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On Hype, Hope, and Reality: Or Why Optimists Hate Stats

We all hope for the best. We all want the new guy to be amazing, or the young guy to be better, or the breakout to keep getting better. That doesn't mean it is acceptable to ignore basic math showing the hopes are unlikely to come true.

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Every year, NHL prospects attend Rookie Camps with their teams, often in early July. The draft is over, the first day of free agency has passed, so it also coincides with people beginning to get excited about the upcoming season rather than looking back at the previous season. The team turns over, as do the fans' hopes and expectations. But those hopes and expectations are often based on emotion rather than reality.

The excitement of Rookie Camp comes from the participants being familiar only to a select group of fans, if at all. Most attendees have yet to play in the AHL, let alone the NHL. They are the players fans aren't likely to see for at least another year, if ever again. The people who pack the SkateZone are the diehards, the ones who take vacation days in order to watch 17 and 18 year olds move a puck between cones in the middle of July.

That is to say, those who attend Camp are the fanatics of the fan base. But they are also the ones who get wrapped up in what they see. Last year, the story at rookie camp was Mike Testwuide and how he would be challenging for a roster spot, and this year the story seems to be about Tom Sestito and Zac Rinaldo trying to shed their tough guy images. It's a compelling narrative, but it is difficult to believe.

The problem comes when fans take what they see, add it to what they read, and starting garnering unreasonable hopes and expectations. The simple fact is that nobody can evaluate a player based on five games, let alone five days worth of drills. Nobody can take what these guys say to the press as indicative of what they will accomplish in the next season, the next camp, or even the next day. These rookie camps are littered with guys who will never see NHL ice and more than a handful who will never see AHL game action, all trying to get the most attention.

Mike Testwuide impressed a lot of people last year, but he was not going to make the team last year for a variety of reasons. When it was shown that he had scored more points in his senior year at college than any two years combined up to that point, the hopefuls simply got more indignant. The same is true of Eric Wellwood, who scored more points his final year in the OHL than he had in his three previous years combined.

But both Wellwood and Testwuide impressed at camp - by virtue of beating guys most had never heard of (including Jesse Dudas, Michael Banwell, Chris Rawlings, and others), nor will hear from again - last year, and that got the faithful believing. They started hoping. And yet, calculating what Wellwood and Testwuide would do prior to the season (with help from Gabe Desjardins and his NHL Equiavlencies) predicted Testwuide's point totals almost exactly, while Wellwood underperformed his modest 38.6 points projection. Standard statistics and basic math, sprinkled with some research.

The same is happening this year, where people are talking about how impressive Zac Rinaldo and Tom Sestito are. People are hoping and believing that one or both of these guys turns into a 10-20 goal NHL scorer. Last year, Sestito scored 13 goals and 35 points in 57 AHL games. Using NHL Equivalencies - the same tool that accurately predicted Wellwood and Testwuide - we see that Sestito would be expected to score eight goals and 22 points in the NHL. Rinaldo's NHL Equivalency projects him to score two goals and five points in the NHL.

Sadly, it's just not likely either player will become a scorer in the NHL. By virtue of pointing out that fact, those of us who use objective evidence - statistics - are derided, criticized, or ignored. This is nothing new, of course, but it is remarkable when the statistics being criticized are goals and points, two linchpins of record keeping that have been printed in newspapers since before there was a team called the Toronto Maple Leafs.

There is nothing wrong with hoping these guys succeed, nor is there anything wrong with believing in what you see. Last year, Andrew Rowe became a personal favorite of mine. He turned out... no so great for the Phantoms. The numbers predicted Luke Pither and Shane Harper to be key contributors for the Phantoms, neither of which came true. The stats aren't going to predict the future, nobody claims they can. What they do, however, is represent the best evidence of what is likely to happen, based on everything that has already happened

It is certainly possible that Zac Rinaldo becomes a 20 goal NHL scorer. There is also a possibility that Zac Rinaldo scores 40 goals in an NHL season. Neither scenario is at all likely, and all it takes to realize how unrealistic that hope is would be to find that Zac Rinaldo has never scored eleven goals in a season since joining the CHL. His career high in goals is ten, which he did twice, both times in the CHL. Last year, he scored three goals in sixty AHL games.

