Monday, March 31, 2008

Edmonton Oilers: Restoring Hope

The Edmonton Oilers fell very quickly from their 2006 Stanley Cup final appearance. They were forced to trade Chris Pronger and then traded Ryan Smyth and then fell into a tailspin where they were arguably the worst team in the NHL. Things didn't look any better at the beginning of this season. It was hard to be an Edmonton Oiler fan.

However, things have looked better lately. Surprisingly, the Oilers are still in the West Conference playoff race. Likely, they will wind up missing the playoffs and even if they do make them, they would be the worst playoff bound team. What has changed is that some of their young talent is starting to succeed at the NHL level. Sam Gagner, Andrew Cogliano, Tom Gilbert, Kyle Brodziak and Denis Grebeshkov all look like NHL players. Gagner looks like a future star. This could be a big part of the core that finally leads the Oilers to better things in the future.

The Oilers managed one important goal this season. The draft pick given up this year in return for the signing of Dustin Penner will not be a lottery pick. It is still possible that some of the other three picks given up will be if things do not go well, but that counts as a success. Of course, if your success is that you played well enough that your stupid off season move does not really stupid yet, you have low standards. Such was the case in Edmonton at the beginning this year.

Edmonton is a great hockey city. I don't think there is any other city in the world with more NHL fans per capita (of course there are bigger cities with more total fans). It is nice that the Oiler fans are starting to have hope that their team is on a good path. This hope can be seen in Oiler blog posts such as this one.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Can Montreal Win The East?

Most pre-season predictions didn't think too highly of the Montreal Canadiens this season ( I picked them for 7th in the East Conference which was the highest predicted finish among many predictions). Yet, with only three games left they sit atop the East Conference with 98 points. Can they really win the East Conference? Are they really the best team in the east?

For much of the season, they relied on goaltender Cristobal Huet, who is a good goalie. They traded him to Washington on the trade deadline, which prompted me to call them the biggest shortterm loser on deadline day. That hasn't stopped them, Carey Price has played well since taking over as the number one goalie, but he has a lot of questions surrounding him. How good is he really? Is he a future superstar? Is he a young player who is put in a position where he is over his head? Can he be a reliable playoff goalie?

Their defence is unspectacular. Andrei Markov is a good defender and is an outside contender for a Norris nomination. Mark Streit does well offensively, but isn't exactly a defensive superstar. Roman Hamrlik and Mike Komisarek provide good depth. This is a solid group of defenders but they are clearly not the best in the NHL.

Their forward unit lacks any of the elite scorers in the NHL. The only player scoring anywhere near point per game rate is Alexei Kovalev who is having a very good season. Their other solid scorers are Saku Koivu, Tomas Plekanec, Andrei Kostitsyn and Chris Higgins. These are good players but are not likely to be considered NHL stars.

The biggest weapon of the Montreal Canadiens this season has been their league-leading power play. It's amazing how well the power play does in Montreal given their lack of superstar scorers and given last year's point man Sheldon Souray having signed in Edmonton. It is a case of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. Looking at the players who make up the Montreal power play, I would have had a hard time predicting their success before any games were played.

Using my necessary but not sufficient conditions to identify an elite team, Montreal falls flat. They might have a top goalie in Carey Price, but frankly he hasn't proven it yet. It is certainly possible that Price is in the early stages of a Hall of Fame career, but it is far more likely that he is a good goalie who will have a solid but unremarkable career. It is also quite likely that if he ever reaches the elite level in his career, he hasn't done so yet. They don't have any players on their roster who look like future Hall of Famers. The most plausible choice might again be Price, but it is far too early to seriously imagine him having a Hall of Fame track career. Their other star players in Andrei Markov and Alexei Kovalev may be good players, but they are not having the kinds of careers that tend to make them Hall of Famers.

Nevertheless, Montreal leads the East Conference. Their lead is only one point over the Pittsburgh Penguins (and the Penguins have a game in hand). Anyone leading a conference at this late stage in the season could easily win it. The Montreal Canadiens stand a very good chance of winning the East Conference in the regular season.

Come playoff time, what are their chances? Part of their chances may be tied up in injuries. Currently, Saku Koivu, Mark Streit and Mike Komisarek are all hurt. Early reports have Koivu out as long as four weeks. If that is the case, a playoff run might be very tough for Montreal. Even with a healthy lineup, I don't imagine Montreal winning the East Conference come playoff time. While the most likely Stanley Cup winning teams are west teams, there are eastern teams such as Pittsburgh, New Jersey and Ottawa who look better built for a playoff run. One weakness for Montreal will be the playoff officiating. It is quite likely that the frequency of penalties will decline in the playoffs because referees are more willing to "let them play" instead of risk "deciding the game". For a team that has had much of its success on the power play, this is bad news. Depending on opponents, I imagine Montreal goes one or two rounds in the playoffs before bowing out.

The Montreal Canadiens have had a good season and surprised many pundits. They lead the East Conference and stand a good chance of being the regular season east champion. I think they have overachieved to reach this point. I think they will be very unlikely to follow up this success with a big playoff run.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

More Moore Lawsuit

In 2004, Todd Bertuzzi, then of the Vancouver Canucks (now an Anaheim Duck) suckerpunched Steve Moore (then of the Colorado Avalanche) and fell onto Moore who was the bottom of what eventually became a dogpile fight. Moore broke three vertebrae and has not played an NHL game since. This action, which is an embarrassment for the NHL, was seen as retribution for a knee-on-knee hit where Moore injured Canuck Markus Naslund. This is a story that I wish would go away, but it isn't, thanks to the North American lawsuit culture.

Moore did some jurisdiction shopping and eventually filed a case in Canada. He is seeking $38 million. Even if we believe that hockey disputes should be handled in a court of law, this is an excessive amount. Steve Moore is trying to win the lottery in a court room. This is a problem with the lawsuit culture that exists. The chance of excessive dollar amounts to the victors encourages ridiculous demands like this.

Of course, nobody wants to pay Moore $38 million. Todd Bertuzzi and the Vancouver Canucks had been named in the earlier lawsuit which has now been amended to include then Vancouver Canuck coach Marc Crawford (who now coaches the Los Angeles Kings).

The existence of excessive damage amounts in lawsuits is a problem in North America (especially USA) and this Moore lawsuit is an example. Moore is trying to get rich via the courts. I just wish this story could go away.

Here is CBC's story on the latest twists in Moore's lawsuit.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Does The CBA Allow It?

On March 19th, it a game in San Jose, Kurtis Foster of the Minnesota Wild broke his left leg in a race for a puck on a delayed icing call. This has sparked debate about whether or not the NHL should institute no touch icing where icing is called whenever the puck is shot down the ice in an icing situation immediately instead of when a defensive player recovers it. The idea is that this would save a few races for relatively meaningless loose pucks which often can result in big hits that sometimes cause injury. Although the NHL GMs have shot down this proposal, I would support it. It seems the GMs would rather spend their time trying to figure out how to increase scoring instead.

In the game, Foster and Torrey Mitchell of the San Jose Sharks raced down the ice for the loose puck and Mitchell took Foster into the boards breaking his leg (for the record San Jose won the game 4-3 in a shootout).

It is reported on a San Jose message board (assist to Kukla's Korner for pointing out this story) that Minnesota flew in Foster's fiance while he was still being treated in the hospital in San Jose. That is a classy move, but is it legal under the CBA?

The CBA says that all benefits to players must be spelled out in their contract (with the exception of "normal hockey practises"). This meant that the Montreal Canadiens could not fly player's families to Florida for Christmas even though the Habs were in the midst of a road trip and were going to play there after the holiday. At the same time, road trips with mothers or fathers of players are considered a "normal hockey practise" and are allowed. Is it a normal hockey practise to fly out families to see injured players when they get hurt on a road trip? It rarely happens that an injured player cannot get home before surgery or an injury rehab, so I would argue this is not a normal situation. The mere presence of a message board post outlining the story and calling the team classy for doing it shows that it's not normally done. I think this situation is one that technically the CBA does not allow (though we likely won't see a major issue made about it because it makes the NHL look stupid). How is flying family to San Jose to see an injured player different from flying families to Florida, when the team will already be there? Neither is spelled out in a standard player contract.

The problem is that the CBA overlegislates the NHL. Things would be better with fewer restrictions on what teams can and cannot do in the unique situations like this that come up during a season. Flying Kurtis Foster's fiance out is a good thing for Minnesota to do, but my reading of the CBA says it should not be allowed (am I right? I think the debate comes down to whether or not this is a "standard hockey practise"). It certainly should be allowed, but as the rules are written I think it isn't. That said, it appears clear that nobody is going to make a big stink about Minnesota doing the right thing regardless of what the CBA says.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Surprise! A Race In the Southeast

The Southeast Division is the weakest division in the NHL. For much of the season, it looked as though the Southeast Division champion would back into the third seed in the East Conference with such a poor record they would not have otherwise qualified for the playoffs. However, as we are in the stretch drive in the NHL season, some of the hottest teams in the league are in the southeast. The Carolina Hurricanes look like the probable champions and have won 14 of their last 19 games (with two of their losses counted as regulation ties). They have needed to play this well to stay ahead of the Washington Capitals and the Florida Panthers. Washington has won 10 of their last 14 and Florida 8 of their last 10 (with one loss counted as a regulation tie). If these teams could all have played this well all season long, they would all easily have qualified for playoffs and the Southeast Division would not be the butt of jokes.

