Friday, 1 August 2014

On PK Subban and Bridge Contracts


If you've been on hockey Twitter at all today, you'll know a few things: 1) PK Subban and the Montreal Canadiens need a new contract, 2) PK Subban and the Montreal Canadiens went to arbitration to attempt to get a contract done, and 3) PK Subban and the Montreal Canadiens are not happy with one another. This is because PK Subban is asking for what he's worth on the open market, but the Habs are trying to pay him like he's a very-good-but-not-great NHL defenseman, but if you're reading this you know that part already. What's important is that two years ago, the Habs insisted that PK Subban sign a "bridge contract" instead of locking up long-term. Subban took that deal, then became one of the best players in the league. Subban's now looking to get paid and the Habs are kind of getting cold feet. That bridge deal isn't looking so good now, is it?

The benefits of a bridge deal are two-fold: one, it allows a team a little more time to "see what a player's got" before locking in to a long-term commitment, and two, and perhaps more prominently, it allows a team to realize massive value savings while a team still has almost total control of a player's RFA years. Corey Pronman uses something like a 40% discount of UFA value for RFA players to estimate what a "fair" deal is.

To me, this approach is unthinkably stupid. A player is worth what a player is worth. If PK Subban is worth $9+ M/yr on the open market, then he's not worth 60% of that to the Habs because he's an RFA and they hold exclusive negotiating rights. If Montreal loses Subban through one way or another, they still have to replace him with a player or players of his value, which is whatever the greater market determines that value is. $5.5 M/yr is not a fair deal for Subban simply because the NHL has a system in place that attempts to control costs for stars while guys like Leo Komarov, Clayton Stoner, and Deryk Engelland can all make in the neighborhood of $3 M/yr.

The "bridge deal" isn't really a thing in the NHL CBA per se. It's some kind of universally agreed upon construct that teams use to squeeze huge value out of RFA guys - it is, along with capped ELC's, the NHL's version of an unpaid internship. "Put off the pay day as long as you can" is a pretty straightforward time value of money concept. Paying out one dollar today is generally less desirable than agreeing to pay put one dollar two months from now. The major problem with the NHL is that most guys will have to get paid one day, and they will get fair market value eventually. PK Subban is going to get paid; it's just a matter of who's going to pay him.

There is no doubt that Montreal got massive value out of Subban these past two years. He won the Norris trophy in 2012-13, and was easily the best defenseman on a Eastern Conference finalist in 2013-14. So looking at it in that light, it seems that the bridge deal accomplished what it set out to do: squeeze value out of a player while a team has exclusive control over his negotiating rights. The problem is that players and their contracts don't happen in isolation of a given team or of the rest of the league, and that PK Subban didn't merely spend the past two seasons providing a crazy ROI for a hockey team. Subban spent the past two years providing huge excess value for the just okay Montreal Canadiens, and that context is what made the bridge deal a massive mistake from the second it was signed.

Any given NHL team's goal should be to win the Stanley Cup. That's essentially the whole point of professional hockey existing. As such, any given NHL team should aim to be in one of two states: a building state or a competing state. Realistically, there are only 5-6 legitimate competing teams in the NHL at any one given time, and everyone else is either delusional or attempting to accrue enough good assets that will be in the primes of their careers at the same time so that they may compete at some point down the road. If you're in a building state - and let's be completely honest here, the Habs aren't close to being legitimate Stanley Cup threats so they should have been building - saving a few bucks right now isn't that important, especially if it comes at the expense of saving a few bucks at the time when you desperately need to save a few bucks. If you're aiming to win the Stanley Cup, you almost certainly need players providing you with significant excess value while you're in a competing state.

Just look at the previous two (well, four) Stanley Cup champions: the Kings and the Blackhawks. The Kings paid the best possession forward and defenseman in the league a combined $4.65 million last year, and their eventual second line wingers a combined $860,000. No winger on the team carried a cap hit above Marian Gaborik's $3.75M/yr (CBJ retained half his salary in the deal). The Blackhawks paid less than $1M each for Marcus Kruger, Brandon Saad, Nick Leddy, Brian Bickell, Viktor Stalberg, and Andrew Shaw in 2012-13, while Duncan Keith made just over $5M - a huge bargain for a top-2 defenseman and offensive dynamo. Hell, Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane's $6.3M/yr contracts were fantastic value considering each was likely worth more than $10M/yr.

Because Montreal made PK Subban stomach a bridge contract, they likely lost their opportunity to provide excess player value at the time when they'll need it most. They opted to save a few bucks right now rather than wait for when they really needed to save a few bucks. The teams that are legitimate Cup contenders at any one given time are those that are squeezing a ton of excess value from every position. Their stars are making modest money for star-calibre players, and their supporting casts are being paid pennies. There is no secret formula to winning the Stanley Cup other than "build the best team possible," and to do that, you're going have to cram more talent under the salary cap than other teams, and to do that, some guys will be underpaid while you're in your competing state.

Montreal wants to enter their competing state very soon, and having PK Subban locked up long term at $5.5M/yr-$6M/yr like they probably could have done two years ago is a lot more conducive to fitting the most talent under the cap than paying him fair market value. All in all, this is a trainwreck that was entirely avoidable if Montreal had planned for five years down the road rather than one or two. PK Subban is going to get the money he deserves based on his talents, it's just a matter of who's going to pay him.

Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Quick Hits - Thoughts on Pucks In Deep


There was a game last year - granted it was against Buffalo (and goalie Nathan Lieuwen) near the end of the season so it was more of an exhibition - where Zack Kassian had four assists. I remember John Tortorella refusing to give Kassian credit for the offensive outburst, instead focusing on doing the "little things" well. If I recall correctly, Torts singled out Kassian making more effective dump-ins.

I know for a fact that he singled out Brad Richardson helping Kassian "do the little things" because Iain MacIntyre quoted Tortorella saying so in this post-game article. I also know that Brad Richardson was a boat anchor at 5-on-5, and that zone entry guru Corey Sznajder indicates that Richardson was one of the most prolific puck-dumpers on the Canucks. These last two things are likely very closely related.

So why was a professional hockey coach not only blinded to the fact that Brad Richardson turned everything he touched at 5-on-5 into a steaming pile of doo-doo, but went completely the other way and determined that Richardson was having a positive effect? Because Brad Richardson likely did everything his coach told him to do with more frequency than other guys.

This is the most critical area where an unchecked eye test will fail you, and I think it's the reason why defensive defensemen like Brooks Orpik and Brad Stuart keep getting acquired: the mantra of Good Ol' Canadian Hockey dictates that a blocked shot is a good thing, the mantra of Good Ol' Canadian Hockey dictates that a hit is a good thing, and the mantra of Good Ol' Canadian Hockey dictates that getting the puck out of your zone and in to the opponent's end of the ice is a good thing.

Analytics don't really disagree with the basic mantra of Good Ol' Canadian Hockey. Certainly, shot blocking is good. Hitting is good. And getting the puck into the offensive end of the rink is good. But by taking a step back and asking, "okay, what's really providing us value and helping us win," we've found that lots of blocked shots and lots of hits are actually symptomatic of larger, more important issues. It is kinda counter-intuitive on the surface. I mean, it's saying that adding lots of good little things together don't equate to a bigger good thing. One plus one plus one plus one doesn't equal four, it actually equals negative two and everything you learned in kindergarten is a lie.

So what the hell does this have to do with Brad Richardson? Richardson is 5'11 and didn't really hit guys. He had good defensive zone value, especially on the penalty kill, but didn't really get noticed as a shot blocker. What he did do was dump the puck in.

Good Ol' Canadian Hockey does call for offensive zone play, but this call has been bastardized and butchered into a shortened chant we've all heard a billion and one times: pucks in deep. "What do we have to do to turn this game around? Pucks in deep." "Gotta generate some scoring chances? Pucks in deep." "They're giving us trouble in transition? We just gotta get pucks in deep." The problem is that "pucks in deep" has been treated as an end unto itself, when what really matters isn't whether or not the puck gets in deep, but whether the puck gets to the goal.

The easiest and most direct way to get a puck in deep is to dump it in. It accomplishes the task you set out to do, and there's no risk of the puck not getting in deep. So, in line with the straightforward "pucks in offensive zone = good thing, and dump ins = pucks in offensive zone, then lots of dump ins = lots of good things," coaches are likely going to encourage what they think are good things, look for players that do what they perceive are good things, and praise players for these perceived good things.

Brad Richardson is likely a good listener. He's likely good at taking what coaches tell him to do and incorporating these things into his game. John Tortorella likely doesn't know that the good little things he'd been asking his players to do are actively detrimental to a given team's ability to win hockey games. John Tortorella likely doesn't know his instruction may have been ruining Brad Richardson and, by extension, everyone that Richardson played with. We can't know for sure, but this is the story that all available evidence (including numbers, quotes from Torts, and watching the games) seems to tell us.

The big underlying problem isn't Brad Richardson being a poor hockey player, nor is it even John Tortorella being a poor coach - it may very well be true that neither of these things is the case. The major glaring problem is that a certain way of thinking has permeated hockey to the point where it's treated as an absolute and unassailable truth. "Pucks in deep" is beyond a cliche in this day and age, it's a dangerous way of thinking, and it seems to have become an end unto itself. Tyler Dellow thinks that Randy Carlyle running dump-in plays hurt the Leafs this past season, and I can't help but think that this may have hurt some of Vancouver's depth players this season too.

