The Carlyle-Analytics Conundrum

By HOWARD BERGER

TORONTO (Aug. 25) – Were he to be perfectly honest, new Maple Leafs assistant GM Kyle Dubas would probably say that Randy Carlyle is among the last coaches he would employ in the National Hockey League. Perhaps he’s already made that known to Brendan Shanahan. Or, perhaps there is no need to.

An interesting article on hockey analytics in the Saturday Toronto Star re-emphasized how NHL teams coached by Carlyle maintain control of the puck like a blind juggler. “Possession isn’t everything, but it’s pretty darn important… Randy Carlyle’s system and puck possession go together like nuts and gum,” said the story. “As soon as Carlyle showed up [in Toronto], the Leafs went from bad to worse and then from worse to almost impossibly awful.” Given that Dubas came aboard (well after Carlyle’s extension) for his analytics ingenuity, it’s difficult to fathom the youthful executive endorsing the incumbent coach’s return on a two-year contract. Equally as confusing was Shanahan’s decision to retain Carlyle and then build a deep, multi-faceted department of analytics. There appears to be a strategic disconnect with the Blue and White.

Of course, hockey analytics is marginally understood at this early period of implementation. The casual fan may know nothing about it. More serious followers of the game are beginning to grasp the movement while Internet and media fanatics obsess over it day and night. It is therefore still a matter of opinion and interpretation whether, for example, the Leafs’ dreadful puck control is the result of bad coaching; an improper mix of players, or both. Puck possession is the umbrella term for branch elements such as zone entry and quality of shots. The analytics data-base is growing every day and those that ascribe to it claim that current statistical measures will soon be obsolete.

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CAN THERE BE A MEETING-OF-THE-MINDS BETWEEN “OLD-SCHOOL” COACH RANDY CARLYLE AND ANALYTICS-SAVVY KYLE DUBAS (ABOVE) WHO WAS HIRED BY BRENDAN SHANAHAN AS THE MAPLE LEAFS ASSISTANT GENERAL MANAGER?

It may then be pertinent to wonder if Carlyle is obsolete or if analytics can truly infiltrate a game of talent, instinct and drive. Can old dogs be taught new tricks based on computer data or will common patterns persist? These, of course, were questions pondered nearly 40 years ago when the late Roger Neilson introduced video analysis to the game amid a torrent of skepticism. Upon being named coach of the Leafs for the 1977-78 season, “Captain Video” (as Neilson was derisively referred to) hired a college student to tape home games at Maple Leaf Gardens. The student would park himself in the last row of seats (top of the Greys) at center-ice and video the play from a fixed position. Neilson would spend hours poring over the footage to determine the tendency of opposition skaters and the areas of concern for his own team. The idiosyncrasy caught on and soon become a coaching staple in the NHL.

Prior to that – as the 1960’s became the 70’s – the concept of NHL players from anywhere but Canada was foreign. Center Tom Williams of the Boston Bruins (a native of Duluth, Minn.) was the only non-Canadian in the league. There were no European-born players. That began to change in 1972 when the Detroit Red Wings signed 25-year-old defenseman Thommie Bergman from Vastra-Frolunda of the Swedish Elite League. Bergman played 75 games with Detroit in 1972-73, recording 21 points. The following season brought Inge Hammarstrom and Borje Salming from Sweden to the Maple Leafs. Salming quickly developed into a star and future Hall-of-Famer on the Toronto blue-line.

In 1974-75, the World Hockey Assocation took European involvement to a new level. The Winnipeg Jets signed forwards Ulf Nilsson, Anders Hedberg and defenseman Lars-Eric Sjoberg from Sweden. Thommie Bergman defected to the club from Detroit of the NHL. Center Veli-Pekka Ketola and defenseman Heikki Riihiranta were Finnish-born players to sign with the Jets (Juha Widing had preceded them in 1969-70 with New York Rangers and later the Los Angeles Kings). Goalie Curt Larsson was the first native of Sweden to play the position in North America (sharing chores with Joe Daley and Ernie Wakely). Hedberg and Nilsson were placed on an explosive forward line with superstar Bobby Hull. The unit combined for 156 goals and 362 points in the ’74-75 WHA season.

