Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Sabermetrics And Goalies

Since it is summer and there isn't much hockey news rolling in, its time to take a look at sabermetrics and hockey. The problem I want to look at is goalies. Goalies are harder to evaluate statistically then position players (at least offensive ones). In the past, I have shown Pnep's Hall of Fame monitor for goalies. It does an acceptable job of ranking the best careers for goalies although it is based largely upon awards won by the goalies and not based on a statistical analysis of their performance. It offers no way to predict who should win a goaltending award (such as the Vezina trophy) and is thus not fully satisfying.

The problem of goalie sabermetrics comes down to the poor choices of the standard goalie statistics that are kept.

One common statistic is goalie wins. Goalies do not win games. Teams win games. Sure goalies are part of a team, but does recording goalie wins make more sense than recording wins when a given defender leads his team in ice time? Last season, the top 13 goalies in wins all were on playoff teams. That is no coincidence. Good teams win games. A goalie on a weaker (non-playoff) team who may be good (such as Olaf Kolzig or Christobal Huet or Cam Ward) will not be a league leader in wins because his team doesn't win very often.

Another common goalie stat (arguably the most popular) is goals against average. The number of goals a goalie allows per 60 minutes of play may partially evaluate the goalie, but it also shows how good the defence is in front of a goalie. If a goalie faces lots of shots or high quality shots it is far harder to have a low GAA then if he doesn't. This statistic is also highly dependant upon the team in front of the goalie.

Shutouts are another common goalie stat. They record how many complete games a goalie played without allowing a goal. They say nothing about his result in the non-shutout games. Was he blown out or did he keep it close allowing 1 or 2 goals? Wouldn't the number of 1 goal or better games for a goalie be as meaningful as shutouts? Either of those stats would be highly team dependant since it is far easier to record a shutout when your team plays good defence in front of you.

The most meaningful, but still imperfect, statistic is saves percentage. It records the percentage of shots a goalie faces are saved. It is easier to have a good saves percentage if you face low quality shots instead of high quality ones, but at least the quantity of shots is normalized for.

I plan to write a few posts about attempts to provide more precise methods to evaluate goaltenders and evaluate their strengths and weaknesses during the remaining off season.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Lowe Learning But Still Desperate

The Edmonton Oilers are desperate to sign some free agents because they don't believe fans have patience in their plans to rebuild after they traded Ryan Smyth. The problem is the elite free agents have already signed and Edmonton didn't get any (unless you believe Sheldon Souray to be elite). The Oilers have money to spend and nobody to spend it on. Kevin Lowe, their GM, must make a splash to save his job, but the good free agents are gone.

Thus Kevin Lowe has decided to pursue restricted free agents. His first attempt at this plan failed badly. He signed Thomas Vanek of Buffalo to an offer. This was almost immediately matched by the Sabres. This failed because Edmonton does not have the financial power to offer a ridiculously frontloaded contract that Buffalo could not match and Buffalo had salary cap room and money to spend since they had already failed to keep Daniel Briere and Chris Drury as UFAs.

His more recent attempt is a bit more sensible. They signed Dustin Penner of Anaheim to a five year $21.25 million offer sheet. Likely, this is more money than he will be worth, but it is possible that Penner will continue to develop and become a star, thus making the money worthwhile. This is the gamble in signing RFAs, they are still early enough into their careers that there is the possibility that they may become stars (at least those that are worth an offer sheet may become stars) and you must pay for them as though they have already become stars, when the possibility is that they never will and the contract will be a gross overpayment. Anaheim is a team that would be put into some salary cap difficulties by matching the Penner offer. Assuming Scott Niedermayer does not retire, it would put Anaheim over the salary cap. This is okay as long as they rectify the situation by opening day. This certainly puts a damper on any attempt Anaheim would have to resign Teemu Selanne (their top scorer last year). Should Anaheim decline to match the offer, Edmonton gives up a 1st, 2nd and 3rs round pick as compensation.

