Identifying Biases in our evaluation of the Winnipeg Jets

We here at the Airport Lounge are fans of the Winnipeg Jets. We try to be objective observers of the team, but undoubtedly, we suffer from biases that contribute to our analysis being overly critical or falsely tempered.

It is important then to examine and identify biases in order to achieve any type of holistic and balanced perspective of a subject matter (in this case, the Winnipeg Jets).

My favourite book is “Thinking, Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman (close second to “Archie and Jughead”). In it, the Nobel Prize winning economist breaks down the myriad of ways our brain creates shortcuts when examining a problem. These shortcuts, or “heuristics” (biases) influence how we look at the world and how we analyze virtually everything. Kahneman explains how cognitive biases influence our decisions, to conclude (rather elegantly) that the wrong way of thinking, makes us wrong in formulating decisions.

How then, does our hockey analysis suffer from these cognitive biases? Let’s look at some current narratives surrounding the Winnipeg Jets and determine their validity through the lens of some of these common biases. They are:

  • Connor Hellebuyck is no longer elite.
  • The Jets Penalty Kill has improved.
  • The Winnipeg Jets season has been a huge disappointment.
  • Mark Scheifele is no longer elite.

1. Connor Hellebuyck is No Longer Elite – Availability Heuristic Bias

Availability heuristic bias occurs when people overestimate the importance of the information that they have at hand. It happens when people are not making decisions based on facts and statistics, but rather based on the news on TV, social media, and stories that they have heard from other people.

In other words, information that is more easily recalled (i.e., more available) is assumed to reflect reality.

The narrative this year is that Connor Hellebuyck has had, by his standards, an “off” year.  He has made some highlight reel blunders playing the puck (please stop Helle), and he has played a few objectively bad games. These ‘gaffes’ tends to be newsworthy, and widely disseminated. But does that mean he is no longer elite, or vastly different from previous seasons?

A useful metric, that is not commonly available, is “Goals Saved Above Expected.” The metric itself measures how well an individual goaltender performs when it comes to making saves or letting in goals on shots of all qualities. Expected goals work by using historical data to quantify the likelihood of real-time shots turning into goals. It takes most of the ‘emotion’ and luck out of evaluating a goaltender.

Last year Connor led the league in this stat (courtesy of moneypuck.com) with 19.3. This year he is 9th overall (minimum 25 games played). My math shows that 9th is worse than 1st.

Consider however that his current 12.6 “Goals Saved Above Expected” mark would have been 5th last year (meaning goaltending has been better, on average, this year), and if we eliminate his first 3 games of the season (where he was objectively bad), it climbs to 14.4 (which would be 4th last year). Selectively removing anything from a sample is bad analysis, but I am doing it here just to highlight how abnormal those first 3 performances were for Hellebuyck.

This leads us to the conclusion that while Connor hasn’t been super elite this year, he has still been very, very good. A narrative that is not readily available.

2. The Winnipeg Jets Power Play is “Fixed” under Dave Lowry – The Law of The Small Numbers

The fallacy commonly experienced by most people (and especially hockey pundits) is believing in the law of the small number. We tend to generalize from a small number of data, which we think can be presented as the total data. Just look at all the advanced stats that analysts derive from single game samples.

We have overconfidence in a small sample, even though they are susceptible to extreme results without considering the law of big numbers in probability theory. Simply put, a small sample does not represent a big sample.

The Jets started the year with a dismal Penalty Kill (PK) percentage. In 28 games under Paul Maurice, the Winnipeg Jets killed penalties at a rate of 68.8% (dead last). In the 14 games under Dave Lowry, the Jets have killed penalties at a much improved 83.7%. Problem solved, no?

Let’s consider the possibility that some of the recent improvement is based on a simple regression to the mean. The Jets PK was at historically low levels, and therefore bound to improve just by chance alone. In the 14 games prior to Paul Maurice’s departure, the Jets PK gave up 64 scoring changes and 22 high-danger chances. In the 14 games following his resignation (Dave Lowry tenure), those numbers are 18 and 57 respectively. Improved? Absolutely, but given the small sample sizes at play here (14 games is not a large sample), we should be careful in extrapolating big picture success.

3. The Winnipeg Jets have been wildly disappointing this year – The Anchoring Effect

Anchoring biasis a cognitive bias that causes us to rely too heavily on the first piece of information we are given or assume about a topic. When we are setting plans, or making estimates about something, we interpret newer information from the reference point of our anchor, instead of seeing it objectively. 

The Airport Lounge had high hopes for the Jets this year culminating in the ridiculous notion that the Winnipeg Jets would win the Stanley Cup.  Guilty as charged.

This year the Jets are 18-17-7 (.512%), as compared to last year where we ended the season 30-23-3 (.563%). Not significantly dissimilar; and before this most recent losing streak, we were 17-12-5, making the difference negligible. So, what is the difference? Expectations are the difference. Expectations (the anchor) were much higher this year, and therefore the Jets are being judged accordingly.

This does NOT mean that the Jets haven’t underperformed. They have. Our expectations just haven’t adjusted with the evidence. As Winnipeggers, we should know better than to get our hopes up.

4. Mark Scheifele is no longer elite – The Framing Effect

The framing effect occurs because different ways of presenting the same information often evoke different emotions. People decide on options based on whether the options are presented with positive or negative connotations.

Mark Scheifele is a polarizing figure right now.

Positive framing: If you look at 55’s points per game, he is sitting at 0.80, which is lower (but not significantly) that his average over the past 5 years (1.01). His Corsi and Fenwick numbers are on par with his most recent seasons.  He’s had COVID, and playing with Blake Wheeler doesn’t really help anyone (sorry Wheels). There is a decent case that his play is just a blip, and he will be OK. 

Negative framing: See above from Evolving Hockey. Scheifele’s defensive struggles are now well known. Blake Wheeler is a disaster, but 55 hasn’t faired much better (and pairing them together is downright negligent). He’s been a bit more truculent with the media and generally seems disinterested.

What is all truth? All of it to a certain degree. I don’t believe however that trading him is a good option. His salary is very reasonable, and he’s still an elite scorer. It just depends on how you frame it.

So what does all this mean? Most people have heard of confirmation bias. Whether it’s evaluating the players I like or dislike, or advocating for certain strategies, I am guilty of looking for justification rather than the truth. However, so are the Winnipeg Jets. Much of the public sentiment of the team recently seems to be trying to justify past results rather than looking for the truth these days. I’ll do better if you do better Winnipeg Jets.

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