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WINNIPEG JETS OF THE OLD NHL RIVAL – THE WORLD HOCKEY ASSOCIATION – EMBRACED THE EUROPEAN ELEMENT IN 1974-75 AND WERE RICHLY REWARDED, AS EVIDENCED BY THE SCORING STATS BELOW. HEDBERG, NILSSON, SJOBERG, BERGMAN, KETOLA AND RIIHIRANTA COMBINED FOR 372 SCORING POINTS.

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European-born players, as we know, currently populate the North American game at all levels. The 1989 fall of Communism opened the door to Russian and Czech-born players to skate in the NHL; prior to that, individuals from eastern-bloc countries had to surreptitiously defect to the west – the Stastny brothers (Peter, Anton and Marian) doing so most famously with the Quebec Nordiques in 1980.

In 2013-14, a total of 242 American-born players were in the NHL.

So, unforeseen change has overwhelmingly been a part of hockey in the past 43 years. The analytics movement is merely the latest-such development. It will be intriguing to note how the past and present collide with the Toronto Maple Leafs this season. Will it lead to an explosive crash or an amicable merging of philosophy?

I suspect we’ll have an answer before Christmas.

JUST DISQUALIFY THE EAST: Mark Cohon announced on Tuesday that he’ll leave his post as commissioner of the Canadian Football League when his contract expires next April. By all accounts, Cohon has done exceptionally well during his eight-year term, though I can’t help but wonder if he’s decided to jump ship out of embarrassment. An argument can be made that the current CFL season is the worst in modern history. At no point since interlocking play began in 1961 has there been nearly such an imbalance between the East and West divisions. It is astonishing, for example, to consider that the mediocre Toronto Argonauts lead the East by two games with a 3-6-0 record or that three teams in the West have as many wins and points as the entire East Division. Just look at the CFL standings after Saturday’s games and ask yourself if you’ve ever seen anything quite so ridiculously one-sided:

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This dreadful lack of competition between east and west is not entirely accidental and the league, of course, is victim rather than accomplice. The Argonauts oddly chose to dismantle their defense – the team’s strength for many years – and then sustained injury to three indispensable components on offence: receiver/kick returner Chad Owens (the club’s most popular player), slotback Andre Durie and receiver Jason Barnes. The Hamilton Tiger-Cats do not have a home and have lost their first and second-string quarterbacks (Zach Collaros, Dan LeFevour). With constructions delays plaguing their new stadium (Tim Horton’s Field), the Tiger-Cats have called McMaster University home this season after playing at the University of Guelph last year. Eight days before the most high-profile game of the Eastern schedule – the annual Labor Day clash between Hamilton and Toronto – there has been no official announcement of where the match will be held. So, the Tiger-Cats and their fans are in disarray. Ottawa is an expansion team with a 39-year-old future Hall-of-Famer (Henry Burris) at quarterback and not much else. The Red-Blacks were pummeled 32-7 by Calgary on Sunday, furthering the West Division dominance. And Montreal is averaging less than 16 points per game in its first season without Anthony Calvillo, the CFL’s all-time leading passer. So, the East Division is desperately ill this year and one can only hope for a Grey Cup game (Nov. 30) in Vancouver between West rivals. Sadly, two East teams must make the playoffs, but four of the five West clubs will be involved in the league’s cross-over format… If the CFL is prudent, it will urge the Tiger-Cats to play the Labor Day match at Rogers Centre here in Toronto. Yes, it’s a Hamilton home game but both clubs are so awful, there isn’t likely to be a field advantage. And, Rogers Centre allows the potential of a far-bigger turnout than tiny McMaster Stadium… For the record, the Tiger-Cats website still has the match taking place at Tim Horton’s Field. But, a box appears saying “KEEP CHECKING BACK FOR TICKETS! No tickets available right now. Sometimes tickets from the venue may become available closer to the event.” This is not good for the Hamilton franchise or the league. I hope it gets straightened away soon… Yes, I am down on the CFL this year, though I’ve always been a big fan. Another sore spot for me is the nonsensical rule that allows a coach’s challenge and video-review of pass interference. The league has simply turned a live judgement call into a taped judgement call. It is absurd.

