On Intangibles: What is the Value of Ethic and Experience?

The expanding of our hockey vocabulary when it comes to player analysis is often associated with words like 'Corsi' and 'Fenwick'. But it doesn't mean we have to discard the old dictionaries.

As hockey has entered its "sabermetrics phase", hockey analysis has shifted like the Iron Throne. You can't talk about a player's worth unless you use the proper vocabulary. Not even the characters from HBO's True Detective, with words like "stridency" and "apoplexy" in their screenplay pocket, would feel a literate welcome in the face of "Corsi" and "Fenwick".

The "pocket protector crowd" appear to be 'unweaving the rainbow', critics like Steve Simmons and Ken Campbell loudly decry. Although I'm not sure what the problem is there. Just because you know something about Rayleigh Scattering, the way different colors of light behave differently within the Earth's atmosphere, combined with how our photoreceptors are deficient to certain colors like violet, doesn't mean you can't still appreciate a beautiful blue sky.

I'm on board with it all, even if some of it eludes my simple mind. But to be sure, that unweaving of the hockey rainbow can seem somewhat hostile to general characteristics we assume have value, like grit, and work ethic. Thankfully some of the "stats nerds" are a little more nuanced when it comes to thinking about these so called intangibles. As Garret Hohl notes:

"I've said it far too often, to the point of probably annoying many people, but the term "intangible" is a bit of a misnomer. The things people mention when they discuss hockey intangibles are actually latent variables. They are things we cannot directly measure but are assumed to have an effect on a team's probability of winning. Leadership, locker room cohesiveness, grit, hitting, heart, work ethic, etc. — all of these things matter because they should help the team outscore their opponents."

It's an interesting question to ask from a Dallas Stars perspective given that general manager Jim Nill has said repeatedly that experience, one of those intangibles, was one of the driving forces behind the acquisitions of players like Patrick Sharp, Johnny Oduya and Antti Niemi, all Stanley Cup winners with the Chicago Blackhawks.

Measuring grit and work ethic is actually quite simple. All you need is a mirror and some index cards.

The index cards are for a string of four digits. Pick any four you like. Say, 2138. And 3625. And so on. Write each string of four digits on an index card. Place a blank index card in front of your list. Start a specific rhythm so that you can count each beat (metronomes are useful here). Remove the blank index card. Wait two beats. Then repeat the four digits, but with a twist: each number must be added by one. So upon revealing 2138, you say 3249. Upon revealing 3625, you say 4736. And so forth. The harder you work, the more dilated your pupils will be.

This is called the Add-1 exercise described by Daniel Kahneman in Thinking Fast and Slow. Kahneman calls the pupils "sensitive indicators of mental effort", adding that "much like the electricity meter outside your house or apartment, the pupils offer an index of the current rate at which mental energy is used."

That mental effort, concentration, and 'experience' can have a dramatically tangible effect. The journal Current Biology famously found that London cabbies who passed the final test (which requires you to memorize the map of the capital basically), experienced a significant physical change in the hippocampus (part of the brain associated with memory).

Anticipation probably falls under the list of so called "intangibles", and yet we can reasonably assume it's a factor if the studies using virtual reality with athletes and their ability to predict (as opposed to the ability to physically react) are any indication.

Even motivation may have a spiritual Corsi. Scientists interested in whether or not work ethic is genetically influenced have been looking to answer that question for years. In David Epstein's seminal work, the Sports Gene, he recounts Theodore Garland's experiments with mice. Garland's mice are given a wheel, and then separated into two groups; those who voluntarily run less than average, and those who voluntarily run more than average.

Over time, the group that voluntarily ran more were bred with other 'high runners', creating better runners across generations. But as the bodies change within each generation, so did their brains. Doping the high runners with Ritalin didn't alter their running behavior, meaning the mice are naturally wound that way, leading Garland to consider that "motivation has evolved".

Garland's science is a unique challenge to the idea that the most obvious traits that help athletic performance (like height) aren't always the most innate.

This amateur biology lecture isn't about answering many, if any, questions. What is Stanley Cup experience worth? Damned if I know. According to Travis Yost, experience may actually be pretty overrated, as younger players tend to outplay more experienced players when it comes to shot suppression.

Rather, it's about hockey's lexicon (with a dash of scrambling to write about hockey near August). Just because we've added to the hockey vocabulary doesn't mean the old words carry less meaning. Hockey is one of the toughest sports there is, where we can actually measure experience by the subtraction of teeth a player incurs. Just like a goal or an assist is a byproduct of possession, possession is a byproduct of latent variables. And these latent variables are as measurable as any War on Ice number.