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Monday, November 27, 2017

The Quadrennial Canada Olympic Trials Preview - Part 1

The 2017/18 Curling season, stretching for some teams into a 10 month marathon, may go down in the sport's history as a turning point.  Please indulge me as I open this 2017 Canada Olympic Trials Preview with a melancholy look back at what was the traditional Scotties and Brier format.  The determination of Canada's National Curling champions has long been associated with these  showcases, but for the past two decades a new event, held every four years, has challenged the legitimacy of these historic championships.  Even the past curator of these events and the man who brought the Brier into NHL arenas, Warren Hansen, thinks the idea of a provincial competition is past its expiration date.  Granted, with relegation the last three years, we've been warmed up for a possible shift in thinking what a Brier and Scotties is supposed to mean.   Just ask Nova Scotia fans who had short trips to the 2015 and 2016 Briers, failing to get through the Pre-Qualifying both years.

This season the Scotties and Brier will implement a dual-Pool format, ensuring that not every province will play against each other during the event (and some may play tie-breakers after 2:00 AM).  This could have little bearing on whether fans enjoy the unfolding of these competitions.  With an added CTRS team, it may even lead some to believe there is greater legitimacy in its determining the national champions.  But to me it will not be the same events I grew up with. To those who knew the Brier as a no-playoff, round-robin-winner takes the trophy event, they may have also felt that "progress" was moving past them when a 3 team playoff format was introduced, or the eventual page system.  The forming of 2 pools could just be more minor changes to events that remain atop the Curling world, or become the beginning of a decline to lower tier titles.  Only history will be able to tell us what the Trials vs Canada Cup vs Brier/Scotties all means.  Thus far, Kevin Koe has no asterisk next to his name on the MacDonald's trophy for his wins in 2010 and 2014, when another "National" champion was sent to the Olympics.  Perhaps one day there will be.

First, a crash course in the numbers.  Before each Olympic Trials I breakdown the results of each team against each other team.  I look at head to head wins and losses, scoring and then examine winning percentage for both historical (lifetime of the teams) and the last Olympic cycle (start of the 2014/15 Season).  I then look at a Combined result, which more heavily weighs the last cycle while still accounting for historical results.  Using Bill James log5 method and his Pythagorean expectation, I estimate the expected wins of each team.  Unless otherwise stated, I use the Combined results in the calculation for Expected Wins (EW).  For those gamblers out there, the points per game and Over/Under results may also be of interest.  I haven't seen any web sites with betting odds for the event so I'll hold off sharing for now, but will release a Gambler's version if this changes and odds are posted.

On to the Preview...

Men's Teams

In my recent interview on the From The Hack Podcast, host Frank Roch suggested there was a big four. The numbers might suggest there are at least 5 and possibly 7.  Despite this, as in years past I will attempt to break apart teams into four categories. Favourites, Contenders, Challengers and Underdogs. It should not be a surprise if any of the top 7 teams win.  It would surprise me if a team went undefeated.  Using Combined numbers, no mens team has an Expected Wins (EW) prediction greater than 5.  

The Favorites
  • Brad Gushue is defending Brier Champion and his squad has started the season with a 32-5 record (.865 winning percentage).  They have a 65.5% winning percentage against this field during this Olympic cycle and that number feels higher the last 12 months.  EW is 4.78 using the Combined results, but they are 5.45 based on the last 3+ years, highest of any team.  They hold a winning record against every other team over that span as well, including 13-6 against Jacobs.  
  • Speaking of Brad Jacobs, his team seems to perform better on the bigger stage. They're the rock band that plays great in a large arena but their act doesn't always translate to the smaller venues.  EW is 4.94, but they also have the poor record against Gushue recently (6-13), losing record against Mcewen (9-13) and are 11-10 against Koe (including Brier losses in the finals and 3 vs 4 game). They are also the only mens team at this event that can "repeat" as Olympic representatives.

The Contenders
  • Kevin Koe had a slow start to the season at the Tour Challenge (1-3) but they have 2 finals (1 win), 2 SF and a QF since. Plenty of veteran strength on this team, but only a 51% record against this field since 2014.  Every one of their opponents at the Trials has a close record with several wins, except Bottcher who is 4-10 against them (but still, 4 wins).  EW=4.57
  • Reid Carruthers is also 51% against this field.  They hold 14-8 record against Mcewen and 10-6 against Koe, and respectable 12-19 combined against the Favourites.  EW = 4.27
  • Team McEwen has been together a long time with a winning record against each of these teams (except the aforementioned Carruthers).  Percentage of 55% since 2014/15 and EW=4.77.  
  • The numbers indicate that Mcewen could be in the higher group but they still haven't shown their dominant cash circuit play translates into the large arenas (the opposite of Jacobs).  It's unfair perhaps because of their small sample size of only 2 Briers and 1 Olympic Trials.  If this team were based in Newfoundland or Northern Ontario these past few years it could be a different conversation, but they still have yet to appear in a final at one of these events.  You could also claim Koe belongs alongside the two Brads, and I tend to think they should be, but the numbers indicate otherwise.  As the elder statemen (with Howard losing in the Pre-Trials to Bottcher), it will be interesting to see if this team can find its prime level again or if father time is starting to take its toll.

The Challengers
  • Team Morris hopes to once again have the hot play from their Pre-Trials qualification continue into the Main Event.  Outside of that event however, they've played poorly on arena ice with a 1-11 record in the first 3 Slams of the season.  EW = 3.86 and their record is a smaller sample of 26-31 (46%) since their last Olympic Trials appearance. 
  • John Epping has shown periods of invincibility over several weeks of any given season.  It's fair to say that despite their 40% results against this field, when they are hot, watch out.  Other than a combined 7-23 against the two Brad's, the are respectable against the remaining teams and could be in the hunt by week's end.

The Underdogs
  • Team Laycock has been dominated by Gushue, Jacobs and Mcewen, and only has 1 QF Slam appearance so far this season.  EW = 2.79 and they have won only 33% of their games against this field, but we've seen them excel at a few Slams and they have a fighting chance in Ottawa.
  • Bottcher was the last team to qualify and will have to bring some of the experience gained at those Pre-Trials and last year's Brier if they have hope for a play-off spot.  I suspect this event is a little more than their ready for, but you could have said the same thing about Brad Gushue in 2006. EW = 2.68 and like Laycock, 33% against these opponents.

Part 2 and a look at the womens teams coming soon.

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