The end game in hockey is and will always be "pucks in net more often than your opponent," and just firing the puck in for the purpose of getting it deep doesn't help in that regard. There's no magic that happens immediately proceeding "pucks in deep" that translates to scoring more goals. The continued insistence on getting pucks in deep for the purpose of getting pucks in deep is little more than groupthink at this point. Fortunately if you're a fan of more exciting hockey, and unfortunately if you're a team that's looking for small advantages in the next few years, the hiring of guys like carry-in proponent Kyle Dubas may signal that this unassailable truth is finally being assailed.

Sunday, 13 July 2014

Quick Hits: Mason Raymond Appreciation Post


Extraskater made player stats for the 2010-2011 NHL regular season available this morning. I can't think of anything else catchy to say about 2011 because seriously, screw the 2011 Boston Bruins. Game 7 and the aftermath is pretty much the absolute worst thing a hockey fan can go through and I imagine that year is going to still sting for a while longer.

Still, the 2010-2011 Vancouver Canucks, despite all recent dialogue about doing the contrary (#bostonmodel), is the team that the current management group should strive to build. They were a fantastic team that year, and one that was an absolute joy to watch as well. Daniel Sedin led the NHL in scoring with 104 points, with a league-leading 57 of those coming at even strength. Henrik's 75 assists alone would have placed him 15th in the league in scoring, and Ryan Kesler scored 41 goals in a campaign in which he won the Selke trophy.

And yet, because we're idiots that can't appreciate what we have in this city until it's gone, that team still came under fire for some ridiculous things. Most notably in my memory, the play of Mason Raymond. Raymond was coming off a breakout 25-goal, 28 assist season and was expected to build off of this performance. In retrospect, it was an insane thing to expect. Raymond would never get 1st-line TOI or 1st-line PP time with Daniel Sedin on the team, and saying "60 points is reasonable second line production" is batshit crazy in this day and age. 1st liners score ~55 points per 82 games. 2nd liners score ~30 points per 82 games. 3rd liners score ~20 points per 82. That's the reality of today's NHL.

And yet Mason Raymond did improve on his pretty spectacular 2009-2010 season in 2010-2011, but he did it in ways that weren't immediately jump-out-and-punch-you-in-the-face visible. He became an elite puck possession player, an elite penalty drawer, and a 1st-line calibre rate scorer. Raymond increased his individual shot rate by almost 2 shots per 60 minutes between 09-10 and 10-11, and saw his 5v5 points per 60 increase from 1.75 to 1.95 - a rate comparable to Henrik Zetterberg, Marian Hossa, John Tavares, Patrik Elias, Mikko Koivu, David Backes, Joe Pavelski, and Jakub Voracek. He also jumped to a 56% Corsi player away from Ryan Kesler compared to a still very good 51.2% Corsi player the season prior.

Perhaps the most impressive thing about Raymond's 2010-11 season is that he managed to increase his 5v5 scoring rate while his on-ice shooting percentage actually fell by almost 10% (6.9% in 10-11 vs. 7.53% in 09-10) and his individual shooting percentage fell by almost 40% (6.1 % in 10-11 vs. 9.88% in 09-10). That's pretty phenomenal.

What really killed Raymond's boxcars was his great PP luck running out. He not only spent significantly less time on the PP in 10-11, but his individual 5v4 shooting percentage regressed in a big way. He scored on nearly 1 out of every 4 shots at 5v4 in 09-10, but that number fell to a much more reasonable 1 out of ever 9 shots in 10-11. His on-ice PP Sh% also fell by nearly 27%. Combining these factors meant Raymond's powerplay production in 2010-11 was just 1/3rd or what it was in 2009-10, and there's really not much that Raymond could have been reasonably expected to do about this.

All of this is to say that in 2010-2011, Mason Raymond was an elite 2nd line/fringe 1st line left winger, not the disappointing player that the Vancouver MSM and fanbase characterized him as. And for his $2.5 M/yr cap hit, Raymond was a massive bargain and no small part of the best offense that Vancouver has ever seen.

---

An aside to the Raymond appreciation: it's a damn shame that his back was broken by Johnny Boychuk and Raymond has never quite been the same player since, but I think it's a bigger shame that he was run out of town amid criticisms that he was too soft, played on the perimeter, and "his hands never caught up to his feet," which is just a bullshit way of saying "you skate as fast as Pavel Bure so I don't understand why you aren't Pavel Bure."

Raymond's perception in this market is a real sore spot for me. It really is. He was one of my favourite players because I thought he was tremendously effective at generating offensive chances (it turns out he really was - I didn't follow fancystats at all until midway through the next season but as you can see, his fancystats were fantastic), so all the "lol raymond fell down again" and the "soft perimeter player" stuff really, really aggravated me. The point of hockey is to score more goals than your opponents, and it was blindingly obvious that Mason Raymond helped the Canucks do just that. If someone couldn't see that from just the eye test, I don't know what sport they were watching.

The whole Raymond situation was also one of the things that convinced me that Vancouver mainstream media does not have a clue how hockey works, and also can't do basic second grade math. Around the 60th game of the season or so (Raymond's 50th game since he'd missed 10 due to injury), the TEAM 1040 was doing their usual "Mason Raymond is soft" routine so I sent this email:


It's not even that difficult an argument. There's no Corsi or Fenwick or unfavourable percentages (mostly because I didn't know those were really things yet), it's just points. I was, uh, "fortunate" enough to get both an on-air response and an email response from Barry MacDonald. I don't have the audio, but his on-air response was something snarky and condescending. He claimed that Raymond was on pace for 40-ish points that season and chastised me for my math skills, adding something along the lines of "if this is the type of student our education system is producing, we're in real trouble!"

It doesn't take a freaking math genius to go "0.62 points per game times 82 games = 50.8 points per 82 games!" and I'm fairly sure that most first graders can understand "82 game season." And the "our future is in danger" crack is just a ridiculous thing to say. I got this email response:


That would be a great mic drop had he not been completely wrong about Raymond's scoring rate.

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Quick Hits: Don't Play Zack Kassian With The Sedins

Well, at least don't have Kassian penciled in as the #1 RW on the Canucks now and in the future. Lines are fluid and guys move around all the time, and I do think that Kassian was deserving with more than the paltry 46:31 he spent at 5v5 with Henrik Sedin last year, so I'm not saying don't ever play him with the Sedins. Although I acknowledge that that's essentially what I wrote here:
But, as always, arguments about anything involve more nuance than bullshit stuff I blurt out over Twitter, so that's why I have a blog. Here, I can qualify the dumb stuff I say with significantly less dumb stuff and overall have not-dumb opinions on things. Well, that's how it's supposed to work anyways.

I digress. This is an article about Zack Kassian.

"Hi."
I admit, the "Zack Kassian is a playmaker" argument is very much one born from *gasp* watching the games. I see Kassian play, and I just see a guy who's more Joe Thornton than Cam Neely. That is to say he's nowhere close to either and never will be, but he just looks more comfortable as a guy with the puck on his stick looking to create offense rather than a guy with the puck off his stick looking to create mayhem and drive to "scoring areas."

I googled Zack Kassian images. It was a fantastic decision.
He'll just be playing the game, then get the puck on his stick, hang on for what feels like a second too long, then find an open passing lane (he likes hitting the weak side D pinching into the slot with a pass from the corner it seems), and you're like "shit where'd that come from?" It just looks like his particular offensive toolkit lends itself better to protecting the puck along the boards and down low and using his hands and plus-level vision to find shooting options other than himself, than it does to barging to the front of the net and hoping to jam in a rebound. I mean, his struggles away from the puck are the part of the game that have so far been maligned by his coaches, so why does it make sense to play away from the puck more often?

Kassian is not known for his shrewd decision making without the puck.
It's also worth noting that Kassian and Henrik Sedin were unusually poor together on the ice last year, posting just a 48.1% Corsi. Barring injuries, the Sedins are still elite possession players and still among the most effective 5v5 players in the NHL, so I doubt that number would remain that low over a larger sample. Still, Henrik has traditionally been better off without Kassian on his RW than with him.

"Oh god Henrik I am so sorry."
It also shouldn't really come as a surprise that Kassian probably found his best success as a Canuck when paired with David Booth. Stylistically, Booth and Kassian couldn't really be more different - Booth is a serious shoot-first play-driving winger who I suspect is dynamite through the neutral zone. Booth is good at freeing up pucks, and he is good at going into high-traffic areas without the puck in hope of hacking and whacking away. Essentially, he's everything that every coach who's ever had Zack Kassian wants Kassian to play like. Chip and chase, go to the net, compete, etc. etc.

"David's gone...? Is he ever coming back?"
The two most important points to make about Zack Kassian last year though are as follows:

  • He was deployed in a very unfavourable role in terms of offensive production. Between Brad Richardson and a 43.3% ZoneStart rate, Kassian's deployment was primarily defensive for some reason, which seems like an odd use of assets to say the least if you're concerned about his D. One would think that Torts would use him like Bruce Boudreau used Pat Maroon if there was a legitimate concern about Kassian's defensive game. Here's Kassian's PUC from last year:
Since Kassian is capable of offence relatively on his own, it may not be the best idea to play him with the Sedins at even strength. There's not really a stylistic fit there as they're all pass-first guys, and Vancouver is kinda shallow in terms of offensive punch up front. I would prefer to see Kassian on a second line with a play-driver like Alex Burrows and hope that Nick Bonino is legit and not a PDO mirage and try someone like Linden Vey at 1RW to try and spread the wealth around a bit.

