“Moneyball”, a 2003 book by Michael Lewis about the Oakland Athletics and their sabermetric approach to success in major league baseball, produced a new way of thinking in all sports. Athletics GM, Billy Beane, was looking for a way to do more with less. Hamstringed by a small budget in disparity-rich major league baseball, Beane needed to devise a system to essentially, cheat the system. Analytics became the backbone of his approach and the results have been astounding.
Here are 5 ways Beane’s approach to success can benefit NHL franchises:
Both baseball and hockey produce statistics. While baseball is much more conducive to advanced statistics, considering it is a sport based upon isolated events (pitcher vs. batter), hockey is slowly adopting more analytical approaches to measuring effectiveness in isolated situations (ie. Corsi Rating and Fenwick).
Remember, before the creation of Rotisserie League Baseball by author/editor, Daniel Okrent, baseball didn’t have statistics like WHIP (Walks plus Hits per Inning Pitched). And, everyone thought sabermetrician guru Bill James was crazy for looking at ways of combining traditional statistics with emerging statistics to produce efficiency ratings and values, such as: Secondary Average: [(Total Bases – Hits) + Walks + Stolen Bases] / At bats—which attempts to measure a player’s contribution to an offense in ways not reflected in batting average.
Finding ways to analyze players in isolated in-game situations can go a long way to determining value. Does Player A seem more valuable than he really is because he is playing with Player B? We have a specific deficiency on our team and Player C from Team D is exceptional at a skillset that fills our void. Player F isn’t performing efficiently in our system, but he has a strong value across the league. Can we capitalize on a deal to bring in undervalued players that fit well in our system by unloading Player F?
Hockey is still in a state of infancy when it comes to advanced statistics and analytics, but the winds of change are coming. More and more statistics are emerging and advanced thinking is becoming a priority for NHL teams, as evidenced by the recent hiring of analytics wunderkind Kyle Dubas by the Toronto Maple Leafs.
This is where the two major sports drastically vary. Major League Baseball is notorious for it’s disparity in team payrolls across the league (2014 Season Opening Day Payrolls: LA Dodgers: $235,295,219; Oakland Athletics: $83,401,400), while hockey employs a salary cap system (2014-15 Season Salary Cap: $69,000,000), where teams must not exceed the cap and must field a team about a salary floor. Current projected payrolls for the upcoming NHL season have the Philadelphia Flyers sitting at $72,061,429 ($3,061,429 above the allowable cap) and the Calgary Flames sitting at $51,711,667 with a couple of spots remaining on the active roster.
In baseball, it’s obvious. Teams like the Oakland A’s need to find a way to compete with the big payroll teams. They need to find an edge.
With the playing field essentially equal from a financial standpoint, do NHL front offices really need to do more with less? Absolutely! Case-in-point, the Chicago Blackhawks, come the 2015-16 season, will be looking at 5 players (Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Corey Crawford) taking up nearly $40 million of their cap space. The Blackhawks are going to have some tough decisions to make. Do you break up pieces of your core, or do you try and find ways to complement your core at a better value?
No matter what, in professional sports, marquee players are going to make oodles and oodles of money. And, every team needs them to succeed. Pittsburgh needs Sidney Crosby, just like Chicago needs Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane. The real question is, does Pittsburgh need Pascal Dupuis at nearly $4 million per year, or is there someone making $1 million or $2 million who can do just as good a job or better?
The top guys are going to demand big money, but it’s your second, third and fourth line guys who will need deeper analysis and consideration.
The Amateur Draft
Both MLB and the NHL employ an amateur draft system for acquiring rights to prospects. In both the NHL and MLB, this system is essential to sustainability and the accumulation of wealth. Drafting well is important to success. Knowing what is important to team success and drafting accordingly is invaluable.
