The Shooting in the Dark Industry

Cup'pa JoeI greatly appreciate my bloggermate Orderedchaos’ initial survey of preseason prediction silliness. Outside of Entertainment Tonight, there can be little in this world as vacuous and vapid as “experts” engaged in summertime “prognosticating” about the performance of sports teams.
I’m a college football enthusiast, and there are at least a half dozen published preseason magazines on newsstands this month, all offering specific rankings for all 117 D-I college football teams. Each team has 85 scholarship players, with approximately 20 graduating and 20 newly arriving each season. Many returning players markedly remake their bodies over the offseason with increasingly sophisticated and effective physique-altering training regimens. They also mature. There are, additionally, widespread personnel changes among the ranks of teams’ assistant coaches every offseason.
All of these publications have their preseason forecasts put to bed long before players report for physicals for fall camp. In short, the variables of change in college football are staggeringly enormous from season to season, and yet few of them are reflected in these “forecasts.” Still, the editors of these magazines would have you believe that from their New York offices they can accurately, magically divine the fates of nearly 10,000 football players scattered across the country, most of whom they’ve never seen play.
It is with the same skeptical, dismissive eye that we ought to weigh NHL forecasts offered up in summer. These endeavors are franchises of fraud. That Sports Illustrated could label the ’05-’06 Carolina Hurricanes a lottery loser and then watch them go on to hoist Lord Stanley seven months later should forever preclude the magazine from forecasting again. There’s getting it wrong and then there’s blindfolded dart-throwing. In the case of the ’05-’06 NHL season, dart throwing would have aided SI.
Now to be fair, the league had been shut down the preceding season by the lockout. But even in the instances of uninterrupted competition, across sports, these forecasts are exercises in little more than slickly marketed, superficial guesswork. And they are unified in their being reliably wrong. They exist because they exploit the sports fans’ enduring and insatiable thirst to know what will lie ahead for their heroes. And they are partly fueled by the troubling intersection of modern sports and high-stakes gambling (on- and off line). The fantastic popularity of fantasy sports participation has also mushroomed the popularity of the forecasting industry.
As mindless diversion for beach chair reading, they do no real harm. But they take on a larger-than-life credibility as their rankings and rationales are echoed about message boards and blogs and picked up and regurgitated by the electronic editions of mainstream media outlets. Hockey in particular ranks among the most difficult of sports to forecast; it is why there’s so little action on it in Vegas. How do you wager on or forecast a goalie standing on his head? On some nights, you know, Kerry Fraser doesn’t bring his best evaluative acumen to the sheet.
The Capitals, a few early prognosticators have weighed in upon, will make only modest improvement in the standings this season over the previous two. They will miss the postseason again, we are told.
Such assessments can only be premised on this variable: the team’s free agents signings were nice or decent but not on the order of rink shattering. But no one can know how Nicklas Backstrom will adjust to hockey in North America on the smaller sheet and over 80-plus games in his rookie season. The difference between his notching say 47 points versus 67 points almost certainly determines the team’s playoff viability, but who is confidently able to tell us which tally will prove true?
Who among the soothsayers knows how much if at all the team is improved in the shootout? Will Kolzig hold up and perform at an elite level for at least say 65 games? And certainly the team’s young blueline must have been judged in a development vacuum, within which none of Steve Eminger, Milan Jurcina, Shaone Morrisonn, and Mike Green could appreciably improve over a year ago . . . else, joined by the improvements up front, the team would have to seriously flirt with the postseason, if not outright qualify.
Hockey, too, has its future shrouded in a marvelous mystery of the unknown impact delivered from abroad. Raise your hand if last summer you saw 40 goals in Alexander Semin’s 2006-07 arsenal. You probably had Petr Prucha down for 30 in his rookie season on Broadway, too. It is North American media offering up these rigid preseason assessments, none with any notion of what impact virtually every team will enjoy from its new imports.
Hockey prose is fine for inclusion in any Labor Day beach reading list, just know that if it’s marketed as new season forecast, it’s fiction.

This entry was posted in Milan Jurcina, Morning cup-a-joe, National Hockey League, Olaf Kolzig, Print. Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to The Shooting in the Dark Industry

  1. James Mirtle says:

    Outside of Entertainment Tonight, there can be little in this world as vacuous and vapid as ‚Äúexperts‚Ä? engaged in summertime ‚Äúprognosticating‚Ä? about the performance of sports teams.
    Appreciate that heady praise, as always.
    The Capitals making the playoffs comes down to Kolzig staying healthy and the defence playing better than last season. Or, to quote from McKeen’s Hockey (as written by yours truly): “Where the Capitals are banking on improvement from within is on the back end, where the group of youngsters led by Green, Schultz and Milan Jurcina will once again be counted on for big minutes.
    “How they fare will ultimately dictate just how much of a climb up the standings Washington can take, but a playoff date is still likely at least another year off.”
    There’s no fiction there, friends ‚Äî and Backstrom putting up 20 more points has nothing to do with it. (Besides, he’s a playmaker; I’d be more worried about Semin repeating his 38-goal performance.)

