What to expect from Phil Kessel’s practice habits down the stretch

john scott phil kessel

The point an old elementary school science teacher of mine would hammer home when discussing the scientific method was that it must be replicated: an experiment is basically useless if it can only be performed once and not over and over and over again.

The way he’d explain this is that the steps of the experiment would need to be carefully written down so that somebody who didn’t know you at all would you able to replicate and see if he or she would find the same results. The personification of this hypothetical humanoid replicating the experiment was often an alien descending from outer space.

Let’s take that same alien, who, in between trying to replicate all the crappy fifth grade science experiments found in his inbox (and that’s his day job) decided to tune into Toronto Maple Leafs games. The catch is that the alien pays attention to the Leafs, strictly on game days, from puck drop to the end of the game.

Remember, the alien doesn’t understand English. He doesn’t understand the commentary or the intermission segments, but briefly picks up on some of the players names. “Kessel”, “Kadri”, “Bernier”, and all others.

To me, this alien is getting the best picture imaginable of the Toronto Maple Leafs. All that matters to him is the game. Trade rumours and injury updates, as well as hard-hitting journalistic pieces from team practices, he can safely avoid that and it won’t interrupt his enjoyment of the game or his knowledge of the game. The alien has strayed clear of battles in the blogosphere over the application of advanced statistics directed towards the Leafs, and gets to be disappointed about David Clarkson for reasons other than his contract.

Safe to say, all he does is enjoy the sport. The alien has allowed the game to be a distraction for him and he doesn’t need to worry himself with the day-to-day affairs of the club.

The reason I bring this up is for the initial thoughts of one Leafs observer, Curtis Rush of the Toronto Star, leading off his story about the Maple Leafs practice Wednesday afternoon:

Phil Kessel skated for the first time since the Olympics on Wednesday morning at the Maple Leafs practice, and well, he looked sluggish.
He mishandled the puck early on a two-on-one with linemate Tyler Bozak, hung his head and then seemed to drift off. At various times, he took a knee to catch his breath, and he was the first person off the ice at the end.

Surely you’ve seen those paragraphs bouncing around. Everybody’s a little bit angry about it, I’m sure. Beyond being weak reporting, it’s just lazy storytelling, with the author desperately trying to relay an experience he would have had with a Maple Leaf player that his readers wouldn’t, “breaking” the news of Kessel’s weak jet-lagged practice habits as central to a story on the stretch run of the Maple Leafs season.

But it is, of course, irrelevant. Practice habits don’t determine success if you’re a player as elite as Phil Kessel. If our alien ever gets a grasp of the english language and comes to earth and meets with the type of criticism Kessel encounters in the newspapers and from TV commentators daily, it would shock the poor fellow.

Something I learned in journalism school is that information becomes a news story once “what it is now” becomes dramatically different from “what it was before”. Had Kessel been an up-tempo player in practices before the Olympics, and then returned for several weeks of the blahs and that coincided with a scoring slump, then you might have a story.

But it’s not. Kessel has been criticized his entire career in Toronto for being a little distant from the media. Since Jeff Blair of the Globe & Mail called Kessel a “milquetoast, Tom Thumb guy who shrinks even further in front of the cameras” Kessel has scored 125 points in 114 games, right up until he was criticized for his practice habits despite having flown halfway around the world twice in a two-week period.

It continues:

Prior to the Olympics, Carlyle expressed concern that Kessel and van Riemsdyk would have trouble with a post-Olympic letdown.

Teammate David Clarkson said the Leafs can’t expect to lean on just Kessel down the stretch.
“We have to lean on each other. It’s not about one player,” Clarkson said. “We’ve got to stick together as a group.”

Hmm.

DAT FIRST LINE

The Leafs went into the Olympic break on an 11-2-1 stretch. For those of us on the terrestrial world, we’ve heard a lot of talk about how Tim Gleason has really turned the team around. He’s really added a defensive component to the team it didn’t have before, and as a result the team is giving up fewer goals.

Our alien, however, has noticed this:

spot the change

The Leafs are about six times better offensively than they have been defensively during their recent little stretch, and it doesn’t take a degree in statistics to figure out where this is coming from. The alien has noted that Kessel has been far and away the best player on Toronto during this time. He is nearly matching the output of his entire team over the last 14 games:

leafs kessel ppg

The columns on the left are just Kessel’s points per game. The columns on the left are the Leafs total goals per game, minus goals factored in on by Phil Kessel. Kessel’s production has boosted by 50 per cent, and the rest of the Leafs, about 10 per cent.

I presume our alien, who knows the scientific method, gets what’s going on here. Regression isn’t an advanced mathematical concept: it’s a reality that confronts us in every day life. I was never a particularly good student in elementary school, so when I noticed that my grade in Social Studes during the first half of the first term of eighth grade was 92%, the first thing that came to my mind was “this can’t last”.

I’m not entirely certain whether Curtis Rush or Michael Traikos or whomever really do expect Kessel to be scoring at a 1.8 points per game rate from now until the end of the season otherwise the year will be considered a big failure, but one of the problems with the hyperconnectivity fans have with their sports teams is that there’s an element of the fanbase that will somehow associate Kessel’s Olympic performance, or the break itself, to a noticeable decline in points between January and March. The human brain is wired to process things by turning them into stories (in Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman shows that phrases conveying the same information are more likely to be remembered by the average person if they rhyme).

What really should matter is the game. I’ve read some stories referencing the study showing that historically, for each Olympian sent to the winter games, the player’s team will lose a marginal number of goals. That, of course, doesn’t take into consideration that the players most likely to be taken to the games are the ones that are having good seasons thanks to talent… and luck.

Production = Talent + Luck

That is the formula for anything, whether it’s hockey or quilting. Construction projects almost always go over budget because the projects likely to get the go-ahead are the ones whose initial costs appeared low due to some luck (also covered by Kahneman). If you’re playing Flappy Bird, you don’t slowly build up your score over time without having some tremendous runs marred by runs that don’t score any points at all. Not everything is linear, and the world is pretty random and difficult to predict.

If all you’re doing is watching the game, however, it’s unlikely Kessel will disappoint you even if his production drops. He’ll still be the best player on the ice, and despite not appearing to give 100% effort, that’s just the way he is and the way he plays, and there’s little reason for him to kick it into overdrive during practice just to impress Curtis Rush. That’s not really Kessel’s job. Clarkson and the Leafs shouldn’t have to be relying on Kessel as much as they were in January, but that group sure needs Kessel more than Kessel needs the rest of the group to succeed.

For years, Maple Leafs writers have been replicating the same experiment surrounding Kessel—that he’s too far removed from the media or practice to have any real success at the NHL level. Funny that the results always seem to be opposite the hypothesis, and yet we continue this charade. Writer writes -> Bloggers disagree -> Phil Kessel, removed from it all, continues to produce like an elite NHLer.