In the month of March so far, some of the hottest players in the league have come from the Southeast Division. Alexander Ovechkin of Washington is the highest scorer in the league so far this month and Eric Staal of Carolina is third (Evgeni Malkin of the Pittsburgh Penguins separates the two). Cam Ward of Carolina and Tomas Vokoun of Florida have been two of the hottest goalies in the league in March. Washington has split their games between Cristobal Huet and Olaf Kolzig and both have played well. Even Florida backup Craig Anderson had a remarkable shutout streak recently.

The Southeast Division has been a very week one this season, but as the season is ending three of its teams have become very hot in the race for the playoffs. Likely, only Carolina will secure a playoff berth (though a second southeast team making the playoffs is not impossible). Hopefully, this is a sign that the Southeast Division will be more competitive next season.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Calder Trophy Race

I have written recently about the close Vezina Trophy race where I am currently picking Roberto Luongo of the Vancouver Canucks. It is not the only close race for an NHL award. The Calder Trophy race for rookie of the year is also close. Most of the season I have been picking Patrick Kane of the Chicago Blackhawks as the rookie of the year, but that is no longer true. My new selection is Nicklas Backstrom of the Washington Capitals. Backstrom has just passed Kane in the rookie scoring race (66 points to 65 points) and is also a more complete player with better defensive skills. This is supported by their +/- ratings. Backstrom's +11 rating is the third highest on his Washington team, while Kane's -8 rating is the worst on his Chicago team. I think the third nominee in the Calder race is likely Carey Price of the Montreal Canadiens, but he is a bit back of the other two. It is not as easy to argue that Price has been as dominant a player this season, in part because he has been limited to 37 games played so far.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Russian Dominance

One only needs to look at the top scorers in the NHL to see that some of the most dominant players this season are Russians. If we look at the top point scorers in the NHL we see Russians in first (Alexander Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals), second (Evgeni Malkin of the Pittsburgh Penguins) and fourth place (Pavel Datsyuk of the Detroit Red Wings). Only Jarome Iginla of the Calgary Flames breaks up a one-two-three Russian leader board. Similarly in goals scored, Ovechkin is first, Ilya Kovalchuk of the Atlanta Thrashers is second and Malkin is fourth. Again it is a third place Iginla breaking up a Russian top three. This Russian dominance is contrary to the fact that the number of Russian players in the NHL is in decline.

The decline in Russian NHL players is due to the lack of a player transfer deal with Russia and the increasing amounts of money being paid to the Russian Elite League players, which prompt some Russian talent to stay home instead of joining the foreign NHL. In fact, there are plans to start a potential new league in Europe with hopes of rivaling the NHL. Though it is reasonable to be skeptical of that goal, a new league would draw talent away from the NHL. So far this season, there have been thirty Russian players who have played one or more NHL games. That is down from 57 prior to the lockout. Talent is already being drawn away from the NHL.

The skeptics will argue that the elite Russian talent still comes to the NHL. That is clearly true when one looks at the scoring race. However, some proven NHLers are having good seasons in the Russian Elite League right now and would be able to contribute to any NHL team, were they in the NHL. A quick look through the Russian Elite League shows there are teams with former NHLers Aleksey Morozov, Alexander Perezhogin, Oleg Saprykin, Alexei Yashin and Maxim Sushinsky all leading them in scoring. There are other teams led by players such a Jan Marek and Sergei Mozyakin, who most think could be good NHL players if they had the chance. This is a loss in the overall NHL talent pool.

Right now, the very best Russian players are coming to the NHL because that is where they can make the best money but will that always be so? It is not too farfetched to imagine that if a new European league gets off the ground they may offer a huge contract to one of the proven Russian superstars in the NHL (much like the way the WHA signed Bobby Hull). Given the lack of a transfer deal, any of Ovechkin, Malkin, Kovalchuk or Datsyuk could jump to the new league despite their current NHL contracts. The money to stay in Russia is getting continually better, in part because it is largely oil money (and oil is a hot world commodity) and because the US dollar is dropping relative to other currencies worldwide, so the difference between Russian and NHL salaries is closing.

There is also the problems of entry level contracts and two way contracts (with re-entry waivers) that limit how much a player can make when he first comes to North America (in many cases he would make more money staying in Russia at the start of a career). This means that unless a player is an instant star when he gets to North America, there is a good chance he will return to Russia. That makes it very hard to keep Russian talent in the NHL and some of those players lost might have gone on to be NHL stars if given a chance. There are many players who have developed into NHL stars in the past who were not ready when they first hit the NHL and these players would have been lost if they were Russians under the current system.

It is quite extraordinary that out of a talent pool of only 30 NHL players, three of the top four point scorers and three of the top four goal scorers are Russians. I think this is likely a bit of a fluke season for Russians. If Russia truly was this good and developing players, they would be a perennial champion in international hockey tournaments (they are not reigning champs in any of the Olympics, World Championships or World Junior Championships). This is a high point that has come because some Russian players have all had very good seasons at the same time and some other players who could be top scorers (such as Sidney Crosby, Henrik Zetterberg, Joe Thornton, Vincent LeCavalier etc.) have not managed to keep up with them. I imagine next year we will see less Russian top scorers (if only because it would be hard to see more of them) and it is quite possible that we will soon be in a position where some potential top scorers have stayed in Russia instead of coming to the NHL. Enjoy your Russian NHL superstars today, there are reasons to imagine they may not last as dominant NHL players and if they don't it will be a big loss to the NHL.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Yet Another Look At The Vezina Race

I think the NHL award that should be the closest in voting is the Vezina Trophy for best goaltender. I last picked Martin Brodeur of the New Jersey Devils as my pick. Previous to that I had picked Roberto Luongo of the Vancouver Canucks. Also clearly in the race are Jean-Sebastien Giguere of the Anaheim Ducks and Ilya Bryzgalov of the Phoenix Coyotes. I could imagine circumstances where any of those four players play some strong games for the rest of the season, while other contenders struggle, that could lead to any of the four deserving the Vezina. I am changing my pick back to Roberto Luongo. He has a better saves percentage than Brodeur (.922 compared to .920) in almost the same amount of work (Luongo has played 66 games compared to Brodeur's 70. Luongo faces more shots per game).

I think it is interesting that in a post about the MVP James Mirtle picks Brodeur but not Luongo as a candidate. I would say that at this point, Luongo has been the better of the tow, but time exists for that to possibly change.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Goals Per Game In The NHL

I have written a few posts, such as this one and this one which argue that the NHL's push for higher scoring games as a marketing tool is a bad idea. Many lower scoring teams have good attendance, while higher scoring teams have attendance problems. Scoring rate is not a significant determining factor in overall NHL revenues. Nevertheless, some people remain unconvinced. One commenter named Taylor remains convinced the NHL needs 25-40% more scoring and is willing to make radical changes to the game to make it happen.

I maintain that the NHL needs to make sure the games a good fair hockey games. That is far more important than the scoring rate. There is no easy "knob" for the NHL to turn to set the scoring rate. They have tried very hard to increase scoring in recent years with little success. In the meantime they have made some questionable changes to the game.

One change made to the game that was designed to increase the scoring rate, which has had little success, that is extremely questionable is the trapezoid behind the net. There is a trapezoid region behind the goal where a goalie is allowed to play the puck. If he is behind the goal and plays the puck outside this region he gets a penalty. The logic behind this rule is that it would make it harder to defend against the dumpin. There are some regions on the ice where the puck can be dumped where the goalie cannot field it. This rule has led to little if any change in goal scoring rates (it is impossible to isolate its change since the NHL instituted many rule changes at once). Aside from the fact it's an arbitrary stupid rule that adds an unnecessary complication to the game (on the rare instance where it is called); it will successfully lead to more dumpins. I don't think anyone ever suggested that the NHL would be more exciting if only they dumped the puck in more often.

The most successful method to change scoring rates in the NHL recently has been calling more penalties. The NHL instituted an obstruction crackdown when they relaunched the league after the lockout. One unavoidable problem that came with the increase in penalties was the increase in phantom penalties. Penalties were called when no rules were broken. If the puck was in a crowd and a player fell down a penalty was called. This was clearly unfair. A player got a penalty without actually breaking any rules. This situation needs to be avoided to have fair games. It is an unavoidable circumstance of calling more penalties. More penalties mean more false positive penalties. Players have adjusted to the new rule interpretation and referees have tried to adjust their calls to a sustainable level where they avoid false positive penalty calls. Scoring is slumping as a result. More penalties mean more goals. It doesn't matter if the penalties are deserved or not. If the NHL were to use this as a method to increase scoring, it would be more honest for each game to be a series of power plays. The game begins with the home team playing 5 on 4 hockey for two minutes. After that, the road team gets a two minute five on four power play. They swap power play opportunities all game. Scoring would be higher. There would be no need to call phantom penalties to keep scoring rates up. However, it would not be hockey as we know it.

It is informative to look at historical scoring rates. Here is a graph of goals per game in the NHL as a function of season (click on it to make it larger):

This graph goes back to the 1940/41 season. It is possible to extend the graph even further into the past, but the game was different enough that its interpretation becomes more complicated the further back into history we go. I thin this is far enough to capture the important points. I made this graph relatively quickly in microsoft excel and it extrapolates a value for the missing 2004/05 season, which was lost due to lockout. This makes the rise in scoring after the lockout look less sharp then it was.

Looking at the graph, we see an initial spike in scoring during World War II. The quality of NHL players was down because many were away at war. It is a well proven fact that scoring goes up in a lower quality league with the same rules. The AHL is always higher scoring than the NHL. The ECHL is always higher scoring than the AHL. The NHL had many players in its ranks who were the equivalent of AHL and ECHL players today, so scoring was higher. One lesson the NHL learns from this is to increase scoring all they need are worse players in the league. Maybe a war or some other artificial restriction to players playing in the league would help accomplish this. Of course, it would make the hockey played significantly worse.

Predictably, scoring slumped following the war. It reached its lowest levels in the mid-50's. Strangely, this is seen by historians as a "golden age" for the NHL. This is the heart of the original six years. Scoring may have been low, but hockey was great. There was no force pushing to increase scoring and attendance soared to never before seen levels.

In the 1960's scoring started to rise a little. The first reason for this is the advent of the slapshot. This modernized offences and gave a bit of an edge to the offensive players who had mastered it.

Scoring began a steady increase from the late 60's into the 1980's. This was a combination of two factors. Expansion led to more marginal players in the NHL and that increased scoring and the slapshot became more and more widespread. By the 1980's even a stay at home defenceman had a relatively good slapshot. It took some time for goaltending to catch up, but it did. The advent of the butterfly goalie style was effective in combating the slapshot and associated tipins and deflections since a goalie could block most of the lower part of the net where most of these goals were being scored.

The NHL expanded again throughout the 1990's but so did its talent pool. There were many players coming from places in Europe and USA to play significant roles in the league. This influx of players from outside Canada was able to exceed the rate of expansion and keep the talent levels at a high level. Better defensive strategies were widely introduced (traps, left wing locks etc.) to keep players from finding the open ice to score. By this time all goalies had learned to play the more effective butterfly techniques or other hybrids (like those played by Dominik Hasek) and the stand-up goalie had ceased to exist.

There was a minor peak in scoring from the obstruction crackdown after the lockout occurred, but it was far smaller than the World War II and expansion/slapshot peaks. Scoring now is at roughly the level that it was in the 1960's and higher than it was in the 1950's. These were decades of never before seen NHL attendance and revenues. The successes of the 1960's led to the expansion of the league. At no point then did an idea exist that hockey had to be higher scoring to succeed. The leaders of the NHL thought hockey was succeeding and tried to put it into more markets. The problem right now is that hockey has been placed into markets that are at best lukewarm to it. For whatever reason, the NHL marketing machine has decided that more scoring would help sell the game (despite the contradictory historical supporting data). Many things have been tried to increase scoring in recent years and they have had marginal if any success.

If we take Taylor's numbers from his comments that the NHL would be better with 25-40% more scoring, we need radical changes to achieve that. Making the goals much larger could achieve it, while compromising the integrity of the game. Perhaps changes that force a large percentage of the NHL talent out of the league (perhaps to play in Europe) might achieve it. The changes need to be much larger than we saw in the NHL relaunch after the lockout. Right now, there are 5.58 goals per game this season. A 25% increase in scoring would increase that number to about 7 goals per game. That level of scoring has only existed during World War II and during the 1980's. It is unreasonable high to be sustainable if we consider the NHL's historical trends. A 40% increase in scoring would mean 7.8 goals per game. This is nearly the peak in NHL scoring in its historical data over the past 70 years. That level of scoring is unsustainable over any long period of time.

There is a historical ebb and flow of offensive, defensive and goaltending techniques in NHL history. One makes an advance and in time the other make their advances to catch up. There may be an advance in offensive techniques on the horizon. This advance is not one that can be obtained from rule changes. It will happen from creativity of coaches and players. Scoring rates in the NHL are not so low. They are closer to the historical averages than they were in the 1980's (which was an anomalously high scoring decade) and has set the scoring expectations of some fans. Some of the best years in hockey history (the original six years) have had the current level of scoring or less. There is no desperate need to increase scoring to create a good hockey product.

There is no historical data to suggest that higher scoring hockey is more popular than lower scoring (in fact the opposite may be true). Scoring rates today are close to (but slightly below) the NHL's longterm average. Many low scoring teams do well in attendance while higher scoring teams struggle. The idea that the NHL needs to raise scoring for marketing purposes is misguided at best and possibly tremendously stupid. The level of scoring rates suggested (25-40% increases) will require significant changes. They cannot be obtained with minor tinkering to the game. The new game that would be produced will not be hockey as we know it. Likely it will be worse than hockey as we know it because the changes would not be driven by what is good for the game, but instead by what is going to increase scoring. You cannot make radical changes to hockey unless what is good for the game is your primary concern and even then you need to tread extremely carefully.

NOTE: Al Strachan has just written an article that touts some rule changes designed to increase scoring (that won't improve the calibre of hockey as far as I can tell) and likely won't make overall difference to the scoring rates anyway. Perhaps, he should have read this first.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Manon Rheaume For The Hall Of Fame

There are some interesting comments in the I NOW Consider Mark Recchi a Hall of Famer thread when we are discussing whether or not Manon Rheaume belongs in the Hockey Hall of Fame. I believe she should be inducted as a player. Nightfly believes she does not belong in the Hall of Fame.

Manon Rheaume is the first woman to play in many men's leagues. She was the first woman to play major junior hockey in the QMJHL. She was the first woman to play in the NHL (an exhibition game in 1992). She is the first woman to play a professional hockey game. If you look at her stats against the men they are not that good. In any given season she has hardly any games played, a high goals against average and a low saves percentage. It doesn't matter which league you look at or which season.

The problem is that she came onto the woman's hockey scene before there were many opportunities for women to make a career out of hockey. When the opportunities started to develop a few years into her career so got married, retired and had two sons.

Manon Rheaume was a very dominant goalie in international woman's tournaments. In the 1992 World Woman's Championships she played three games with two shutouts. She had a .957 saves percentage and a 0.67 goals against average and winning the gold medal. It was this performance that got her signed by the Tampa Bay Lightning. It was a gimmick by the expansion Lightning. They didn't seriously expect her to make an NHL impact. It would be easier for a female goalie to play in the NHL than a position player since she could avoid physical play and Rheaume was the best female goalie in the world. She returned to the 1994 World Woman's Championships, won a second gold medal and was named the best goaltender in the tournament. In 1996, she played for the gold medal winning Canadian team in the Pacific Rim Woman's Hockey Championships. She put up a .962 saves percentage and a 0.50 goals against average. She played with the 1998 Canadian Olympic Team, the first year that woman's hockey was in the Olympics. She put up a .935 saves percentage and a 0.81 goals against average. These are outstanding results. These are outstanding statistics. Quite clearly, she was a dominant female goalie. If any man was as dominant against other men, he would definitely be a Hall of Famer.

The problem is that it is hard to sabermetrically show how dominant she was. There are not enough results. The quality of opposition is questionable. When they started to set up woman's leagues, she retired from the game. Exactly how good is she relative to other female goalies? Can we definitively show she is the best? The answer is probably no. If we have fifty years of woman's hockey results, it will still be a significant sabermetric problem to determine exactly where Manon Rheaume stands against other female goalies. She has few results and those that exist are largely played against men.

This is a problem with pioneers in men's hockey as well. As an example, we can look at Hobey Baker. Hobey Baker was a great American player who is in the Hockey Hall of Fame. The trophy for the best player in the NCAA is named after him. If we look on hockeydb here is the Hobey Baker page. It has no statistics. If I look a bit harder, I can look in the book Total Hockey, I can find some Hobey Baker stats. Statistics exist for three seasons that he played. In his final year at Princeton in 1913/14, he played 11 games, scored 12 goals and got two penalty minutes (assists were no kept). Playing amateur hockey after he graduated in the American Amateur Hockey League he played two seasons. In 1914/15 playing for St Nicholas, he scored 17 goals in eight games played (no other stats were kept). In 1915/16 he played seven games scoring nine goals. How good was Hobey Baker relative to other forwards in history? Who knows? It's very hard to compare his numbers with anyone who plays in modern times. How can we? He has very little statistics kept in very few games in leagues of questionable quality. He is clearly a dominant player in his time who had little opportunity to play against top quality opponents in his time. However, he is in the Hockey Hall of Fame and belongs there.

