Saturday, December 04, 2010

Game 14: Predictions

Those of you not interested in the minutiae of Taiwan hockey, stop reading now.

This post has nothing to do with the Canadiens, or the NHL, or any hockey anywhere in North America, or anyone who plays it. Nothing. At all.

If there is a larger purpose to this post, beyond the indulgence of my fangirlish tendencies, it is a personal test of the whole concept of ‘expert predictions’. I have my doubts that hockey is predictable at all. I fear the whole mess may be more than 50% luck, or so near as makes no difference, such that it cannot be well-predicted by anyone. But I don’t know, and the NHL isn’t a suitable place for me to speak to the issue. I’m not an expert in NHL hockey, and I am not always qualified to judge the expertise of others who claim the title, as everyone who writes or speaks about the game generally does. It’s an obvious problem: leaving aside the statisticians, almost every argument made in hockey relies, in the last instance, upon the claim of expertise. I saw this thing with my experienced sight, I cross-referenced it against my extensive background knowledge, and I formed this most educated of opinions, for I am a student of the game. Some out there are undeniably experts capable of particularly great insights. Most are just passionate viewers who mistake the intensity of their feelings for great insight. But regardless, everyone claims expertise.

The evaluation of such claims is yet another of the difficult problems that face hockey analysis. Those experts who are erudite enough to convey their ideas clearly and entertainingly shine through (Bob Mackenzie, I think, and the blogger Lowetide, for example), but it is perfectly possible to be a genuine expert and be simply express it in a way that makes you sound ridiculous (I have heard this argument made not infrequently about Pierre Maguire.) Similarly, it is possible to be well-spoken, persuasive, and utterly wrong. I have been so at times, and I can think of a few other writers who tend that way. So for me, one of the major questions going forward is: What can one reasonably expect from an expert? And, more specifically, to what extent can expertise predict hockey outcomes?

I am nearly, from a certain angle, an expert in Taiwan hockey, or at least the CIHL-International variant of it. I know most of the players both as players and people, and much of the history, and almost everything there is to know about the structure and proclivities of the play style. It is, therefore, of great interest to me to see how predictive this deep-ish knowing can be, as opposed to the superficial knowing I have of the professional game. So I won’t bother trying to predict what will come of the NHL in 2010-2011. But I will venture to predict the CIHL.

A crash course in the League. Six teams, fifteen games per team, everyone plays everyone else three times, all games played on the lovely international-size rink at the Taipei Xiao Ju Dan. Games are three twelve-minute periods, stop time, played under a slightly modified version of IIHF rules which are interpreted and enforced by a pair of dual-role referees/linesmen, who are prone to think in the NHL mode. Every season, the entire League is redrafted by the delegated Team Managers. This year, the draft went thirteen rounds: twelve skaters and a goalie, with the option to pick up a spare at the end.

What follows are my predicted regular-season rankings. CIHL playoffs feature a single-game quarterfinal, which makes it a little ridiculous to try to predict the champion under any circumstances.

1. Tigers- This might be a bit of a homer pick (in the sense that it favors people who happen to live in my home), but there’s an objective case to be made that this is the most balanced roster in the League. Even if reigning MVP Mal Turner and “Vezina” winner Mario Beaulac don’t repeat their extraordinary success, they’re both perennial high-end performers and reliable picks even at their exalted rankings. Likewise, former Shark KC Chou is coming off an excellent season. While the Tigers didn’t take any defensemen high, they did overstock slightly on D in the lower rounds, meaning they have plenitude of options on the backend. They’re not overly reliant on any one person for their success, rather they’ve got some kind of everything one might need. Even if some of those things don’t pan out, they’ll be better off than most.

2. Bears- Greg Walsh is well-known to be the… hmm… I’m gonna go with sharpest team manager in the League, and there is an old Taiwanese hockey proverb that says, “Never bet against Steve Clark, even if he’s playing on a team comprised mostly of rhododendrons”, so this is not a franchise to take lightly. True to form, it’s a heckuva roster, hardly a misstep at any position. No other team got better consistent value-per-round in the draft. But the overall result has a distinct skew to it that leaves a few open questions. Firstly, this is not a team with much in the way of speed, or more accurately, acceleration. Particularly against some of the younger, fleeter rosters, they might find it difficult to be the first to loose pucks, ergo, I would hypothesize that their offense is going to depend upon lengths of sustained puck control. They’ve got the horses to do it, certainly, but it’s setting themselves an extra challenge. Secondly, the Bears have taken on a selection of… ummm… let’s say temperamental players, which is, again, not necessarily a problem, but could end up making shit more complicated than it has to be. I’m figuring they lose a couple games on bad wheels and/or bad moods alone, just enough to put them below the Tigers.