  2. OrderedChaos says:

    James, you definitely make a fair point regarding the rearguard: the team needs at least two of its youngsters to “make the leap” to full-time reliable pros. If two out of Jurcina/Green/Shultz/etc. can join Poti and Pothier as reliable d-men, the Capitals’ defense should at least be in the middle of the league statistically.
    Regarding Backstrom, I respectfully disagree that he has nothing to do with it. Semin scored most of those 38 goals teamed with unheralded (or, more bluntly, non-NHL players like Kris Beech) centers. If the heady praise Backstrom has received from numerous non-Capitals sources is even partly true, the Backstrom-Semin connection could have a huge impact on the team’s good fortunes. Imagine a healthy Alexander Semin receiving passes from a true playmaker… I’m already giddy.

  3. ovemin says:

    wow, didn’t realize mirtle was such a defensive pr*ck

  4. James Mirtle says:

    There’s nothing out of line there, anonymous commenter. These guys certainly dish out enough criticism.

  5. James Mirtle says:

    If the heady praise Backstrom has received from numerous non-Capitals sources is even partly true, the Backstrom-Semin connection could have a huge impact on the team’s good fortunes. Imagine a healthy Alexander Semin receiving passes from a true playmaker… I’m already giddy.
    Backstrom’s going to be good; the question is will that happen right away? There aren’t many 19 year olds who put up 40 points in the SEL.
    He’s not the kind of dominating force that Ovechkin is; he’s undersized and timid, making the right plays in a really understated fashion. I think Henrik Zetterberg’s a fair comparison, and he was, what, 25 before he broke out?
    I suppose we’ll see. I really don’t think goal scoring was a big problem for the Caps last season, and if they’re trying to get in the postseason with a run-and-gun style, they’d have to be among the top five or six goal-scoring teams in the league.
    They’re going to be fun to watch.

  6. exwhaler says:

    Methinks Mr. Mirtle is missing the point.
    Hockey prognostication is probably the most useless endeavor in sports publishing, simply because there are far too many variables to consider, and even those depend on issues of chemistry which can’t be determined until at least preseason starts, much less training camp. Mirtle mentions worrying about Semin managing to put up 38 points again; as Ordered points out, he fails to consider that in Backstrom and Nylander, the Capitals finally have two real offensive centers for the first time since the lockout. Both will be key in the Capitals’ performance this year, improving the two Russians’ scoring chances as well as the offensive flow and pressure that was completely lacking last year (and resulted in more pressure on and coverage by the Caps’ young defense). That improvement will greatly affect the Caps’ chances to make the playoffs, along with how much Poti will improve the completely ineffective powerplay and how much chemistry Kozlov has with his former linemates Ovechkin or Semin. Ignoring those factors in favor of the obvious but faulty “they have a young defense, which will dictate their playoff chances” is simplistic analysis– perhaps understandable given the amount of time to actually evaluate these teams’ chances. It may be true, but only minimally, and it can be easily overrided by many more factors that are not considered. Which brings us back to pucks’ overall point.
    Forecasting works better for sports where individual performance has much more influence over team play, such as baseball, where every single player can be judged in a vacuum. Hockey is on the other end of the spectrum, where offensive players rely on chemistry with their linemates to produce, where the goalie depends on the defense to lighten the load, where the offense depends on the transition game from the defense and the defense depends on the offense to maintain puck control. It’s an extraordinary fluid game where the unexpected happens beyond the typical injury surprises, and attempting to predict the season’s outcome before a single player reports for training camp is a fool’s errand. Analyists are left judging off-season personnel changes and past performances with different teammates, which is how Pittsburgh got dubbed “most improved team” coming out of the lockout and wound up tanking worse than the Caps. It’s barely an educated guess, no matter how much thought, expertise, or time is put into it.
    And that’s why any forecast is fiction.

  7. ex-whaler, Mirtle and I have a healthy disagreement here, but it’ll probably be about sixteen months before we do so again. I genuinely didn’t know he was involved in the McKeens forecast, and had I, I would have more respectfully submitted my viewpoint here. The worst thing any hockey blogger can do is erroneously affiliate another with the MSM, many of whom for eons have superfically prognosticated. But on the heart of your profoundly thoughtful contribution here, I totally concur. It is a most beautiful dynamic that’s the DNA of our game — the much sought after chemistry that can’t be assured from one shift to the next. Most NHL coaches, I wager, would tell us that they spend at least the first half of the season seeking to achieve it in the room and in practices so as to plausibily hope for its display in the postseason. Anyway, thanks for so substantive a contribution here again.

  8. exwhaler says:

    Actually, my post really had nothing to do with Mirtle’s specific analysis or his ability to do so (or anything to do with the mainstream media, for that matter). It’s just about the idea of forecasting a game like hockey–especially this early in the year–in general. If James took personal offense at my post, I apologize.

  9. ovemin says:

    completely agree with you exwhaler on his misinformed picks. and to suggest that the caps will finish 12 in the conference is WAY out of line, not to mention the predictable/laughable/cheesy/trendy/most likely management mandated pick of the penguins at 1. its also conveniant that all three canadian teams find their way into the postseason. but hey, youre the expert. just show a little respect to my team and stop worrying about semin scoring goals, he’ll be fine playing with backstrom, who if he can score 67 points, will definitely be headed to the playoffs as a rookie.
    and im not an anonymous commenter, you can reach me at 800-ILVCRSB. what?…you already have that number?
    but in all seriousness, i usually enjoy reading what you have to say, just not at all in this case. and if you “took personal offense at my post, i apologize”. or is it offence?

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