But pointing this fact out to people is received negatively - not because it's wrong, since it's clearly not - because it crushes the optimist. Showing how unlikely it is for a guy who can't score eleven goals in Juniors (even Jody Shelley scored 25 goals in Juniors) simply makes the optimist dig their heels in and criticize the one showing evidence. Rather than face the harsh reality, the truth and evidence is ignored in favor of attacking the realist.

This phenomenon occurs in other places as well, including those predicting breakout performances from young NHL players. Claude Giroux was expected to break out last year, and he did. James van Riemsdyk was expected to breakout last year, but he only increased his point total by five in a season that saw him scratched and shopped by the Flyers. He had a really impressive playoffs, for sure, but we saw that happen with Ville Leino the year prior. Small samples like the playoffs tend to do that.

While Giroux actually had a breakout year when he was supposed to, it isn't a guarantee that van Riemsdyk breaks out next year. Jakub Voracek is now in his third-straight season failing to top 50 points. He was supposed to have a breakout season last year, as was Colin Wilson, Sam Gagner, Kyle Turris, Michael Frolik, Derrick Brassard, and Nikita Filatov, none of whom did. Hope is fine, but player progression is not a guarantee.

It isn't just those hoping for a breakout season, either. Nashville Predators fans ignore the reality that players don't often repeat a league-high shooting percentage of 24.7%. The list of previous winners includes Andrew Brunette, Ryan Malone, Mike Ribeiro, Jordan Staal, and Alex Tanguay. Not one of them scored more goals than they did the previous season. No player scored more than three additional points, and even then, only two players (Malone and Tanguay) increased their point totals from the previous year.

Nor do 23 year olds suddenly start shooting the puck twice as often as they used to to make up for that drop in shooting percentage. But that doesn't stop Predators fans from predicting a 25-goal, 70-point season for Sergei Kostitsyn, which would be the 5th-highest point total in team history. It would also be more than one-third of a point-per-game higher than Kostitsyn has scored in his career.

When presented with the evidence that shows there has not been a single 22 or 23 year old player since the lockout to have between 85 and 100 shots in a season and improve upon that the next year, the refrain is simply to give him the chance. Everybody is giving him the chance, it's simply that the chance being given is so small, nobody has accomplished it yet. Anybody who shows how unlikely that is gets dismissed because the facts don't agree with them.

Hope is a beautiful thing. Kostitsyn should absolutely strive to shoot the puck 100-150 times a year. Zac Rinaldo should strive to score 20 goals a year in the NHL. Fans should hope that these things come true. What they should not do is ignore how remote the possibility of their hope coming true is.

Simplistic math - counting of shots, counting of goals, calculating save percentages - is not the enemy. These are stats that (most) every hockey writer knows, that every newspaper prints, and that every generation has grown up on. Dismissing them because they simply disagree with you is ignoring reality. The funny (or infuriating) thing is that these are not advanced metrics that are being dismissed. They are things every boxscore has, but because the counting stats don't agree with one's hope, they are ignored.

Here in Philadelphia, Flyers fans are hoping that Ilya Bryzgalov is the answer to their goaltending problems. In his career, he's stopped 91.6% of all shots faced. It isn't unreasonable to hope he is better than any Flyers goalie of the last decade or more, but last year the Flyers goalies stopped 91.5% of all shots faced. That's a difference of two goals over a 2000 shot sample. Even if Bryzgalov repeats his career-best numbers, he will only be twelve goals better than last year's tandem over 2,000 shots.

It is simple math that shows Ilya Bryzgalov is unlikely to markedly improve upon Sergei Bobrovsky and Brian Boucher, but it is responded to with anger at the mere implication that he won't be drastically better. It flies in the face of conventional wisdom and media narratives that don't bother to do basic research or simple calculations.

But I guess that's what hope is. Hope is believing that your guy will be the first player in this era to improve upon a one shot per game pace. Hope is believing that your guy will get to the NHL and score twice as many goals as he's ever scored as a professional. Hope is believing that the new guy will not only repeat his career averages, not only match his career high, but somehow make the entire team better just by being here.

Hope is what makes fans continue to return.

I would apologize for being a hope-killer with my reality and evidence, but there will always be another Testwuide, Rinaldo, Kostitsyn, or Bryzgalov around the corner for the optimists to fawn over. While there's a pretty good chance at least one of these guys meet the hopes of their fans, we all need to avoid confirmation bias preventing us from taking an honest assessment of the situation.

Just because you hope for an outcome doesn't mean it is likely to be true.

Just because the facts disagree with your hopes doesn't mean you can't hope.