This is another example of how it is hard to keep successful teams together. Anaheim is Stanley Cup champion and has built an elite team. It looks unlikely that they will be able to maintain an elite showing next year. I would be surprised if any team manages to be elite next year. It is hard to build an elite team and when the CBA works hard to tear them down, there will likely be long periods without them where we see mediocre Stanley Cup champions like the 2006 Carolina Hurricanes.

I imagine that Anaheim will likely match the Penner offer, but it will not be an easy thing for them to do. It will force them to make other unwanted moves to not exceed the salary cap. Merely by doing that, Edmonton has succeeded in making a positive move for their team (a conference rival - though one much better than they are - will have their hands tied). This is a better move for the Oilers then the Vanek signing, but still an act of desperation. I cannot imagine that the Dustin Penner led Oilers would be much better than a bottomfeeder.

Here is the TSN story on Penner's offer sheet.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Lack of Elite Left Wingers

One thing that jumps out at me when I look at the NHL Awards is that the left wingers who made the post season all star teams had worse seasons then did any other positions on the team. The highest scoring left winger in the NHL last season (and first team all star selection) was Alexander Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals. He finished 13th in scoring in the league. The second highest scoring left winger (and second team all star selection) was Thomas Vanek of Buffalo. He finished 19th in scoring in the league. Vanek was outscored by 10 centres and 7 right wingers. Has there always been such a lack of elite left wingers? And why does it exist today?

When we list the greatest centres of all time, we list Mario Lemieux, Wayne Gretzky, Jean Beliveau etc. When we list the greatest right wingers of all time, we list Gordie Howe, Maurice Richard, Guy Lafleur etc. At left wing we list Bobby Hull, Ted Lindsay, Frank Mahovlich etc. While the left wing group is a good group of Hall of Fame players, they are the weakest of the three groups. Left wing has the weakest group. It is a common circumstance that the best left winger in the NHL is a worse player then the best centre or right winger. That is certainly the case right now in the NHL.

Sometimes, this is not true or at least the distance between the best left winger and the best other forwards is not as significant. For instance in 2005/06, Alexander Ovechkin was the third highest scorer in the league and Dany Heatley of Ottawa was fourth highest scorer in the league. They were the two post-season all star left wingers. This season, Ovechkin had a bit of a sophomore jinx year in Washington where he scored 14 less points and showed some bigger defensive lapses at times. Heatley moved from left to right wing and was first all star at right wing. None of the other top left wingers in Ilya Kovalchuk, Henrik Zetterberg or Simon Gagne managed to have a successful enough year to make up for the loss of Heatley or the drop in Ovechkin.

The best puckhandlers at a young age are often turned into centremen. This is because in the centre position they can have a bigger effect on the play. Thus the best players are often preferentially chosen to play centre, but there is no clear reason why left wing and right wing are differentiated such that right wingers tend to be better. The left and right wing differentiation is not merely because of the differences between shooting right and left in hockey (which is a much smaller difference in percentages then with left and right handed people in more common everyday activities). This is further complicated because it is quite common for players to play on their "off wing" where a left handed shooter plays right wing (or vice versa). This is because it gives a better angle for quick shots on goal. I think that the differentiation is mostly for historical reasons. Traditionally, a forward line consists of a puckhandling centre and sniper at right wing and a grinder on left wing. There is no reason that left and right cannot be switched, but usually they are not. Usually, a more talented goal scorer will become a right winger instead of a left winger. Teams usually play defensive schemes that rely on the left winger forgoing some offensive opportunity for the system (i.e. the left wing lock).

I think that new European systems will challenge this traditional way of doing things. Russia has produced some of the best left wings in the game currently (Ovechkin and Kovalchuk). Austria produced Thomas Vanek. Sweden produced Daniel Sedin. These European systems may lead to more elite left wingers in the NHL in the future, but right now, left wing is the position most lacking in elite players.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Draft Age

The NHL Entry Draft is often a bit of a crapshoot. You select players at age 18 and can only guess at what they will be like at age 23 when they should be established NHLers or age 28 when they might hit their primes. Its very hard to make intelligent selections when all but one or two players in a draft class are at least a year away from the NHL (last year, only Jordan Staal of Pittsburgh and Phil Kessel of Boston were NHL regulars from the 2006 draft class).