There exist women who have had longer careers than Manon Rheaume had and lasted long enough to get some more meaningful games against other women (Danielle Goyette is an example). Both belong in the Hall of Fame.

Manon Rheaume was a dominant goalie in the few games we have of her playing against top level women in international play. She had the reputation as the best female goalie in the world and thus was given the opportunity to be the first woman to play in several different leagues, including an NHL exhibition game. It is hard to judge just how good she was relative to other women - especially as women's hockey gets more and more organized. If a man was as dominant a goalie against other men as Rheaume was relative to other women, he would be a Hall of Famer. Rheaume should be inducted too.

Friday, March 21, 2008

The Masterton Selection Process

The Masterton Trophy is given annually to the player who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship, and dedication to ice hockey. The award was brought into the NHL to honor Bill Masterton who died from injuries sustained in a 1968 NHL hockey game. Typically, the award is given to a player who manages to comeback from serious injury or life threatening illness to be a significant NHL player. This season, I support Owen Nolan of the Calgary Flames for the award. He made a comeback from a knee injury that kept him out of hockey for two consecutive seasons to make a comeback last year with Phoenix and continue it this year with Calgary. He has been a valuable second or third line forward since his injury. Most players probably would have retired if they had been kept from play for two years when they are in their mid-30's, but not Nolan. He has comeback and continued his career.

I do not like the way the award is given out. With more than 10% of the hockey season remaining, the media in each city has selected a Masterton nominee. Here is a list of this season's nominees. There are problems with the way nominees are picked. First, picking nominees while the season is still underway prevents us from getting a final look at the season. It makes any event that occurs at the season irrelevant to the process, when sometimes these might be significant events. The second problem is that each team does not have a legitimate candidate for any award - let alone the Masterton. Can you imagine if other awards were selected this way? What difference does it make who would be named (for example) the New York Islanders nominee to the Norris Trophy? He won't win it. There is no reason for them to even name a nominee. As a result, many teams pick a nominee who was unable to play a significant role in the NHL for many years and looked like he would not have a career, but kept trying and eventually made the team and had some value to his team. This explains nominations of players like Glen Metropolit in Boston or Ty Conklin in Pittsburgh. Sure it shows dedication to have not given up, but this is not what the award is designed for. Other teams pick a player as nominee for having a long career and being dedicated enough to hockey to keep playing despite the fact his best years are gone. Glen Wesley of Carolina and Luke Richardson of Ottawa are examples of such nominees. None of these players should receive serious Masterton consideration, but the process forces teams to nominate somebody and they are the best available players on their given team. The New York Rangers media agree with this position and declined to name a nominee. No matter which Ranger they picked, he wouldn't have had a serious chance at the Masterton anyway.

The bigger problem is naming nominees too early. The season isn't over yet. Something might happen to change who should be nominated between the nomination and season's end. An example of this is in Buffalo. The Buffalo Sabres nominated Paul Gaustad. I'm not sure what makes him a serious Masterton candidate. Gaustad was a seventh round draft pick who worked hard through three years in the AHL and has been able to make an NHL career. It looks like a better nominee might be Teppo Numminen. Numminen had heart surgery in the off season and is now back practising with the Sabres. This is not his first heart problem. An irregular heartbeat kept him sidelined in the past and threatened his NHL career. Should he play an NHL game between now and the end of the season he is a far better nominee then Gaustad, but was missed due to an early deadline for nominations.

Numminen has had a hard time with the Sabres this season. He was suspended by the Sabres for not coming to training camp fit to play since he had had heart problems. This was an attempt for the Sabres to save paying him his contract. His contract was uninsured due to previous heart problems. Despite protestations from Tom Luongo of Sabre Rattling this is not a good move for the Sabres. I am surprised that there has not been more done to fight it. TSN reports that Numminen filed a grievance with the NHLPA in November (they are reporting this in March!) over his suspension. I would think this might be the kind of battle NHLPA head Paul Kelly would want to attach himself to as he fights to re-establish the NHLPA. Suspending a player because he is sick or injured to save money is the kind of thing the NHL should not be doing. It's a blatant reprehensible act that has no positive public relations spin surrounding it. It is something that should not be allowed as the NHL tries to chip away at player's rights.

I wouldn't expect Teppo Numminen should win the Masterton Trophy this season, even if he comes back and plays a token game or two at the end of the season. However, he is a far better nominee than Paul Gaustad, who was only chosen due to the odd practise of picking nominees before the season ends. If next year Numminen has a solid comeback season next year (and hopefully somewhere other than Buffalo since they wronged him) I would think he should be a leading candidate for the award. Buffalo has had problems keeping their free agents and the treatment of Teppo Numminen won't help change things in any way.

I think the Masterton Trophy should be voted for at season's end like and other NHL award. Like any other award, they should name the three nominees who get the most votes (as of right now, in my mind they should be Owen Nolan, Fernando Pisani of the Edmonton Oilers and Jason Blake of the Toronto Maple Leafs this year) and then name the winner at the awards ceremony. Running the award differently with nominees announced from each team while the season is still being played makes no sense. That practise should be ended.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Another Look At The St Louis Blues Season

A couple weeks ago, I wrote a post about the St Louis Blues entitled collapsed in the stretch run which was criticized by some Blues fans. One criticism is at St Louis Blues Gametime. I stand by what I wrote and think it was attacked because I dared to write something critical of the St Louis Blues - who are clearly the favorite team of that blogger.

When the season began, nobody expected much from the Blues. I picked them to finish eleventh in the West Conference. However, they started the season very well. At one point they had a 17-11 record (with one loss counted as a regulation tie). At this point, it looked like the St Louis Blues might be the most improved team in the NHL. Here is one example of a blog post that was written that called them a much improved team and called for Andy Murray to win coach of the year. It was a widely held opinion at the time. At that point, most fans expected to see the Blues in the Stanley Cup playoffs. However, things collapsed.

January 1st of this year is an arbitrary date selected to show this collapse and to compare the team before and after. Before January 1st, they were in 14th place in the league with a 19-18 record (4 losses counted as regulation ties). Since January 1st, they have had the worst record in the league (they did when I wrote the first story and they still do). They have gone 11-25 (with seven losses counted as regulation ties) so far in 2008. When a team is the worst team in the league over a more than two and a half month stretch something is desperately wrong. In fact, St Louis projects to be a worse team this year than they were last year. Last season, they had 81 points and this season they project to 80. Given that they have only won two of their last fourteen games, I think that projection is optimistic and they are unlikely to do as well as 80 points.

So what went wrong? How could a team look so good in December and wind up this bad? At no point have they had an overpowering offence. They lack any big name scorers. Only the New York Islanders top scorer Mike Comrie is a lower scoring team leader than the Blues top scorer Paul Kariya (Kariya has 57 points and Comrie 49). Twenty-eight out of twenty-nine other teams have at least one (and in many cases more than just one) scorer better than any the Blues offer. St Louis has the third worst goals per game in the NHL at 2.42 goals per game. Their defence is not so good either. It has some potential in Erik Johnson, who has had a pretty good rookie season and should be a really good NHL defender someday, but someday is not today. Neither Johnson nor anyone else on the Blues (Eric Brewer, Jay McKee, Barret Jackman) are players who would be frontline defenders on a top team. None are close to all star calibre performers this year. St Louis has allowed 2.85 goals per game this season. Only four teams have a worse differential between goals scored and goals allowed this season (New York Islanders, Los Angeles Kings, Tampa Bay Lightning and Atlanta Thrashers). The Blues are having a bad season and in the last few months it has been terrible.

Why were the Blues winning earlier in the season? The biggest reason was Manny Legace. Manny Legace played very well at the beginning of the season. As of December 15th, he had a .920 saves percentage and a 2.16 goals against average. A few early season blog writers picked Legace as a legitimate Vezina Trophy candidate. Legace gave St Louis a strength. They had strong goaltending. Goaltending is important. Any team with strong goaltending will win games.

After the December 15th date, Legace has posted a .904 saves percentage and a 2.57 goals against average. He is no longer providing St Louis with a strength in goal. It may not be the goaltending weakness a team like Tampa Bay but it is certainly not a strength. Over the last few months, St Louis has been a team with no strengths. Their offense is not a strength. Their defence is not a strength. Their goaltending is not a strength. A team with no strengths is a bad team. That is the reason that St Louis has the worst record in the NHL in 2008. They have no strengths. When Legace was playing at all star level in the first part of the season, they had a strength it was in an important place - goaltending. When that disappeared, they had no more strengths and thus became a very bad team.