*goes to proofread post*
*about to hit "Publish"*
*CANUCKS SIGN RADIM VRBATA*

Well now, this whole argument is kinda moot. Vrbata is a bona-fide top-line RW who's a shoot-first guy. Since 2011, his Goals/60 is good for 45th in the NHL, nearly identical to Alex Burrows. He wasn't as good this past season, but, much like Burrows, that's largely percentage-related as he shot just 5.11% at ES. His Shots/60 was fairly constant with his career norms this past year, while his individual shot attempts actually saw a jump.

Vrbata's also an elite shot producer and a better PP scorer than Ryan Kesler traditionally has been. This acquisition should insulate Kassian a bit at RW, and provide a better fit for Daniel and Henrik than Kassian would. At the end of the day though, Kassian is likely a legitimate top-6 forward, and deserving of better deployments, more talented linemates, and hopefully, hopefully, some PP time as well.

"WE GOT RADIM!"

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Quick Hits: What Jim Benning Said

The Canucks' Twitter account tweeted a thing earlier tonight. This was the thing they tweeted:
This prompted @BlueAidanGreen to ask me this question, seeing as I'm usually pretty volatile towards nonsense like this:
I was ready to fire back the usual #fakeoutrage, fire-and-brimstone, those-idiots-don't-know-what-they're-doing type of response, but then I stopped to think. I don't know why, I'm usually bad at not running my mouth on these types of things, but something struck me about the nature of the Canucks' tweet and the purpose of their Twitter account itself, and I think it's worth saying that we probably kinda need to take a step back here and not read too much into what Jim Benning said.

The Vancouver Canucks don't have a Twitter account just because they want to talk hockey with fans. To them, it's strictly a marketing tool. It's purpose is not to provide news or analysis, it is first and foremost a way to "engage the consumer base" and "grow the brand" with a strong "social media presence." Sports Twitter despises Darren Rovell for being a soulless husk of a human being who bows down in worship of The Brand, but he's not exactly an inaccurate representation of what a professional sports marketing department probably thinks and talks like. Their job is to turn fan interest into actual dollars spent, and that only happens when fans make an emotional investment on some level. Participating in the discussion and engaging them on the social media medium that they like to talk hockey on is an easy way to do this.

This brings me to the actual content of what the Canucks' account tweets. You can be assured that Derek Jory or whoever is taking their turn behind the keyboard is under strict guidelines from the marketing department about what they share with their five-hundred and twenty-three thousand followers. Everything that's tweeted or distributed is carefully planned and designed as a part of a larger, overarching strategy to create a solid and trustworthy brand image - to make sure that the guys in charge look like they know what they're doing. If fans trust the Canucks, fans are more likely to spend money on the Canucks.

So when Jim Benning says something that's quoted by Twitter, you can bet it's been pre-screened and approved first. And even before that, he's almost assuredly met with some of the marketing guys to prep him for interviews and the like. As such, I don't think we can put a lot of stock into Benning saying he's looking for "character" in prospects, especially since "character" is such a nebulous thing.

We also have to remember that the vast majority of the Canucks' paying customers still revere the gritty heart leadershippyness of the 1994 team. "Character" means something to them. The broader fanbase wants character players - seemingly good guys who they can get behind and buy jerseys and merchandise to support - because that's what the broader fanbase thinks wins Stanley Cups. We have to remember that we as an analytic-focused community are still very much a niche in their market. We may very well have it right, but it's not in Vancouver's best interest to tip their hand in our favour since that's not what their paying fans want to hear. If they want Trevor to save the day again, then god dammit they'll make it look like they're hunting for Trevor 2.0, even if they really aren't.

Furthermore, no matter who Vancouver drafts, it's easy to say "we like this kid's character." The beauty of publicly valuing intangibles is that they can't be falsified on a player-by-player basis. We can't know if a guy has good character because, as fans, we have no inside knowledge. Jim Benning may very well draft Michael Dal Colle 6th overall, and Michael Dal Colle may very well be a total asshole. Will we be told about that? Of course not. Benning will lie if he has to. Bad character is bad for the brand.

And there you have it. A whole bunch of words to basically say the same thing as what you were taught in gradeschool: don't believe everything you see on T.V. read on the internet.

Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Quick Hits: On Trades and Finding Talent

So I was talking Kesler trade with Thomas Drance today. He brought up a point that I don't totally agree with:
You do need a lot of good players to build a serious contender, and Vancouver doesn't have enough good players. Therefore, Vancouver needs more good players. It's a pretty simple formula. The trick, of course, is getting enough good players.

As this relates to Ryan Kesler, I'd rather move him for fewer, high-quality parts than a greater volume of lower-quality ones. For example, I'd take Hampus Lindholm from Anaheim over Emerson Etem and the 10th overall pick. Whether or not Anaheim would go for this is another matter entirely, but Lindholm + any additional BS throw-ins you can negotiate would be my preferred ask from Jim Benning's point of view.

The problem here is Vancouver still needs player volume to fill out a deep roster and build a contender, and trading your big ticket item for one guy doesn't help you with depth. It's likely a lateral move in terms of quality (hopefully), and roster spots filled. So at the end of the day, you're left essentially where you started, except you've moved towards the right side of the window of contention being open again. So if you're making a lateral move by trading for quality, why not address an immediate need and get a bunch of guys?

The answers are "scarcity" and "replacement cost" of top-end players relative to good depth guys, but instead of providing a lecture on economic theory and what the hell these mean, I'll go through the moves Dean Lombardi made to build a two-time Stanley Cup champion in Los Angeles, since I think the L.A. "model" is a good illustration in how to build a deep, effective, and sustainably successful NHL team. Lombardi took over the Kings in April of 2006. Here's how he acquired his forward group:

Anze Kopitar: Inherited from previous regime.
Justin Williams: Inherited Pavol Demitra. Traded Demitra to the Minnesota Wild for Patrick O'Sullivan and a 1st round pick in 2006 (Trevor Lewis). Dealt O'Sullivan and a 2nd round pick to Carolina for Justin Williams.
Marian Gaborik: Drafted Jonathan Bernier in the 1st round of 2006. Traded Bernier to Toronto for Matt Frattin, Ben Scrivens, and a 2nd round pick. Traded Ben Scrivens to Edmonton for a 3rd round pick. Traded Matt Frattin, a 2nd round pick, and a conditional 2nd/3rd round pick to Columbus for Marian Gaborik.
Jeff Carter: Inherited Eric Belanger and Tim Gleason. Traded Belanger and Gleason to Carolina in exchange for Jack Johnson and Oleg Tverdovsky. Traded Jack Johnson and a 1st round pick to Columbus for Jeff Carter.
Tyler Toffoli: Traded 2nd round pick and 4th round pick in 2010 to Colorado in exchange for 2nd round pick in 2010 (Tyler Toffoli).
Mike Richards: Inherited Brent Sopel. Traded Sopel to the Vancouver Canucks for a 2nd round pick in 2007 (Wayne Simmonds) and a 4th round pick in 2008. Drafted Brayden Schenn in the 1st round of 2009. Traded Simmonds, Schenn, and a 2nd round pick to the Philadelphia Flyers for Mike Richards.
Dustin Brown: Inherited from previous regime.
Jarrett Stoll: Inherited Lubomir Visnovsky. Traded Visnovsky to the Edmonton Oilers for Jarrett Stoll and Matt Greene.
Tanner Pearson: Drafted in the 1st round of the 2012 draft.
Kyle Clifford: Drafted in the 2nd round of the 2009 draft.
Dwight King: Inherited Craig Conroy. Traded Conroy to the Calgary Flames for Jamie Lundmark, a 2nd round pick in 2008, and a 4th round pick in 2007 (Dwight King).
Jordan Nolan: Drafted in the 7th round of the 2009 draft.

As for Los Angeles' D, Drew Doughty, Slava Voynov, and Alec Martinez were all drafted by the Kings, while Willie Mitchell and Jake Muzzin were UFA signings (Muzzin was drafted but never signed by Pittsburgh, so he became a free agent). Robyn Regehr and Matt Greene were both acquired via trade.

At the end of the day, we appear to be left with this formula:

  • Build the bare-bones skeleton of your team through the early picks of the draft (Kopitar, Doughty)
  • Trade multiple assets to acquire premium quality depth (Williams, Carter, Gaborik, Richards) 
  • Fill in the bottom-end holes in your roster from within by developing your own talent
  • Stay away from unrestricted free agency, except for unsigned prospects
Not since 2007 has Dean Lombardi traded down to stock the cupboards with quantity of players in lieu of quality. In fact, Lombardi has done the opposite most of the time by packaging up players and picks to take a home-run swing on the trade market. As a smart GM, he realizes that top-end talent, like Jeff Carter and Justin Williams and Marian Gaborik, is harder to come by than bundles of assets involving lesser players and draft picks. Hell, NHL teams are given seven free draft picks every year, but you have to work hard to find a Jeff Carter.

