Then again, judging from his blog, Mr. Stross seems to genuinely believe that "lol libertard" is a clever answer to anything a person he identifies as a libertarian says, including perfectly reasonable questions and comments. The Laundry series of novels are excellent and Apocalypse Codex is probably the only upcoming novel I'm actually looking forward to, but following Mr. Stross's quasi-political stylings on the Internet have really put me off him as a person.
Speaking of the Internet, one feature of the Economist I like are their blogs. There are a few on my blogroll on the right. Unfortunately for my collection of interests, one of the blogs I don't follow is the sports one, cleverly (...) dubbed Game theory. I can't really speak for most of their coverage, but when they touch on the two sports I really follow - ice hockey and Formula One racing - they come off as strangely amateurish and ill-informed. For instance, there was amusement in F1 circles this March when Game theory called Mercedes one of "the most storied and long-established teams in the sport". Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 team was founded in 2010. The last time any Mercedes works team raced in F1 was for two seasons in the 1950's. This strongly suggests that the writer has never followed F1 in his life.
They don't do much better with hockey. In a recent text on the NHL and Canada, they opined that "the NHL’s continuing enthusiasm for the Sun Belt is hard to fathom". I'm sure it is, if you ignore the fact that the league's marketing strategy for the last thirty years has been to build support for the game in so-called non-traditional hockey markets. As I understand it, the league sees great growth potential for hockey in the southern US. For every struggling franchise like the former Atlanta Thrashers, there's a success like the Anaheim Ducks or Tampa Bay Lightning. There's no such potential for an expanded fan base in an already hockey-mad Canada. So again, it's really only hard to fathom if you haven't followed the discussion on southern teams at all. Given that the Game theory post reads like it's cribbed from a Canadian op-ed, that seems likely.
Last week, they decided to tackle hockey again, and as I spotted the link on Twitter during a commercial break in Game 3, I had a quick look. Same old. Then it was tweeted at me later, which is what set this blog post off. So here we go.
Titled "Blockey blues", it's a retread of what we've been hearing all spring: the playoffs are boring because there's too much shot blocking and too little offense.
Unfortunately, the first three rounds have not yielded particularly exciting hockey.
Really? Did you watch the Boston-Washington series? Florida-New Jersey? Or, I don't know, the Flyers and Penguins? The last of the three was an offensive explosion unlike anything we've seen for years. Sure, compared to the ridiculous 7-5 numbers they put up, a solid playoff series like the Caps-Bruins battle may seem pedestrian, but it was proper postseason hockey. All in all, I think this has been a really good post-season; far better than last year's. Which is not to say that moments like the Bruins' comeback win against the Flyers from three games and three goals down weren't something to behold, but overall this has been a good postseason. An especial highlight are the LA Kings, who are playing the best hockey on the planet right now.
There are a few puzzling details in the piece, like this one:
A direct effort to outlaw the Rangers’ approach would require separate rules for forwards and defencemen, which would be difficult to devise and virtually impossible to enforce.
This is such a bizarre notion that it actually took me a moment to track it down. They seem to be referring to introducing a variant of basketball's key rules to limit forwards coming back to defend the slot, a move originally suggested by then-Nordiques coach and GM Pierre Pagé, the man who made the Eric Lindros trade, and resurrected last month by the Globe and Mail.
It's not a bad idea, but as the Economist says, it would be damn near impossible to put into practice. The puzzling aspect is that apart from that piece in the Globe and Mail, the Pagé idea has had zero traction in the current discussion. In fact, that's the only mention I've heard of it anywhere. The shot-blocking discussion has been going on for months in the Hockey News and elsewhere, and the rule change proposal that's actually being discussed is to ban skaters from going down on the ice to block shots. That requires no separate rules for forwards or defensemen and would be easy to enforce. Hockey history aficionados will know that at one time goalies were required to stand up at all times. It's more than a little strange to completely omit discussion of the most popular and likely rule change, and imply that an obscure proposal fielded by the Globe and Mail is the only possible solution. Again, it gives the impression the piece was written by someone who hasn't followed the current discussion at all.