The question as we look to the future is what is the likelihood that Legace can play at all star level again? Given that Legace is 35 years old and had never had a stretch as good as he did in the first part of the season at any other point in his career, it appears unlikely. Where can St Louis build a strength? Possibly, their defence can become a strength if Erik Johnson matures as he is expected to. In a couple years, they may possess one of the better defenders in the game. Aside from Johnson, it is hard to see an immediate answer. St Louis will have to build slowly through good drafting and player development. I do not see any other option. They would be advised to move some of their aging veterans like Keith Tkachuk and Paul Kariya for prospects and draft picks to help speed that along.

St Louis's problems started in earnest when the team was for sale. St Louis's previous owner Bill Laurie decided to slash payroll when he was trying to sell the team. The key player St Louis got rid of was Chris Pronger. Pronger alone is a good enough defenceman that the Blues would have a strength on defence to build around. Pronger alone would be enough to make the difference between this bad Blues team we see and a semi-competitive one. Pronger may be the obvious example, but he is not the only one. Talent was allowed to leave St Louis and it was not replaced. The Blues are still suffering from these decisions. It is a problem that was voluntarily created that is taking years to fix. That is bad practise whether you plan to sell a team or not.

Now the St Louis Blues are a bad team. There is a movement to fire Andy Murray. Here is one message board thread that appears tired of discussing the subject because of all the other threads devoted to it. I don't think firing Andy Murray is the solution. It is not his fault he is coaching a team without strengths. Also, it wasn't his coaching that led to the improvements that were touted in the first part of the season.

Now, I open the floor to St Louis Blues fans to tell me that I don't know anything. Just like the commenter on the first Blues post did.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

I NOW Consider Mark Recchi A Hall Of Famer

One of the long running questions I have tried to address in this blog is when a player is good enough to go to the Hockey Hall of Fame. When has he accomplished enough in his career that no matter what happens until retirement he should make the Hall of Fame? I consider a player a Hall of Famer based on these standards. The last player I have considered establishing himself as a Hall of Famer is Eric Lindros. Today, I think Mark Recchi has established himself as a Hall of Famer.

The main reason Mark Recchi belongs in the Hockey Hall of Fame is his career offensive totals. Mark Recchi has 520 career goals, 855 career assists for 1375 career points. There is no player who is eligible for the Hall of Fame who has more career assists or points than Recchi who is not already in the Hall of Fame. There are only two players with more career goals then Recchi who are not already in the Hall of Fame (who are eligible for induction). They are Dino Ciccarelli, who I have argued should be inducted and Pat Verbeek. Verbeek has only two more career goals and more than 300 less career points than Recchi. I would argue Verbeek should not be in the Hall of Fame.

If we look at the time period where Recchi got his points, when he first came to the NHL, in the 1988/89 season, hockey was in its highest scoring era ever. However by 1995, scoring began to decline significantly to numbers which are closer to the all time league averages (but after the high scoring 80's and early 90's we perceive this as low scoring). After adjusting Recchi's totals for the era he played, his totals will be reduced by a small margin (but many of the other top scorers all time played in high scoring eras and he would come out slightly ahead in relative terms).

Recchi lost about a season and a half to labor unrest. The 2004/05 season and the first half of the 1994/95 seasons were lost to lockouts. Undoubtedly, had the labor situation allowed Recchi to play he would have over a hundred more points. Instead of being the 21st highest scorer of all time, he might be as high as the 13th highest scorer of all time.

Mark Recchi continues to increase his offensive totals and he is doing so as a valued player to his franchise. He has 42 points so far this season and is currently the second highest scorer on the Atlanta Thrashers (they traded Marian Hossa who had more points in Atlanta than Recchi is likely to get this season). Mark Recchi has scored at least 40 points this season, which is something he has accomplished every year of his career except his first season (1988/89) where he only played in 15 games. Forty points in a season in today's NHL is a "line in the sand" that only a relatively skilled offensive player can do. It will not be achieved by aging players who are hanging around to pad their career totals.

I did wonder if Recchi might be beginning to hang around and pad his career totals without being a significant contributor to his team when the Pittsburgh Penguins waived him earlier this season. He was off to a relatively slow start, with only two goals in 19 games and Pittsburgh gave up on him. They wanted to give his roster spot to a younger, cheaper player. Atlanta has been happy to claim Recchi who has scored 34 points in his 46 games with the Thrashers this season. Recchi has been one of the better Thrasher players this season.

The reason Recchi required such high career totals before I considered him a Hall of Famer is that he was never considered the best player in the league. He was never on the short list of players who would be in that argument. He was never a serious Hart Trophy candidate. Throughout his career, he wasn't the best player on his team. However, this largely comes from having had some very good teammates in Mario Lemieux, Jaromir Jagr, Eric Lindros (in his pre-concussion days) and Patrick Roy. Recchi certainly was a top player throughout most of his career and had he been on weaker teams in his prime he would definitely have been considered the best player on his team for many years. As it was, there are seasons where one could argue Recchi was the best player on his team, but was overlooked because other players had more media attention. The clearest example is the 1999/2000 season where Recchi led the NHL in assists with 63 and scored 91 points leading the Philadelphia Flyers in scoring. Most would have considered Eric Lindros the teams star, but concussions and injuries limited Lindros to 55 games, where he scored 59 points. Certainly, in Recchi's years in Montreal he was the best position player on the team, but with Patrick Roy in net it's not possible to claim he was their best player.

Throughout Mark Recchi's career he has had several achievements that showed he was a star for a long period of time. Three times he scored over 100 points in a season (with 123 points being his career best). He led the NHL in assists once. He appeared in seven NHL All Star Games. He was named the NHL's second all star team in 1992. He has twice won the Stanley Cup (1991 Pittsburgh and 2006 Carolina). In the Pittsburgh cup victory he managed 34 playoff points, which was second only to Mario Lemieux that year.

Mark Recchi is a Hall of Fame player. His career offensive totals are too high to leave him out of the Hall of Fame. He may have never been the best player in the NHL at any given point, but he was clearly an NHL star for a long period of time and he has the awards and accomplishments to back that up.

There are sixteen active players that I consider worthy of Hall of Fame induction regardless of what happens for the rest of their careers. Here is my list:

Ed Belfour
Rob Blake
Martin Brodeur
Chris Chelios
Peter Forsberg
Dominik Hasek
Jaromir Jagr
Nicklas Lidstrom
Mike Modano
Scott Niedermayer
Chris Pronger
Mark Recchi
Joe Sakic
Teemu Selanne
Brendan Shanahan
Mats Sundin

As more hockey is played this season and into the playoffs we may see this list grow. In the off season, there may be some retirements that shrink this list a bit.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Stanley Cup To Stay West?

With the NHL season winding down, it becomes natural to think about the Stanley Cup playoffs and who will be the frontrunners to win the cup. First place in the league is the Detroit Red Wings. They have had some recent troubles due largely to defensive injuries, but as players are coming back from injury and back into form that may not be an issue once the playoffs begin. At all star break, I wrote can Detroit win the cup? where I picked them as the favorite, but the have many questions as well. Is Dominik Hasek going to be healthy in playoff time? Can Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk lead the team offensively in the playoffs?

The other team that stands out from the crowd is the defending cup champion Anaheim Ducks. Now that Scott Niedermayer and Teemu Selanne have returned, they have played very good hockey as well. It is very reasonable to consider them Stanley Cup favorites (particularly if Dominik Hasek does not get his game on track). Of course they have questions surrounding them. They have the forth worst offence in the league - even if their defence is great is that good enough? Have Selanne and Niedermayer worked off their rust from extended summer vacations?

The best team in the NHL recently is the San Jose Sharks. They have won eleven of their last twelve and even their loss was a regulation tie. Do they have the depth to make a serious playoff run? Joe Thornton has never had a big playoff in his career yet - is this year different? If they can play as well as they have lately, they could be the cup winner.

The most plausible cup winners at this point are all West Conference teams. This is probably not a big surprise, because the West Conference has a significantly better record in inter-conference play. Aside from Detroit, Anaheim and San Jose, there are west teams like Dallas, Calgary and Minnesota, who with a couple upsets could find themselves in the Stanley Cup finals.

What about the East Conference? One thing we know is one of the two teams in the Stanley Cup finals will come from the East Conference. Who will it be? Ottawa made it last year and may do it again, but they have struggled with lacklustre goaltending. New Jersey leads the conference in points and has the goaltending of Martin Brodeur to fall back on, but has less else than in previous years. Pittsburgh has a high calibre offence built around Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby and Marian Hossa, but not enough else to be a real favorite.

The best bet at this point is that the West Conference produces the Stanley Cup winner. The best hope for the East Conference is that the west beats itself up and the team that survives loses to a more rested east team.