Of course, Lombardi's wheeling and dealing wouldn't be possible without a strong scouting department that's been among the league's best since he took over. If his scouts had not found Brayden Schenn, Wayne Simmonds, or Jonathan Bernier, it's unlikely he has enough assets to build a team as strong as the Kings are. And as an added bonus, his amateur scouting department has also landed the Kings Slava Voynov, Alec Martinez, Tyler Toffoli, Tanner Pearson, Dwight King and Jordan Nolan in recent years to fill out the roster and ultimately save money on pricier veteran UFA replacements. Amateur scouting really matters.

Coming full circle to Vancouver, yes the Canucks absolutely need to "re-stock" the cupboard. But, as the Kings have shown, there are other ways to find quantity of talent than trading your best trade chip for a bunch of assets that can be found through other processes. Land the single best asset you can for Ryan Kesler. Focus on the other stuff later.

Sunday, 15 June 2014

Adjusted Draft Year Scoring For CHL Prospects

After adjusting scoring for age and era, it's clear that no CHLer has ever been as prolific as Sidney Crosby.
Here is a table showing the age and era adjusted scoring for every CHL forward drafted in the 1st round of the NHL entry draft since 2003, as well as some 2014 draft eligibles (highlighted with red text). My method for adjusting draft year scoring for age can be found here, and my method for adjusting scoring rate for era and CHL league was described in this post. All of total points per game, just age adjusted points per game, just era adjusted points per game, and a combined age and era adjusted points per game are included:



* = Draft year was unavailable due to injury, so draft-1 year was used instead. The age adjustment likely understates how well these players performed as 16-year olds in the CHL.
** = Drafted as a draft+1 player, so draft year scoring was used.

Tuesday, 10 June 2014

Adjusting Scoring Rate for Age in CHL Prospects

Nathan MacKinnon, one of the youngest 1st round picks since 2003.
I wrote a post for Canucks Army this morning (read it here and click on all their advertising) in which I argued that Vancouver could expect to win a trade for the 1st overall draft choice this season - even if they gave up their 6th overall pick and Bo Horvat to do it - if they used the draft pick to select Kootenay's Sam Reinhart. The genesis of the pro-Reinhart argument is that Reinhart scored at a level comparable to other extremely highly-touted former prospects (and current NHL stars), therefore he was player worthy of being selected 1st overall, despite the skepticism among experts that this draft contains a "true #1 selection."

After publishing the article, it was pointed out to me that Reinhart is older than the average draft eligible prospect, and therefore his offensive numbers could not be fairly compared to a player like Sam Bennett, who is 8 months younger. The argument here is essentially that scoring rate increases with player age, and for the most part, this probably isn't an unreasonable generalization to make. 20 year olds score more than 19 year olds, who score more than 18 year olds, and so on and so forth. If this pattern exists on a macro scale, then it should logically exist on a micro scale, too. A kid who's 17.8 years old on in September should, in theory, score more than a kid who's 17.2 years old at the same point in time.

If this assumption is true, then we should be able to observe a consistent positive relationship between intra-year age and scoring rate. Fortunately, Josh Weissbock had previously scraped a whole bunch of data for a project we've currently postponed (we're instead working on Sham Sharron 2: Return of the Sham), so I had a repository of scoring and age data for every player to play in the OHL since 1990. Eliminating small sample size guys and correlating intra-year age with scoring rate, I was left with the following equation:

Pts/GP = (0.1672*Age) - 2.3714

This equation tells us that for every year a player ages, we can expect scoring rate to increase by 0.1672 points per game. This means that, for first time draft eligible players, we can adjust scoring rate for age through the following equation:

Age Adjusted Pts/GP = (1 - ([Age as of September of draft year - 17] * 0.1672)) * Pts/GP

This formula will estimate the predicted scoring rate of a player if they were exactly 17 years of age at the start of their draft year, based on their actual age and scoring rate. It is, for all intents and purposes, a measure of scoring relative to Nathan MacKinnon, who was almost exactly 17 years of age at the start of his draft year.

To see how it works, we'll use John Tavares as an example. Tavares was roughly 17.94 years old at the start of his draft year, and he scored 104 points in 56 games, split between Oshawa and London. His age-adjusted points per game is as follows:

Tavares Adj. Pts/GP = (1 - ([Age as of September of draft year - 17] * 0.1672)) * Pts/GP
= (1 - ([17.94 - 17] * 0.1672)) * (104/56)
= (1 - ([0.94] * 0.1672)) * 1.857
= (1 - 0.157) * 1.857
= 0.843 * 1.857
Tavares Adj. Pts/GP = 1.565 Pts/GP

Whereas if you attempt the same formula with Nathan MacKinnon:

MacKinnon Adj. Pts/GP = (1 - ([Age as of September of draft year - 17] * 0.1672)) * Pts/GP
= (1 - ([17.00 - 17] * 0.1672)) * (75/44)
= (1 - ([0.0] * 0.1672)) * 1.705
= (1 - 0.0) * 1.705
= 1 * 1.705
MacKinnon Adj. Pts/GP 1.705 Pts/GP

As you can probably see, the closer a player is to 17 years old at the beginning of their draft year, the smaller the adjustment to their scoring rate. As a side note, I don't know if this age adjustment works for any other age ranges than 17.0 years to 17.99 years old, as I basically just built it to look at first-time draft eligible players. I'll have to look into this later.

So there you have it, a formula to adjust scoring for intra-year age for first-time draft eligible CHL prospects. I don't know if anyone had done this publicly (if they have, I couldn't find it), but I hope this provides some useful insight going forward. 

---

As an aside, here are some top 2014-eligible prospects ranked by age adjusted Pts/GP:


Good news for Sam Bennett fans, however Reinhart still comes out on top when adjusting for league offense. Really though, both guys stack up well with some pretty elite company (and so does Nikolaj Ehlers, their closest comparables are here, here and here) and a team selecting 1st overall probably can't go wrong with either.

Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Quick Hits: Trading Evgeni Malkin

Evgeni Malkin is pretty amazing and it maaaaaaay be a bad idea to trade him
The Pittsburgh Penguins lost to the New York Rangers in the 2nd round of the playoffs just minutes ago, so speculation is running rampant about what the Pens should and will do going forward as not to piss away the rest of their time with two of the best centres on the planet. Bob McKenzie suggested that Dan Bylsma is as good as gone, but Darren Pang put in to words what I'm sure was a common sentiment: perhaps it's time to trade Evgeni Malkin.

I can't help but think that this would be a massive overreaction, and simply doom the Penguins to more years of not being able to get back to the Stanley Cup. Tyler Dellow summed up the problem with trading Malkin well:
Having Evgeni Malkin, an elite scorer, on the roster allows the Penguins to have something that few other NHL teams can boast: two elite scoring lines. Subtracting Malkin removes an elite scoring line, so you have to replace that offence with the return in the Malkin trade. Right away, no team is going to give up a piece that can produce offense as well as Malkin can, so you're hoping for volume in return. This means you're weakening your second line to try and shore up your depth.

Let's do some quick back-of-the-envelope math to figure out what Pittsburgh would need for Malkin to make a trade worth their while. For the trade to be worthwhile, the boost in offence provided by the new 3rd line must equal the offence lost through trading Malkin. In the past 3 years, Malkin is 5th in the NHL in on-ice GF/20. Let's say you get a Kyle Turris/Derek Stepan/Logan Couture/Joe Pavelski in return as the centerpiece of a Malkin deal. You're presumably losing 0.29-0.31 goals/20 min from your second line, so that needs to be made up elsewhere. Assuming a straight upgrade on current Brandon Sutter, you're looking at a second Pavelski/Couture/Ryan O'Reilly/Jeff Skinner to even come close to make it worth Pittsburgh's while. If you assume Brandon Sutter is still capable of producing like Carolina Brandon Sutter, this second piece becomes someone like Ryan Getzlaf, John Tavares, or Taylor Hall.

The more volume pieces you trade for, the more you presumably dilute the quality player coming back too. Some team will give you an entire 2nd line for Malkin, but you can find second line quality guys in free agency anyways. Mikhail Grabovski is available this offseason. Ray Shero could sign him to address depth while keeping Evgeni Malkin.

Long in short, Evgeni Malkin is worth two super-premium assets. No team is going to be willing to part with multiple core pieces, especially not to a team who's under the gun to upgrade. Pittsburgh cannot trade Evgeni Malkin and come out ahead. It just doesn't happen. I mean, it's not as if Malkin is a problem anyways:


Tuesday, 6 May 2014

Quick Hits: Dumping Dump-ins

Mike Johnston looks incredulous, probably because someone suggested playing more chip-and-chase.
I hate chip-and-chase hockey. I think I've made enough of a stink about that on Twitter for it to be obvious, so it killed me to hear John Tortorella praising Zack Kassian for "dumping the puck in well" after his 4-assist game against the Sabres. I also tend to think that this perception of "safe" hockey plagues Canada at lower levels. In particular, the CHL.