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CONSTRUCTION CREWS ARE WORKING TO FINISH TIM HORTON’S FIELD (ABOVE AND BELOW), BUT THERE IS NO WORD ON WHEN THE STADIUM WILL FINALLY OPEN.

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BLUE JAYS IN A FOG: It is now at the point where even the most die-hard supporter of the Toronto Blue Jays must concede that the club’s playoff drought will reach 20 seasons (21 years – there were no playoffs in 1994). With a 6-14 record in August, the Jays are eight games behind first-place Baltimore in the American League East and – much more importantly – 5½ games off the pace in the hunt for the second A.L. wild-card. Four teams (Seattle, Detroit, New York Yankees and Cleveland) now stand between the Jays and that coveted berth. In summation, it is over – and has been for awhile. On Friday night, I attended the Toronto-Tampa Bay game at Rogers Centre. An apropos metaphor of the Jays season occurred during a 20-minute span early in the match when a thick blanket of fog rolled into the downtown area off Lake Ontario.

I had my trusty NIKON with me:

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FORMER BLUE JAYS INFIELDER YUNEL ESCOBAR RENEWED ACQUAINTANCE WITH EDWIN ENCARNACION AT FIRST BASE EARLY IN THE GAME.

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THE EVENING BEGAN AMID A BRILLIANTLY CLEAR SKY…

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BEFORE THE FOG ROLLED IN… 

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THE TOWER ATOP THE TORONTO DOMINION BANK BUILDING – ACROSS FROM THE AIR CANADA CENTRE – FADED IN AND OUT OF THE CLOUD PATCH…

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AS DID THE EVER-RISING CONDOMINIUMS…

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BUT, THE FOG DID NOT WAFT INTO THE STADIUM.

LET’S BLAME GIBBY: It is no surprise that myopic fans of the Blue Jays continue to yearn for a managerial change. The fact John Gibbons hasn’t nearly enough pitching to stay in the playoff hunt doesn’t matter; a new skipper will fix all that is wrong (sigh). I suppose it was Gibbons’ fault when right-fielder Nolan Reimold completely botched an easy out in the top of the 10th inning on Sunday – leading to the decisive run in a 2-1 Tampa Bay victory at Rogers Centre:

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A MICROCOSM OF THE BLUE JAYS SEASON: NOLAN REIMOLD DROPS AN EASY FLY-BALL IN THE TOP OF THE 10th INNING (ABOVE), THEN STRIKES OUT SWINGING TO END SUNDAY’S GAME (BELOW). NO MATTER… IT WAS GIBBY’S FAULT. SPORTSNET IMAGES

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BASEBALL VIDEO NEEDS AMENDMENT: Video-review of calls on the base-path has worked well this season, but the process must be altered. Fans at the park and live TV viewers have grown weary of a manager loping from the dugout with a crooked smile and then turning toward his bench coach while standing next to the umpire. A thumbs-up or thumbs-down for video challenge emanates from the dugout based on the advice of a person watching TV in the clubhouse. This process reflects poorly on baseball and has unnecessarily lengthened games. A rule amendment should scrap the clubhouse component. If a manager – by sight or the reaction of a player – is confident a call has been missed, he challenges. If video proves him wrong, he cannot challenge the rest of the game. The latter component exists, but with the silly wait for confirmation from the clubhouse. That part should be eliminated.