Handicapping the Stanley Cup playoffs at this point shows that West Conference teams have the best chance at winning the cup. Of course, there will be one East Conference team in the finals and upsets can happen.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Lowest Scoring Games

One assumption of Gary Bettman's NHL marketing plan is that fans like high scoring games and changes must be made to NHL hockey to raise scoring. I do not believe this to be true. I think fans like good hockey games and the scoring rate is a poor measure of hockey quality. Many suggestions have been made to try to increase NHL scoring. One of the recent suggestions, which would probably work to marginally increase scoring without adversely affecting the game has been suggested by Scott Mellanby on the Hockey Night in Canada Hotstove segment is to have teams start on the opposite sides of the ice. This would have teams further from their benches in the first and third periods (and closer in the second period). It would make it harder for line changes to occur and thus lead to more goals on broken line changes and when tired players get stuck no the ice defensively. In the current NHL, teams only have a long line change in the second period and this is the highest scoring period throughout the season as a result.

I am against any changes to NHL hockey that are done for no reason but to increase scoring. Will the small increase in goals make any difference at the box office? I doubt it. Does it make hockey a better game to see more tired players and blown line changes? Again, I doubt it, but at least this change would not be a drastic one.

I wrote earlier this season, that the New York Rangers have the lowest scoring NHL games and do not seem to have any problems with their attendance. While the Rangers are a low scoring team (as are their opponents), the least goals this season have been scored in games involving the Anaheim Ducks. The Ducks have been the fourth lowest scoring team in the NHL this season with only 2.46 goals per game scored. Their defence has been very good, allowing only 2.28 goals per game (third best in the league). That means 4.74 goals are scored in the average Anaheim game this season, which is the lowest total in the league. Anaheim has been playing to a more than capacity house at home, so if there is any correlation between scoring rates and attendance they are a clear counterexample.

Anaheim is the defending Stanley Cup champions and hve a solid chance to repeat. That means that we will likely see a lot of low scoring Stanley Cup playoff games, should they succeed. I don't think playoff attendance or TV ratings will be hurt in any way by these low scoring games. I think the push for a higher scoring NHL is largely a wasted effort.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

San Jose Streaking

The closer we get to the playoffs, the more important a streaking team becomes to the Stanley Cup picture. San Jose has won their last eleven games in a row. This has put them in second seed in the West Conference. They have done so with strong play from their stars Joe Thornton, Evgeni Nabokov and newcomer Brian Campbell. Campbell has been the best addition in the league since the trade deadline. He has been the top scoring defenceman in the NHL since his trade to the Sharks. If San Jose can keep up this high level of play they must be considered a strong contender for the Stanley Cup.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Tornado Hits Phillips Arena

Friday night, a series of tornados hit downtown Atlanta. Among the buildings damaged was Phillips Arena, the home of the Atlanta Thrashers. The extent of the damage is still unclear at this point. Atlanta has four remaining home games this season (and will not make the playoffs). Their next home game is Wednesday against the Carolina Hurricanes. Should their arena have been damaged sufficiently it may be necessary to move those games (though it is unclear where they would be moved to). This would be a financial hit to the Thrashers to lose their final four home dates or have to move them to a likely smaller facility. Atlanta is a non-traditional NHL market and thus is not on as strong financial footing as some of the older NHL markets.

Here is the CNN story on the tornados.

Friday, March 14, 2008

The Pronger Stomp

When Chris Simon received a 30 game suspension for stomping of Jarkko Ruutu's ankle it appeared clear that the NHL considered intentionally stomping on another player a serious offence. Sure there were mitigating circumstances; in that Simon was a repeat offender, but it seemed obvious that any player caught stomping on another would have a lengthy suspension. Naturally, when Chris Pronger of the Anaheim Ducks stomped on the calf of Ryan Kesler of the Vancouver Canucks in a game Wednesday that Anaheim won 4-1, it should have been clear that Pronger would have a lengthy suspension. Pronger is a repeat offender who had not one but two suspensions within the past year. There may be differences in the stomp and it was not clear Pronger would get 30 games, but he would get a lengthy suspension.

It turns out this isn't true. There is a significant difference between Chris Simon and Chris Pronger. Simon is a role player who is nearing the end of his NHL career. Pronger is a former MVP, who is one of the NHL's better players. He is a star on the defending Stanley Cup champion Anaheim Ducks and could make a huge difference down the stretch and in the playoffs. Therefore, Pronger did not get suspended at all. Is that what passes for justice in the NHL?

As an aside, the Carolina paper the News & Observer published a study that players tend to receive longer suspensions when the player who is hurt is on a Canadian team, presumably due to the higher level of hockey news coverage in Canada. That clearly does not apply in this case. Kesler is on a Canadian team (Vancouver), but Pronger received no suspension. There are many biases in the uneven justice system in the NHL. The News & Observer may have uncovered one of them, but there is a much bigger bias on top of up. Star players get minimal (or no) suspensions when role players would get lengthier ones. It isn't good for business to star players missing any more games that necessary.

Here is the TSN story on the incident.

NOTE: It appears that after the second video of Pronger's stomp came out, which can be seen here (thanks to Mojo Tooth for the link) the NHL is looking at the case again (or bowing to the court of public opinion) and it looks as though Pronger will likely be suspended afterall. Ironically, this video, which probably led to Pronger's upcoming suspension, was provided as evidence of his innocence my Mojo Tooth in the comment section of this thread. Here is the TSN story on the state of affairs as of Friday night.

NOTE: The suspension was announced Saturday afternoon. Pronger is suspended for eight games. He can come back for the Anaheim Ducks final game of the season April 6th against the Phoenix Coyotes. I think this is a fair suspension, but shows that Chris Simon's suspension was unfairly long. Here is TSN's story on the revised ruling.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

How I Pick An MVP

Several times when I have stated that I support Nicklas Lidstrom of the Detroit Red Wings as MVP, faux rumors makes a comment about his MVP selections (for example this post) that I usually disagree with. I thought it would be best to explain how I select an MVP.

From the standpoint of sabermetrics and hockey, the principle is simple. The MVP is the player who wins the most games for his team. The problem is measuring those wins. I reject outright any of the crazy arguments that usually come up that player X is not so valuable because he has all star calibre teammates or player Y is not so valuable because his team missed the playoffs (presumably due to a lack of all star teammates - which was player X's problem). The only thing that matters is how many wins (win shares - to borrow a Bill James baseball term) a player earns.

It is simplest to try to measure win shares for goalies - but nevertheless problematic. In principle one can measure quite accurately how many goals a goalie prevents (or fails to prevent) versus the average goalie in the NHL over a season. This is the principle of the goals saved method. The method can be further advanced by taking intro account shot quality - if we believe these numbers to be reliable. Once we know the number of goals prevented by a given goalie, we can turn this into wins, using the "Pythagorean formula" where winning percentages (after adjusting for shootouts and regulation ties) scale as the square of the percentage of goals a team scores (ie. a team with 200 goals for and 180 goals against should have a 2002 / ( 2002 + 1802 ) = 55.2%. The problems with this are that it neglects anything else a goalie does other than stop shots (and for example puckhandling ability has a value) and it references things relative to average, where sometimes average is not the most meaningful quantity. Nevertheless, it is possible to get a rough value for how many wins a goalie has contributed to his team.

For a purely offensive player it is also possible to gage his offensive contributions. This can be done using a goals created method where the goals and assists a player gets are turned into a number of goals created. This is at best an approximate number, but it gives a ballpark value that can be compared with a goalie's value. Of course, it assumes a player does nothing except score, which is clearly false. Also, it can wrongly attribute goals, especially in the case where a player benefits by being a linemate of a very good sniper or a very good setup man (or where the player is that sniper or setup man and his linemates are not so great). There is no attempt to take into account defensive play at all.

Defensive play is very hard to accurately measure. One can look at a +/- rating or a team's goals against when a given player is on the ice. These numbers are somewhat "polluted" because they also depend on the quality of teammates, although one can attempt to normalize for them. One can measure things like blocked shots or hits, but these do not tell the whole story. A player who plays his position well and prevents a shot does not get credited with a blocked shot or a hit or any other meaningful number - and these numbers are often unreliable as what constitutes a hit can vary from scorer to scorer. For the most part, to identify good defence nothing beats watch a player play. A good fan can see who is playing well defensively and has some numbers to back up their intuition, but the numbers are not so reliable.

What does this all mean when it comes to picking an MVP for this season? One can get a rough idea of how valuable offensive players are relative to goalies. Right now Alexander Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals has the most goals created (about 56) and Martin Brodeur of the New Jersey Devils has the most goals saved (with about 22). One might argue (correctly) that Brodeur's number is an underestimate due to the fact he is compared to the average NHL goalie, but the point is clear that offensive players this season have contributed more toward winning than goalies (this is not always the case some years). Therefore, it would be a mistake to call a goalie the MVP this season.

