Bogus Narratives and Delusion: The Long, Dark, Night for the Leafs Continues

“Jason Spezza just did not want our season to end today. He played with that level of urgency. You see the fight. That’s playoff hockey,” said coach Sheldon Keefe, unprompted.”

Luke Fox, Sportsnet

The Toronto Maple Leafs win in Game Four of their series with the Columbus Blue Jackets was epic on many levels. It didn’t need a false narrative. Overcoming a three-goal deficit with less than four minutes remaining in the game and winning in overtime was the kind of achievement a fan savours for a lifetime. Still, a false narrative we got.

A comeback predicated on some luck (arguably overdue), some determination on many fronts and an epic goalie meltdown somehow became the story of Jason Spezza’s fight a period before the team erased a three goal lead. As if the team, twenty-plus-minutes after the fight, twenty-plus-minutes after continuing to stumble around the ice, said to each other, “Hey, remember when Jason Spezza took that dumb slashing penalty and then got in a fight with a guy who isn’t a fighter? Man, I am feeling like we can really score some goals with the goalie pulled because of that.”

Of course the idea wasn’t true. And with all that went down in those last four minutes and overtime the lame, lazy, narrative wasn’t even necessary. 

But in the grand tradition of Leaf narratives it was perfect. 

The bogus narrative was as true as such other Leaf Nation classics- “It’s All Jake Gardiner’s Fault!” “It’s All Babcock’s Fault,” and, “It’s Nazem Kadri’s Fault.” 

The fraudulent narrative however fit nicely with the idea floated around that the Leafs challenges with Columbus being a carbon copy of prohibitive Stanley Cup favourite Tampa Bay being swept by Columbus in the first round of the playoffs last year. Because that was a different Columbus team, a team with Artemi Panarin and Matt Duchene as the team’s leading playoff scorers, Josh Anderson healthy, and useful depth pieces like Ryan Dzingel and Brandon Dubinsky. 

This Columbus team was not that Columbus team. They are still coached by John Torterella though, they are fast, they play with absolute conviction, their defence is good and their goalies, aside from about four minutes of hockey, were otherworldly. Mostly though they are a team without significant fire power, a team that any real Cup contender should beat.

So what happened? 

Lots of stuff but mainly three things.

The Problem with the Defence

First, the team was always flawed in its’ design. And that’s on Kyle Dubas. The defence in particular lacks bite, lacks consistency and is prone to significant breakdowns- the kind that kill you in the playoffs. Morgan Reilly is a stretch as a number one defenceman but a stretch you can get away with if you aren’t also stretching Justin Holl and Travis Dermott into the top four, never mind Tyson Barrie. The fact the series deciding goal banked in off ineffective Tyson Barrie was somehow perfect karma. 

And if one injury suddenly puts Martin Marincin in your lineup you haven’t planned properly.

The Problem with the Forwards

In short the forward group lacks diversity.

The forwards, though wildly talented, struggle to create goals versus tough teams. Why is that? How in a series with Auston Matthews looking as dialed in as he could every be would that be the case? Well because you need more than one type of guy, you need more than one line. After two of his best games in a Leaf uniform to open the series Alex Kerfoot turned back into the pumpkin he’d been all season, Kapanen never threatened, Marner continued his enigmatic season, Nick Robertson quickly showed he wasn’t ready for this level of competition and a whole host of guys couldn’t get the results you need to win. It would be one thing is this was one, “playoffs,” but this has been ongoing.

The flaws in design always made them vulnerable to a certain type of team, namely teams that play a choking defensive style and can cycle the puck. Columbus, the Isles (another flawed but difficult opponent in this case constructed by the GM pushed out in Toronto to make way for Dubas- Lou Lamorillo) and of course Boston. These are teams that Toronto has to be able to beat to meaningfully compete for a Stanley Cup but for years have shown they can’t. 

The Problem With Analytics and Kyle Dubas

When Kyle Dubas took over as GM he promised he was more than just an analytics guy. With every acquisition of players that seem generally the exact type of player- small, skilled, possession oriented, “smart,” it appears that was a lie.

