The “Hot Hand Fallacy” and whether or not Flyers Head Coach Dave Hakstol Believes in it


(Editors Note: This article was written before the Flyers/Avalanche Game Saturday night, so stats may be off a little.)

The hot hand. The thing that usually predicts which goalie is a go in the next game. You have a goalie that is 3-0-0 with a shutout and 2 goals allowed across a three game stretch? That goalie is all but ensured to continue playing. Your goalie is 1-4-1 in the last six allowing an average of 4 goals a game? You can rest assured knowing that the backup will get a shot in the next game.

Dave Hakstol is an enigma. That’s putting it lightly. I think that if any one of us could take a peak inside that man’s head, we would be astounded. However, I’m just talking about the goalie situation. Riding the hot hand in net is a time old way of playing the game. You have a goalie playing well? You play him until he isn’t. Goalie playing bad? Bench him and start the other guy.

So far this season, Hakstol has turned to the other goalie, whoever it is, twice after a win. Digging even deeper, you discover that after efforts that resulted in losses, but great statistics, he turned the table three times so far this season. Even more alarming, however, is the fact that after a sub .900 save percentage outing for the goalies, Hakstol has switched netminders the next game a grand total of twice. Brian Elliott gave up six goals in a loss to Nashville, posted a .800 save percentage, and they still turned to him the next game against the Capitals.

Now, it worked out because Elliott played well, but what happens when he posts another horrible outing and they go with him the next game and he posts another? Or another? Does “riding the hot hand” mean nothing to Hakstol? There is such a thing as momentum in hockey and by flip flopping goalies with no rhyme or reason doesn’t do much to keep it on his side.

According to every professor I ever had in college, Wikipedia is the worst place to go if you want to look up facts. I’m not a student any more, and I didn’t go to school to be a writer, so I’m citing them anyway. According to Wikipedia, the “Hot Hand Fallacy” originally a basketball term, but applies generally as well, is, “the sometimes fallacious belief a person who experiences success with a random event has a greater probability of further success in additional attempts.”

Whether you believe in it or not, common sense should tell you that if a person is performing well at any point in time, there is definitely a chance that the individual can keep performing at a high level. So if that is the case, why is it that after Neuvirth posts games of .943, .974, .964, and 1.00 save percentages, yes that was a shutout, He isn’t still in net the next night? The .974 and .964 were consecutive starts for him, but those were his only consecutive starts of the year. Elliott has gone 3 games, 2 games, and 3 more games in a stretch at a time this year, and Neuvirth has gotten two consecutive games once so far.

So this begs the question, is Hakstol just not a believer in the “hot hand fallacy” or has he just lost his mind? His resumé would suggest the latter. The way he handled the Mason/Neuvirth conundrum was confusing to say the least. No matter how well Steve Mason played in net for the Flyers during his tenure here, there always seemed to be some sort of irrational love towards Michael Neuvirth.

I get it, when Neuvirth was good, he was phenomenal. He played out of this world for the Flyers in his first year with the club. However, in his second year, he laid deuce after deuce and seemed to always get a chance to redeem himself. Meanwhile, Mason was being played sporadically and still managing to win games and put up decent numbers in the process. The love for Neuvirth was irrational at times, and I mean most times, but when he was on a hot streak, it was warranted.

Going forward, it will be interesting to see how Hakstol manages the goalie situation, because at this point in the season, Elliott is 5-3-1 with an .892 save percentage and a 3.11 goals against. Michael Neuvirth, on the other hand, is 2-3-0 with a .941 save percentage and a 1.83 goals against. Michael Neuvirth has the 2nd best goals against average, trailing only Oscar Dansk, and sits at 4th in the NHL in save percentage. Where’s Brian Elliott, you ask? Well, only lists the top 10 in each category, and unless my vision is significantly worse than the last time I got my eyes checked, I didn’t see him on either of those lists.

I’m not saying Elliott is a bust. That statement was in my previous article. What I’m saying here is that Hakstol needs to understand that the hot hand “fallacy” is also a way of coaching that actually works. Ask the Blackhawks about the time they used Anti Niemi over Crawford and won a Stanley Cup. Or the time the Canadiens turned to Jaroslav Halak over Carey Price and ended up in the Eastern Conference Finals against the Flyers, who had to turn to Michael Leighton over Brian Boucher because of injury. Riding the hot hand works, and the sooner that Dave Hakstol understands that concept, the better.


Mandatory Credit: Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports