Sunday Notebook - Infinite Games
Paradoxes facing NHL decision makers
The season has begun, meaning earnest prognostications are soon to follow. I try to implement a "20-game rule" for myself every year, where I avoid making meaningful conclusions about the club until at least a quarter of the season has passed. I say "try" here because it's much easier said than done. The mind and heart always want to immediately leap to conclusions based on fresh information, even when the sample is way too small for that sort of activity.
This is especially dangerous to start the year because a lot of things are "unsettled" for many clubs out of the gate. From a Flames perspective, for example, Sutter has an entirely rebuilt top-6 to wrestle with, so fans in Calgary can expect some experiments and upheaval as the coach tries to nail down new chemistries.
I was thinking about the paradox of infinite vs finite games when to NHL team management recently. At a franchise level, a team can essentially play an infinite game because there is always another season, another playoff, another draft, another blue-chip prospect at some point on the horizon. Philosophically speaking, this opens up endless opportunities for experimentation in order for a club to become the best version of itself over time.
Team decision-makers, however, are playing a finite game within the infinite game. They are judged by much more bounded, much shorter-term indicators, meaning they are incentivized to be much more conservative in their efforts. A disappointing season, a couple of bad trades, a fan base that loses hope in the immediate future and bang - coaches, GMs, and assorted front office staff can lose their jobs.
In fact, the risk of unconventional risk-taking extends beyond merely losing an NHL job - losing in a weird, unconventional manner can result in expulsion from the league, meaning all future job opportunities wilt as well. In the General Theory, John Maynard Keynes wrote "Worldly wisdom teaches that it is better for reputation to fail conventionally than to succeed unconventionally."
I may not go that far when it comes to the NHL, but it does seem that conventional "hockey men" often have the luxury of failing upwards in their careers, provided they maintain their credibility and reputation as hockey men. This is why it can be so difficult for any executive, coach, or analyst within the game to colour too far outside of the lines - they don't merely risk a given position at a given team, they risk a reputational scar that will punt them from the league for good.
In contrast, that's why it's so easy for someone like me to yell about non-consensus truths and not building bad fourth lines on purpose. Because I am outside of the pressures and incentive structures of incumbent decision-makers, I get to play the infinite game from the sidelines. Sure, I pay some minor penalties at times, like not being particularly popular with a segment of general NHL fanship, but luckily that has no material impact on me.
Switching gears, the Leafs already facing a kind of goaltending emergency already thanks, in part, to their commitment to bargain-hunting at the net position this past summer. This is not an excuse to criticize Toronto, but it does surface an interesting team-building philosophy - not spending too much on goalies.
The hard cap has hastened this as an accepted reality, but the viability of this approach was first illustrated years ago by the Dynastic Detroit Red Wings teams of the late '90s. Detroit won a bunch of stuff with Chris Osgood as their "good enough" starter (Osgood's career SV% = .905).
The truth is a team of great skaters can probably survive and even thrive with mediocre goaltending, but a straight-up bad starter will sink any squad. This is the game NHL GMs who bargain hunt for goalies play - they have to be sure they are converting those savings into a legitimately elite skater roster, and they have to avoid sewering the team with bottom-quartile puck-stopping.
A way to think about this is the goalie as breaks on a car - you can get away with merely adequate breaks, but you don't want to drive around with really bad ones.
The other reason for this kind of gamble is the lack of general correlation between goalie cap hit and save percentage in any given season. Goalies are the hardest position to scout and predict in the NHL, so often that big dollar contract to the apparently decorated veteran goaltender can turn into an albatross very quickly without conferring any sort of benefit over the cheaper, median-level netminder. There are sometimes exceptions to this at the margins - the very best and the very worst goalies tend to be more consistent at the tails - but there's a large cluster of average to pretty good goalies whose results kind of ping pong around year over year.