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Frozen Fantasy: Stats Can Mislead

Janet Eagleson

Janet Eagleson is a four-time winner of the Hockey Writer of the Year award from the Fantasy Sports Writers Association.

Last week’s article on punting UFAs before the trade deadline generated a lot of disagreement with readers; then again, when don’t I manage that feat? To be honest, I prefer to have you disagree.

It turns me on.

Yes-men are fine if you’re in politics or organized crime. I’m just not interested in those who buy ChapStick by the case. No thanks.

So I was flattered when a buddy of mine used his website and a little quantitative analysis to try to shoot holes in my position. How cool is that? It was rational and well argued. And the analysis he used supported his hypothesis.

Don’t they all?

I’m not picking on him and he’ll recognize that when he reads this. But his position made me reconsider the dangers we all face when we rely on a single perspective or analysis of any topic.

Numbers can always be manipulated despite what my Masters-trained colleagues argue (funny, they never say numbers can’t be manipulated; they simply say that it’s improper to do it). I guess you and I employ “improper” methods when we manipulate player stats with a positive or negative spin during trade negotiations.

I can live with that. It helps me get what I want.

But strictly examining increases in production – the what and the when – without factoring in qualitative factors – the why – is dangerous.

My buddy suggested players were more likely to increase in production after a trade. But I say it’s not just about the stats – it’s all about context.

Only eight of the 100 or so guys moved in the two days surrounding last year’s deadline had significant increases in production and were fantasy relevant (there’s where context slips into the discussion). That list included Lubomir Visnovsky , Lee Stempniak , Wojtek Wolski , Peter Mueller , Dennis Seidenberg , Jordan Leopold , Johnny Oduya and Niclas Bergfors . And the reality of those eight? It’s likely that fewer than half were seriously owned before the deals.

Another 15 or so – a group that includes lesser-lights like Kim Johnsson , Dominic Moore , Jason Blake , Teddy Purcell , Mathieu Schneider , Scott Walker , Denis Grebeshkov , Aaron Johnson and Curtis McElhinney – would have all had what would have been considered significant increases after the deal.

Schneider only played four games after the deal; ditto Grebeshkov. How does that help? Blake’s increase came on the back of an insane five-point game. Moore, Johnson, Walker and Purcell’s point-per-game increases all look sexy but how much value do 28-point centers, or 10-15 point wingers really have?

But big names that slump after a deadline deal can really kill your chances. We only need to look at the trail of broken hearts created by Ilya Kovalchuk’s point-per-game decline last year to see the ugly potential. And there are very few options on the wire when you had to drop steady producers (and sometimes overachievers) like Matt Stajan , Niklas Hagman , Alexei Ponikarovsky , Derek Morris , Ales Kotalik , Matt Cullen and even Jody Shelley because they fell off the map, even in single categories.

Numbers – in isolation – don’t tell the whole story. Context and replacement potential have to be weighed as equally as the numbers.

And that’s why I’d still trade a big-name UFA or an overachieving trade victim. I just don’t like the odds.

Now let’s take a look at who caught my eye this week.

Brian Boyle , C, NY Rangers (24 percent owned) – Look waaaaaay up and you’ll find Rusty. This guy is huge (6-foot-7 and 250-plus pounds) and uses his body to fill lanes and crowd the crease. And hit. Plus this year, he’s figured out how to use that 10-foot composite to find twine at a phenomenal pace. In fact, he has already quadrupled his previous season high (four goals) and is on pace for a whopping 27 snipes. His value is limited because of his position – center is incredibly deep. But he can help you in specialty leagues where even-strength goals and hits are important.

Scott Clemmensen , G, Florida (6 percent owned) – Coach Pete DeBoer rubbed salt in the wound that is a struggling Tomas Vokoun last week by starting Clemmer not once, not twice but three games in a row. And this career backup delivered five points – two wins and an overtime loss – to help the Floridian felines stop their recent bleeding. There’s a strong chance that Vokoun will be traded at or before the deadline and Clemmer will likely assume the starter’s reins. A starter is a starter. And we need only look at what he delivered in 2008-09 to know he can carry the proverbial mail over a shortened period. He’s the kind of guy you need to stash soon in order to take advantage down the road.

Grant Clitsome , D, Columbus (1 percent owned) – Grant, Grant, Grant – I can’t even imagine the schoolyard taunts you had to endure. Maybe it made you popular with the ladies. Well, you’ve made an impression with me. Five points in five games will do that. He’s a great puck mover who makes crisp, tape-to-tape passes and fires a mean slapper. And he’s paid his dues in the minors over the last two-and-half seasons, adding solid defensive positioning to his offensive tool belt. He’s only 5-foot-11 and he certainly wouldn’t have been at the top of the Jackets’ defensive depth chart at the beginning of the season. But opportunity has knocked and no one’s taunting him now. He could stick for the rest of the season. And he could deliver surprising value if continues to get power-play time.