I mean, Frederik Gauthier had a spot specifically designed for him on this past year's World Junior team, while Max Domi, Connor Brown, Scott Kosmachuk, Michael Dal Colle, Andreas Athanasiou, Brendan Leipsic, Sam Bennett, Jaedon Descheneau, and Anthony Duclair were hardly considered at all. Brown was the OHL's player of the year. Athanasiou and Kosmachuk were the top non-overage goal scorers in the OHL with 49 each. Duclair was one of only two QMJHLers to crack 50 goals. Domi, Bennett, Dal Colle, Leipsic, and Descheneau all generated nearly twice as much offence as Gauthier. Canada has talent to burn at the U20 level, and we continually burn it in the name of conservative, grind-it-out hockey.

It's a breath of fresh air then when a guy like Kyle Dubas comes on TSN radio and says something like this:
“There’s nothing more that makes me or our staff cringe than when we’re watching players in Bantam or at the Minor Midget level and the parents are yelling and the coaches are yelling to get the puck off the glass or to dump it in and chase when they’re on the attack. I think for the most part we cringe because we know we’re probably going to have to correct those things to try to reset or rewire a player after a playing style like that was ingrained in them for 10 years, and it’s difficult.I think every single player that plays the game, deep down and innately wants to have the puck on their stick. Myself and Sheldon told them that we weren’t going to be mad at our players if they tried to make a play and turned the puck over. That’s what every player in hockey wants to do, if they know that they have the grace of the staff.If the staff can show them success from the NHL or our seasons of controlling shots and creating chances they’re generally more receptive. We look at it as our job to develop them for the NHL and if they can’t process and make a play with the puck their chances for success are probably limited.”
That's via Hope Smoke by way of this Justin Bourne article.

The Soo Greyhounds, as Bourne notes, are a really good team. You know who's also a really good team? The Portland Winterhawks. Cam Charron noted here that they kinda blitzed the Edmonton Oil Kings in games 1 and 2, and the Oil Kings have made a thing of being un-blitzable this season. Cam counted the scoring chances at 20-4 at even strength in Portland's favour before score effects presumably kicked in, which is as sound a thrashing you'll see in hockey.

I saw the Winterhawks live on four different occasions this season, and the one thing that stood out to me was that they never ever seemed to chip and chase. With a top-6 forward group designed to eviscerate opponents with skill and speed, "safe" hockey doesn't really make sense anyways. I kept an unofficial count of zone entries when the Hawks played the Giants in the their final game of the 1st round, and was blown away by how rarely the Hawks even attempted the chip-and-chase. I believe of ~60 attempted entries, Portland attempted just one unforced dump-in. It was pretty amazing to watch, actually.

Winterhawks fan Megan (@butyoucarlotta on Twitter) tracked Winterhawks zone entries for game 1 of the WHL final, and here's what she found:

Even against the WHL's best defensive team that employs a 6'4 monster like Griffin Reinhart, Portland seems to have moved to carrying the puck in almost exclusively. While probably not directly related to exclusively carrying the puck in (adding Mat Dumba helps too), Portland has won 41 games and has just three losses in their past 44 games. They're crushing the WHL like they're playing NHL 14 on rookie difficulty.

So there you have two CHL teams - two really freaking good CHL teams - that have began to erase dump-and-chase hockey from their repertoire. Hopefully this is a sign of things to come soon, and maybe, just maybe, Hockey Canada will take note and stop screwing up the un-screw-uppable task of building a good U20 team from the best pool of U20 players in the world.

Also, Mike Johnston for Canucks coach.

***
One more thing: I was going through my Twitter archive today and found these. Ray Ferraro is the greatest and I wish he 1) still did radio in Vancouver, and 2) along with Botchford, had the primetime afternoon slot on the TEAM 1040. Maybe I'd start listening again:

The best "sound, defensive hockey" really is "blow their fucking doors off."

Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Let's Give Erik Karlsson Some Norris Love


The 2013-2014 Norris Trophy finalists were announced yesterday, and they were, as you all know by now, Zdeno Chara, Duncan Keith, and Shea Weber. While all three guys are undoubtedly elite defenders and deserving of the recognition, the discussion I saw over Twitter centred largely around who was omitted from this list rather than how great these three guys are (as is tradition). And most of that discussion seemed to come to the consensus that Mark Giordano should at the very least be a nominee over Weber.

I'm not going to argue that Giordano didn't have a fantastic year. He did. His fancystats were insanely good. He was a standout on an awful Calgary team and probably the only thing that kept them from being Sabres-level awful. Be deserves to be considered among the very best defensemen in the game, for this year at least.

But for my money, he wasn't the biggest omission from Norris voting this year. As you can tell by the title, I think Erik Karlsson should not have just been one of the three nominees, but should have won the award in a landslide. The season he had this year was not only good, but it was one of the single best seasons that any defensemen has ever had, yet no one's talking about it. I think it's time we put just how freaking insanely good Karlsson is into perspective.

First off, we'll look at some work done by Travis Yost. If you don't know who he is, a) why not, b) change this immediately, and c) he's an excellent Sens blogger that Eugine Melnyk has personally tried to have erased from the internet. That's not a joke by the way. Look it up. Anyways, he's been looking at individual shot attempts the last couple of days, and has basically determined that Karlsson is the Ottawa Senators' entire attack:

It goes further. Yost also wrote this post detailing how dominant offensively Karlsson is. If you're too lazy to click on the link, this graph is the main takeaway:

Essentially, Erik Karlsson breaks hockey. He has outperformed his peers by so much since 2011 that it's unbelievable, and this despite getting his achilles severed which theoretically understates his production.

This makes it more ridiculous when you put Karlsson's production relative to his peers in a historical context. He beat Duncan Keith for the defenseman scoring title by 13 points. The last D to finish more than 10 points ahead of second place was also Erik Karlsson in 2011-2012 when he beat the second best guy by 25(!) points, so he's done it in back-to-back 82-game seasons. Before that, you have to go all the way back to the 1991-1992 season to find a guy who's done it once. That was Hockey Hall of Famer Brian Leetch, who beat Phil Housley by 16 points.

The last guy to finish more than 10 points ahead of second in back-to-back 82-game seasons was Hockey Hall of Famer Paul Coffey, who accomplished the feat on the 1988-89 and 1989-90 Pittsburgh Penguins. You'll notice that those teams also included a then 23 and 24 year old Mario Lemieux, who posted prorated 209 and 167 point seasons. Coffey was also the last guy to finish 25 or more points ahead of the 2nd highest scoring defenseman, and he accomplished this feat with the Oilers in 1985-86, during Wayne Gretzky's all-time record 215 point season (which may have actually been deflated by unlucky percentages).

And then there's this:
Add Leetch and Hockey Hall of Famer Ray Bourque to that list, and you get every NHL defenseman who's ever scored more than 70 points in a season twice before they're 23. You'll notice that these guys Karlsson is equaling with his performance this season aren't just good, they're generationally good. Erik Karlsson is walking on hallowed ground.

The knock against Karlsson is that the Norris Trophy is for "all-around" ability and not just offence, and he's not good defensively. The thing is, Duncan Keith isn't good defensively either, but that largely doesn't matter because his offensive game is so, so much better than the average NHL D. In fact, it's pretty easy to make an argument that Karlsson shouldered a heavier two-way burden than Duncan Keith did this season:
Both defenders have a similarly strong possession numbers, but Duncan Keith is also backed by a much stronger supporting cast.

(As an aside, I'll note that I think using CorsiRel to compare performances across players is not a smart thing to do since it unfairly punishes guys for playing on great teams while it overstates the contributions of guys on awful teams. It's true that if you compare on the basis of raw Corsi, you're not taking into account the strength of team, but by comparing on the basis of CorsiRel, you're assuming equal strength of team. 

Mark Giordano's 53.3% Corsi on the year is more impressive given that he plays for Calgary, but let's not kid ourselves, he's not +10.3% better than his team on an average NHL team, and he certainly doesn't take Chicago to, say, nearly 65% Corsi if he played Duncan Keith's role. Part of the reason that his CorsiRel is so high is that the players that he never sees the ice with and have no material impact on him whatsoever like Shane O'Brien and Chris Butler probably aren't NHL-calibre players, and they get their teeth kicked in repeatedly. So while +10.3% CorsiRel looks gaudy, remember that Giordano has no control over the guys below him in the depth chart being insufferably awful.)

Erik Karlsson probably isn't an elite defensive defenseman. Ottawa hemorrhages shot attempts against like few other teams do, and having Karlsson on the ice improves them only marginally in that regard. At the same time, Duncan Keith will probably win the Norris this year and he actively and demonstrably makes his team worse defensively when he's on the ice. But, and I can't stress this enough, this doesn't matter. Keith, like Karlsson, is nitrous oxide to his team's attack and his offensive ability has by far a greater net benefit than any defensive deficiencies in his game.

The point of all this is that Erik Karlsson is a special talent that continues to do what no other NHL defenseman can: generate offense at a super-elite level. He did it in his last full season, earning a Norris trophy, and he did it again this year. He does have his defensive issues, but the point of hockey is to outscore the opposition, not to hold a 0-0 tie the longest. He proved once again in 2013-2014 that he's the only NHL D to have no equal in any critical aspect of the game, and for that he deserves recognition as one of the NHL's top-3 defensemen, if not the best in the world today.

