As the debate on the use of measurement tools to assess hockey players performances grows, so too has the debate about the usefulness of traditional observational analysis. As the Draft and Free Agent period approached, there was a lot of discussion about how best to measure and assign value to draft, trade, or UFA candidates. Two of the terms that stood out to me as creating distinct opinions or camps, were effort and intangibles. Can we make valid observations about players we don’t personally know, especially as it relates to their effort or work levels?
Is it possible to measure something for which there may not be a direct measurement tool? If we were talking about cyclists, we could put them on a stationary bike and do a VO2 max test to determine what maximal effort is for each athlete. We could apply a whole host of formulas to determine work, power, speed, or force. Hockey being a free flowing and dynamic sport, it does not lend itself to the easy measurement of these things while on the ice. However, whole areas of science- physics, kinesiology and exercise physiology among them- study and report these things in more static terms. However, can we make assessments about effort and work without their tools, without personally knowing the athlete and using only our eyes, experience and knowledge of the sport?
On day one of the Guy Boucher era in Tampa he blew his whistle and called the players to him. When they arrived, he told them that their effort was lacking and that in the future when he blew his whistle, he expected them to race to him with full effort. He then sent them back to their previous stations and blew his whistle again. How did he know that they did not initially comply with full effort when all of these players were new to him? What did he observe? Observation, experience and expectations give us the ability to know what something should look like or how someone should perform regardless of whether we have a specific measurement tool. The more times we observe an individual athlete, the more observational data we have to make determinations about what they are capable of and whether they have worked with full effort.
If I look outside at the pool, I instantly know whether the water level is high or low on any given day without ever using a measuring device. I can watch a bird flying and know if it is working hard depending on conditions, or flying fast or slow. The examples of the effectiveness of observation are endless. Ironically, each athlete provides us with the yardstick by which we can measure them. They set their own bar. We observe their best performances and then coaches, GM’s and even fans have visual cues as to the observed level of play. It becomes very obvious which players consistently meet their own measurement. We hold these players in very high regard.
There may be no greater cliché in all of sport than assessing that a player gave 110%. For some players we extend this and say that he always gives 110%. We can all think of a player for which we would give this label. Right now,... who is yours? For better or worse, Marty St. Louis is mine. When he is on the ice he has but one so-called gear. When players consistently play at the level of their own set bar, we begin to give them labels. Heart, hustle, battles, courage, effort, competes, workhorse, gritty, hard, leader… We inevitably say that these players possess valuable intangibles.
The problem with the term "intangibles" is that we seldom stop to consider why the label got applied and what value it brings. Every time a player is labeled with an "intangible", it is because of a direct action observed on the ice. If a player chases a puck to the wall and more frequently than not wins it or ties it up, we say he is "hard" or "he competes or battles." A player that steps in front of a shot consistently is said to be "committed", "takes one for the team", or "pays the price". These are words of honor in our assessment. While there might not be a specific tool for measuring these so called intangibles, they all come from an action repeated consistently. Pick an intangible and then ask yourself what hockey related action awards a player that label. They all have one, or more commonly several.
Observational data matters and it provides us with a lot of substantial information about a player. Every NHL team has a scouting staff that goes to watch young players repeatedly. They are looking to see if the prospects perform certain hockey related actions and if they do them consistently. Do the kids "cheat" the game? Go to any of the NHL prospect sights and you will find a lot of those intangible words as well as some pure observational words to assess prospects. http://www.draftsite.com/nhl/mock-draft/2014/. What you will find as you venture into the projected second round and beyond, is that there are more frequent use of certain words like "needs to be more consistent." Lacking or undeveloped skill can lead to inconsistency, but so too can work or effort. Is a player that typically wins battles not winning them on a given night? Are they not doing the "small things?" Is he playing against a superior opponent, is he injured or is his commitment to the task (effort) not up to par? We can and do measure the player against their previous performances, and against their peers.
Observational data has been one of the primary assessment tools for coaches since the beginning of sports, and performances have improved. Collecting this observational data will always be the primary tool used by coaches, both at practice and in competition. It is the most immediate and easiest to process. Coaches even review game video and then use those observations to teach players what they need to do in certain situations or where their effort slipped. In the end, no single data source can present the entire picture, but we shouldn’t marginalize our ability to visually compare events and to measure one against the other.
Sports are replete with stories of underdogs winning; of less skilled athletes succeeding over more skilled ones because they outworked them. Effort matters and it can be measured. A quote that showed up in my Twitter feed while all of this debate was raging sums things up nicely. "Hard work beats skill when skill doesn’t work hard." When we watch an athlete repetitively, we know what they are capable of and we know how hard they can work. If one of these players takes a shift or a night off the reporters will frequently tell us about it, but our eyes probably already knew.