That said, once in a while, along comes an incredible talent who might be NHL ready before he is draft eligible. The latest such player is likely John Tavares. Tavaraes plays for the Oshawa Generals of the OHL and is coming off a season where he finished second in the league in scoring (behind 2007 first overall pick Patrick Kane). Tavares is 16 years old and will not be eligible for selection by the NHL until the 2009 entry draft. Tavares was born five days too late to make 2008 eligibility.

Brian MacDonald, the agent for John Tavares, wants this rule changed so that Tavares can be drafted in 2008. They feel Tavares will be too good for the OHL and will want a chance to play against better competition. If necessary, they may have to sue the NHL for this right.

Obviously, there must be some cutoff age for eligibility to an NHL entry draft. This age will be arbitrary, but it is necessary for teams to adequately scout for a draft. Having no eligibility age would lead to teams selecting younger and younger players who are even further from NHL readiness. That will make the draft even less valuable as players chosen will be less likely to mature and take even longer. It is a poor way to run things (though possibly interesting from a fantasy hockey point of view). When you set an arbitrary cutoff age, there will eventually be somebody who is as good as the players in the draft but just misses the cutoff age. This player might be exceptional and NHL ready. Tavares is probably such a player. However, it is in the best interests of the NHL (and hockey in general) not to draft younger and younger players.

Tavares needs an opportunity to grow his skills, and two more years of OHL play may not do it. He can sign in Europe or with an AHL team. This is the best way to handle exceptional cases like Tavares without making major changes to the NHL entry draft or making arbitrary rules designed to solve the Tavares case (with no other logical purpose).

Here is a Slam Sports story on Tavares.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Player Transfer Deal Without Russia

Yesterday, the Czech Republic, Germany, Switzerland, Sweden, Finland and Slovakia signed the IIHF player transfer deal with the NHL. Missing was Russia. Russia has not had a player transfer agreement with the NHL since the lockout. This current deal will run from 2007 until 2011. In short, this deal calls for a $200,000 payment per player under contract with any of the IIHF countries who signs with the NHL. There are minor penalties should the player be signed later than the normal period or not play much in the NHL (thus depriving Europe of a star). The Russians feel the dollar values are too low. They would like player transfers negotiated on a player by player basis (as is done in soccer). This would likely lead to much larger dollar figures for the true stars. The lack of a player transfer deal with Russia has led to players defecting from their Russia teams and legal battles. It has led to the drop of Russian players in the draft.

Here is the TSN story on this deal.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Updated History of the NHLPA

In 2005, I wrote My Brief History of the NHLPA. In the less than two years that have passed since then, many changes have happened. Ted Saskin has exited the scene, so I thought I would update the post. The majority of this post is copied directly from the previous one. The updates are made to the end of the post to cover that which has happened since 2005.

With all NHLPA turmoil, I thought it would be a good time to give a brief history of the NHLPA. A far more detailed history that goes to the early 1990's is the book Net Worth by David Cruise.

Throughout most of the NHL's history there has been no player's union. There have been a few failed attempts to organize. In general, the players involved in attempts to organize a union were blackballed or otherwise punished by management of the league.

In the 1960's a brash young lawyer who was at first quite popular with the players came onto the scene. He was Alan Eagleson. He first gained notice in an AHL dispute with Eddie Shore (the Hall of Fame defender) who owned the Springfield Indians. shore was known as a brutal taskmaster who, among other things, made injured and healthy scratch players park cars and sell concessions at hockey games. The players revolted in 1966 and Eagleson convinced Shore that his team would quit on him and not continue the rest of the season unless he let up on them. Possibly because Shore was an old man who was ready to get out of owning and managing and coaching an AHL franchise he agreed to see the team. The previously independent Springfield Indians were sold to the expansion Los Angeles Kings to be their farm club. Thus, the myth of Alan Eagleson was born.

