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What statistics ignore, the human side of hockey, and some Habs anecdotes

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Three things analytics-minded fans need to understand about the NHL game

Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

Having worked in the NHL and experienced the game of hockey from a variety of angles (as a player, coach, fan and analyst), there are some details that fans tend to overlook or take for granted. Statistics and objective analysis matter more than ever in building the best team possible, but there are important human elements at play, too. And it'd be a mistake to lose sight of that.

Let's talk about the three things which sound obvious, but go quite deep in influencing what happens on the ice and in the boardroom.

1) Players: Feel good, play good

Devan Dubnyk was an above-average goaltender for three consecutive seasons as a member of the Edmonton Oilers. After losing favour with the team early in the 2013-14 season, he was traded to the Nashville Predators, and later flipped to the Montreal Canadiens for "future considerations."

I saw him practice a few times in Brossard after he was called up as a member of the Black Aces, before the Habs' run to the Conference Finals. A towering figure at 6'6", Dubnyk played far smaller in his crease at that moment in time. At one point, Christian Thomas went bar-down on a wrist shot from the slot, and Dubnyk turned around and cracked his goal stick in two off the bar. A week later, he left the team to go home to his wife and newborn child, and never skated again as a member of the Habs organization.

Looking at the tremendous success Dubnyk has had as an Arizona Coyote or as a Minnesota Wild in 2014-15, it'd be tempting to wonder what would have happened if he had somehow regressed in the months he was with Montreal, and taken over for the injured Carey Price during the 2014 Conference Finals against the New York Rangers. But I think you'd have to be a little tone deaf to entertain that notion.

The 2013-14 version of Devan Dubnyk was just not in a good place. Whether it was implementing a "revolutionary" technique change in the off-season, getting a chance to challenge for a starting position again, or just spending time with family and getting some joy back in his life, Dubyk grew as a person during the summer of 2014. And that was what allowed his on-ice performance to rebound to such an extent.

With that in mind, I would not be surprised to see P.A. Parenteau have a pretty good season next year with the Toronto Maple Leafs. It'll be less about getting more ice time and favorable usage, and more about being entrusted with an important role while feeling happy and healthy. Calling it regression doesn't do that change justice.

2) Coaches: Less is more

Middle managers get no love, and it's tremendously difficult to have to keep both players and the front office happy. NHL coaches overwork, under-sleep, and need to sift through a mind-numbingly high quantity of information in order to do their jobs.

I was once handed a 12-page stats packet prepared for a (very successful) NHL coach. Numbers on goals, shots, special teams and faceoffs, broken down by opponent and period, filled the pages. If I had been him, I would have chucked that stack of paper into the nearest recycling bin, because most of those stats had zero predictive value and don't paint a valid picture of what was actually happening on the ice. Yet I hear that the NHL coach in question reads over these essentially pointless stats religiously on the night before a game. He really would have been better off going to sleep a bit earlier. His teams seem to do okay, in any case. Given what I know about where he works now, however, I would think that his pre-game prep work might be somewhat different next season.

Whenever I used to fly on the Canadiens' charter after an away game, I would see Michel Therrien huddled at the front of the plane with his assistants, looking over footage of the game which the Habs had just played. Sure, it's good to put in the hours and work hard to improve the team, but I doubt anyone does their best analytical work at 1 AM after a 12-hour work day. You're tired, you're (maybe) emotionally hung over and you're possibly looking at the wrong things to begin with (like how good certain players are at D-zone coverage, when the real issues is that they're playing in D-zone coverage too much). It's just not an ideal combination.

As a coach, it takes a certain degree of courage and wisdom to take a step back, think of your own state first, and delegate/put off tasks if you are not feeling 100%. Some of the best leaders I know do it, and maybe that's what it takes for others to get to the next level.

3) GMs: It's not just about winning

Every year, the 30 general managers in the league get asked about their objectives for the season. Invariably, the answer would be "win the Stanley Cup" for the contenders, and "make the playoffs" for the pretenders. But I think there's more to it than that.

Imagine for a second that you're an NHL GM. And let's say that bringing in a sought-after free agent could increase your team's goal differential by 15 next year (that's about 2.5 wins). You have no cap issues, and that player is willing to sign today if you offer him a contract. So you do it, right? It's a no-brainer.

But what if it's not a no-brainer? What if that player is currently awaiting trial for a felony? What if that player will later introduce one of your best prospects to the joys of cocaine consumption? What if a week's worth of bad decisions results in that player breaking up the marriage of one of his best, most dependable teammates?

If you knew that going in, would you still offer this player a contract? You'll get ripped by fans and the media if you don't, but ultimately you'd be justified in staying clear. Maybe you'll find those 2.5 wins somewhere else.

After all, it might be irresponsible to not take every opportunity to improve your team, but it's arguably even more irresponsible to go from 42 to 44 wins in a way which makes everyone in the organization sick to their stomachs. It's ironic that we hate corporations for putting the bottom line ahead of human dignity, but that we fully expect front offices to act the same way - and we're outraged whenever they don't.

All GMs want to win, of course. But the underlying credo is "honor the game and create a positive work environment, and the results will take care of themselves."

Jack Han is the Video & Analytics Coordinator for the McGill Martlet Hockey team. He also writes occasionally about the NHL for Habs Eyes on the Prize. You can find him on Twitter or on the ice at McConnell Arena.