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VIDEO REVIEW HAS DONE WELL TO OVERTURN SUCH BLOWN CALLS AS THIS DURING THE TORONTO–TAMPA BAY GAME ON SUNDAY. THE RAYS BATTER WAS RULED OUT BY FIRST-BASE UMPIRE JAMES HOYE. THE CALL WAS QUICKLY AND EASILY REVERSED BY THE MAJOR LEAGUE COMMAND CENTER IN NEW YORK. SPORTSNET IMAGE

KUDOS TO BUCK: Blue Jays TV broadcaster and former catcher Buck Martinez has repeatedly spoken out against Rule 7.13 – an addition this year to the Major League parameters. It precludes a catcher from blocking a base-runner’s path to home plate. Prior to this season, catchers were fair game. Runners could bowl them over at any speed, looking to jar loose the ball. If it worked, the run scored. Martinez abhors the rule, which is noteworthy given that his playing career was effectively ended by a collision at home in a 1985 game at the old Kingdome in Seattle. On July 9th of that year, in the bottom of the third inning, Mariners left-fielder Phil Bradley put his left elbow and shoulder into Martinez, who sustained a dislocated ankle. Buck’s friend and ex-teammate Gorman Thomas conceded an out at the plate by gingerly stepping around the catcher, who somehow applied the tag.

From my ’85 Blue Jays scrapbook:

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PHIL BRADLEY OF THE SEATTLE MARINERS SLAMS INTO BUCK MARTINEZ AT THE KINGDOME (TOP-LEFT), BREAKING THE CATCHER’S ANKLE. GORMAN THOMAS THEN TIP-TOES AROUND THE DAZED BLUE JAY (TOP-RIGHT), WHO APPLIES THE TAG FOR AN OUT. KEN FIDLIN COVERED THE GAME FOR THE TORONTO SUN (BOTTOM-RIGHT).

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SOMEONE PLEASE EXPLAIN: Why is it that baseball people always talk about a team splitting or winning a series in the regular season? Baltimore takes two of three over a weekend from the Yankees and the Orioles are deemed to have “won the series.” Earlier this season, the Blue Jays were pilloried for “losing four series in a row.” The puzzling thing is you get absolutely nothing for winning a series or a string of series until the playoffs. Doing so in the course of the 162-game regular schedule is completely irrelevant. In the past week, the Blue Jays didn’t “lose series” to Chicago White Sox and Tampa Bay while “splitting a series” in Milwaukee. They lost six of nine games. Period.

NO WAY JOSE: I wouldn’t put a plug-nickel on Jose Bautista coming back to the Blue Jays next season. The right-fielder has appeared sullen and angry for the past few weeks; his production isn’t nearly what the Jays need in order to remain in the playoff hunt. Bautista is either fed up with losing or still pouting over GM Alex Anthopoulos standing pat at the non-waiver trade deadline, July 31. Perhaps both. He goes into the final year of his $64-million contract next season; the Blue Jays hold a $14 million option for 2016 (or a $1 million buy-out). I suspect Jose will ask to be traded well before then – probably this winter – hoping to join a club with legitimate World Series aspiration. You may not agree but I think Bautista longs for a change of scenery.

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THIS LOOK SAYS IT ALL: JOSE BAUTISTA IS NO LONGER HAPPY IN A TORONTO BLUE JAYS UNIFORM. MY BET IS HE’LL PLAY ELSEWHERE NEXT SEASON. TORONTO STAR PHOTO

IN THE CANYON: While driving to the Toronto–Tampa Bay game Friday evening, I came to a couple of stop-lights on Bay St. – in the midst of our city’s financial district. Quickly pointing my NIKON up through the sun-roof of my SUV, this is what I saw:

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CIRRUS SUNDAY

With high pressure and light winds, Sunday was an exceptional afternoon and evening for cirrus-cloud pattern in the sky above Toronto.

Some images from my mid-town balcony:

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GOOD MONDAY MORNING

More spectacular stuff between 6:15 and 6:35 a.m. EDT today:

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AND FINALLY…

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HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO THE FINEST MAN I’VE EVER KNOWN – MY CONSCIENCE; MY ADVISER; MY HERO… MY DAD. IRV IS 81 TODAY. I WISH HIM ONLY HEALTH.

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