New York Rangers: Thoughts on the Analytics/Toughness Debate

New York Rangers’ Twitter has always had some heated debates, as any large, passionate group of fans would. However, over the past week in particular, the fan base has been seemingly divided about whether toughness is a necessary component for a winning team, and if people read too much into analytics.

Sit back and relax because this is gonna take a while.

After a few weeks of seeing everything being said on New York Rangers Twitter about the validity of advanced analytics and whether or not toughness matters in terms of putting a winning hockey team out on the ice, I have been chomping at the bit to write this article.

It’s crazy how split the fan base is on the topic of team construction and “what works” in today’s NHL. Why can we only be pro-analytics or anti-analytics, or pro-toughness or anti-toughness? And of course another part of this whole conversation is the misconstruing of what toughness means in the present day NHL, but we will get into that a little later.

This is my theory; in order to build a well-balanced, successful hockey team, things like advanced analytics, the eye test, and an element of toughness and other intangibles all need to be taken into account and, here is the most important part of the equation; none of these are more important than another.

Thoughts on Toughness

I want to start off by saying this; there is no way to mathematically quantify an intangible like toughness or leadership, and that’s okay. Just because you can’t quantify something mathematically like an intangible doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

People too often misconstrue the notion of toughness with fighting. Just because you fight doesn’t mean your tough and just because you’re tough doesn’t mean you fight. Toughness is more than just that. It is more than just a physical thing, it is also a mental thing.

Toughness is a mindset that says “I’m not going to let my myself or my teammates get pushed around and I’m not about to take crap from anybody.” It’s playing a fearless game, going to the dirty areas of the ice and attempting to make things happen that way. If you don’t think agitation is an important part of the game, the ability to get under the opponents skill, then you are lying to yourself.

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The Rangers are way too passive. When teams get physical with them, usually it takes them off their game and it makes them think twice about going into the dirty areas.

This is why rooting for the wild card and a matchup with a team like the Montreal Canadiens could be, as Derek Stepan put it, “the kiss of death.” The Habs got bigger and stronger at the deadline, and it showed Saturday night when they bullied the Rangers for 60 minutes.

People often point to teams like the Penguins and the Blackhawks as teams that are committed to the skill game and don’t get involved in too much physical activity and win almost routinely. While that may be the case, look at their rosters! Do you see a Crosby/Malkin/Letang or a  Kane/Toews/Keith on the Rangers? It’s apples to oranges.

Another thing that people need to understand is that if you are pro-toughness, you are not necessarily pro-Glass. Glass brings more of an old school version of toughness without being able to play a skilled game which is more-or-less mandatory to have success in this league nowadays.

Related Story: Balancing Rangers Analysis and Fandom

A player like Antonine Roussel on the Dallas Stars is a perfect example of a “tough guy” in today’s league. Roussel plays with a whole lot of sandpaper in his game. He hits hard, he likes to chirp, he sticks up for his teammates even if that means dropping the gloves AND he can play a skill game.

Through 60 games, Roussel has 12 goals and 15 assists along with 115 penalty minutes. THAT is the kind of guy you want on your team. Imagine him on a line with Oscar Lindberg and Jesper Fast!

Thoughts on Analytics

On the flip side, if you completely ignore analytics, your just asking for trouble. Analytics are a good thing to have at your disposal. Regardless of how you feel about a certain player, the advanced stats tells an unbiased story about a player’s performance.

Not only that, but it can help you determine the areas where you need to get better that you may not have noticed by way of the eye test. They could also help optimize a lineup to help paint a picture of what players would work well with each other.

But people also need to realize that analytics are only just part of the equation. Without context, stats like corsi and fenwick lose a lot of their value in terms of player evaluation. Since the corsi stat has become more prominent, players are making it a point to take more shots to increase their value when looking for a contract.

Look at a guy like Brandon Pirri, for instance. For years Rangers fans and bloggers alike begged for the team to go after the young winger citing his shooting ability and his strong possession numbers. 2015-16 was the first season in Pirri’s career where he had under a 50 CF%.

Even though Pirri has a 48.3 CF% this season, just shy of number five on the team by .1%, we have all come to the conclusion that Pirri is a horrible hockey player. He is one dimensional, and when his shot isn’t working he is useless.

Pirri is not the only one. Look at a guy like Emerson Etem who the advanced stats said was a stud and was actually a complete and total dud.

Believe What You Wanna Believe, but be Open Minded

Kevin Delury wrote a piece on the New York Rangers Blog a couple weeks ago about letting fans enjoy watching the game regardless of what they believe in. I completely agree, and you should definitely give his story a read if you haven’t already.

What good is mocking other members of the fan base going to do? I’m fine with fans debating, of course, but outright mocking them, on either side of the fence, is pointless.

All I ask is that, if you take just one thing from this article, understand where people are coming from and be open minded to different ideas regarding ways the Rangers can win because, after all, we are all fans and we share that common goal of one day winning the Stanley Cup.

The sooner we realize that both the analytic side and the old school side that believes in toughness have a role to play on a successful team, the better.