Asking the Right Questions – The Imprecise and Unattainable

Updated: June 29, 2012 at 2:01 pm by Kent Wilson



“Not many people have grace.”
“Well, you know, grace is a tough one. I like to think I have a little grace. Not as much as Jackie O….”
“You can’t have a little grace. You either have grace or you don’t.”
“Okay, fine. I have no grace.”
“And you can’t acquire grace.”
“Well, I have no intention of getting grace.”
“Grace isn’t something you can pick up at the market.”
“Alright, alright, look, I don’t have grace, I don’t want grace, I don’t even say grace, okay?” 


Previously we discussed how asking the wrong questions is the first misstep management of lackluster teams can take in the off-season, with a particular focus on being skeptical of small outbursts of success amidst a general sea of mediocrity. This time around, I want to look at how fans and decision makers can get wrapped up in psychoanalyzing their players or agonizing over fuzzy, non-specific but apparently plausible factors.

In his year end press conference, Brian Burke noted he wanted the Leafs to get bigger and tougher going forward. Tyler Dellow has noted Steve Tambellini’s singular and bizarre fascination with the term poise. In Calgary, the implicit, operating assumption for the last three or four years has been the players are good enough to win on the ice, but they need more ______ (fill in the blank with whatever term you care to use. Leadership, will to win, cohesion, consistency of effort, grace etc.).

Although looking for toughness or poise or leadership sounds desirable (and their lack makes for a plausible explanation for failures), the problem with those concepts is their subjectivity and imprecision. During such press conferences, I always wait for someone in crowd to start asking for specifics when GM’s start throwing out the ol’ “we need our men to be decidedly more manly” quotes. For example:

  “How much bigger and tougher do you need to get? Is that in parallel with other qualities (speed, intelligence), or in favor to?”

 “Do you expect a magnitude increase in toughness? How will you  measure that?”

 “Do you expect more toughness to lead to less goals against? Or more goals for? Both? How much do you expect this increased truculence to improve your team’s goal differential? Why?”

 “How much do you expect to pay for this increase in muscle? How do you determine that this is an efficient use of resources?”

Of course, such questions would be mostly facetious. concepts like toughness/leadership/poise are easy to visualize as useful, tangible factors, they can’t actually be identified or quantified in any meaningful sense. As such, they also can’t be applied in any sort of analysis in terms of how “generally accepted positive quality X” affects goal differential (ie; wins) – except in the most rudimentary way (they probably help somehow).

The problem is that the relationship between stuff like leadership and poise to success is indirect, assumed and impossible to measure. Which isn’t to say wanting good guys in the room or lots of poise (however you want to describe that) is necessarily bad, it’s just that managers who make grand, conventionally valued but ill-defined qualities their primary objective can end up chasing ghosts and gossip.

It’s that type of thinking that leads you to trade a third round pick for an overpaid Steve Staios at the deadline or sign a doddering, gin-soaked Nikolai Khabibulin for $2 million too much and two years too long. The idea that reputation and attitude in the room trumps on-ice performance or talent level is what so often leads to bad bets or gross inefficiency.

If you’re a manager or fan of a bad team, your club probably has fundamental deficiencies in terms of talent in various places on the roster that lead to either too many goals against or not enough goals for (or both). Decision makers would be well advised to concentrate on shoring up those areas by asking questions of a players performance.

For instance –

“Does a player drive shots on net? Who dos he play with? Against? Does he produce on the PP? Is he a good bet to sustain that performance?”

Rather than –

“Is he good guy? Has he ever been on a cup winning team? Can he punch other players in the face?”

The former set of questions will get you closer to a players measurable value to the team. The latter are pale proxies of his abilities and value based on crude assumptions. The former should therefore always be considered before the latter in questions of player acquisition and retention.