Thursday, January 17, 2013

Hockey Prospectus - Regular Column

Yesterday I was offered to write a regular column for Hockey Prospectus, and of course I said yes. The subject of the column will be projections and analysis geared for a fantasy hockey perspective. I'll talk about strategy, waiver-wire pickups, and schedule analysis.

Here is the first column in what will hopefully be a successful series:

Friday, November 30, 2012

How To Fix The Lockout In Five Minutes

I recently had the chance to debate the NHL Lockout in a class for graduate school. I found myself referencing the article I wrote for Hockey Prospectus a while ago, and then I thought that honestly, what I wrote back then continues to shape the current lockout. I believe the picture is startlingly clear. This lockout is not a difficult problem, it's not a necessary problem. Both sides are looking to score a major win. That's why this is taking so long to resolve. If they were truly interested in playing, I believe the solution to this lockout would take five minutes tops to draw out.

Let's first compare this to the 2004-05 NHL lockout, which was one of necessity. The league needed to implement some kind of salary cap system to control the skyrocketing salaries of the large market teams. The NHL said as much, that that lockout was one to make sure hockey could even continue to exist as a business. For the large part, the public bought it, and yes, Bob Goodenow's stall tactics cost us a season, but, in the end, the deal they agreed to was by and large a major win for both sides.

Think about that for a second. The players love to tell you that they took major concessions back in 2004-05, and that those concessions hurt them so much that they shouldn't have to give anything this time around. I think you'd be hard pressed to find a player who hasn't enjoyed life under the current deal, as hockey players are still being paid at all-time highs, thanks to revenues that continue to increase, and a system that ties the cap to revenues. 

The only downside for the players in 2004-05 was missing an entire season (salary they'll never regain). I think they're making that same mistake again. I don't buy the talk about the 24% rollback being reason why the players are broke, in shambles, etc. A lot of them were out of contract in the 2004 offseason anyway (remember all the huge free agent deals that were signed when the lockout ended?).

I've had the pleasure to study at Temple University under Dr. Aubrey Kent, who has written a recent article for the Montreal Gazette that spells it out clearer than I ever could.

I've had several discussions with Dr. Kent about this topic because it's something that we both are quite passionate about. We both agree that once again, revenue sharing is the key. This lockout is not about players vs. owners, it's about big owners vs. small owners (or at least, it should be).

Think about this: let's pretend that the players agree to a 47% share with no modifications to the current revenue sharing system, salary cap system, or anything else. For the first season under this deal, sure, the cap (and floor) will come down to reflect that new number. But as revenues keep increasing, the cap is going to keep increasing. Eventually, it will get higher than the $70.2 million than it is now. But the real issue is that the floor will keep increasing as well! This is problematic because the big market teams (the ones that spend to the cap) are the same teams who are driving revenue growth in the first place. This forces the small market teams to spend to a floor that is increasing by no fault of their own.

Sure, owners have 53% of the money under this scenario, but without better revenue sharing, what owners have that money? Not the owners who need it to meet the floor requirement. This is how unhealthy franchises are formed, and this is why we have lockouts. As Dr. Kent says, "The cap goes up as a result of revenue growth - but revenue is driven disproportionately by the top teams. So when the floor is dragged up, other teams get put in a money losing situation."

This is what claims the NHL to say the system isn't working. This is why Gary Bettman imposes a gag order on owners, by the way. There are some that want to play now because the system works great for them, and there are others that need a new system to survive (Then there's Jeremy Jacobs, who appears to be driving the lockout but theoretically should love the current system). 

Negotiations are all about leverage, and if each owner got to speak their mind, the NHL would appear less united than they'd like. This is the NHL's problem, and it's easily solvable:

- Improve revenue sharing. This is so mind-blowingly simple. When Gary Bettman called revenue sharing a "distraction" a few months ago, I couldn't believe it. The NHL shared about $150 million of a $3.3 billion revenue stream, and it continues to restrict shares to the teams that need it most (see my HP article). This is the single biggest reason why we are where we are. 4.5% of revenue sharing is not enough. Baseball shares about 30%, the NFL shares nearly everything. Get rid of the restrictions and start sharing more money to the teams that need it the most.