Alan Eagleson was recruited to head up the first NHLPA in 1967 (a position he held until he was forced to resign in 1992). Eagleson quickly realized what the NHL owners had long known. NHL players in general are not too savvy when it comes to business or legal questions and they are easy to take advantage of. Eagleson was a corrupt union head. His downfall came charged with fraud, embezzlement and racketeering. He stole money from the NHL pension fund. He served as a player agent for several NHL players and stole money from them. Her stole money from TV broadcasting of international hockey (such as Canada Cups and the 1972 Canada-USSR Summit Series). He was close friends with NHL President John Ziegler and Chicago Blackhawk owner Bill Wirtz and under the pretense of negotiation often agreed to deals that benefited the NHL or the Chicago Blackhawks. For example, he had Bobby Orr (a player for whom he served as an agent and from whom he stole) leave Boston to sign as a free agent with Chicago. He agreed to NHL CBAs that benefited the NHL owners often claiming the NHL players had won a great pension plan (he claimed it was the best pension in pro sports). This pension plan in the late 1980's paid Gordie Howe (the man who had the most games and seasons played in NHL history) on the order of $800 a month. Eagleson was found guilty and served time in jail after being removed as NHLPA head. More information on him can be found in the book Game Misconduct by Russ Conway.

The NHLPA then held a search for a new head. They eventually settled upon Bob Goodenow and ratified his appointment with a vote in 1992. Goodenow for the first time ever in the NHLPA actually negotiated in the player's best interest. He negotiated the 1994/95 lockout settlement which gave us the old NHL CBA (which in my opinion is the fairest deal the NHL has ever had) by taking a hardline stance with the owners.

In the 2004/05 lockout, after the owners cancelled the season, many members of the NHLPA executive became concerned that the owners might be willing to keep hockey out long enough to kill the rest of their careers. This group (including NHLPA President Trevor Linden) made an end run around Bob Goodenow and let his number two Ted Saskin negotiate on their behalf. They were confident that the players would pass any CBA they were given to get back to playing hockey. This was a breach of NHLPA rules. If the players wanted to stop the hardline negotiation of Goodenow and replace him with Saskin they had to have an open vote to do this. They could vote to fire Goodenow and hire Saskin. They skipped this.

Saskin negotiated the pro-owner current CBA. A group of dissident players led by Trent Klatt are challenged this process. They had several failed court challenges of Saskin's administration until it was revealed that Ted Saskin and the NHLPA senior director Ken Kim were spying on player's emails and were eventually let go from their NHLPA positions.

This leaves the NHLPA without a suitable leadership. There is a search for a new director. In the meantime, lawyer Ian Penny and former player Stu Grimson are the de facto leadership. There is no clear direction until a new leader is found. Whether the NHLPA finds somebody who is willing to fight the owners or give in to their demands will do a lot to set the future of the NHL's labor situation. There could be further strikes or lockouts or relative peace where hockey is played without stoppage. There could be challenges to the entire structure of the NHL brought on by either NHLPA leadership or by failing franchises in many newer US markets. How this is responded to will set the direction of the league for years to come.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Lowe's Desperate Ploy

The Edmonton Oilers made a tactical decision when they traded Ryan Smyth. They decided that they were not in a position to win now (which was correct) and would be better retooling for the future then re-signing Smyth. For the few games the New York Islanders got Smyth for, they paid a hefty price of Robert Nilsson, Ryan O'Marra and the 2007 first round draft pick (Alex Plante). These are three players who each have a good chance of playing decent NHL careers - all will likely be much longer than the time Smyth stayed in Long Island. There is a reasonable chance that at least one of them will be a frontline player for a long time with the Oilers. This is a strategic move because the Oilers already have a good core of prospects including Andrew Cogliano, Rob Schremp, Marc-Antoine Pouliot, Denis Grebeshkov, Slava Trukhno and Devan Dubnyk. There is a good possibility that given a chance, these players could become a large part of the core of the next good Oiler team. The problem is the team completely collapsed after the Smyth trade. This made fans unhappy and less willing to pay for tickets with little chance of seeing their team win. This puts Kevin Lowe's job as Oiler GM in jeopardy.