Nevertheless, we haven't answered the question of who is MVP. We have concluded that Ovechkin's offense has contributed more wins to his team than any goalie's saves. That is about as much "science" as can go into picking an MVP. Now for the "art" portion of the job. I think it is clear that Alexander Ovechkin has been the best offensive player in the NHL this season. I think it's not much of a stretch to call him the best forward this season as the only forward nearing his offensive numbers is Evgeni Malkin of Pittsburgh and there is really no reasonable argument to make that Malkin contributes more defensively then Ovechkin does (Ovechkin actually has a better +/- rating on a worse team). Any other forward is far enough back offensively that they are unlikely to make up the difference from defensive considerations. But what about defenders? Nicklas Lidstrom leads the NHL's defencemen in scoring. He has about 39 goals created. Puck moving defencemen often have their value underrated by such measures because a lot of their value comes in carrying the puck out of their own zone to start a rush and this does not necessarily lead to goal scoring. Lidstrom is also widely recognized as one of the best defensive players in hockey (if not the best). He has the best +/- rating of any player in the league (which is supporting evidence - but also shows he plays on a good team). I think it is quite reasonable to believe Nicklas Lidstrom has contributed more win shares to his team than Alexander Ovechkin. His defence should make up the difference of 17 goals created. That is why I pick Nicklas Lidstrom as MVP right now.

Hockey sabermetrics is not as well established a science as it is in baseball - and it probably never will be. It is not so easy to develop a good statistical record the way it is in baseball. Nevertheless, it is a guideline for how one picks an MVP. It allows up to make some rough judgments to help us pick an MVP and remove some candidates from contention. I think a good case ca be made that Nicklas Lidstrom has probably got the most win shares this season and thus should be MVP - at least as of this point.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

What Tampa Should Have Done With Brad Richards

A few days ago I wrote that Tampa Bay frittered away Brad Richards when the traded him to the Dallas Stars along with Johan Holmqvist for Mike Smith, Jussi Jokinen, Jeff Halpern and a fourth round draft pick because Richards is signed well into the future and is clearly the best player in the deal. Tampa Bay did not obtain anything in return that makes them any more of a contender then they would be without him. That prompted some interesting comments from Matt Fenwick of the Battle of Alberta who points out among other things that Brad Richards is one of the most overpaid players in the NHL.

From a Tampa Bay standpoint, Brad Richards's salary should not be a concern for any salary cap reasons and the fact that they recently signed Dan Boyle for almost as much money shows that it doesn't seem to be a financial concern either. Tampa has been a bad team this year. They are currently last place in the East Conference and second last on the NHL. They do not have a good group of young players on the horizon (in fact The Hockey News ranks them as the worst group of prospects any NHL team has). However, all hope should not have been lost. This team won the Stanley Cup in 2004. They did it with Brad Richards, Martin St Louis and Vincent LeCavalier leading the way (up until the trade deadline they had all three players and all are young enough to still produce well - though Richards hasn't done so this season). Of course, they also had top goaltending from Nikolai Khabibulin, who is now playing with Chicago and they had more talented depth than they do now. This season, their goaltending has been awful and the depth has not been there (their top scorer outside of the 3 stars or those they got in return for Richards is Michel Ouellet who has 31 points). Nevertheless, they had a real strength with three very talented forwards in their lineup and Stanley Cups are won from strength.

Brad Richards was having a poor year and seemed to have failed to become a superstar, but how often can you find a 27 year old player who has won the Lady Byng and Conn Smythe Trophies and led the playoffs in scoring in his lifetime? He was clearly struggling and there were identifiable plausible reasons for it. He has been suffering from mononucleosis this season, but despite that coach John Tortorella insisted on giving him a huge amount of ice time. He is a player that The Hockey News rated 30th in the NHL last summer and even with a drop from that ranking, based on this season, was still one of the better talents in the NHL.

In terms of a "bang for the buck", there are players out there who will provide more than Richards likely will considering Richards makes $7.8 million per year, but none of those players are likely to come to Tampa Bay in the near future. The idea that Richards was traded for salary cap space is a crazy one. Sure moving a big contract frees some salary cap room (which was promptly filled with Dan Boyle's contract), but what business does a team like Tampa have in having salary cap problems? They are a bad team. They do not have the talent that they should need their whole cap space. They are not using it this season, as they have a projected $42 million cap hit which is on the low side of the NHL.

A team should only have salary cap problems when they have a good young core that are all due raises. It is hard to keep a core like that together. That is why it's hard to keep a good team together under the salary cap. Sure a team might want some spending money to sign some free agents, but teams will not win by signing big ticket free agents. Last year, the only free agent available in the previous year's Hockey News top 50 players was Ryan Smyth. This year, Marian Hossa is likely the only free agent on the current top 50 list. There are not enough big ticket free agents around that a team can expect to significantly improve by signing them. Where a team can improve is by signing the cheaper free agents. Likely, there are players who will be bargains who will have good seasons in the future. Those are the players Tampa Bay should be targeting and they won't need significant cap room to sign them, if they are smart enough to identify them in the first place.

It could be argued that Tampa traded Brad Richards's big salary so that they could afford to give one to Dan Boyle. That is a poor move, if it is true, because Richards is likely a better player. He is younger and more accomplished than Boyle. Boyle turns 32 this summer. Likely his best years are gone. It is more likely that Brad Richards has some good years left in his career.

The further complicating factor in the Tampa Bay situation is Vincent LeCavalier. Al Strachan said on the Satellite Hotstove feature on Hockey Night in Canada that LeCavalier has requested a trade. LeCavalier is denying this statement. However, if Tampa is forced to trade LeCavalier this summer, it is a trade they likely cannot win. Few NHL players are as good as LeCavalier and Tampa is unlikely to get any of them in return. Having traded Brad Richards and not received any star players in return would only make it worse to have to do the same with LeCavalier too. If Tampa has to do that, then it is probably time for a rebuild of the franchise. Signing as 32 year old Dan Boyle for six seasons at$6.67 million per year is a stupid move for such a team to have made.

Brad Richards is a good player. He has shown this in the past. He is not having a particularly good season this year, but there is reason to believe he will be able to do better in the future. He is overpaid. On a team like Tampa, who has no reason to have a payroll approaching the salary cap, that should not be an issue. Trading Richards and not getting any star players in return is a salary dump. It is a stupid salary dump since the team is simultaneously signing an older less accomplished Dan Boyle for almost the same money.

So what should the Tampa Bay Lightning have done with Brad Richards? They should have kept him. There is a principle in building assets. Buy low, sell high. Tampa Bay traded Richards at what is likely his low point. That is just dumb.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Marketing Sidney Crosby

I was contacted by Marilee Lorusso who has an issues in sports blog which is a senior project at the University of La Verne in California (how come I couldn't get university credit for a blog?) and she asked me some questions about Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins. Specifically she is looking at prodigies in sports. Here is the important part of the conversation:

What kind of impact has Sidney Crosby had on the game of hockey?

When the NHL came out of the lockout, they desperately needed somebody to market the game around. It had taken a huge blow from a year off. Sidney Crosby was a young star in the making. He was a good polite Canadian kid. The NHL put a lot of its marketing behind him (and Alexander Ovechkin - though Ovechkin being Russian made him the number two choice). They were fortunate that he turned out to be as good as advertised. Crosby is a face to put on the game. He has brought life back to Pittsburgh games (though if he didn't Evgeni Malkin would have).

As a player he has been very good. He is the reigning MVP from last season. I think one could have a good debate about if he is the best player in the game right now (I would argue he is but not without reservations - Nicklas Lidstrom and Alexander Ovechkin would be logical arguments for being better players). Crosby is only 20 so likely he will get better. If he does that it should be fun to watch.

Why is easy to market a player like him?

He is young. He is talented. He doesn't seem to have any skeletons in his closet.

I would argue that he was marketed before it was clear that his talent would shine in the NHL and the NHL marketing machine is lucky that he did work out.

Do you think the NHL should embrace him more as a sort of face of the league or are there other players that deserve more recognition?

Frankly, I don't care how the NHL is marketed. Marketing is usually setting a false picture that attempts to hook the fan in. Crosby is a really good young player who could be an all time great. He may have taken a step backward this season. He missed about 6 weeks to injury, but was not the likely MVP when he went down. As far as I am concerned a poorly marketed league is good for me. Tickets are more plentiful and cheaper.

There are always lots of players worthy of recognition. I would point out Nicklas Lidstrom and Alexander Ovechkin as the top guys on that list. From a marketing standpoint they both have one clear flaw. Both are Europeans. But they are both roughly as good as Crosby is right now.

I think you have to sell hockey and hockey is a team game. Selling one player as a face of the league is disingenuous. The team aspects of the game are far too important to understand anything. Of course marketing is often about being disingenuous - which probably explains why I don't like marketing.

How would you compare him to someone like Wayne Gretzky?