Now you might be thinking, if the NHL revolutionizes revenue sharing, won't Jeremy Jacobs and other big market owners have a massive problem with that? If the league truly prioritized that in the public, wouldn't we see owner factions developing? Probably. So let's compensate the big market teams:

- Allow trading of cap space. What's the inherent advantage of a big market team? The ability to spend more money. So, under this system, let's allow them to do so (with the understanding that bringing in more stars = more revenue = more sharing). This will allow teams to keep their big-market advantage on the ice, and allow for the possibility to make more off of it. It also doesn't tinker with unhealthy adjustments to the floor/ceiling system. It keeps the overall money spent on salaries the same, it just allows the teams who can do so to actually do so. So, yes, the big market teams are going to share more money, but they also might make more with a better lineup, allowing for their net profit to be equal in the end.

Do I think that both sides would agree to a provision like this? Probably not, because again, they seem to be out for blood, rather than be truly interested in an agreement. I pitched this idea to Dr. Kent and he told me it would never work because it "makes too much sense." That's a great way to put it. The two sides aren't interested in a deal that makes sense, they're interested in a deal that's a major win for their side.

I think like a realist though. I want hockey to be healthy and I want it to thrive. That's not going to change with a five-year deal that only modifies player contracting rights and the players' share. You can change that however you want, it's not going to affect the financial health of the game and all 30 franchises. The only thing that will is better revenue sharing.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Hockey Prospectus Essay

Haven't had much time to write here since I have returned to school to finish my undergrad degree. In the interim, I did write an essay that Hockey Prospectus published. It's on the next CBA and how revenue sharing must help small market teams more efficiently than it does now. You can check it out here:

Thanks to Timo Seppa, Tom Awad, Rob Vollman, and everyone at HP for making this happen! I couldn't be more excited about the opportunity and hope to contribute more content down the road.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Twitter Was Made For Hockey Talk

I had a great talk on Twitter with former Ranger beat writer and current Sporting News writer Jesse Spector about advanced hockey statistics. Being a huge proponent of advanced stats, and a guy who loves to talk hockey in general, I jumped right in and overloaded Jesse with tweets. Since Twitter is pretty tough for explaining things in detail, I'll try to expand on the discussion here.

It started with this tweet from Jesse:

Here's an expansion of how I responded to Jesse on Twitter:

Relative Corsi, of course, measures the difference in shot differential when a player is on the ice vs. when he isn't. This allows us to see who really makes their team's shot differential better, and who makes it worse. Brent Burns' current mark of 33.2 (at 5 on 5) leads the league among all skaters who have played at least 10 games. The next closest is Colin Wilson at 26.8, so Burns is in fact obliterating the NHL in this stat. 

Burns' on-ice Corsi is 26.93, and his off-ice Corsi is -6.28. This means that, when Brent Burns is on the bench, San Jose (a team who outshoots opponents by 4.7 a game) is a negative shot differential team. This tells us one of two things: Brent Burns is either incredible (he is) or San Jose gets an insane boost from their power play to assist in their shot differential. Without having specific shots for and against numbers with the man advantage, I'd have to guess it's a solid mixture of both.

However, as I mentioned to Jesse, when we combine this stat with Burns' offensive zone start percentage of 58.8%, the picture becomes slightly clearer. Burns starts nearly 60% of the time in the offensive zone. This, by definition, means that we should expect a positive shot differential if Burns is doing his job. It's difficult for opponents to rack up shots when the puck is starting 200 feet away from their net. Regardless, Burns' figure is still very high and very impressive. He excels at what he does: moving the puck, generating shots, keeping possession, and being a stud defenseman for the Sharks.

I then compared Burns to Ryan Nugent-Hopkins as an example. RNH has an even higher O-Zone start percentage: 71.3%. Based on the great start to his season, we'd expect him to have good Corsi numbers too, right? Turns out that he has a -6.02 Corsi and only a 2.5 relative Corsi. This tells us that A) Edmonton is a bad possession team 2) RNH can thank the power play for his production. There is some blame for his teammates, but overall, RNH should have a stronger gross Corsi number given the amount of time he starts in the offensive zone.

Jesse wrote this tweet shortly after:

I wrote a great deal of tweets responding to this one. Here's how I'd answer the question:

The stat referenced is Relative Corsi Quality of Competition. The title is a bit misleading - this stat measures the relative Corsi of Player A's opponents while Player A is on the ice.

Let's use Joe Pavelski as the example. Pavelski has a league-leading CorsiRelQoC, which means that  he is constantly being matched against strong opponents who are putting up high relative Corsi numbers. 

Here's the most important part: because relative Corsi is used, this doesn't mean that Pavelski's opponents are dominating him in shot differential. It just means that the opponents' relative Corsi is higher. It's possible, if not common for low shot differential teams, to have a negative gross Corsi and a positive relative Corsi. Therefore, Pavelski could still be holding opponents to a negative shot differential---that number could just be "less negative" for that opponent than it typically is. This means that Joe Pavelski is facing the toughest competition in the league, the players most likely to increase their team's shot differential to a number more positive than it typically is.

