It's a battle sports fans come to know well over the years. On one side, you have the relatively recent wave of advanced analytics proponents, using new types of stats and theories to challenge the conventional wisdom. On the other side are the old-school thinkers, many of whom have been around the game since before these stats guys were born and question how much insight can be pulled from a spreadsheet.
Hockey was late to the party, but the debate has arrived here, too. There have been some ugly skirmishes, often flaring up when a particular team's on-ice results didn't match what the numbers predicted. Every year seems to bring at least one example. In 2009-10, it was the Colorado Avalanche. In 2010-11, the Dallas Stars.
Perhaps most memorably, the 2011-12 Minnesota Wild managed to lead the Western Conference for much of the season's first half, despite horrible underlying numbers. The stats guys predicted doom. Wild fans scoffed. Insults were hurled. And in the end, the stats guys were right. The Wild plummeted all the way to 12th, missed the playoffs by 14 points, and firmly established themselves as the cautionary example for anyone who'd dare roll their eyes at hockey's analytics community.
This year, we've moved into new territory, and the stakes suddenly seem higher. In any battle, real or metaphorical, things don't get really ugly until you threaten sacred ground. And there may be no more sacred ground in the hockey world than the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Yes, the Maple Leafs, who face the Nashville Predators tonight, have become the new test case in the ongoing battle between old-school hockey thinking and a new-school statistical approach. And with all due respect to the Wild, Avalanche, Stars, and even last year's Ducks, they are not the Leafs. They don't have the same history, or the round-the-clock media coverage, or (especially) the same rabid fan base.
That's why this year's version of the debate is going to make the Great Minnesota Wild Dustup of 2012 feels like a warm-up skate.