As a result, Lowe has made a public about face on his plans for the Oilers. He told everyone that he was going to spend the Smyth money on a big free agent. He told everyone that he was going to make a big trade on draft day. Neither of the two materialized. The Oilers thought they had signed Michael Nylander from the New York Rangers (who is unlikely to be the answer to the team's problems anyway), but they were shocked to learn that he signed with the Washington Capitals for less money - after Edmonton announced they had singed him. Here is Tyler Dellow at Mudcrutch hockey with more on this fiasco. Cynically, it looks like a play to make the Oiler fans think they are trying to land that big free agent, but the hockey gods are conspiring against them and they cannot. Practically, it makes a player less likely to negotiate with the Oilers in the future because if they are close to a deal but turn around and sign with another team they might also be the center of a big stink like Nylander.

After failing to sign Nylander, Lowe is even more desperate to make a move (or at least look like he is trying to make a move). So he tries to sign a restricted free agent Thomas Vanek from Buffalo. Vanek may have made second team all star this year, but he is by far the weakest player to make the post season all star teams. It was a very weak year for left wingers. He too is unlikely a good enough player to fix the Oilers ship by himself. The Oilers signed him to an offer sheet of $50 million over 7 years. They did this despite assurance from Buffalo GM Darcy Regier that buffalo would match.

Buffalo is a team that had a good season but is a small market struggling with the high salary cap and liberalized free agency of this CBA they lost Daniel Briere and Chris Drury to free agency. Even though Vanek will be overpaid under his new contract and even though Buffalo could have four first round picks as compensation (likely relatively early picks in the draft), Buffalo matched the offer almost immediately. They did so because they hope their team can still contend and cannot afford to lose any more players this summer. They did so because the fans might get disillusioned (much like the Oiler fans) to lose another player.

Although this offer for Vanek is large, it was doomed from the beginning. Buffalo has the money on hand (given the loss of Briere and Drury) to match the offer. This deal does not force Buffalo into serious salary cap trouble. This offer was Kevin Lowe's attempt to look like he was doing something to help the Oilers. Something that he should have known was doomed from the outset, but he hopes the Oiler faithful cannot see through it and thinks he is trying but just can't quite get it done due to bad luck.

I think teams will lure away RFAs in this CBA, but it will likely be big market teams stealing from the small and teams forced into salary cap problems that are forced to give them up. The Vanek case is neither and that's why it was doomed.

I think Edmonton has a good young core that might be ready for NHL play, but Lowe and the Oiler fans do not have patience to wait for it. Until then Lowe is flailing around like a madman either unable to do anything significant or trying to look like he is trying to do something significant but unable to. This path will likely lead Lowe to lose his job unless the Oilers far exceed expectations this year. The Vanek offer sheet was doomed from the start. I cannot think too highly of a GM who would pursue such an avenue.

Here is the TSN story on the Oilers offer and Buffalo's match.

Friday, July 06, 2007

Fantasy Hockey GMs Wanted

I run a fantasy hockey league. Our website is here. We have been running for several years - since 1999. We have 30 teams with deep rosters of 25-27 players per team. Its a competitive league. We have 2-3 openings for new GMs this summer. You would take over a team from another GM and be able to build them via trade and the draft. Hopefully, you could stay on as a GM for many years to come. If interested, please email me at y2kfhl at hotmail dot com.

Can A Small Market Team Win In this CBA?

