Moneypuck: The Search for a Competitive Advantage

By the time my grandfather turned 26 years old, his beloved Montreal Canadiens had won five Stanley Cups during his lifetime and his soon-to-be favourite player of all time (la premiere etoile….numero quatre…JEAN BELIVEAU) was less than 12 months away from making his NHL debut.

By the time my father turned 26 years old, his beloved Montreal Canadiens had won twelve Stanley Cups during his lifetime, with his favourite player of all time (la premiere etoile…numero dix….GUY LAFLEUR) having retired less than 12 months prior.

Things, as the Notorious B.I.G reminded us, done changed. Five months into my 27th year, my beloved Canadiens have won two Stanley Cups in my lifetime, the most recent of which occurred a record 18 years ago, and if my favourite player of all time (la premiere etoile….numero soixante-six ….MARIO LEMIEUX) lifts the Stanley Cup over his head, he will be wearing the black and gold of the Pittsburgh Penguins instead of the Bleu, Blanc et Rouge he was born to wear.

Of all the ways the fan experience has changed for better and for worse over the past several decades (expansion, pricier tickets, higher player salaries, a severing of the relationship between town and team, High-Def TV, fantasy pools, the internationalization of the NHL, etc.), none have impacted Habs fans so much as the levelling of the NHL playing field and the subsequent need for altered expectations.

Simply put, most Habs fans understand deep-down that the days of dynastic rule over the rest of the league are over, probably for good. It has been difficult for many of us to reconcile that, however, with the sense of pride (and entitlement) that many of us feel and the notion that a Stanley Cup parade down ‘the usual route’ every couple of years is our God-given right. Reclaiming that God-given right, however, has been easier said than done…

While there were many factors that contributed to the Habs dominance during the Original Six era, arguably none were as instrumental as the NHL’s territorial rights system which gave each franchise in the league exclusive rights to top incoming players within the team’s geographic sphere of influence. With the top two Quebec-born players funnelled into the Habs system every year, the Canadiens were able to establish the greatest farm system in professional sports history and a subsequent dynasty at the professional level. The Canadiens, in other words, enjoyed a distinct competitive advantage over their rivals (notably Boston, New York and Chicago). When the territorial rights system was abolished following expansion, the Canadiens had to devise new methods to maintain their competitive advantage. While less systemic than before, the Habs were able to preserve their dynastic status due to a variety of factors, namely general manager Sam Pollock’s brilliance, shrewd drafting and trading, significant advantages in terms of revenue and resources, a strong organizational culture of winning, the Habs dominant position within French Canada and their status as the leagues undisputed ‘glamour club’. The competitive advantage, in other words, remained in place.

It could be argued, therefore, that the Habs struggles since 1986 are a direct result of an erosion of these built-in advantages and an inability to create new systemic advantages. This is probably even more true in the salary cap-era, where parity is the name of the game and every team operates on a more-or-less equal footing. While the Habs will always enjoy certain advantages (higher revenues, a rabid fan base, a certain history and aura) they, are in competitive terms, just like any other NHL team. The need for a distinct and unique advantage over other clubs, therefore, is arguably more vital than ever. With NHL teams clamouring to find whatever edge may be available to them, one possible avenue that teams should explore is an increased use in advanced statistics.

Last month marked the release of the well-received Brad Pitt movie Moneyball based on the book by Michael Lewis. Without getting into too much detail, the film explores how, under the helm of general manager Billy Beane, the small-market Oakland Athletics were able to use advanced statistical analysis to exploit market inefficiencies within Major League Baseball and compete with teams whose payrolls were exponentially larger than theirs. The central thesis of Moneyball does not revolve around any singular statistic but rather focuses on how advanced statistics were used to challenge traditional norms and assumptions regarding player productivity and provide an innovative ball-club with a unique competitive advantage in the process.

While the Oakland A’s never won a World Series under Beane, his innovative approach has spawned nothing short of a revolution in baseball – nearly every team now employs an army of fresh-faced MIT grads eager to devise the newest and best magic formula for success. The sabremetrics revolution has also led to an explosion of bookmark-worthy advanced stats websites such as Fangraphs, Baseball Reference, Baseball Prospectus and Baseball Think Factory. While fashionably later to the party, the advanced-stats revolution has also spread to the NBA (witness sites such as Hoop Data and 82 Games) and the NFL (i.e.Football Outsiders, Cold, Hard Football Facts and Smart Football ). Notably absent to this 21st Century approach to professional sports, however, has been the NHL.

While there are some excellent stats-heavy NHL websites (most notably Behind The Net) and while many NHL clubs are undoubtedly incorporating more advanced approaches to player and team evaluation, there has been no statistical revolution in hockey circles similar to the ones in the other major professional sports. Why have we yet to see the ‘Moneyballization’ of the NHL? I have four (half-baked) thoughts:

1 – Team vs. Individual Statistics: While the impacts of individual players on the flow of a baseball game are relatively easy to isolate and quantify, this is much harder to do in a fast-paced, team-sport like hockey. The impacts of, say, a rightfielder or, to a slightly lesser extent, quarterback or point guard to his team are likely easier to measure than the impacts of a fourth line grinder to his. While football and basketball are certainly as team-oriented as hockey in terms of style of play, hockey players operate in less of a relative vacuum than their peers.

2 – Random nature of hockey – Another reason that hockey has proven more difficult to quantify is the fast-paced, hectic, occasionally random nature of the sport. Tip-ins, rebounds, deflections, bad bounces, good bounces, scrums in front of the net…all of these things are key to an NHL game but difficult to isolate in the same way as, say, drawing a walk or pressuring the QB.

3 – Intangibles – On a related note, so much of a hockey player’s value is derived from impossible to measure variables such as toughness, grit, leadership, ‘clutchness’, etc. that advanced statistics will never be able to tell the entire story. Advanced stats fundamentalists grit their teeth at the notion of intangibles, arguing that such fuzzy notions are often overstated (or even non-existent) and detract from more objective analysis. While I would argue that there is a lot of truth to this, advanced statistics are unlikely to ever provide an accurate assessment of the impacts of Jonathan Toewes leadership, Sidney Crosby’s ability to come through in the clutch, PK Subban’s ‘wow’ factor or Dannie Heatley’s unrivalled ability to alienate fans and teammates. Stats can tell a large part of the story – but never the entire story.

4 – Slow to adapt – Finally, hockey’s lack of advanced statistics may not be only due to an inability to formulate effective approaches but an unwillingness. Hockey front offices remain notoriously entrenched, conservative, cautious, slow to adapt and set in their ways. The inertia and lack of innovation within the league can be startling – all the more reason, therefore, for an outside-the-box organization to try and exploit this inefficiency.

You will notice that while this entire, rambling posting has been about the lack of advanced statistics within hockey, I have not proposed a single solution. Helpful, I know. My liberal arts degree unfortunately has not left me with very many math (or life) skills (Editor’s Note – Sean can’t swim – for real). This article is therefore a little bit like someone without any economics insights offering solutions to the global financial crisis or someone with no understanding of foreign policy running for President of the United States. Easier said than done, in other words. But as a die-hard fan of the Habs, a neophyte fan of advanced statistics and someone who is curious about the future of the NHL, this strikes me as an emerging trend that fans should keep an eye out for and that front offices would be wise to adapt. Here’s hoping Pierre Gauthier is our Brad Pitt.

– Sean O’Neill

Sean O’Neill can be heard as co-host of our podcast: “The Two-Four.” Follow him on Twitter: @TheONeillFactor

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