Sunday, 13 April 2014

Quick Hits: Shanahan Is Full Of Crap

I'm sure that most of these are going to start like this, but I was reading tonight's Provies when something caught my eye. It was this quote, from Brendan Shanahan, new overlord of the Toronto Maple Leafs:
I think it’s a complete cop-out that you can’t learn or be taught how to score at the NHL level. I hear coaches say all the time that you can teach defence, but you can’t teach offence. I don’t buy that. I’m an example of the opposite.
I bolded the important bit. This stuck out to me because I have this running theory (you know the one if you've read anything I've written about any Canucks prospect ever) that guys that turn into NHL scorers, in general, dominate their junior leagues. Shanahan scored nearly 1400 NHL points, so to hear him say "I had to be taught how to score" with the implication that he didn't know how to before hand is a bit curious. So I went to HockeyDB and looked at how a draft-year Brendan Shanahan performed in the OHL relative to his fellow 17 year olds. Here's how he did:

That is a list of every 17-year old forward who played at least 20 OHL games in Shanahan's draft year. As you can see, he wrecked them. He's on an entirely different level from the rest of those guys. So it's not as if Shanahan was a talentless hack coming in to the NHL. He dominated the OHL, so he dominated the NHL. For him to say that he had to be taught how to be a scorer is a crock of shit. He was always just way more talented than everyone else. The power was in you all along, Brendan!

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Quick Hits: The Boston Model

Jason Botchford wrote a bonus episode of the Provies tonight, and I tweeted some things about it. I'd like to elaborate on these things a bit, but first here's what I said:







And now, in the style of Elliotte Friedman, here are 12 Thoughts:

  1. I like toughness. I really do. Despite fawning over Jamie Benn over Twitter, my favourite NHL player is Milan Lucic. I saw him lead the Vancouver Giants to the 2006-07 Memorial Cup, and my lasting memory from that run was this shift in which he flattened two Medicine Hat Tigers and facepunched a third. At the same time, his toughness kinda distracts people from what makes him an effective hockey player. He moves the puck extremely effectively, sees the ice well, makes smart passes, and is able to possess the puck in the attacking zone. There are plenty of other guys that can punch faces in the NHL and minor leagues, and there are plenty of guys who can blow people up with hits. The thing that separates Milan Lucic is that he's really good at hockey.
  2. Full disclosure: the moment that Jamie Benn entered my heart as a hockey fan was when he fought Jarome Iginla in 2010 and split Iginla open pretty good. Hockey fights are fun, but they're not necessary for success.
  3. Back to the Bruins. When the "Boston model" is differentiated with the "Detroit model," it's pretty safe to assume that people are contrasting on the basis of perceived team identity. Detroit has the perception of a small, skillful team, whereas Boston is seen as a bit of a Broad Street Bullies throwback. The reality, however, is that both teams are/were remarkably similar in their heydays. When Detroit was at it's post-lockout peak, they had a generational talent on defense who had the puck all the time, one of the best 1-2 punches at centre in the league, and were able to fill in the gaps with exceptional drafting that allowed them to win in the margins. What's really important is that first and foremost, both teams were really good at hockey.
  4. It's funny to me that Patrice Bergeron is brought up as an example of a player that analytics doesn't really appreciate enough, because I think the reality is that analytics appreciate both him and David Krejci as hockey players a whole hell of a lot more than the MSM seems to.
  5. To me, singling out the "Boston model" indicates that ownership isn't looking at the "really good at hockey" part of the Bruins though. This is what worries me. If they were intent on building a strong feeder system for the Canucks, re-vamping the draft process, and becoming a team that was really good at hockey, it wouldn't matter if they followed the "Detroit model" or the "Boston model" since both are essentially the same in terms of stuff that matters. 
  6. I see Botch's comments (particularly the "from bullied to bully" one) as hinting that ownership wants a "big and tough" team. Well, Toronto wanted to get tougher over the offseason so they went out and got Bolland and Clarkson. Buffalo didn't want to be bullied anymore so they traded for Steve Ott and signed John Scott. Washington thought they needed to play a more grinding-type game so they made Bruce Boudreau play the trap before firing him.
  7. San Jose, conversely, has stuck to their guns and are a cup contender once again. Yeah they haven't won the cup, but the others are a steaming pile of garbage and bottom feeders in a worse conference. I'd rather be a contender than just suck. "Let's go get TOUGHER" has yet to work.
  8. I'm not sure what to think of the Bruins. On the one hand, you can't argue with a Stanley Cup. On the other, you totally can. They have managed to trade away Joe Thornton, Phil Kessel, and Tyler Seguin all in the past decade and remain one of the top-3 highest scoring teams at 5v5 for the last 3 full seasons and 4 of the last 5. Basically since David Krejci became a 1C, Patrice Bergeron fully recovered from his concussion issues, and Claude Julien became the coach. Those guys they traded are two top-5 NHL scorers and another guy who would still lead their team in points this season. How many other teams could have withstood that?
  9. Offensive talent is the hardest thing to acquire in this NHL. This is why guys who score a lot get the biggest contracts. I don't think you ever "win" a deal in which you give up a star, and the Bruins have done that three times (although only twice under Chiarelli). In that sense, they're incredibly fortunate to be where they are, and also incredibly fortunate that guys like Bergeron, Lucic, Krejci, and Marchand have all over-performed their draft position. With the benefit of hindsight, those guys all should have been top-10 or top-15 draft picks in their years.
  10. I'm hesitant to call this "good scouting" or "good drafting" though because after Marchand in 2006, the Bruins scouts have yet to find a single legitimate NHLer outside of the first round, and only Tyler Seguin and Dougie Hamilton have made the NHL at all. They dug up 5 core pieces between '03 and '06, and found nothing in the 5 years before or the 7 since. On the whole, that's not a stellar record.
  11. I've tossed around the idea of GM PDO a few times on Twitter, and it may apply to Boston. Have the Bruins figured out exactly the right thing to value in a hockey player, or did they get lucky because a small handful of guys with stuff they valued turned out to be really good at hockey too? I mean, Milan Lucic had 19 points in his draft year and could hardly skate at a CHL level. I honestly doubt that the Bruins really foresaw him turning into a legitimate NHL 1st line power forward.
  12. If this is the case, is it even possible to model your franchise after the Bruins? Many of the teams who have set out in search of toughness have failed spectacularly in becoming good. What made the Bruins different? Well, they signed the best defenseman post-Lidstrom and Pronger and got hit on a handful of mid-round draft picks in quick succession. I'm not sure that this is really a viable long-term strategy.
I'm not saying that Bruins management are just lucky and not smart (they have made some very shrewd pickups), but they are where they are because they have found good hockey players, not ones that are just tough and rugged and big. Emulating just toughness is just setting yourself up for failure. Vancouver's emphasis should be on finding good hockey players, regardless of size, facepunching ability, or perceived character flaws, and ss long as the Canucks' focus is not on getting really good at hockey, I fear for the direction of this franchise.

Quick Hits: First Impressions on the Second Linden Era

As much as I've panned hiring Trevor Linden as the president of hockey operations on Twitter, I think it's important to distinguish between criticism of Linden and criticism of the hiring. The fact of the matter is that Trevor Linden has no experience making hockey decisions at any level, and we don't know if he's going to be anything more than a well-informed figurehead. This means that no one can accurately say whether or not he's capable of fulfilling this role if he is making decisions on the hockey ops. side of things. The important thing that I heard in today's presser, and really the only bit of stuff worth chewing on, is that Linden seems to understand the need to surround himself with quality support staff and an excellent team of decision makers.

He brought up the example of Steve Yzerman when asked about his lack of experience, but the big difference is that Yzerman spent 4 years as an assistant GM under Ken Holland, Jim Nill, and the Detroit Red Wings, before moving on to Tampa Bay. There, he's surrounded himself with quality people like Julien BriseBois and Pat Verbeek, and a full-time statistical analyst among other support staff. Even though Linden doesn't have the experience of Yzerman, he can still make this work by building a team that does have experience in making hockey decisions. He can probably make this work quite well. We'll see.

What I think we can criticize is the fact that Francesco Aquilini hired someone like Linden though. From the outside, it looks like ownership's priorities lay more with corporate gladhanding and pandering to the fans still enthralled with the '94 run, rather than conducting an exhaustive search for the guy best suited to putting an effective hockey team on the ice. As Taj so lovingly transcribed for us, Elliotte Friedman suspects that this is a pretty transparent PR move more than anything. I'm of the mind that you get fans back by putting an entertaining and successful product on the ice rather than distracting them with shiny objects. Rather than looking for a guy who's determined to play an entertaining and successful style of hockey, ownership went and got a shiny object. "Look! It's Trevor! Go buy tickets! Do it for Trevor!"

I mean, I think Harrison Mooney pretty well nails it here:
Maybe it's because I'm admittedly a younger fan so '94 and by extension Trevor Linden the person don't resonate with me, but I don't see this as a move that will lead Vancouver to the promise land. Whether this move is successful really depends on who Linden (and ownership) pick to form the hockey operations team that will surely make the bulk of decisions, because leaning on Linden seems like a losing proposition.

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Quick Hits: Crowdsourcing An NHL Team

Note: I often have things I want to say that I usually just tweet, but aren't really conducive to a medium that limits thoughts to a series of 140-character fragments. I figure I have this old blog so why the hell not use it. "Quick Hits" will just be my various thoughts and musings that aren't really Canucks-related, but I figure I should write about anyways. Hope you enjoy, and feel free to call me an asshole over on Twitter if you disagree: @Thats_Offside.