CorsiRelQoC doesn't tell us much about Pavelski's performance, because we don't know anything about his own Corsi. All we know from this stat is that he faces the toughest competition in the league. CorsiRelQoC tells us his role. Based on the fact that the Sharks and Rangers have the top 5 players in this stat, it tells us that those teams give these players heavy minutes against the opponent's top players, and stick to those rigid, line-matching systems. However, to get any insight into performance, we need to look at the players' own Corsi numbers.

Sure enough, Pavelski has a strong relative Corsi of 11.3, which I think is extremely impressive given the competition he plays against. These two stats, combined, summarize that Joe Pavelski logs minutes against the opposition's best players (more so than any other player in the NHL), and yet he still maintains a double digit relative Corsi. 

This is especially impressive because, by definition, Pavelski's teammates are playing against weaker competition than he is. Pavelski's off-ice Corsi is 1.33, and his on-ice Corsi is 12.67, meaning that Joe does roughly 9.5 times better than his teammates do, all while facing much tougher competition than those teammates.

I brought up Michael Frolik on Twitter as an example of the opposite. Frolik's CorsiRelQoC is 6th in the league, meaning he plays against the 6th best competition in the league. His relative Corsi, meanwhile, is -8.5. Since Frolik is playing against incredibly strong competition, it's okay to expect him to have weak gross Corsi numbers--he is, after all, playing against the best, and having a on-ice Corsi of -0.80 is holding water. 

While the situation is not dire, however, his team has strong shot numbers when Frolik is on the bench---they're a much worse shot differential team with Frolik on the ice. This tells me that Frolik isn't capable of these types of minutes. The Blackhawks would be better served decreasing his ice time against the strong competition he's been seeing. This is especially considering that his offensive zone start is only slightly below 50%. It's not like Frolik is constantly logging defensive zone minutes, or is a defensive specialist. 

Again, maintaining a on-ice Corsi number around 0 (or slightly below it, in Frolik's case) against this type of competition is not horrendous--many players would be below zero. However, given the extremely negative relative Corsi, I believe the Blackhawks have better players elsewhere to handle these types of minutes.

In my opinion, this also highlights how strong of a season Pavelski and similarly situated players such as Nicklas Lidstrom, Joe Thornton, Ales Hemsky (when healthy), and Radim Vrbata are having. These players are all in the top 14 of CorsiRelQoC, yet they all maintain double-digit relative Corsis. That tells me that these players are rising above that strong competition, unlike Frolik, and excelling no matter who is on the ice against them, relative to their teammates, who are facing weaker opponents. That's a quality to admire, and a quality that we can detect through these advanced stats.

Monday, November 21, 2011

The Wild Are Best In The Standings, And Nowhere Else

NOTE: Before you read this entry, read this.

One thing that always amuses me in sport is the overreaction to early season standings. A second thing that amuses me is the reliance and pervasion of flawed statistics that don't really tell us anything. Today, I'm going to do my best to combat both.

PDO is one of the most simplistic advanced stats and also one of the most useful. It's hockey's equivalent of BABIP, for those who know sabermetrics in baseball. With great accuracy, we can use PDO to predict regression and progression, both for teams and for players.

The Wild are not a good team. This was evident last season when they struggled to generate shots and score goals. The "retooling" of the team this season was done at the expense of two of their top three players in offensive GVT (Martin Havlat and Brent Burns). Adding Dany Heatley and Devin Setoguchi certainly will help you on offense, but not by much if you have to give up two of your three best scoring assets to do so. Needless to say, I predicted the Wild to finish bottom five in the league, and Hockey Prospectus actually predicted them to finish 30th.

Yet, on November 21, the Wild are atop the league standings. Enjoy it while you can, St. Paul, because it's not going to last. A cursory look at the stats shows that the Wild currently are getting outshot by 5.6 shots/game. That mark ranks 27th in the league, and if you've read my previous entry, you'd know how important shot differential is.

We can further expand on this concept through PDO, and by doing so, we can see with more clarity just how lucky the Wild have been this season. (Note: I have seen PDO defined as both the sum of save percentage and shooting percentage in all situations, as well as just even strength. I am choosing to use the all situation numbers here because they are easier to acquire.)