Wayne Gretzky was the best player in hockey. At this point, it looks unlikely that Crosby can match what Gretzky did in his career. In Gretzky's third NHL season he scored a then record 212 points and won the MVP for the third year in a row. Gretzky scored 92 goals that season alone, which is likely greater than Crosby's point total in this season (his third). For full disclosure, Gretzky was about 7 months older than Crosby in his 3rd season and scoring was higher in Gretzky's time, but it doesn't close the gap.

Crosby could very well be one of the ten best players in NHL history if he continues to mature, but it is by no means a given that will occur. I doubt he will go down as a Gretzky, Orr, Howe, Lemieux level superstar. That would make another large leap forward (which is possible, but not something I would want to bet on).

Monday, March 10, 2008

A New Vezina Leader

Throughout this season, my Vezina selection has waffled between Roberto Luongo of the Vancouver Canucks and Tim Thomas of the Boston Bruins, but there is another goalie who has played well lately and taken the lead. He is Martin Brodeur of the New Jersey Devils. Should Brodeur win the Vezina this season, it would be his fourth Vezina win. He now has a better goals against average, a better saves percentage and more wins than either of the other two candidates. The Vezina race is a close one which involves not only those three but also Ilya Bryzgalov of the Phoenix Coyotes, Jean-Sebastien Giguere of the Anaheim Ducks and Pascal Leclaire of the Columbus Blue Jackets. Depending upon the play of the participants, it is very possible that we could have another lead change before the season ends.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Tampa Fritters Away Brad Richards

One trade that happened on trade deadline day that I have not discussed in any detail was the Tampa Bay Lightning trading Brad Richards and Johan Holmqvist to the Dallas Stars for Mike Smith, Jussi Jokinen, Jeff Halpern and a 2009 fourth found draft pick. What was unique about this trade is that unlike most trade deadline deals, Brad Richards is not a rental. Richards is signed through the end of the 2010/11 season at a relatively high $7.8 million per year salary. This makes the trade a more conventional one where the rule of thumb that the team obtaining the best player probably wins the deal. The Dallas Stars obtained the best player in Richards, so likely they won the deal.

Tampa had an interesting salary structure where their "big three" players in Vincent LeCavalier, Martin St Louis and Brad Richards made up a large portion of their expenditures (more than $20 million of the cap). They found that they were not winning in that situation. Tampa is last in the East Conference with a 26-42 record (with eight regulation ties). Therefore, many pundits concluded this system didn't work. I think that's an incorrect conclusion. The correct conclusion is that you need goaltending to compete in the NHL and Tampa doesn't have any good goalies. They had struggled this season with Johan Holmqvist, Karri Ramo and Marc Denis providing some very poor goaltending. The solution was clearly to acquire a good goaltender.

Mike Smith, who they acquired in the trade, is a goaltender. He has never proven himself to be an NHL starter and for a goalie who is soon to be 26, this is a sign that he likely isn't an elite goalie. His numbers had been pretty good in Dallas (a team that allows better than average shot quality). Since coming to Tampa, Mike Smith looks like he might be another failed Tampa goalie who isn't good enough to make a difference. He has a .894 saves percentage in his five games in Dallas, which pulls him down to a .903 saves percentage on the season. I don't think Tampa Bay solved their goaltending issues. They definitely don't have a strength in goal and they gave up Brad Richards to do it.

They also have not significantly changed their salary structure. They signed defenceman Dan Boyle to a six year contract at $6.67 million per year. They still have a big three players who make up a large percentage of their salary expenditures, except they downgraded from Richards to Boyle.

Brad Richards is a good player. He is 27 years old and has already won the Lady Byng and Conn Smythe Trophies. He is an all star level talent. He is having a poor season given his earlier track record, but remains one of the NHL's better forwards. This is possibly explained by the fact he is playing through a case of mononucleosis this season. Tampa Bay moved him and did not bring back a star player. They did not turn their goaltending into a strength. In short they made a mistake.

When you trade players who are signed for a few years, you want to get back the best player in the deal. If you do not, you will likely have made a poor trade. Tampa Bay traded a player who is a proven all star and is still in the prime years of his career. They didn't bring back anyone of his calibre. That is a mistake. It takes Tampa Bay further from being a competing team than they were before the trade.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Carolina Builds Up Southeast Lead

The Southeast Division is the worst division in the NHL. For a long time, it looked as though whichever team wins the division might not have a good enough record to qualify for the playoffs were they not a division champion. However, lately the Carolina Hurricanes have done well and might get above that mark. Carolina has won six of their last seven games at sits atop the Southeast Division with 77 points. This point total would have them in seventh in the East Conference.

Carolina holds a five point lead over the second place (in the division) Washington Capitals. It is interesting to see how each team approached the trade deadline. Carolina made a significant trade with Ottawa a couple weeks before the deadline. They gave up Cory Stillman and Mike Commodore (both free agents this summer) for Joe Corvo and Patrick Eaves (neither unrestricted free agents this summer). They got the lesser players in return, but it was not a big downgrade. It was a forward thinking move that made some concessions to this season, but did not totally write it off. Meanwhile, Washington made moves that are most concerned with winning now. They acquired Cristobal Huet from Montreal and Sergei Fedorov from Columbus. Both of those players will be unrestricted free agents this summer. However, both players came relatively cheaply. Huet cost a 2009 second round draft pick and Fedorov cost NCAA freshman Ted Ruth. Neither is likely to be important to the Capitals future. Washington made moves to win today without it costing too much future. Should Washington convince Huet to resign with them, it will turn out to be a very good move to have acquired him.

The Washington Capitals were seen as one of the more improved teams at the trade deadline and Carolina was seen as a team that took a step backwards. Nevertheless, post-deadline results have Carolina taking a step forwards and building up a sizeable lead in their division. While it is too early to have an certainty in the prediction, it looks as though Carolina will win the Southeast Division and be the only southeast team in the playoffs. Washington will be criticized for their trade deadline moves (unless they resign the players), but since neither Huet nor Fedorov were expensive acquisitions, the moves were not bad ones.

The Southeast Division has been a weak one. It would be a bit of a mockery of the NHL playoff system if the southeast champion has less points than a team that misses the playoffs. However, this looks unlikely to happen because of Carolina's good play lately. It looks like Carolina will win the division and make the playoffs and Washington, despite their trade deadline additions, will miss playoffs.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Collapsed In The Stretch Run

The St Louis Blues looked like a much improved team at the end of 2007. They were in 14th place in the league with a 19-18 record (with four losses counted as regulation ties). They looked likely to make playoffs and Andy Murray looked like a likely coach of the year (selected as coach of the most improved team). Things no longer look so good in St Louis. Since the beginning of 2008, their 10-20 record (with six regulation ties) is the worst in the NHL. It now looks that St Louis will likely miss the playoffs and there is a movement to have Andy Murray fired as coach.

The biggest change has been goaltending. Manny Legace had a very good start to the season in goal an even appeared in the All Star Game. He has not been able to keep up his top level play. More recent games have made Legace look like the journeyman goalie we expect him to be.

St Louis is exposed as a team with no real strength. They lack any gamebreaking scorers. Paul Kariya leads the team with 52 points in 67 games played. This makes him the second lowest scorer to be his team scoring leader (Mike Comrie of the New York Islanders has only 47 points). St Louis has few other offensive threats. Only Brad Boyes, Keith Tkachuk and Andy McDonald have more than 40 points. Their defence is also lacking in any elite threats. Rookie Erik Johnson may be one someday, but not yet. Eric Brewer, Barret Jackman and Jay McKee would all be solid second line defencemen, but none have played like frontline stars. When Manny Legace is no longer providing top goaltending, St Louis becomes a team with no strengths and a team with no strength is a bad team (usually worse than a team with strengths but clear weaknesses as well).

It is amazing how big the value of goaltending is in the NHL today. If a team's goaltending goes sour, they are instantly a much worse team than when the goaltending was good. Further, it is amazing how often good goaltending is interpreted as good coaching. Alain Vignealt won coach of the year last year largely because Vancouver traded for Roberto Luongo. Andy Murray looked like a coach of the year as long as Manny Legace played like an all star and as soon as that stopped some people decided Murray is the problem and should be fired. Murray is neither a coach of the year nor a coach who should be fired. Both are overreactions to goaltending.

When St Louis was sold to Dave Checketts in 2006 the previous owners had moved to reduce payroll by getting rid of their expensive stars (most prominently Chris Pronger and Pavol Demitra). They have yet to recover. In three seasons after getting rid of these players they have yet to make playoffs and don't look particularly close right now. This should be a lesson to potential owners. If you buy a team that has been gutted for financial reasons expect it to take several years before you can turn things around. It is far better to buy into a team that has not chosen to play with a minimum payroll until their sale if you have the choice.

The St Louis Blues had a solid start this season when Manny Legace's all star calibre goaltending was carrying them. Legace has regressed in goal to his more established journeyman level and St Louis has fallen in the standings. They are a team with no clear strength right now and have had the worst record in the NHL since 2008 began. This is a team that had been gutted in preparation for its sale in 2006. They have yet to recover.

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