COMMENTARY || The science behind the Oilers' awful season
U of A researcher leans on his own NCAA golfing experience and academic expertise to analyze the team’s woeful showing this past season.
By WILLIAM HANSON
TSN senior writer Frank Seravalli says the Oilers’ failed season is layered and complex. I agree.
There are multi-layered personnel issues, like managers, coaches and players. There are also complex interconnected parts, like line combinations, defence pairings and special teams. It’s a razor-thin line between team success and failure, with “team” being key. Teams win games. Teams lose games, not individual players, coaches or managers.
Pioneering broadcast journalist Ed Murrow said, “The obscure we see eventually. The completely obvious, it seems, takes longer.” To me, it’s completely obvious why the Oilers lost 46 games this year, and it’s not offence. It’s defence.
Defensively, the Oilers were depleted. Case in point: Andrej Sekera’s torn ACL, nine-month rehab and 44-game absence doomed this year’s season, but also last year’s second-round Ducks playoff series.
And there’s Oscar Klefbom’s long-injured shoulder and compromised play, and Adam Larsson’s tragic loss and mid-season absence. Frankly, the D-corp never settled, plain and simple.
Talbot didn’t settle either, having a career-worst save percentage and goals-against average. Even so, it’s not Talbot’s fault. It’s a function of complex fast-moving parts and poor team defence. It’s also a function of personal circumstance. Talbot has twin toddlers. I have toddlers, too, and I suspect he hasn’t slept much, if at all. Sleep deprivation negatively affects performance.
I also suspect he’s a good father—a “fully involved parent,” as my colleague Dr. Phil Sevigny says, and fully involved parents don’t sleep. This isn’t an excuse; it’s a parental reality, professional athlete or not. Talbot will bounce back in 2018-19. Bet on it.
There’s another obvious factor: Big-time, over-the-top expectations and contracts. Pre-season expectations were through the roof and, I’d say, smothering. From the get-go, the Oilers couldn’t breathe. And after the brilliant first game, Cup chatter reached fever pitch. Players tightened up and spiralled downwards.
Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl’s $168-million dollar contracts added more suffocating pressure. Like chronic sleep deprivation, extreme pressure also negatively affects performance. These young superstars had the weight of the world on their shoulders.
That’s tough for savvy veterans, let alone 21- and 22-year-olds. Additionally, big-time contracts attract attention, piquing rivals’ interest and eliciting maximum defensive effort. There were, of course, contributing health problems early on, but it’s more than that.
Question: which NHL team had the least pressure, lowest expectations and most to prove? Answer: Vegas Golden Knights (51 wins, 109 points, 1st in Pacific). Enough said.
Alas, despite the Oilers’ failed season, they can look forward, chin up. The cupboard’s well stocked. With good health, a little rest and less pressure, the future’s bright—provided they practise properly and get better. Again, at this level, win-loss margins are exceedingly narrow.
It’s been said, “Practice makes perfect!” Problem is, it’s not true. Practice doesn’t make perfect. Practice makes permanent. If you practise improperly, you won’t improve. You have to practise deliberately, which is extremely hard. Deliberate practice involves consideration of near-constant performance feedback and highly structured, goal-directed practice.
It’s exhausting, time-consuming and tedious. In the past, I’ve played golf with PGA tour pros. I’ve also practised with them. Elite athletes play and practise differently. To them, it’s a process, not an outcome. In this regard, Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald and Golden State Warriors forward Kevin Durant stand out. They’re virtually peerless, most-excellent role models.
Analytics are good for the game. They have tremendous evaluative powers, especially when meaningful metrics are used. However, when meaningless metrics like Corsi and shot metrics are used, they’re problematic.
Although less well-known, analytics also have tremendous player development powers. They can, for example, identify performance strengths and weaknesses, inform practice goals, and chart/document player development and improvement. They can also strengthen player-coach relations and overall team chemistry, partly because players trust organizational/evaluative systems more.
As Seravalli points out, winning and losing is complex and multi-layered. Given that, here’s my advice: stabilize the D-corp, deliberately practise individual and (attacking) team defence, harness expectations and nurture analytics-based player development.
I would love seeing Norris and Selke finalists next year; Darnell Nurse, maybe? Larsson? Draisatl? I’d also love seeing Drew Doughty or Oliver Ekman-Larsson in orange and blue. Wouldn’t that be something? October 2018 can’t come fast enough!
William Hanson is an associate professor in the Department of Educational Psychology at the University of Alberta. He competed in three NCAA golf championships. He specializes in assessment and evaluation, training and development, and sleep.
This article originally appeared April 12 in the Edmonton Journal.