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Retconning 5 goals against: who was actually good in Leafs vs Canadiens?

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What happens when the facts don’t fit the outcome? You can deny the facts, or you can get creative.

Comic-Con 2011 - Day 2
Would he lie to you?
Photo by Wendy Redfern/Redferns

Retconning history is so necessary it had to be invented. The BBC series Torchwood popularized the term for modern audiences, but it was coined back in the 70s and then taken up on Usenet (or maybe this is a retcon) to describe the practice of Comic Book canons to suddenly have whole new backstories for a character.

Retcon stands for Retroactive Continuity, and in Torchwood, it came in pill form for those uncomfortable moments when someone needed to be disabused of uncomfortable truths and had to be induced to believe a new past, with actual events cast in a different light.

I assume there’s a candy dish full of the pills in every press box for every sport ever deemed worthy of attention by writers of colourful prose.

For example: Let’s say you’re writing about a team that coughs up five goals in a wild, loosey-goosey, defence-optional game. And let’s say you want your story to hang on the idea that the goalie involved in all of this is actually good. That’s a difficult trick. How are you going to do that?

After the Habs beat the Leafs in a shootout following a 5 - 5 tie game, this conversation occurred in the PPP kitten ranching head office (names have been changed to protect the guilty):

William: I feel much better about Hutch in net than i did before

Patrick: after he let in 5 goals?

Jon: yeah I’m not gonna go down the road of “but he looked good, just got unlucky!” after having just made those mental leaps with Sparks

Tom: I don’t know what to think. He came through in OT. He didn’t make the stops needed in the third, including that penalty shot.

William: I had low standards

Peter: He was exactly as good/bad as Price. Just that sort of game.

As you can see, it’s a tough job to come up with a way to justify five goals, and these anonymous people seemed to rely on a lot of handwaving to do it. It was just one of those things... We need professional help at retconning; we’re just not that good at it.

Who can help us? A fiction writer, of course.

The seventies were an exciting decade — not necessarily for hockey, mind you — but television was branching out in all sorts of exciting ways, one of which was science fiction. Doctor Who, by pretending to be a children’s show — brought all the philosophical seriousness of time travel and really long scarves to the masses. One of the writers for Who in the seventies was a fellow named Douglas Adams, and he wrote a pair of scripts, one of which was filmed fully, and one not, that were the genesis of the Dirk Gently books that came later.

Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency contains two concepts that can help us get that goalie off the hook. First there’s a throwaway line in the novel describing a wealthy software company, and how they got wealthy.

WayForward has two fabulously lucrative products.

Reason allows users to specify in advance the decision they want it to reach, and only then to input all the facts. The program’s task was to construct a plausible series of logical-sounding steps to connect the premises with the conclusion. The only copy was sold to the US Government for an undisclosed fee.

We could really use that software right about now. You can see the continuity of the concept from Reason right straight through to the pill in Torchwood, which was a cheeky meta-joke about all the times inconvenient past canon was retconned in Who itself.

But Adams wasn’t content to just make that joke with the easy villain, he had a sharper point to make. He used the Electric Monk to make it:

The Electric Monk was a labour-saving device, like a dishwasher or a video recorder. Dishwashers washed tedious dishes for you, thus saving you the bother of washing them yourself, video recorders watched tedious television for you, thus saving you the bother of looking at it yourself; Electric Monks believed things for you, thus saving you what was becoming an increasingly onerous task, that of believing all the things the world expected you to believe.

It is definitely an onerous task believing in your goalie when all the evidence says he was really rather bad. It’s a good thing we have our own Electric Monks who will take the outcome and, in a mental effort worthy of the Reason software, recast the facts of the case to place the responsibility for the outcome in the heart of the champion. It wasn’t just one of those things, one of those crazy things at all. It was otherworldly destiny. Almost as if an alien from the past popped through a door that wasn’t there before and made some of those saves in overtime and won the game in the shootout.

Oh, wait, you didn’t think I meant Hutchinson, did you?

Price’s otherworldly performance vital in Canadiens’ win over Maple Leafs

It was theatre of the absurd on Saturday night at Scotiabank Arena, a comedy featuring two teams who spent more than three periods essentially gifting each other chances to win.

