The Murray vs. Diaz Saga: What does it mean for the fancystats community and the Canadiens organization?

With the trade of Raphael Diaz to Vancouver today for Dale Weise, the 'Murray vs. Diaz' saga is over. If you didn't know this was saga, let me explain. The comparison of Murray and Diaz represents the ideal use of advanced statistics. On one hand, in Murray, you've got a physically imposing player who blocks shots and hits a lot. On the other hand, in Diaz, you've got a physically smaller player who doesn't play a very physical brand of hockey and plays a more offensively-oriented game. In this case, statistical analysis is needed to unearth the apparently not-so-obvious truth: Diaz is a drastically better player than Murray.

Traditional analysis holds that Diaz is a 'soft,' 'risky,' and 'unreliable' offensive defenseman. Since he hasn't scored a goal in quite some time, he isn't even a good offensive defenseman to boot. Murray, on the other hand, 'plays a simple game,' is 'reliable,' has a 'veteran presence,' and can 'play the body' and 'clear the crease.' He is the perfect third-pairing defensive defenseman and a welcome addition to a Habs lineup that was lacking truculence on the blue line.

Now, in comes statistical analysis. I won't even post the hard numbers here - partly because I can't be bothered, and partly because these conclusions have been made time and time again in several other high-quality articles on this site.

Diaz is better offensively and defensively than Murray. This is an objective fact that can be verified with even a cursory glance at and/or He is much better at preventing the opposition from scoring and much better at helping the Habs score than Murray, despite facing much tougher competition and zone starts. For traditional stats enthusiasts, Diaz even blocks more shots than Murray. Hurray.

What is the relevance of this comparison for the Habs organization and the advanced statistics community? It heralds very grim news. This analytical comparison is very much black-and-white, and despite this fact, it is easy to find Habs fans who still maintain that Murray is better than Diaz. Even more worrying, despite the very basic nature of this analysis, the coach and general manager of our beloved franchise were unable to come to the obvious conclusion that Diaz is a valuable player and Murray should not be in the lineup.

Indeed, if Bergevin and/or Therrien had spent even 10 minutes looking up the most basic 'advanced' stats for Murray and Diaz, the former would never have been in the lineup while the latter was a healthy scratch, at the very least. They would have seen that this course of action was completely unjustifiable and plainly idiotic. If we had any doubt in Bergevin's use of statistical analysis, we now must admit that our worst fears have been realized. He pays absolutely no attention to even the most basic and glaring of statistics.

As for the meaning of this ordeal for the stats community: we are still very far from de-stigmatizing 'fancy stats.' If any of you had any hope that we would see stats like Corsi or Fenwick in common usage in the near future, you should probably give up that hope now and save yourselves a lot of grief. If people cannot even make the most basic and obvious statistically-supported comparisons (in this case, between Murray and Diaz), how can they be expected to adopt advanced statistics in everyday hockey discussion?

One of the big reasons I initially jumped on the fancystats bandwagon was that it allowed me to evaluate players that are hard to evaluate objectively, such as so-called 'shutdown defensemen.' In this regard, I have found statistical analysis invaluable, as I previously had to rely on hits, blocked shots, and +/- to evaluate players like Josh Gorges and Hal Gill. I find it very disappointing that others cannot come to the same realization that I did: that advanced statistics are a sign of progress in hockey analysis, and that they allow us to understand the game better than ever before.

Even more worrisome is that Michel Therrien and (especially) Marc Bergevin, who are paid to evaluate and manage players, fail to use the most effective tools at their disposal to do so, which has resulted in a multitude of disastrous decisions. Hopefully, we'll see a change in personnel sooner rather than later. I'm not banking on it, though, and neither should you.

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