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Understanding the Game and Learning Lessons From Strongly-Held Views

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"When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. In the first stage of life the mind is frivolous and easily distracted; it misses progress by failing in consecutiveness and persistence. This is the condition of children and barbarians, in whom instinct has learned nothing from experience."

--George Santayana, The Life of Reason, Chapter XII--"Flux and Constancy in Human Nature"

The Zurich Lions signed Gilbert Brule on August 13th, making Zurich one of the first European teams to grab multiple NHL players in an attempt to stack the deck in their favor. Brule, the 6th overall pick in 2005, remains unsigned by an NHL club, so the offer marked a chance a work in professional hockey, something he wasn't guaranteed regardless of a lockout. Brule immediately took a roster spot from a well-established import and played significant minutes for the Lions.

Szymon Szemberg brings Tweeted disappointing news from Zurich:

Brule has struggled with the NHL game, first in Columbus where his development as a player was stunted by the horrid reign of Doug MacLean, then in Edmonton where he found brief chemisty with Dustin Penner in Brule's only successful professional season, then in Phoenix after the Coyotes claimed him subsequent to the Oilers buying out his contract. Brule also suffered through a condition, leaked by someone in Edmonton, Los Angeles or NHL headquarters to Darren Dreger, likely in a major breach of healthcare privacy laws, over the last few seasons.

Brule's career arc is instructive, or at least Santayana believes it should be. During Brule's lone successful season, 2009-2010, he found success with Dustin Penner. Penner's outstanding play in Edmonton meant that many players found success with the big winger, but Brule's big season was different - his time with Penner was the only stretch of above-average play the kid had found in his career to that point. I I penned an article a couple of months into the 09 season about that exact point - the limitations of Brule's game and the contract negotiations to follow. Jonathan Willis followed it up in May, prior to the Oilers offering a new contract to Brule. What Jonathan and I both focused on was common sense data points, common sense learned by experience, combined with an understanding of the basic math of hockey.

The reaction, especially to Jonathan's piece was, for lack of a better word, mind-boggling. First up, the reaction from the professionals, the men who make their living writing about hockey full-time.

Robin Brownlee responded:

"If I was to make a list of Oilers players NOT to trade, it would be short, but Brule would be near the top of it."


"At 14.0 (down from 15.4 in 11 games the previous season), Brule wasn't among among the top 40 in the NHL, let alone at some level that's clearly a gaudy one-off. He's an emerging young player with a quick release and a great shot. This wasn't a case of some grunt having everything he shovelled at the net bounce in off something or somebody. Brule could slip a couple of percentage points and still be a 20-goal player if he he plays 78-82 games as opposed to 65."


"No, a tough smurf is not still a smurf. Brule plays bigger than any of the Oilers other small forwards and some of the big ones. He's not in the discussion when it comes to having too many diminutive players. Take that to the bank."


"Fan club? Yes, anybody who believes Brule to be an emerging player, like a reporter who actually covers the team, is a fanboy. Thank goodness those with so many doubts, like you, provide a critical and more astute assessment."

Brownlee, who has a history of difficulty both understanding the basics of talent and probability, appeals to his own authority as a reporter that covers the team and STILL gets it tremendously and hilariously wrong. At this point, he should probably stick to telling readers what happened, rather than predicting what will happen.

David Staples responded:

A well-run team wouldn't move such a player, even if that team had a rock solid belief in hockeymetrics.


One way or another, the kid creates far more goals than he gives up, so I put little weight on this shooting percentage issue.

In just two sentences, David demonstrates a complete lack of understanding of hockeymetrics. David is also using essentially the same argument in favor of Jordan Eberle not regressing in the coming season, so Eberle's got that going for him.

Then there were the group of fans who believed Brule had a true talent for goals from long distances or a true talent for shooting, even though people like Gabe Desjardins have demonstrated true shooting talent is rare and confined to just a couple of players:

Brule had a nack for scoring some of his goals away from the prime scoring areas. To me that's a critical attribute we will most definately lack if he goes. Whether it was the velocity, accuracy, release of his shot, luck, or something else I don't really care at this point.

I couldn't agree more. I myself can't think of any Oiler FORWARD who scored on a slap shot from beyond 30-35 feet in recent memory other than Brule. I really like this player and hope he can progress as an Oiler.

You said it right on man!! How many players in general these days can come down on their off wing and rip it like Brule can? Not many, Brule had 3 or 4 of those!! He's one of the few bright spots for this team I cant believe the talk of trading this guy!

Mike Modano's Dog
His shooting percentage is awesome! That is a plus, not a minus! His shot is very accurate and if you look at his goals, they are not a collection of bounces or lucky goals that could bump up a shooter's percentage in the short term. Rather, they are the result of good, hard and accurate shots. If you want to critique that you are looking way too hard for the negative, in my honest opinion.

That shooting percentage almost always regresses to the mean meant nothing. Each of them knew better.

And finally, there were the people that chose to demonstrate their mental limitations right up front, rather than force Jonathan to tease it out through a pointed discussion:

God it's annoying when people put so much emphasis into stats.

Bob Cob
You can't trade a guy like Brule based on stats...

Red flags... really? JFC Willis...

This isn't a case of "told you so", rather it's a review of the thought process involved in discussions like this. I, then Jonathan later, wrote a well-thought presentation based on an understanding of performance and math, talent levels and regression. The answers all centered around "I know better than you", but not just "you". Each of these people knew better than logic, pragmatism, math and common sense.

I wonder now how each of these people would defend their stance and what followed. Steve Tambellini signed Brule for at least $1 million too much per year, then Brule regressed to the player he was prior to his time with Penner and was eventually bought out of that terrible contract. I'm sure each of them will have an excuse as to how their view really does hold up, it's just some other outside factor that forced the outcome. Few of them will even understand why they were so out to lunch.

Eric T. explains it best:

This is not a simple stats-versus-eyes issue; it is a general approach to rational thought. We need to constantly challenge our beliefs, examine the evidence against (both visual and statistical), seek out the critics, and adjust our conclusions as needed. As Hawerchuk's tagline for Behind The Net used to read, "The facts have changed, so my position has changed. What do you do, sir?"