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Miro Heiskanen is a good hockey player. Analytics are a valuable tool. Both are true.
I'm just tired of getting pulled back into debates from 2012
The Dallas Stars beat the Seattle Kraken 6-3 on Tuesday night.
That’s a fact.
Miro Heiskanen led all skaters in ice time with 31:02, all while playing with a nasty gash on his face and wearing a fishbowl to protect it.
That’s also a fact.
In Heiskanen’s time on the ice the Kraken had a 35-31 edge in shot attempts and a 14-10 edge in shots. When you isolate that to even strength play, which is how the game is primarily played, Seattle controlled possession with a 32-23 edge in shot attempts and shots were 8-7.
This is also a fact.
Miro Heiskanen made a huge difference in the game. It felt dominant, I wrote as much after Game 4.
That’s my opinion. I’m entitled to, it I’m free to defend it and talked about it in the postgame podcast edition of Spits & Suds.
Others also share that opinion, Stars coach Pete DeBoer among them, some of the NHL scouts I texted with.
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And that’s OK.
What’s not OK, and what’s been frustrating for me, has been the Twitter discourse over the past two days where somehow it’s turned into an early 2010s social media battle.
It started with Micah Blake McCurdy posting 5v5 expected goals chart with the commentary, “It is weird seeing people give Heiskanen credit for the Stars win last night - he was shelled in chances and +0/-2 in goals at 5v5.”
Stars fans jumped on it, Micah defended himself. Then the Stars official Twitter account responded to it, in a since deleted Tweet, adding more fuel to the fire.
It was no longer Stars vs. Kraken, it was Stars vs. McCurdy. A sideshow that went even further when Stars beat writer Saad Yousuf asked the fair question about Heiskanen and analytics to Pete DeBoer on Thursday morning.
“Honestly, I don’t even look at the analytics with Miro. The eye test is enough,” DeBoer said. “I don’t need anything more than that. He was outstanding. Why? Did the analytics say he was poor?”
“That’s what it said,” Yousuf replied.
“Really?” DeBoer said, with a laugh. “Controlled the whole game. Anyways.”
To be clear, this is a good question from Yousuf. It’s also a good answer from DeBoer. The Stars coach has a legal degree, he’s very calculated in his responses, he was never going to do anything other than shrug off criticism diplomatically — even if deep down he felt Heiskanen had struggled.
There could have been a follow up question, maybe should have been, although DeBoer would have just shrugged it off. But the answer added to the virality of the moment, once again prompting a larger charge of Stars Twitter vs. McCurdy.
What McCurdy’s data should have prompted, if anything, was a deeper conversation about how this all ties together.
Part of Heiskanen’s success in Game 4, which I applauded, was the narrative. We saw in Game 3 how much his departure shellshocked the rest of the Stars. We saw the Joker-type walk-in in a purple suit with the scar. We saw the fishbowl, we saw the time on ice, we saw Dallas’ defense look better in a game with Heiskanen back.
In the immediate aftermath the images cloud your judgement, it’s hard not to marvel at the story. And stories — entertainment — are really why we watch (and I write about) sports.
Numbers, while cold at times, help us better tell those stories. They provide context. It doesn’t take away from what Heiskanen did, or the fact he struggled to eat or sleep because of the cut, but it does provide a reality check.
The Heiskanen-related data makes the Stars victory even more impressive. They lost the shot-share battle when their best player was on the ice, they still won 6-3. That’s impressive. For all the talk this season about the Stars lack of defensive prowess after Heiskanen, the rest of the D core stepped up after they failed to do so in Game 3 when the Finn was injured.
Joel Hanley and Thomas Harley, albeit in limited ice time, deserve more credit than they received in the aftermath of Game 4.
Hockey analytics are imperfect, it’s a growing and evolving industry. But it’s the science that helps explain the religion on ice that we all have grown to love. Good science and good religion often come to the same conclusion, even if they sometimes clash in the process.
Analytically Heiskanen is a good player, great even. One game of poor analytical numbers don’t change that. Hockey is random, another reason we love it, so single-game sample size — and using it as a broad brush to paint an entire industry — is faulty.
Another question we should be asking after Game 4 is what are the metrics missing? What did my eyes tell me that the numbers missed? And is it even something that can be measured?
The way Heiskanen makes stick checks to kill chances and skates opponents out of position, don’t get well tracked in expected goal models. The emotional impact is nothing more than that, emotional.
DeBoer’s comments are also kind of laughable, even while well planned. The Stars look at the analytics for every player, the have grown a more robust analytics department, and they didn’t need a public-facing Tweet from an analyst (who is very good at his job, and I subscribe to his work) to let them know they got out-chanced with Heiskanen on the ice.
Sports are black-and-white — there is a winner and a loser — with shades of grey that make it more interesting along the way.
You can dislike data, you can embrace data. Either way, data is data, and the ensuing conversation should be about applying the why and how of the situation, not disputing facts on a stat sheet.