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The Perils of Prognostication -- A New "Rule"

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The NHL season "election results"are being called early in some quarters. Not so fast . . .

Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports

In the latest episode of Public Morals, the veteran cop is providing sage advice to the rookie, explaining "There is the law, and then there are the rules. Those are very different things."  From the time we go to school, we receive incremental education into what the rules are.  They are the unwritten standards of behavior that one disregards only at significant peril.  When you are young, you learn "Don't rat on your friends."  It's a handy rule to know, and saves many bloody noses and black eyes.  Later you learn that you can generally drive 5 mph over the speed limit without fear.  It's an unwritten, tacit understanding between law enforcement and the public.

Sports has its share of rules as well.  In baseball, you simply don't talk about a no-hitter while the pitcher has one going.  If you're a pitcher, and one of your guys gets plunked, you go out and plunk one of their guys.  Hockey has a similar rule about dealing with opposing players who take liberties with your goalie or skill guys.  You also don't touch any trophy except for the Stanley Cup -- but only after you've won it.

Historically, there have also been a variety of rules dealing with time.  Traditionally, white shoes were verboten before Memorial Day and after Labor Day.  (I didn't say they made sense, just that they exist).  When I was a kid, nobody -- including the retailers -- put Christmas decorations up until Thanksgiving weekend. (An exception was granted if you just left them up from the year before)  That rule, of course, has eroded and morphed over the years, first changing to Halloween, and now apparently triggered on the 4th of July.  You get the idea.

Where am I going with all of this?   I want to propose a new rule:  "Nobody may publish, by way of article, Facebook post, tweet or otherwise, any prediction, prognostication, required record or other similar numerical representation of NHL playoff prospects before the Winter Classic is played."  This is in the interests of the mental sanity of all of those fans who have been wringing their hands over the bad start experienced by teams like the Blue Jackets, but can also apply to those teams with terrific starts, such as the Rangers and Canadiens.

You all know the kinds of things I'm talking about - "Only X number of teams have every made the playoffs when more than Y points out of a playoff spot by Z date."   There are also the closely related "X team will have to have to have a record of Y over Z period of time in order to make the playoffs."   Those started showing up in the Columbus fan base about Game 7, and have reared their ugly heads in places like Anaheim, Calgary and Colorado as well.  Meanwhile, fans of Montreal, the Rangers and Capitals are preparing to kick back, put their feet up and wait until May and June come around.  At each end of the spectrum, advocates of this type of analysis have effectively resigned the remaining 70 games of the regular season into insignificance.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not telling anybody how to be a fan.  If you want to crunch the numbers and make yourself miserable (or satisfied), go ahead.  Just don't inflict it on me.   Actually, the point is not so much the type of analysis, but the timing of the analysis.  At this point, all 30 teams have a minimum of 67 games left.  Each team has 23 players on the active NHL roster.  Injuries happen.  Home/Road game allocations change.  This is a multi-variable nightmare, even before you consider the fact that we are talking about a game involving a 3 inch rubber disk being propelled around an ice surface with tools ill-designed for the purpose.  Add a dozen large, fast, skilled players, and quite literally anything can happen over the course of the 46,230 player-games left before the playoffs.

Sure, you can point to the "Teams X points out of a playoff spot on Y date have only made the playoffs Z" times type of analysis.  I can also point to the fact that no team with a left-handed Assistant Trainer of Maori descent on the staff as of December 1 has ever made the playoffs.  The response is "So what?"   Using the law of large numbers to predict individual results is a hazardous business.  Cancer physicians routinely tell their patients to ignore the "odds", as those have no relevance to an individual case. All of those large number statistics include patients who did not follow doctor's instructions, had other health issues, were of different ages, experiences, attitudes and environments -- all of which contribute to the final numbers.  The same holds true of these "large number"statistics of the playoffs.  They include some truly bad teams, teams that have suffered catastrophic injuries, etc. etc. etc.   Also consider that the current alignment configuration and playoff system has been in effect for a brief period of time, and those statistics are really not based upon such a large data set, after all.

Of course, your desire/willingness to grab onto these prognostications while that new season aroma still lingers in the air depends in large part on your weltanschauung -- your view of the world, at least the hockey world.  If you think the Blue Jackets are truly a bad team playing in accordance with expectations, then there is nothing I can do for you.  Go watch soccer for a while, and then come back after you are bored to tears.  If, however, you have my point of view -- namely that the Blue Jackets are a good team, with lots of talent and have been under-performing, then you probably should be a bit more careful before trashing the season at this point in the year.  They sit seven points out of a playoff spot right now.  Seven.  Not seventy.  If they can continue the "win two, lose one" pace for a while, they will be at .500 by game 32, with 50 games left.  Is that in the hunt? Of course it is.

Can you argue that it is unlikely that Columbus can play at a 2/3 clip for any length of time?  Sure you can.  Was it unlikely that the Blue Jackets would finish 15-1-1 last season?  Sure it was.  But it happened.  Is it unlikely that Ryan Johansen and Nick Foligno would have 2 goals between them at this point, and be shooting at a combined 3% clip.  Sure it is.   While fans will frequently discount a hot streak by a team or player, and argue that they will "revert to the mean" soon, it also works in the other direction.  So, it doesn't matter what the likelihood of something is -- all that matters is what really happens. That's why they actually play the games.  That's why they actually count all of the votes in all of the states on Election Day, not just the first 10% of the ballots.  So, let's be a little careful about proclaiming the hockey equivalent of "Dewey Defeats Truman", shall we?  Let's wait until we can see enough of what really happens to make some informed judgments.

If you've reached this point and have steam coming out of your ears and are verbally questioning the legitimacy of my birth, then you have missed the tongue-in-cheek tone that was intended.  The real point here is that everyone needs to take a deep breath, chillax and let the team actually play the games.  This is a good team that has played poorly, but is emerging from the primordial ooze of the first eight games.  Anything can happen over the course of those 46,230 man-games, and likely will.  (By the way, Dewey did not defeat Truman)  Stay tuned.