I've said this before, and I'm quite confident that it's still true: I really think that there is enough appropriate talent and brainpower floating around in the public that if we were to get together and form a front office, I really think that we could run a legitimately above-average to good NHL franchise. I say this for a couple of reasons: first of all, I'm confident in the quality of work that's done on the internet and I'm confident in the abilities of the people that do it, and second of all, I don't think that there's really a mystical innate understanding of the game of hockey that "hockey guys" are blessed with.

I'll tweeted about this first thing earlier:
The validity of our current best available measures of hockey have been criticized in large part to the fact that they aren't things developed by either reputable academics or, more importantly, "hockey people." You've all heard the tired "basement bloggers" thrown around, I'm sure. What's largely discounted is that stuff developed in the eye of the public is subject to ridiculously intense peer review. Every day, people who believe in fancystats are forced to read commentary from people critical of their insights, defend their arguments, and consistently refine their viewpoints as more and more other smart people challenge the current paradigm.

What's resulted is a way of thinking about and analyzing hockey that is as accurate as anything out there, and much more significantly, works and is successful. The very best coaches in the NHL, guys who have very recently won Jack Adams trophies and Stanley Cups, seem to believe in the very same things that Corsi and Fenwick tell us is true. Hell, I wrote an article for Shnarped Hockey on Monday that shows this. Whether or not the NHL has quietly been at the forefront of this great learning, the fact still remains that "basement bloggers" have found the very same "magic formula" (even though there is no magic formula) to building a successful hockey team as successful hockey teams have.

This brings me to my second point: I don't really think that being a "hockey guy" equates to a unique understanding of the game that the general public can never hope to achieve. I'm a believer in "deep practice,' meaning that anyone can become good at a specific skill, given enough time and effort. Give the people I interact with on Twitter enough games to watch and specific stuff to watch for, and I don't think that most would do worse than an average NHL scout.

This is even more applicable to the "leading voices" of the online analytics community. They're smart people. Eric Tulsky has a Ph.D. from UC-Berkeley and a B.A. in chemistry and physics from Harvard. Tyler Dellow has a J.D., a B.A. in poli sci, and a B.Comm. There are many others on hockey Twitter that are really bright, well-educated people too, so it's not as if the "basement bloggers" stereotype is applicable or even appropriate. Given that these people have a track record of being able to think critically and solve problems, I don't believe for a second that not a single one of these guys is incapable of seeing the same thing as some guy who has a high school diploma but is a "hockey lifer" can.

Of course, there's a ton more that an NHL front office has to handle than just player acquisition, but I still don't believe it's as if no one that's a part of hockey Twitter that can't be found to handle each role. The hockey fans whose work I read and who I interact with are a diverse and intelligent bunch, and I'm confident that a good number of them would be an asset to any front office, even if they were just to be a part of an organizational think tank and challenge what established hockey minds think.

If all else fails, we'll just appoint Kyle Dubas as our head. He still counts as hockey Twitter, right?

Saturday, 4 January 2014

CHL Goalies, Decision Making, and Hockey Canada's Failings

Despite a ton of hype and a high draft selection, Zach Fucale is an extremely risky prospect.
Soon after Hockey Canada announced the pre-tournament rosters for this year's World Juniors, I was pretty critical of their selections, most notably the decision to bring Zachary Fucale and Jake Paterson in goal over Edmonton's Tristan Jarry and Tri-City's Eric Comrie. I wrote this article on why I thought this was a massive, inexcusable mistake. If you haven't read that article, basically my argument was this: a goalie's ability to stop the puck is the absolute core of their job, so you want to bring the goalies that are the best at stopping the puck. Relative to their respective junior leagues, Eric Comrie and Tristan Jarry proved to be elite puck stoppers, while Fucale and Paterson were just barely above average. It's Hockey Canada's job to supply the World U-20 team with elite talent, and they bypassed the elite goaltending talent that Canada has at its disposal in favour of two average guys for essentially no good reason.

I received a lot of feedback on the post, most of it positive, but some understandably critical. However, most of the feedback I saw wasn't addressing the Fucale/Paterson vs. Comrie/Jarry debate that the whole piece centred around, but the small add-on at the end of the article where I implied that both Fucale and Paterson had extremely poor chances at becoming regular NHL goalies, let alone star starters. Wading through the usual "watch the games, nerd!" bullshit, a couple of consistent criticisms emerged:

  1. The intangible, cerebral aspects of goaltending were too easily dismissed.
  2. The WHL, OHL and QMJHL may play very different styles, so the effects of those styles on save percentage made comparison across leagues difficult.
I'll address the first point before delving into the massive pile of data I looked at to come to a conclusion about the second. Eric Tulsky did a really good job here showing that "clutch playoff performance" isn't really a consistent, magical, unexpected thing at the NHL level. Basically, any deviation between "clutch" to "choker" can be explained by simple random variance over small sample sizes. For example, "clutch" Zach Fucale had an abysmal 0.884 save% over the WJCs and pre-tournament games, after a disappointing 5-1 loss to Finland in the semi-finals. Did Fucale lose his ability to win big games after performing poorly in these ones? Nope, sometimes guys have tough stretches. That's just the way goaltending works.

As a result, it's far more important to analyze a goaltender's body of work as a whole in an effort to determine how many pucks you can reasonably expect a guy to stop. A goalie who has stopped more pucks in the past is a better bet to stop more pucks in the future and is therefore a better bet to win you more games down the road - it's pretty simple. Therefore, bringing a goalie with a consistently higher save percentage is a smarter bet than a guy with an average one. Jake Paterson has a career 0.902 save%, and Zach Fucale sports a career save% of 0.900. How do these numbers compare to their peers and are they good bets to become NHL players? I looked at that question in detail here:

Purpose of Study & Hypothesis

As I indicated above, the purpose of this analysis was not only to determine whether Hockey Canada's goaltending choices for the World Juniors were reasonable bets to perform at a comparable level to their WHL counterparts that were left off the team, but to also see if these players were likely to become NHL players based on the measurable attributes of their peers that made the NHL. 

My hypothesis was largely the same as the one I held for the series of defensemen posts I wrote back at the NHL Entry Draft (you can read those here, here and here): I believe that the NHL is really, really good super-concentrated collection of the very best hockey talent on the planet. As a result, you have to be an elite performer in your pre-NHL days to even make the league, and this elite performance is reflected one way or another on the scoresheet. As this applies to goalies, we should expect the guys who make the NHL as regulars to stop pucks at an elite level in junior.

Procedure

First, I defined a "regular NHL goalie" as a goalie who has:

  • 20 or more games of NHL experience.
  • Played in a minimum of 10% of available games played between their draft+3 and draft+13 seasons (basically, 8 games per year for 10 years).
  • Appeared in a minimum of 8 or more games 5 separate seasons if they are no longer in the NHL.
I think this criteria is pretty generous, since it basically includes guys that were rarely-used journeyman backups. Then, data was collected on every goalie who faced at least 1000 shots in the CHL, and their career save percentages were determined. Unfortunately, a lack of data limited the analysis to looking at goalies drafted only as far back as the 1998 NHL entry draft, so Andrew Raycroft was the earliest available NHL goalie who had complete and accurate data to work with.


(Side note: in the next couple of days, I'm going to write a post outlining how and why the data was collected the way it was, but that's much less interesting for most of you I'm sure. However, Josh Weissbock's work was absolutely invaluable in compiling this data, and I couldn't have put this post together without him, so a big thank you to you Josh #statthuglife)

After this was done, I compared each future NHL goalie's CHL performance with all of the goalies that played in his league and the CHL over the time frame when he was active. For example, Carey Price played four seasons in the WHL between 2003-04 and 2006-07, so his career save percentage was first compared to all WHL goalies who were active sometime within one or more of the seasons between and including 2003-04 and 2006-07, and then to all CHL goalies who played during that same period. To level the playing field and provide an accurate comparison across all leagues and all years, a standard score (z-score) was calculated for each goalie, then converted into a percentile for ease of comparison. If a goalie scored 85%, it means that he was better than 85% of his peers. Here are the results:

OHL

Save Percentage of all OHL goalies drafted since 1998 that made the NHL. Jake Paterson included for comparison.
Percentile of OHL goaltender career save percentage.
Percentile difference (percentile minus 50%) from OHL average.
The bottom two graphs are essentially the same, with the middle one organized in chronological order left to right, and the second demonstrating the difference between goalies studied and the average save percentage of their peers. This format is the same for the other leagues as well.

You'll notice that only Michael Leighton performed worse compared to his league peers than Jake Paterson has, and only Alex Auld is within + or - 10%. Given that there were a whole ton of goalies that performed at about the same slightly above average level as Auld and Paterson (~85 in the sample I studied), this would seem to indicate that Alex Auld is the huge outlying data point here, and probably the absolute best-case scenario for Jake Paterson in terms of NHL success.

