Common cognitive biases that impact our analysis of the Winnipeg Jets

Winnipeg Jets (Mandatory Credit: Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports)
Winnipeg Jets (Mandatory Credit: Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports) /

My favorite book is “Thinking, Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman. In it, the Nobel Prize-winning economist breaks down the myriad of ways our brain creates shortcuts when examining a problem. These shortcuts, or 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, creates mistakes when formulating decisions.

How then, does hockey analysis suffer from these cognitive shortcuts? Let’s look at some common narratives surrounding the 2022-23 Winnipeg Jets (to date) and determine their validity through the lens of some common biases. They are:

·       Kyle Connor has been disappointing this year.

·       The Jets’ penalty kill has been a success this season.

·       The Jets 2022-23 season has been successful.

·       Coach Bones is an upgrade from Paul Maurice.

1. Winnipeg Jets’ Kyle Connor has been disappointing this year – “Availability Bias”

Availability 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 TV news, 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 accurately reflect reality.

The narrative this year is that Kyle Connor has had an “off” campaign. A  goal drought to start the season, and his current scoring slump are front-page news. His game against the Carolina Hurricanes on Tuesday prompted further scrutinization and bellicosity. Goal droughts and getting benched tend to elicit more media attention and are therefore more readily discussed. Benching in particular tends to dominate hockey discussions, and therefore the focus and analysis of them are more ‘available’.

Truth is, Connor is having another excellent season. What he has lost in goal-scoring prowess, he has gained in playmaking and defensive uptick. While Connor will never be Adam Oates or Patrice Bergeron, he has rounded out his game this year:

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 Penalty Kill has improved dramatically – “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 currently have the 4th best penalty kill in the league at 82.91 %. They have allowed 34 goals on 199 opportunities. Three-quarters of a season seems like a large enough sample size to declare confidently that the team has performed well ‘down a skater’ in 2022-23.

However, let’s consider Connor Hellebuyck’s performance 4 vs 5 during this time. Shorthanded, Hellebuyck leads the league with 5.5 Goals Saved Above Expected. In 2021-22, Hellebuyck was 20th in this regard with 1.5 Goals Saved Above Expected. That’s a theoretical difference of 4 extra power play goals prevented by Hellebuyck alone. If we add those 4 goals to the 34 total, the Jets’ PK percentage dips to 13th in the league at 80.91%. Pretty average.

Let’s pretend Hellebuyck regresses in the last quarter of the season, and the Jets lose their goaltending advantage. Is their penalty kill still a success overall in 2022-23? Probably not – showing that even seemingly large samples cannot always be extrapolated to larger narratives.

3. The Winnipeg Jets season has been a success- “The Anchoring Effect”

Anchoring bias is 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.

By all measures, there was not a great deal of optimism surrounding the Winnipeg Jets to start the season. Based on how the 2021-22 season ended, many predicted the Jets to finish near the bottom of the Central Division. The team, especially earlier in the season, has seemingly exceeded all expectations. But objectively, has their season been a success, or are we being anchored by our initial predictions?

As compared to last year, the Jets’ Expected Goals, Corsi, Fenwick, and Expected Goals Against (including per 60 and Adjusted) are all very similar. The biggest difference is improved play from Connor Hellebuyck, and an increase in shooting percentage of shots that hit the net (1% difference).

Performance is usually tied to a benchmark. In this case, the benchmark was low, which in turn skews slightly our overall impression. From a fan perspective, this season is no doubt a success, but the underlying metrics would indicate that the team itself has performed slightly above average compared to the league.

4. Coach Bones is an upgrade from Paul Maurice – “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.

Coach Bones is a polarizing figure right now.

Positive framing: The Jets are fighting for a playoff spot, a far cry from where they were last year. The “vibes” are better, and in totality, several players are performing much better than last year – including Morrissey, Scheifele, and PLD. The Jets have found a way to win through adversity and have had some terrible injury luck.

Negative framing: The Jets’ second-half struggles are a result of Coach Bones losing the room, and making questionable lineup decisions. Ehlers has been neutralized, and his insistence on playing Wheeler and Pionk top minutes is hindering the team’s success. As per above, the Jets’ comparative improvement is predicated on better goaltending and puck luck.

What is the truth? All of it to a certain degree. At any point in time, multiple things can be true. It just depends on how you frame it.

Next. Are the Jets squandering Connor Hellebuyck’s prime?. dark

I know I am guilty of all these biases – sometimes multiple at a time. It is important to recognize patterns of thinking that influence how we analyze the Jets. As ol’ Billy Shakespeare put it: “A fool thinks himself to be wise, but a wise man knows himself to be a fool”