Exploited by Randomness, and the David Clarkson Apology Tour

Clarkson goal
Leafs management hard at work carefully considering David Clarkson’s abilities

There was a post up at Sportsnet this week that worked partly to defend David Clarkson. In my mind, Clarkson has nothing to apologize for. He worked his ass off to make the NHL, puts in the hours, and got a contract that an NHL franchise was willing to give him. It’s not his fault he’s not as good as the majority of NHL top six forwards, and it’s not his fault that there’s an organization that was short-sighted enough to sign a player who had just 97 goals at age 28* to a seven-year deal because he grew up close to home.

It’s odd how online hockey discussion has broken off into “pro-stats” and “anti-stats” factions. No, I don’t think it’s a prerequisite to be an expert in statistics and computer programming to write interesting hockey material, and I certainly skip over many mathy articles when they fail to make a point or promote a practical application of strategy.

Do I belong to the “Big Corsi” conspiracy? I doubt it. My thinking on hockey has changed a lot over the last year, inspired by the writings of Nassim Nicholas Taleb such as Fooled by Randomness and The Black Swan.

Those readings led me to accept probability, not destiny, if I have permission to steal a line frequently used by my friend and occasional bartender Garrett Hohl. If you were given the option to pay 45 cents to predict the outcome of a coin flip, and should you be correct in your prediction you win a dollar, you may lose 45 cents on the first try and you may even lose 90 cents after the second try—but if you could take the same bet an infinite number of flips, you could write a script to program millions of flips per second and retire early. There’s value there. If you pay 45 cents for an expected return of 50 cents ($1.00 divided by two possible outcomes) you can expect a large return in the long run even if you’ll face a loss 50% of the time.

The point isn’t that you can always predict coin flips to make your money, but that you can manipulate randomness to work in your favour if you have a basic idea of how the odds work. The complaint about signing David Clarkson a summer ago had nothing to do with his Corsi, shot generation ability, or shooting percentage. Straight up, it was that unrestricted free agents, particularly those signed to long deals, typically turn out to be bad bets. It didn’t help that Clarkson was 28 and without much success at the NHL-level. In retrospect, a seven-year contract looks downright stupid to sign.

I can somewhat forgive Dave Nonis for the Clarkson deal, because you have to think Tim Leiweke gave Nonis the order to pick up the most in-demand free agent on the market. That’s the only reasonable explanation, considering Leiweke hasn’t fired Nonis for that massive management misstep just yet. Leiweke, who just learned about hockey a few weeks ago, and my estimated date for when he turned on his first ever NHL game becomes more and more recent every single time he opens his fat little mouth, knows how to sell a sports team. There’s a segment of the Toronto Maple Leafs fanbase that will be holding out hope, forever, for a player like Clarkson. He can come home from another team, crash and bang and score goals (the first two only matter for this type of fan) and win a Stanley Cup.

Randomness doesn’t help us in our crusade against the unknown. Knowledge of randomness and inherent human biases will. If you’re aware that a coin has 50-50 odds of landing heads or tails, and the market continually predicts that it’s 55-45 (as in our example above), then there’s an opportunity to exploit a gap. It doesn’t mean to win every single flip, but it means in the end, a large amount of flips means that you’ll come out ahead. You’re essentially making a five cent “profit” per flip.

Basically, the rules are as follows: don’t gamble on goaltenders. Don’t gamble on long-term unrestricted free agents. Attempt to draft scoring forwards, since defensive defencemen are more readily available at the NHL-level. Skate the puck into the zone rather than dump the puck in. Don’t let go of possession without reason to expect doing so will bring you closer to scoring a goal. Don’t willingly concede the puck to the other team.

That’s not necessarily “pro stats”. It’s just “pro hockey”. The teams that follow the above rules will eventually benefit from the rolls of the dice and flips of the coin because they’re creating more of them.

* – Notable Players who had scored more goals after their age 28 season than David Clarkson: Dion Phaneuf, Bob Probert, Dave Scatchard, Ethan Moreau, Rob Niedermayer, Mike Keane, Taylor Pyatt, Dean McAmmond, Matt Stajan (!), Clarke MacArthur (!!), Marek Svatos, Steve Rucchin, Wojtek Wolski, and Sergei Berezin, who broke into the NHL at age 25. How many of those guys are worth seven years?