Monday, November 28, 2016

Crunching the Numbers

Unless you're a big hockey fan, this news probably slipper under the radar during a big NFL Sunday. The Florida Panthers fired head coach Gerard Gallant after a 3-2 loss in Carolina, which dropped the team to 11-10-1 on the season. You're probably wondering, if you're not intimately familiar with the Florida Panthers, how good was he as a coach? He was very solid in his two+ seasons. 96-65-23 (.583) was his record, and he won only the second division title in franchise history last season and set the single season franchise record for points with 103.

Also this season, Gallant's team has had to deal with a litany of big injuries, such as to Jonathan Huberdeau, who hasn't played all year, Nick Bjugstad, who has only played three games, and slow stars for players like Aaron Ekblad, Aleksander Barkov, Keith Yandle, etc. The team hasn't set the world alight, but it's certainly not Islanders or Coyotes bad. So why then has there been such a divisive and stark reaction to this firing of all head coaching changes in the NHL?

The story in Florida goes far deeper than the head coach. Ownership instituted a massive front office re-shuffle after the playoff exit against the Islanders, which "bumped" Dale Tallon to President of Hockey Operations, Tom Rowe to GM (and he's now the head coach, but we'll get to that), Steve Werier and Eric Joyce to AGM's, and fired longtime team employees such as Scott Luce, Mike Dixon, Dave Zenobi, etc. It's no secret in the hockey world that the Panthers have taken more of an analytical approach to building a hockey team, owing to new owners Vinnie Viola and Doug Cifu's background in the Wall Street financial world. Analytics in the hockey world, especially in player personnel decision making is still a sore subject for some in the sport, and with what's been going on in Florida, the "wounds" are cutting even deeper.

Gerard Gallant's unceremonious turfing, and the pictures of him and assistant coach Mike Kelly needing to call a cab in Raleigh after getting the news, set the hockey world on fire. "Mainstream media" is not happy that Gallant, who was a finalist for the Jack Adams Award last year, was fired at all, especially when those in the world of analytics weren't quite as high on Gallant as many in hockey circles are. Combine this with the front office exodus of other "good hockey guys" from May, and the lingering resentment that still exists among some in the sport has now been re-opened.

Are these "hockey people" wrong to be angry at how these front office changes in Florida have gone down? Not necessarily, especially since many saw good friends fired after what was a historic season for the team. But its evident the firing came down in large part because of a fundamental disconnect between how Gallant wanted the team constructed and how the front office wanted it constructed. And while there's an analytic focus in the team's front office, a disconnect between the bench and management is nothing new in the world of hockey, and what this change comes down to is that disconnect became a bridge too far. But that's still not the end of this story.

Whenever there's a personnel move predicated on analytics, a divide emerges between those in the "mainstream media" and bloggers/analysts who are analytics driven in the analysis of the move. This happened with the Toronto Maple Leafs collapse in 2013-14, the Shea Weber trade to Montreal, and a number of other major flashpoints recently. But the divide seems even more stark with this move. Why?

Media members have plenty of friends in the world of hockey who are none too pleased with what the Panthers have been doing. These "hockey people" are not getting the jobs that Eric Joyce, Steve Werier, Matt Caldwell, etc. have been getting. These "army guys" are not well embraced by the "hockey world" because they're not from the "hockey world". The reaction from inside the sport, translated by the "mainstream media" is an extension of a fight or flight reaction to an internal battle in the sport as to whether to accept these "outsiders" in their tight-knit circle or not, and having one team buck custom and trends to such an extreme is a shock to a well established system. This does not mean the reaction is correct, or whether firing Gallant is the right move to get the Panthers on the track towards the team they ultimately want to be, but this is why the reaction has been so strong from one side of the ledger.

Hockey is still in the midst of an analytics revolution that took hold in baseball and basketball well before it, and those in the sport are still struggling to figure out how much of these numbers to use in decision making processes. Some teams don't use the numbers at all, others, like Florida, Toronto and Arizona have gone all-in, and others use them more subtly, like Carolina, Los Angeles and Chicago. Time will tell what path is the "right" one, but in a sport as insular as hockey has been, the introduction of another way is not a welcome introduction.