(Addendum: after an argument about the Pagé proposal, I want to point out that it would have several terrible implications. It will make things harder for the power play, because if only the defensemen are allowed in the slot, they can't run a cycle on the power play because the D have to be held back. In general, the rule change would really hamstring offensive defensemen, and that might actually make the impact on scoring an overall negative.)
So same old, really; another Game theory piece badly cribbed from a single source and mangled by incomprehension of the subject. But there's a much more important point here than the poor quality of the Economist's sports coverage, in a flaw that the piece in question has lifted directly from its source and that recurs in better texts on the topic: the idea that good hockey means lots of goals.
But the league has historically been slow to move—it only instituted the anti-neutral-zone-trap policies when the lockout gave it a full year off to contemplate how to improve the sport. It will probably take at least another year of 1-0 snooze-fests for the game’s leaders to spring into action on improving the spectacle for fans.
Again, if we're going to be pedantic, the league never put any anti-trap policies in place; the good old 1-2-2 is alive and well. What they did was institute a crackdown on obstruction, a different beast altogether, and the difference is very relevant because I'm not sure the current slowdown in offense isn't due to a relaxation of that crackdown.
But above all, my problem with this line of thinking is that it assumes that goals per game is a meaningful indicator of game quality. It just isn't. Under that approach, Canada's 8-0 defeat of Kazakhstan was a far better game than silver medalist Slovakia's nail-biting 3-1 semifinal victory over the Czechs, a game I had the privilege of watching live. Or that Team Finland being slaughtered 6-2 was much more entertaining than the Finland-USA quarterfinal that ended 3-2 with a surpise goal in the dying seconds of the game. In fact, for a really good international game played in Finland, you have to go back to the 2003 world championships when Finland beat Slovenia 12-0. Surely hockey at its best.
It should be blindingly obvious to anyone who watches hockey that goals per game is a terrible metric for measuring the quality of a game. It simply doesn't follow that increasing goals makes the game better. This is why I'm so skeptical of the suggestions for, among other things, bigger nets. I mentioned the Philadelphia-Pittsburgh playoff series with its crazy, high-scoring games, and I agree that it can be wildly entertaining when a game, or a series, spins out of the coaches' control like that one did. But I would argue that this is only entertaining because it's the exception. Can any hockey fan really say that it would be better if all playoff series were like that?
In my opinion, what we want to see are close, hard-fought games. Describing a 1-0 game as a snooze-fest is just silly. In my opinion, the most boring games are the 5-1 foregone conclusions. If Detroit takes a 3-0 lead over Columbus in the first, most of us will tune out. Making scoring easier while all other things are mostly equal will simply make that a 5-1 deficit in the first. I don't really see how that's better. Another thing is compelling storylines, and I don't mean the nonsense the league tries to feed us, but storylines that evolve and unfold by themselves in hockey. How much more compelling did it make the Flyers-Penguins series that it was the battle of Pennsylvania, and involved the league's poster boy, Sidney Crosby, playing like the player he is as opposed to the player the league markets? Again, storylines don't express themselves in goals per game. The Coyotes' and Kings' trips to the conference final were great stories in themselves, and the Devils' and Coyotes' post-seasom success is especially bittersweet because of the dire financial situation of the franchises. You can't make these things happen, especially not by increasing offense.
I'm in favor of cutting down on shot blocks, if only because they lead to more players being injured, but they're not the problem. In my opinion, the reason offense is down is the relaxation in obstruction. Interference calls have almost disappeared compared to the first few post-lockout years, and it's having a definite impact on the game. The league should return to the old new standard, so to speak, and get rid of the interference, dirty play and downright goonery of teams like the Bruins and Penguins.
Even so, the problem in hockey isn't a lack of scoring. In fact, I'm not convinced there's a problem with the game at all right now. Yes, there are many ways it could be better, but staring at goals per game tells you nothing about the quality of the on-ice product. If you only want to see goals, watch the higlight reels. The rest of us would like to see a hockey game.