QMJHL

The Q is interesting, because average goaltending is just currently so much worse than the other two Canadian junior leagues:



As shown by the graph, Quebec goaltending has, on average, been in the tank since roughly 2003-2004. This means that goalies with lower save percentages than in the OHL would score higher in percentile since their competition is so poor. However, if the QMJHL talent still holds its own relative to the rest of the CHL we can theoretically discount at least some of the proposed systemic effects that could depress save percentage. As it turns out, M-A Fleury and Corey Crawford (and by extension, Ondrej Pavelec and Jaroslav Halak) are still elite performers when comparing them to the rest of the CHL, and Jonathan Bernier is strong as well. If there were legitimate style-of-play reasons why QMJHL goalies were seeing lower save percentages, we would expect to see this effect across the board on elite goalies too. Since this is not the case, I'm led to believe that there isn't a quantifiable negative effect that's exclusive to the QMJHL.

Still, some decent talent has come out of the QMJHL in recent years. I also included the two European import goalies that made the NHL out of the Q in just the career save% graph as a small comparison:

Save Percentage of all QMJHL goalies drafted since 1998 that made the NHL. Ondrej Pavelec, Jaroslav Halak and Zach Fucale included for comparison.
Percentile of QMJHL goaltender career save percentage.
Percentile difference (percentile minus 50%) from QMJHL average.
Pavelec and Halak scored similar to Crawford and Fleury, which is to say they were elite QMJHL goalies. Zach Fucale performed at a level similar to but slightly below Kevin Poulin and Pascal Leclaire, neither of whom are or were anywhere close to a legitimate starting goalie, let alone an NHL star. It's also worth noting that Poulin and Leclaire, like Alex Auld in the OHL, have beat monumental odds to qualify as a "legitimate NHL goalie." 85 goalies scored similarly across the CHL, and only these three made the NHL in any capacity. That's a success rate of about 3.5%. Fucale scored closer to league average than Leclaire and Poulin did too, and only Poulin's career save% numbers were significantly inflated by a really strong draft+2 season in the QMJHL.

WHL

The strongest goalies drafted in the past 10 years have all arguably come out of the WHL, which is interesting because the 'dub was awful back in 1998. Then out of nowhere, goaltending improved dramatically and six legitimate NHL starting goalies emerged:

Save Percentage of all WHL goalies drafted since 1998 that made the NHL. Tristan Jarry and Eric Comrie included for comparison.
Percentile of WHL goaltender career save percentage.
Percentile difference (percentile minus 50%) from WHL average.
4 of the 6 goalies that made the NHL out of the WHL all scored in the 90th percentile or better, and a 5th (James Reimer) was just shy. Braden Holtby a bit of a surprise and an outlier for sure, but even his .905 career save% puts him more than 0.5 standard deviations above the mean in the entire data set. While he was better than average among his peers, he also played in a super-competitive WHL and was compared to guys like Price, Reimer and Dubnyk. 

The two WHL guys that were passed over for the opportunity to represent Canada also score exceptionally well here. Jarry's career save percentage is above 94% of his peers, while Eric Comrie is better than 90% of other WHLers. This also comes at a period where WHL goaltending is as strong as it's been since the 04-05 lockout period, so they're not dominating a bunch of scrubs. Just as it did before the tournament, Hockey Canada's decision to bypass these two entirely completely mystifies me.

CHL

Now that we've seen each future NHL goalie against their league in their era, here is each future NHL goalie against the whole CHL in their era:

Percentile of CHL goaltender career save percentage.
Percentile difference (percentile minus 50%) from CHL average.
While Tristan Jarry and Eric Comrie compare admirably to a group comprised mostly of NHL starters including Carey Price, Craig Anderson, Marc-Andre Fleury, and James Reimer, Paterson and Fucale most closely compare to guys like Poulin, Leclaire, and Auld. Michael Leighton still remains a total mystery but then again, it's Michael Leighton who's most generously described as a "replacement-level journeyman backup" at best, so it's not as if a legitimate NHL starter slipped through the cracks. It's still bizarre though.

Discussion

I would be remiss if I didn't hammer this point home at least once in this article: CHL success is no guarantee of NHL success. Even if a given goalie was an elite performer in junior, there was no guarantee that they'd make the NHL as even guys who posted career save percentages in the 84th percentile or above (more than 1 standard deviation above the mean) only had about a 20% chance of becoming an NHL'er, as shown by this table:

69th percentile represents ~0.5 standard deviations
But here's the takeaway from that: a draft pick is a bet. When drafting a player, you're betting that the player you pick will outperform any other player you have the opportunity to spend that pick on. A goalie who has an elite save percentage such as Tristan Jarry or Eric Comrie is historically 5-6 times more likely to develop into an NHL player than a goalie who performs similarly to Jake Paterson or Zach Fucale, so using an early draft pick on a goalie with mediocre numbers is generally a terrible, terrible bet.

And if you look at what is happening to NHL goaltending, the odds of a non-elite junior making the NHL appear to only be getting worse. You'll notice that the majority of guys who made the NHL with non-elite CHL save percentages did so about a decade ago, and basically only Braden Holtby has done so since. I believe this could be due to two related factors: the improvement of NHL goaltending as a whole, and the increasing presence of European netminders in the NHL. Here are those trends in graph form:

NHL ES Sv% by year since 2000.
Courtesy of www.QuantHockey.com.
This growth in NHL average save percentage seems to correlate with the explosion of the presence of Swedish and Finnish goaltenders in the NHL. Keep in mind that every time a Henrik Lundqvist or a Pekka Rinne or a Kari Lehtonen or a Tuukka Rask comes from over seas, they're not just taking a job - they're taking a job for 5-10 seasons. This means that goalie turnover is extremely slow. Maybe you'll only get one or two new faces per season and those one or two new faces have to be better than the guys they're overtaking. As a result, NHL jobs that would previously go to Canadian backup goalies (like Alex Auld, Michael Leighton, and Andrew Raycroft) are now going to top prospects and more talented Europeans - see Robin Lehner, Eddie Lack, Viktor Fasth, Antti Raanta, etc.

The improvement in NHL goaltending and the influx of European goaltenders conceivably means that as a proportion of total goalies that play, fewer and fewer CHL goalies will end up making the NHL as regulars, and those that do will be the absolute cream-of-the-crop elite performers. Given that only ~5% of CHL goalies turn into NHL'ers and there are roughly 60-70 legitimate average or better goalies currently in the CHL, there are probably only 3 or 4 future NHL goalies in the entire CHL right now. So who are they? Aside from Eric Comrie and Tristan Jarry who I've talked about already, future NHL'ers could be Flyers prospect Anthony Stolarz or Columbus prospect Oscar Dansk. They could be overage import stars like undrafted Eetu Laurikainen or Los Angeles' Patrik Bartosak too. Not all of those guys are going to pan out, and every single one has performed better in their CHL careers than both goaltenders Hockey Canada selected to represent the country at this year's World Juniors.

Perhaps the most damning thing about goaltending is that scouts and "hockey people" who claim to be experts on goaltending and forecasting performance are simply completely wrong the vast majority of the time. The following two graphs are courtesy of Matt Pfeffer, who works as a scout/analyst for the OHL's Ottawa 67's. They measure Goals Versus Threshold (GVT), which is essentially a hockey equivalent of baseball's Wins Above Replacement (WAR), against the draft position of a player. The first graph for skaters is essentially what you'd expect: the best players are taken early, then the value of skaters falls off considerably after the first few selections:


By contrast, goalies are all over the map. There's no real relationship between what their value turns out to be and what scouts think of them:


Add to this the fact that 84% of all goalies drafted out of the CHL between 1995 and 2009 failed to become NHL regulars, and you start to get the sense that scouts are, at best, really bad at judging goaltender talent level.

Conclusion

Odds are that any given goalie in the CHL will not make it to the NHL no matter who they are. That's not a slight against any goalie, that's just the hard truth. The NHL is the absolute best league in the world, getting in is ultra competitive and really, really difficult. The vast majority of prospects out of the CHL fail to get in, and those that do have tended to be elite performers when they were in junior. But, some guys stand a better chance to make the league than others and those guys tend to be the Tristan Jarrys and the Eric Comries of the world, not the Zach Fucales and Jake Patersons. Right now, based on what I've found, I would bet against Zachary Fucale becoming the #1 starting goalie that scouts forecast him to be, since goalies that have performed at the same level as he has have missed the NHL entirely 95% of the time. This is not to say Fucale almost guaranteed to fail. I don't know what he'll develop into. But it's far more likely he develops into someone playing in the Swiss A League than he does the next Henrik Lundqvist.

Of course, this whole thing underpins a much larger and broader discussion about Hockey Canada and player evaluation at the highest levels - mainly that the people that are in charge right now are not very good at it. While the goaltenders selected to represent Canada at this year's World Juniors were unquestionably the wrong ones, Zach Fucale and Jake Paterson were absolutely not the reason why Canada will fail to win the gold medal for the fifth consecutive year. 

Canada's roster was filled with "tough" and "gritty" and "responsible" players like Bo Horvat and Scott Laughton and Josh Anderson and Frederik Gauthier and Adam Pelech and Chris Bigras, while ultra-talented but "risky" stars like Max Domi and Darnell Nurse were left at home. In the end, Canada couldn't score and couldn't even carry the play against a far-inferior Finnish team. Canada had 11 1st round picks on their roster, Finland had 11 undrafted players. Player quality and player development clearly aren't the problems, so what else could it be? Well if the players aren't the problem, then scouting, evaluation, coaching, and management are. Canada is still the best country in the world at hockey, so it's time we start giving ourselves the best chances at winning again, and that starts with accurately evaluating who our best players really are.