Going back to the hiring of Kyle Dubas in Toronto; if the Leafs adapt Dubas’ viewpoint of the colossal importance of puck possession to success in hockey, then they will need to draft accordingly. This approach to selecting players to fit a specific culture and mindset is comparable to Billy Beane and his obsession with employing selective hitters at the plate. Beane is famous for drafting position players who rack up massive amounts of walks, thus making opposing pitchers throw more, causing teams to have to dip into their bullpen earlier in games.
While Beane’s motto in Oakland is all about no easy outs, will a mutation of this approach be what we see in Leaf Nation?
The craziest and most irresponsible annual event is the opening of the NHL’s free agency free-for-all on July 1st. Fans (me included), bury their face in laptops, cell phones, tablets and TVs to see who’s going where and for how much. Every year at this time it’s like walking through the halls of “Ripley’s Believe it or Not” for me. I gasp, grunt, whine, groan and contort my face like Jim Carrey as I look at the term and amounts that free agents sign for.
Calgary gave Deryk Engelland how much for how long!? Brooks Orpik got what!? Benoit Pouliot to the Oilers for $20 million!? David Bolland!? Bolland!? Bolland!?
I think that a lot of teams wake up the next morning with a bad case of buyer’s remorse. But, not every team gets the shopping bug during this time (The Stanley Cup Champion LA Kings didn’t add any additional pieces, other than resigning their own RFAs and UFAs).
Other teams carefully add in compliments at economical prices to help round out their deficiencies, like the Pittsburgh Penguins signing Christian Erhoff to a 1-year, $4 million pact to offset the loss of Matt Niskanen—potentially getting a better player at a cheaper, short-term deal.
One again, the use of analytics, capology, and careful cultural analysis, can help teams make better decisions during free agency.
Developing a Culture
The Oakland A’s have a famous and uniquely designed culture. Their values are clearly defined. They sacrifice ego for the betterment of the team. There are no A-Rods in their clubhouse and they preach a brand of baseball that isn’t conducive to producing big, contract year-type numbers. Most players—unless they’re a pitcher—aren’t going to go into Oakland, play a few years and then sign with the New York Yankees for 10 years, $250 million. Players won’t accumulate MVP statistics playing A’s brand baseball. This is a tough sell for attracting players. But, the players they do bring in buy into the system whole-heartedly, systematically weeding out potential bad apples.
In order to build a successful system like this, you need to have the right people in place at the top. People like Paul Depodesto (former A’s Assistant to the GM), who would be virtually unknown to the public if it weren’t for Michael Lewis and “Moneyball”, were essential to the development of the Oakland A’s “more with less” system. A cohesive, driven and collaborative front office is paramount to developing and implementing a successful plan for success. It starts with ownership and filters all the way down to the players.
A perfect example of sustained cultural success in the NHL is the Detroit Red Wings. From 1967 until 1983, the Red Wings only appeared in the playoffs twice. They were abysmal. Things didn’t start to change until they looked at changing the culture.
When Scotty Bowman pulled Steve Yzerman aside and convinced him to play a different brand of hockey—two-way, 200-foot hockey—it was a turning point. He told Yzerman that he would probably have to sacrifice scoring titles to do it, but promised they would be replaced with Stanley Cups. Turns out he was right. Between 1991 and 2013, the Red Wings appeared in the Stanley Cup playoffs 22 consecutive times.
When Steve Yzerman—criticized for being a one-dimensional player earlier in his career—changed his game, the rest of the team followed suit. In subsequent years, the Red Wings thrived with the culture of complete team hockey. With the Red Wings, no one player overshadows the team. Everyone understands the value of sacrificing individual awards for the greatest team award.
When Detroit enacted their cultural plan for success, they factored in everything, from the way they drafted, to their player developmental model (well-known for not rushing young prospects and bringing them into the fold once they are believed to be truly “ready”). This has allowed them to make efficient use of late picks (Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, Jonathan Ericsson, Darren Helm) and instil their values in their players as they earn their stripes, coming up through the ranks.