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Jim Benning's gut-busting gut-trusting

The Canucks GM: What does he know? Does he know things? Let's find out.
Jim Benning's gut
Pictured: Jim Benning, consulting his gut.

It's hard to shake the feeling that the rest of the league is laughing at the Canucks right now. In an era where statistical analysis is fast becoming the norm, the Canucks have a GM whose decision-making appears to be guided by his gut, a notion that isn't helped by his meat-and-potato metaphors.

Suggesting that Benning doesn't pay much attention to advanced statistics isn't particularly controversial at this point. The analytics crowd have ravaged many of his moves, like the new contracts for Luca Sbisa and Derek Dorsett or the acquisition of Brandons Prust and Sutter.

These are players whose underlying possession statistics paint an unflattering picture, but Benning seems to see something entirely different when he looks at them. It's like how some people look at “Voice of Fire” and see a big red stripe on a blue background or a waste of $1.8 million. Meanwhile, an art critic might look at “Voice of Fire” and see something beautiful, powerful, and meaningful.

Benning considers himself the art critic, the guy who sees something that others don't because they don't have the eyes for it -- the experience, knowledge, and understanding that comes from a lifetime in hockey. Benning believes, whether in his gut or otherwise, that he can see something in players like Sbisa and Sutter that others can't.

As someone with a penchant for analytics myself, it's hard to avoid scoffing at how much Benning leans on his own understanding. I have my own beliefs about how to best construct a hockey team and they run contrary to much of what Benning has done. But I also have to confess my own shortcomings and appreciate that I could very well be wrong.

As much as advanced statistics are useful, they are still in their infancy in the hockey world and there's much that we still don't know. There are factors that analytics struggles to account for; I'm not talking about intangibles like great, heart or character, but things like potential or how a player will perform in a different playing environment.

Benning believes that Sbisa has the potential to be a top-four defenceman; statistical models disagree. But those statistical models can't speak with certainty; it's all probability.

Benning believes that Sutter is a strong two-way forward; statistical models disagree. But those statistical models can't predict how Sutter will perform in a new environment and given different usage with new linemates.

It's possible, then (albeit optimistic), that Benning sees something that others miss, that his gut can pick out which players will fulfill their potential or mesh perfectly with new teammates in a way that statistical analysis can't.

It brings to mind a fantastic blog post from Russell A. Carleton, a baseball blogger whose work doing statistical analysis got him a job for a Major League team, where he discovered that many of the sabermetric doctrines he saw as sacrosanct where flat-out false. He repented of his past critique of the “eye test” when he re-entered the blogging world:

“Had I been a more charitable man, I could have pointed out that the eye test has its benefits too. There are a lot of baseball lifers who have been around the game so long they instinctively— sometimes subconsciously—know to look for things that I don’t even know exist. Not all of their theories and beliefs are going to be right, but I acted as though, by dint of their non-outsider, non-Ph.D-having status, anyone who wasn’t quoting the latest sabermetric research was automatically wrong.”

Perhaps Benning, as a hockey lifer, instinctively or even subconsciously sees what statistics, as we currently know and apply them, cannot. Or perhaps his gut is lying to him, like when mine tells me I should eat too many sour keys. Either way, Benning will be judged on the results his decisions produce (a Stanley Cup, acid reflux), and not how he made those decisions.

Like “Voice of Fire” getting valued at $50 million, Jim Benning might still earn his stripes.