Cal Clutterbuck , RW, Minnesota (9 percent owned) – This guy has one of the best names in the game. And guys know when he’s on the ice – he throws his body around like a heat-seeking missile. He has led the league in hits for two straight years and is on pace to explode last year’s high of 318. And not only is he going to eclipse his hit total, he has already established a new career best in goals with 14. There’s real value here if you need either of those categories.

Matt Cullen, C, Minnesota (22 percent owned) – All I can say is: It’s about time! He “came home” (he’s a Minny native) and fired things up fast and furious with nine points in his first six games and 14 points in his first 16 games. But then the temperature started to drop and so did his game; winters in Minnesota can freeze the fluids of even the heartiest of men. But somebody plugged the block heater into his game on Sunday and he’s now riding a three-game scoring streak (two goals, three assists). His assets are no longer frozen; take advantage.

Dmitry Kulikov , D, Florida (3 percent owned) – Kulikov has a bright fantasy future. He’s part thoroughbred, part riverboat gambler. That’s a risky combination, particularly when coupled with inexperience. But even though he’s only halfway through his sophomore season, Kulikov has already tightened his game significantly and turned some of last year’s recklessness into veteran-like smarts. He stepped up his game Saturday after watching Bryan McCabe absorb a puck with his face and then heroically finish the game with a jaw broken in several places. His two points Saturday have turned into a three-game, five-point streak and of course, increased ice time (including the PP) with McCabe out. He’ll sit out Friday with rib soreness; hopefully it’s not for long. He’ll help you if he’s healthy.

Milan Michalek , LW, Ottawa (5 percent owned) – Don’t look now but this former 60-plus point player may have finally rediscovered his legs. That knee injury (OK, four knee injuries) really slowed him down. But the calendar turned and so has his game. He has six points, including four goals, in his last eight games. And most impressively, he has two shorthanded goals in that span. He’s the kind of guy who – when healthy – can deliver 25 goals and 55 points over a full season, and he might be able to bring that pace to the plate over the second half. And that’s valuable in most 12-team leagues.

Brian Rolston , LW, New Jersey (2 percent owned) – Hmmmm … he may be old and he may not be in Jersey’s long-term plans. But he’s delivered a post-waiver face wash to his team and the entire league with six points in his last five games. It probably won’t last. But he might just give you the short-term help you need to overcome an injury. Just keep an eye on your plus-minus – he is a Devil after all.

Michael Ryder , RW, Boston (13 percent owned) – Heading into play Thursday, this nifty Newf was on a four-game scoring streak. He’s a natural sniper – that streak includes three-straight goals – but he carries a rep for being soft and selfish. He’s “on” right now (with the exception of his plus-minus) and on track for close to 25 goals and 50 points. He’s not a long-term roll but he’s not a bad short-term addition right now.

Jordan Staal , C, Pittsburgh (54 percent owned) – Staal had this three-game scoring streak snapped by Martin Brodeur on Thursday night. But that streak – three goals and three helpers – was just a glimpse of what this powerful stud can do when given the opportunity. And given the current circumstance in Pennsylvania, I’d say that opportunity has arrived.

Fedor Tyutin , D, Columbus (5 percent owned) – Who needs consistency when you can have Tyutin? He’s not flashy and sometimes he’s prone to stupid decisions. But he can also be poised, smart and aggressive, and when he is, his offensive game picks up. Like now. He has seven points in his last six games and 11 in his last 13. Jump in fast; just be prepared to jump back out as quickly as you got in – he could go on another streak like he did through November (no goals, three assists in 22 games).

Back to numbers.

I recommend that you use them any way you need to support your position when you’re working deals. We all do it intuitively; some try to do it maliciously.

But I’ll always be using qualitative data to influence my acquisition targets and I hope you do, too. Tomas Kaberle may look good from a purely statistical perspective but do you honestly think he can reverse his traditional second-half decline just because he might be in a new uniform? Will Alexander Semin (if he’s healthy) get to freelance in any other city than Washington? And Alex Kovalev is, well, Alex Kovalev.

Tomas Vokoun, on the other hand, should boost his categories in any another city. Unless he suffers from the Roberto Luongo lower-shot flu after he leaves, too. But that’s another story.

Context really is everything.

Until next week.