That's why the divide in reaction to the firing has been so stark. Combined with what else has gone down in Florida this year, the reaction to the move is not surprising. However, the current structure of the team from the front office down is now as ownership wants it, and whether it works remains to be seen.

If it fails, will some in the hockey world be happy? You bet. Whether that's right or not is up for you to decide. Whether it's right for the Panthers to be seen as the guinea pig for whether analytics work as a part of personnel decision making is also up for debate, but it's already beginning to happen.

Such is the situation with the Florida Panthers, and the divide in the hockey world it has widened, from the "hockey people" inside the sport to the media that often pushes their message.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

The Boy Who Cried Jurgen Klinsmann Should be Fired

This piece is not about Jurgen Klinsmann being fired and getting replaced by Bruce Arena. It's not about his tactics, or his ego and aura of haughty supremacy and holier-than-thou attitude towards his own mistakes. This is about how we as US Soccer fans and media have turned Klinsmann into something he's not: a pantomime villain.

Maybe that characterization is a bit harsh, because Klinsmann did take the US forward in many respects, especially the player pool. But since the 2014 World Cup, performances have been sliding downward, however that doesn't tell the entire story. In Klinsmann's early days, his teams were on the precipice of disaster multiple times, including a qualifying loss at Jamaica in 2012, and that infamous February day in 2013; one that Timmy Chandler wishes everyone forgot. And there still is that Brian Straus piece lying around on the internet that shows not everything was great even at the beginning. But like Rasputin, nothing could kill Klinsmann off because he got the major results when he needed to and kept his job and the team in order.

But after that, every time Klinsmann was put under the microscope, he failed his tests. From the abject horror of the 2015 Gold Cup, to the embarrassment against Brazil not even a month later, and then the CONCACAF Cup disappointment against Mexico, he wasn't able to keep the sugar out. And when he failed, often spectacularly, no one could hide their disdain or willingness to send Klinsmann out. And that is what we're going to talk about here: the legitimate claims of something being wrong yet shrouded by the instant calls for Klinsmann to be sacked.

Of course sacking managers in soccer is nothing novel or new, especially in the international game. Managers are interchanged as often as toothpicks. But there was something about the calls for Klinsmann to be fired after every little mistake in every single game, especially in the big games, that seemed different and excessive. This again is not meant to defend Klinsmann from the criticism he absolutely deserved, but the immediate calls to sack him certainly didn't make the atmosphere around his team any better, especially when the bad results started to stack up.

And what's strange about this phenomenon is it only started after the World Cup. Perhaps, weirdly enough, he doesn't get enough criticism for his team's set-up against Belgium, which required Tim Howard to be Superman in order to just keep the US in the game. And yet they were not too far away from heading to penalties with that Golden Generation. But the honeymoon ended quickly after that game and during the Gold Cup of 2015, every mistake tactically or otherwise was foist upon Klinsmann's head.

He was certainly given more slack privately than Bob Bradley did for similar sins, largely because of the new contract Sunil Gulati handed him, but in the court of public opinion he was fired at least five times for his many tactical failings before he was actually fired. So by the time when he committed the sins that actually caused his downfall, the mob had already figuratively drawn and quartered the man, even though there were legitimate complaints well before the Mexico and Costa Rica games.

Did Klinsmann deserve the criticism he had been given for his many failings? Yes, unquestionably. But since every one of those sins was a fatal offense in the eyes of many, whether they actually were or not (and some certainly were), the analysis of him as a manager and even technical director suddenly became about the fact he should have already been fired even before a ball had been kicked in his next test.

Now that he has been sacked, the question will be whether Bruce Arena is held to a similar standard. He has far less margin for error, but in many ways is more respected than Klinsmann, so how his early results will be judged is a fascinating test to see whether the standards shift for different managers. In theory they shouldn't. But if the US fails to qualify for Russia, will we see opinions such as "Arena couldn't do much with what Klinsmann left him" in full bloom?

This piece is essentially about the opinions of opinions, which is plenty meta, but important to understand how US soccer fans and media view themselves, their national team and how the sport has grown in this country. In many ways we've caught up to the rest of the world now, with the almost daily insistence that Jurgen Klinsmann be fired the final step in our evolution.

But the next question is whether future managers are held to that standard, tactics and otherwise aside. Standards shift and change based on the times, but should they? When the goal is beyond just making the World Cup, maybe not.