The pre-lockout CBA was criticized because it was supposed to have made it hard for small market teams to win. This was supposed to be because bigger markets had an advantage because they could have larger payrolls then the small markets. This theory had many people believing that you could buy a Stanley Cup championship. This is in spite of the evidence to the contrary. In fact, the final Stanley Cup under the old CBA was won by smaller market Tampa Bay who defeated smaller market Calgary. Teams had to develop a young talented core to be serious Stanley Cup contenders. Detroit did it. Colorado did it. New Jersey did it. Dallas did it. They all had to be strong enough hockey markets to be able to afford to keep that talent as they got older and required raises, but they could not buy a championship. The New York Rangers tried that for years and failed. Instead of developing a core of young players they bought free agents and they continually missed the playoffs. This was because free agents were 31 years old or older and usually into the decline phase of their careers.

The NHL world changed after the lockout. There was a salary cap. A salary cap which was sold as one to level the playing field as it prevented the rich teams from buying a championship (which they never could before). A salary cap which was tied to revenues and would soon rise to the point that only the rich could afford to spend at that level. Coupled with this was liberalized free agency that allowed players to move to new markets at ages as young as 25. Now there are players available for purchase that are young enough to play the best hockey of their careers after they are bought. Now it becomes possible to buy top level players. Now teams are forced to spend even more money to keep their talented young cores together as they develop, giving the smaller market teams less chance at winning the cup.

The two best examples of successful small market teams in the early two years of the current CBA are Buffalo and Nashville (which I cited in this post). Both of these teams are being hit hard by this CBA this summer. Buffalo has lost Daniel Briere to big market Philadelphia and Chris Drury to big market New York as free agents. They are struggling with giving restricted free agents Tomas Vanek and Derek Roy the raises that they will deserve. In all likelihood, Buffalo will not be as strong a team next year as they were in this one.

Nashville was hit even harder, although this is due in part to the ownership uncertainty. They have lost Kimmo Timonen and Scott Hartnell (the first 25 year old UFA) to big market Philadelphia, Paul Kariya to traditional free agent buyer St Louis and traded Tomas Vokoun to Florida. This team will also undoubtedly be weaker next year.

These teams show that, while it might be possible to build a good core under this CBA, keeping it together for any significant period of time is not possible, especially in a small market where you cannot spend to the salary cap limit. This CBA is designed to increase player movement and make it hard to keep successful teams together. It has tilted the playing field toward the bigger spenders who can afford to buy big name free agents and spend up to the salary cap. They have better younger free agents to buy.

Realistically, all a GM can do is build a team good enough to be a contender. One of the contenders will win. The more years you contend, the better chance you have of being that winner. If it takes several years to build a young core and they are broken up right as they show they are good by liberalized free agency that allows player to leave up to six years earlier, it makes the chances of winning the Stanley Cup much smaller.

We know smaller markets could win in the old CBA (Tampa Bay did). We know smaller markets could win as long as the salary cap was artificially low (Carolina did). Now that the salary cap is starting to escalate and free agency ages have been lowered is it still possible? I do not see any team that appears on the verge of doing it next year. The bigger markets will likely win. They may not be the biggest markets (New York, Los Angeles), but we appear to be heading in that direction. As Tom Benjamin writes it's just what Gary Bettman wants.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Free Agency So What?

The wallets of the NHL teams opened up yesterday for the crazy free agent signing period. Several players signed big money and long term deals with new clubs. Likely all this spending did not create any new Stanley Cup contenders. Nobody bought a winner. This is because nobody of significance was for sale. In fact only one of last summer's top 50 players according to The hockey News was purchased at all (Ryan Smyth bought by Colorado).

The big spenders? Philadelphia, New York Rangers, Colorado. The contracts large. We gave up an entire season of NHL hockey for this? Why? It certainly doesn't seem like much of anything changed.

As the salary cap inflates, so too do the contract sizes. The cap is $50.3 million for the upcoming season and it was $39 million when we returned from the lockout. This is an almost 29% increase in available salary cap room and presumably leads to a similar 29% increase in contract values. It has led to the absurd situation that players who were the best of a weak UFA crop like Daniel Briere will get paid far more than the true stars in the NHL (like Sidney Crosby, Roberto Luongo, Nicklas Lidstrom, Martin Brodeur). If one test of a salary structure is that the best players in the NHL are the highest paid, then the NHL fails.

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