And if the Montreal Canadiens were the ones raising their arms in celebration at the end of it, it was because their best player did exactly what was expected of him when it mattered most.

Yes, Carey Price allowed five goals on the first 33 Toronto Maple Leafs shots on net. But no, he couldn’t be faulted on any of them, and the saves he made — with the game on the line in overtime and in the shootout — were otherworldly.

From the Electric Monk Sports Network

Hutchinson lost that game, so we all know what that means. He’s bad and he should feel bad, and really all us fantasists wondering if maybe both goalies were bad or, even not totally at fault are just sore losers. But if you win, you must have done something to deserve it, and obviously all those saves in overtime (forget Hutchinson’s saves, here have this pill) were the key to the victory.

Fault finding (or the search for a single hero) in one game isn’t much use, for all it’s emotionally satisfying. But the issue here isn’t the number of goals — it never is, no matter how big the number is — it’s goals vs expected goals.

The trouble comes from the fact that expected goals — that measure of how likely all the unblocked shots were of becoming goals in an imaginary grey world populated by league average players — is imperfect. The data can be a bit suspect: Cody Ceci’s shot for his first goal on Friday was recorded from somewhere very different to where he took it. And there are other contextual factors not accounted for in weighting the shots that are recorded correctly. In a large chunk of time on the ice with hundreds of shots consindered, those issues have little impact on the answers we get to the question: Is this goalie any good? But in a single game or two the answer to that question likely should be a shrug.

For example, Moneypuck uses an expected goals model to measure Save % Above Expected, and Carey Price (on both games so far) is a little bit in the negative. That makes him a tolerable, just above replacement-level backup so far. Hutchinson (in one game) is a little worse, making him a replacement-level backup.

But when I looked at Cole Anderson’s first chart of the season that adjusts for rebounds, I get a different answer:

Price is a bit worse than Hutchinson here (judged by how far below and to the right of the centre line they are).

Anderson’s reasoning on adjusting for rebounds in the first place is essentially that the goalie has some level of control over rebounds, and the more juicy ones he gives up, the more juicy high-percentage chances his opponents get. And if he saves those shots well, he’s cleaning up his own mess, and maybe that should be taken into account in judging his skill by an expected goals model. The goalie, in other words, helped create the high expected goals against in the first place.

Back to Moneypuck for a second, and both Carey Price and Michael Hutchinson have an Expected Save % on Unblocked Shots of 94.8. That’s really low. And that means they were, to use Mike Babcock’s words, hung out to dry. Price, in his two times on the washing line, has done very slightly better than Hutchinson in his single game as mentioned above. Moneypuck disagrees with Anderson because of the rebound adjustment (likely) and we could argue about that adjustment all day if we liked, but imagine all of these numbers and conclusions written in watercolour ink left out in the rain to fuzz and blur, and you have a better handle on the reality of what they describe.

If you want certainty, you need one of those retcon pills.

If you want something to worry about in your idle moments, gaze at this:

Toronto Maple Leafs Shots Taken 5v5 as of October 6
HockeyViz

This is not what the Maple Leafs offence should look like. It most decidedly should not be 12% below league average. It should not be all shots from the high slot and the circles. It should not be the blue blob of futility at the goalmouth, it should be the red blob of death.

I don’t want you to worry too hard about this. Some of this is the weirdness you get in only three games, where in one game an extended period of heavy shooting from the points skewed this picture worse than it actually is, but I do think it’s a question worth asking particularly after the endless chatter on Friday’s broadcast about Auston Matthews having a one-timer now and how he’s using it from farther out. They thought that was neato. I think it’s alarming. Modestly alarming.

But Saturday’s tilt with the Habs really wasn’t about the champion Price carrying his team on his shoulders while letting in five goals. It was a lot about how the Leafs shot like this:

And the Canadiens shot like this:

The difference isn’t huge, but the Leafs pattern on Saturday nearly perfectly matches the three games combined above, and that’s not who this team needs to be to keep winning games.

I’m sorry, I washed out of Electric Monk school. On the other hand, you know, Hutchinson really was pretty good in OT...