What it lead to was a design where analytical touch points like possession numbers, expected goals and heat maps seemed to define team building more than more results oriented factors.

And I don’t want to fully dismiss analytics because they have merit. But the fact is you don’t have to take too long going over the leading analytical indicators to see how often they point to the wrong things- whether it be CORSI, expected goals, etc. too often you find bad teams masquerading as good teams. Why? Because hockey is fluid and filled with nuance, it is simultaneously contextual and non-contextual and importantly it generalizes results.

Being fluid and nuancced makes capturing important factors in deciding games difficult and further it makes individual results hard to isolate. The non-contexutual bit is that it suggests that everything can be compared to everything. In games where roughly six goals are scored per sixty minutes the idea that rare events like goals can be compared to the more prevelent time where goals aren’t scored is a challenge, one analytics struggles to appreciate as it suggests there is only one reality. I would suggest that certain players create entirely different realities in terms of creating that most important of rarities- goals for and preventing goals against. The nature of statistics being generalized over a large group of games to avoid small samples is completely understandable. What you have to understand though is that it is how players perform in the most significant challenges that will define their success or lack thereof.

Where the devotion to analytics that Dubas appears to have based his team building on struggles the most is in coming to terms with its’ limitations.

“They simplify, they abstract, they eliminate all that, for their purposes, is irrelevant and ignore whatever they choose to regard as inessential; they impose a style, they compel the facts to verify a favorite hypothesis, they consign to the waste paper basket all that, to their mind, falls short of perfection.”

Aldous Huxley, Ape and Essence

The Huxley quote goes on to remark on the consequences of rigid attachment to theory in the face of contradicting reality, “And because they thus act like good artists, sound thinkers and tried experimenters, the prisons are full, political heretics are worked to death as slaves, the rights and preferences of mere individuals are ignored, the Gandhis are murdered and from morning till night a million schoolteachers and broadcasters proclaim the infallibility of the bosses who happen at the moment to be in power.”

In this case the downside is less stark because this is after all, just a hockey game. So nobody is murdered and individuals don’t lose fundamental rights of liberty. What does happen though is that the stubborn attachment to a flawed, vain, broken, premise leads to your favourite team and mine consistently failing to achieve anything important.

The hockey analytics community is a defensive one and faced with a constant barrage of clear failures of their stats, perhaps seeing their chance for a Moneyball type movie being made of  their exploits slipping away (Imagine Brendan Shanahan in the meeting with scouts scene saying, “Guys check your reports or I’m going to point at Kyle again…”), seems to specialize in stubborn refusal to adjust. So the fact Cody Franson looked great according to their stats despite being a bad NHL player, that analytics seemed to indicate for a time that Alex Semin was better than Sidney Crosby and that according to them the Carolina Hurricanes should have won every Cup for the last ten years, creates a rigid backlash instead of meaningful critiquing of their numbers. The disparity in the analytics vs end results on the scoreboard are dismissed with favourite scapegoats of bad luck, bad goaltending, bad coaching. Moreover the unbending devotion to a pet theory means its’ basic tenements never evolve as they should. 

So where are we? What can be done?

We are at the crossroads of the consequence of multiple lies wondering if the team can adjust to the reckoning of another cold, unloving, rebuke from the truth. There is much to be excited about with the Leafs- Auston Matthews has dialed into his best self and proved he can dominate in the playoffs, Dubas for his challenges has made some good moves- Mikheyev (though disappointing in the playoffs), Robertson, Sandin, the solid, albeit belated pick up of a solid backup goaltender. The elements of a Stanley Cup contender are largely in the room. The question is will Kyle Dubas face the reality that more diversity is required in his forward group, more quality is required on the back end and a more nuanced appreciation of what drives playoff success in the NHL is required from him?

Hard to say. In any event it’s always tough to keep yourself warm for long desperately embracing a lie so I’m not sure how long the suspect, “Jason Spezza Fighting Saved Us!” narrative will get us through this long, dark, night of Leaf playoff failures.

Here’s hoping at long last the Leaf organization finally embraces the truth.

(Featured photo via Wikicommons)