’s an emotional playoff game) and to pause, rewind, etc to get all of the data that needs to be collected, I think it’s pretty safe to say that I had to watch the games to accomplish that.
Madhouse Enforcer: In your posts (and your Twitter feed) you've been very high on the work that players like Brandon Saad do. Do you see him making a big jump forward next season, or should we expect more of the same from him?
Jen LC: I think we could see more growth from Saad this season. He had a rough patch for a while after returning from injury, but as the playoffs pushed on, his impact was readily apparent. He carried the puck into the zone and created offensive pressure routinely regardless of his linemates. Once he had Patrick Kane on the other wing during the Western Conference Final, he relieved some of the burden Kane usually has to bear by being another excellent option in the neutral zone.
Consistency of linemates may be a boost for him, as opposed to last season when he was moved around quite a bit. He played the most time with Andrew Shaw as his center and Kane on his wing, but that was not a consistently used line throughout. . It will be interesting to see where he starts the season, because if it is on a line with Kane and potentially Brad Richards as his center, it should be fun to watch.
Saad evolved in his approach to using his physicality last season as well. I don’t mean as a “big hitter” type of guy, but more in the way he uses his strength to get a leveraged position on another player trying to get the puck too. Marian Hossa is an unsung hero at using his body positioning and strength to get the puck. Hopefully, Saad will continue to work on that, because he’s got the same tools Hossa does in that regard (height, weight, strength) and it’s an underappreciated asset to have among a player’s skill set.
Madhouse Enforcer: Some of your more interesting posts have involved how Michal Handzus impacted Patrick Kane's possession numbers. What kind of impact do you think that having a center like Brad Richards on his line will have for Kane?
Jen LC: Brad Richards was one of the biggest steals of the summer. He’s certainly seen his share of criticism, most of which was as a result of the big dollar amount and the exorbitantly long term of his deal with the New York Rangers. He’s not a speed demon on the ice to be sure; however, from what I have seen and from discussion with people who focus their analysis on the Rangers, he’s still a bit of an upgrade on Handzus in terms of skating.
The real area of upgrade from Handzus to Richards is in offensive prowess. Richards’ goal production rate has been steady for the last few seasons. He posted a G/60 of 0.784 last season. Handzus posted a G/60 of 0.281. Richards assist rate was off last season after being very solid for several seasons prior to that; however, his S/60 (Shots per 60) was much higher last season. Richards shoots the puck quite a bit more than Handzus and has better playmaking vision so I think we can reasonably expect that Kane will have more than one or two goals at even strength with his primary center on the ice.
Richards will fit easily into Joel Quenneville’s current plan for player usage. He was used heavily in offensive zone starts last season. Luckily for him, Quenneville does the same thing with Patrick Kane. All signs point to Richards holding down the 2nd line center position at least to start the season. Given that he is on a one year contract and will be looking to impress the Blackhawks and other teams to try to earn a favorable contract, we should see a good representation of what he has left in the tank. With Richards’ offensive abilities, Kane should have a better shot at working with his linemates instead of trying to do everything on his own.
Madhouse Enforcer: It's been a long-term problem, but lately especially it seems as though male sports fans and writers have been getting into some serious hot water over their statements about females in the business. As a female writer, how often do you get those kinds of ignorant remarks about your work, and what do you feel is the best approach to take in dealing with those people?
Jen LC: I think it only seems to be happening more frequently is more related to the fact that it is finally becoming less acceptable to treat women like garbage when it comes to sports as opposed to a real change in the frequency of the occurrences. I usually get a few people a day who feel the need to make stupid comments. Some are just obvious trolling attempts, some are really nasty and some are passing comments. The vast majority of the time, I have a pretty good laugh at the expense of the people lobbing the sexist comments. Maybe they think they are shocking me, but they obviously have no idea what it was like to grow up as a girl who spent her time doing farm chores, riding horses and driving tractors and who liked science, sports and cars. I’ve heard it all before.
The only time it really bothers me is when someone I consider a friend sees me giving my opinion on these matters and says, “You shouldn’t let those guys get to you like that. You have to ignore it.” While I know they are trying to protect me, I think this is the wrong way to handle it. Ignoring behavior that degrades human beings is not acceptable. Behavior that is intended to make people feel worthless is ignored because many people want to avoid being labeled as “overly sensitive” or “too PC” or whatever other name people use to marginalize dissenting voices. Ignoring this type of behavior will never result in effectuating change; it’s just easier than dealing with it.
So, I for one, will not ignore it. I will continue to speak out about it, because every day there is a chance that a person may hear or read my words about how that behavior is unacceptable and give a second thought to their manner of speaking or thinking. I’m not willing to let that chance slip away.
Madhouse Enforcer: It's only August, so this is a tough question to answer, but are there any players that you feel could make a jump forward for the Hawks next season?
Jen LC: It’s probably too easy of an answer to say Teuvo Teravainen, but that certainly may be the case. He’s got amazing potential and I don’t think I’m the only one who is excited to see how he does. Even if he doesn’t start the season with the NHL team, I think it’s a safe bet that he will be promoted by mid-season.
Jeremy Morin is also a player to keep an eye on this season. He has a chance to really show some of that offensive skill if he can keep himself in the lineup, i.e. not make any huge defensive mistakes. We all know that Quenneville has reservations about players he deems to be lacking defensively, so if Morin can make some wiser choices in terms of keeping his coverage solid and keeping the puck, he may get the chance to impress us.
Not knowing what will happen prior to the season starting in terms of trades made to bring the team into salary cap compliance, this question gets much tougher. Some of the defensive prospects are interesting, particularly Stephen Johns, Klas Dahlbeck and Adam Clendening. All of this is dependent upon what kind of opportunity they will be given and/or earn, but it will be a nice look at the future of the Blackhawks blueline when they do.