Keith Yandle and the Long Tail

I try to live my life by two simple rules:

  1. When there’s trouble you call DW
  2. Be aware of the limitations of my own memory

While the application of Rule #1 is pervasive and obvious, Rule #2 has specific relevance to the early season discussions on the play of Keith Yandle. I think our memories left unchecked can be less than stellar evaluators of players like Yandle.

I view Yandle as a player who brings most of his value moving the puck from the defensive zone to the offensive zone. Moving the puck up the ice is rarely an overly memorable event. After a game, I certainly can’t produce a visual replaying of all the zone exits in my mind. There’s too many and each one has a relatively small impact on the game. They make an impact through their frequency.

Getting the puck out of the zone, with only the target “out of the zone” in mind, is a great way to avoid the memorable negatives that can plague a fan’s perception of a player, but does little to prevent eventual goals against. While it won’t lead to them directly, giving the opposition repeated opportunities to re-enter your zone with the puck will inevitably lead to some of those pucks getting behind your goalie. Those who rely heavily on the glass-and-out strategy also rely on that gap in time between the puck being on their stick and the scoring chance against absolving them of blame in our minds. Those who make leaving the zone with possession a priority run the risk of the turnover that leads directly to a scoring chance against, without the buffer of a few seconds to separate the two in our minds.

Imagine we had a perfect knowledge of game states and could assign each play a player makes a discreet value based on where the team was before and after that play. For example, a play that takes the team from a neutral state, one where either team is equally likely to score (value of 0) to one where his team has a 50% chance of scoring (value of 0.5) would be worth 0.5 goals. A play that would take them from that state back to neutral would be worth -0.5 goals.

If we were to gather up all the plays Keith Yandle made in the defensive zone in a typical week, it might look something like this:

yandleplusyandleminusThe high-magnitude negative plays might be a turnover that leads to a scoring chance against, or a slip on defensive coverage. The high-magnitude positive plays might be a breakout leading to an odd-man rush going the other way, or a quick stick breaking up a scoring chance against. The long tail of low-magnitude positive plays are predominantly him putting the puck on a teammates’ stick leaving the zone.

If you were to sum up his top ten positive plays and his top ten negative plays–which even then is probably stretching the bounds of what we retain for a single player in a week–you’ll net a negative result. But the few most extreme on either end is a biased sample for Yandle, because it cuts off the long tail of his subtle, yet-frequent positive plays. Yandle’s not playing to maximize his utility in the highlight reels of our minds, however. He could easily eliminate some of those big red bars by choosing the safe¬†(as far as instant chastisement goes) play, but that would result in the long tail moving from the positive side to the negative. Works great for our short-term memories, but it’s damaging to the bottom line goal differential.

In summary:
Keith Yandle plays in a way that carries a risk of a turnover in the defensive zone, which we’ll remember.
He does this is lieu of giving up possession to the other team in the neutral zone, eventually leading to scoring chances against, which we’ll forget.
In doing so, he’ll spring some offensive scoring chances.¬† We’ll remember the scoring chances, but we’ll forget his part in them.

It’s easy to allow our memories to gloss over the high-frequency but low-impact events so prevalent in hockey. I’m sure we all know someone who justifies paying $2 on some lottery every day because of that one time he won $85. Don’t be that guy when it comes to Keith Yandle.

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