3. Mustangs- The Mustangs have been the CIHL-International’s perennial bottom feeders for more or less their entire existence, so it feels awkward to pick them high. But this set is a far cry from the problematic rosters that plagued previous seasons. More of a Rest-of-Taiwan All-Stars than a Kaohsiung team, the Mustangs now boast solid goaltending, good defense, probable scoring and some ACTUAL DEPTH FOR ONCE. If the team ends up in the basement again, barring injury to or deportation of key members, it’s a persuasive piece of evidence that no team can be competitive on the ‘southern schedule’ (N. B.: Southern teams in the CIHL play two games per weekend, but those weekends may be scheduled anywhere from three to six weeks apart).

4. Raptors- They’re the sort of team you would like to root for. Good dudes, solid citizens, upright downright forthright folk, salt-of-the-earth, etc. etc. It doesn’t read like a roster to stir up a lot of ooohs and aaahs, but they’ll put in a credible effort every game, and I expect they’ll get their goals at a steady but inglorious rate. If netminder Leo Liao improves this year, as he has for the past two, or if they manage to be stingy with their chances against, they could go higher, but would not stake money or reputation on it.

5. Wolves- Team Manager Dylan Liu and assistant Ryan Lang both coach for the Typhoon Club, and at the draft they elected to play to their strengths, filling out their team with young local players. This is to be commended- despite lip service to the idea of developing Taiwan hockey, some managers are far too willing to draft the same people, year after year, unto desiccation and decrepitude. It’s absolutely critical, for the growth of the game on this island and for the CIHL as a league, that new blood be brought in regularly, and the Wolves are not only serving their own interests but (*gasp*) the greater good by giving opportunities to the kids. The downside is that, while this is almost certainly the team of The Future, I’m not convinced it’s the team of This Season. Liu spent his top three picks on forwards, selecting by far the most dangerous single line in the entire league, but the team is thin on defense and defensive-mindset. Combined with their inexperience, I think that means they’re in for a major development season. They’ll learn and they’ll get improve, but I suspect they’re going to do quite a bit of losing in the process.

6. Sharks- Like the Wolves, the Sharks took a lot of rookies. The difference is that while the Wolves took young players who have been and will continue to be coached by the team manager, and took them almost exclusively in the lower rounds, the Sharks took a selection of rookie adult foreigners- newbies or erstwhile club-division players- and took them all over the place. Rookies, particularly North American ones, tend to struggle, no matter how good the player. CIHL hockey is a quirky varietal of the sport, and the system favors guys who are accustomed to it. I would not predict, of course, that everyone on the Sharks who hasn’t played in the Open before will have a bad year, but the Sharks need every single one of them to play as well as or better than their draft ranking, and I very much doubt that all of them will. I like a lot of the guys on this team as individual players, but overall I don’t see a method in the madness. Bottom line, if Stewart Glen (G) doesn’t have a stellar season, I don’t see them beating any of the above teams more than 1 game in 3.

Much as always, depends on goaltending. At least one high-ranked goalie will underperform, at least one low-ranked goalie will overperform, and such fundamentally unpredictable swings could vastly effect the results. Additionally, the midseason draft could be huge. According to custom, players who want to join the league after the initial draft are assigned to a squad at Chinese New Year, with the best new players going to the worst performing team until this point. A number of very good Taiwanese players did not register for the International at the beginning of the season. If they change their minds, it is possible the balance of power could radically chance come February.

And, finally, to any CIHL player who happens to read this and is fixin’ up an argument to launch into at some ungodly hour after a few too many beer: Talk is cheap. If I’m wrong, don’t tell me. Show me.


Vanderlyse said...

Terrific idea. I don't think there is nearly enough accountability among so-called "hockey experts" and I often see projections out there that are absurdly specific. So, good job for testing the predictability of the sport, at least in this context.

uni said...

A guy from work is headed out on a tour of South America, then Asia for the next 1-2 years.

Not really relevant to Taiwanese hockey, but it's one of his goals to play hockey on each continent. Any idea where he can get into a game in Asia E? Apparently the boys over at C'n'B regard you as the expert on all things Hockey in Asia.

E said...

vanderlyse- we'll see how it goes... so far, not so good, but the season is young-ish.

uni- hockey is surprisingly not-unpopular around these parts. he could find a game (or a shinny-type practice, anyway) fairly easily in china, taiwan, japan, korea, thailand, malaysia, or the philippines. in taipei, there are practices on tuesdays in ximen and wednesdays and thursdays at the arena that he could probably get in on- but taiwan isn't on everyone's asia-tour itinerary. i suspect hong kong would be the easiest place to find something- they've got a ton of clubs and a few mall-rinks. he can email me when he knows where he'll be landing, i'll see if i have any useful contacts to pass along.

uni said...

Thanks E! I'll pass the information and your blog link onto him =).

uni said...

Oh, he won't be in Asia for about a year or so, he has to get through South America first.

Had no idea hockey (at least on ice) was so big in Asia.

If you ever need help with something computer related I owe you a favour.

Jaboney said...

Called it. Hey, where'd my prediction go?