Here's the data I've compiled:

In sports, the most important factor in any skill, streak, or metric is sustainability. We want to know if a player's career year was a fluke, or if he can sustain it. We want to know if a team's breakout season was sustainable. PDO can help us tell what's sustainable and what isn't. We can expect most teams and players' PDO ratings to come back to the league average of 100 over time. Thus, we can expect Minnesota to regress.

However, to form a league average of 100, some teams need to stay above the average, and some need to remain below. Not everyone will end up at 100 at the end of the season. It's entirely possible that Minnesota could continue to get lucky, maintain a high PDO, and make the playoffs this season. We saw this happen last year with Anaheim, who maintained a 101.6 PDO throughout the season, made the playoffs, lost in the first round, and have since regressed to a bottom-level team as we would have expected.

I don't think sustainability is likely with the Wild. I would expect them to regress sooner rather than later. Here's what stands out to me:

1. Save Percentage
The Wild currently lead the league in this metric behind Josh Harding's .945 and Niklas Backstrom's .935. Somewhat ironically, both of their career marks are an identical .918. We would be foolish to expect the Wild goalies to keep this run up, especially considering Minnesota has allowed the fourth most shots this season--the barrage of shots that Backstrom and Harding face is bound to turn against them at some point.

2. Shooting Percentage
Minnesota's slightly subpar 8% shooting percentage is about what we'd expect, because they simply don't have above-average offensive players. They also don't generate enough shots to overcome their lack of skill. 

3. Shot Differential
That shot differential is a killer. In the case of Anaheim last season, they had the goaltending to overcome the nights when their shooting percentage wasn't absurdly high. Minnesota doesn't have the offensive fallback when their goaltending inevitably falters, in my opinion.

Expanding on this concept, compare the Wild to the Bruins, the team just ahead of them in the PDO "race."  Boston has 69 more shots than the Wild this season, and their shot differential is +4.3/game (compare that to Minnesota's -5.6/game). Boston has the ability to outshoot opponents, keeping games in their favor. Minnesota doesn't.

Of course, I don't think Boston will shoot 11 percent all season, but they take enough raw shots on goal to compensate for this anomaly. They're still going to score a high gross number of goals when their shooting percentage comes down. Minnesota won't.

Similarly, Boston has allowed 120 less shots than the Wild, so if and when their save percentage crumbles, it won't affect them as badly as it will the Wild, because Boston's gross number of goals allowed will also be lower. That's why I believe Boston's PDO is more sustainable and less a complete product of luck than Minnesota's.

The Wild have all the factors of regression about them: a poor shot differential, poor gross shots for/against numbers, a high PDO, and an overall roster that simply doesn't impress me. These things will combine to hurt Minnesota very quickly, and why I still don't see them in the playoffs, despite this start.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Transaction Reaction: Letestu to Columbus

Normally, a trade as minor as this one wouldn't receive a full write-up on this blog, but I have a free minute and the deal was between the two teams I've watched more than any other, so here goes:

Columbus needs more players like Letestu. Let me also add that ever since I wrote a post defending Mason, he's been horrendous. But still, the reason Columbus is 2-11-1 instead of 5-7-1 is because they aren't getting secondary scoring, they have injuries, their defense is lost at (most) times, and their depth forwards don't do the things Pittsburgh's depth forwards do.

Want to know the reason Pittsburgh is an elite team without Crosby and Malkin? It's because their forward core is ridiculously deep. Letestu is the kind of player who you can get for cheap that can help you win games. He wins faceoffs, has incredible offensive awareness for a player of his role, and generally won't hurt you with stupid penalties or poor positioning.

This is probably a set-up for a bigger move, even though Scott Howson says it isn't, because Columbus has center depth like they've never had in the history of the franchise, and they'd be dumb to just sit on that when they have so many holes elsewhere. Every hockey writer in the business can start speculating about a Derick Brassard trade now. Truth be told, if they give Letestu his minutes, they aren't going to be losing much in the short term. Letestu can play, and he's cheap. Pittsburgh just has about 14 forwards better than he. Most teams don't.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Transaction Reaction: Panthers/Canucks Trade

A huge deal occurred tonight between familiar trading partners, as the Canucks and Panthers made an intriguing swap. As we all know by now, Vancouver shipped Mikael Samuelsson and Marco Sturm to Florida for David Booth, Steven Reinprecht, and a third round pick in 2013.

When the deal first broke, many hockey people I follow on Twitter questioned the deal from a Florida perspective, and I can understand that viewpoint. Booth is the "name" commodity in the deal, and generally, in a trade, whoever gets the best player "wins the deal." I'm not here to analyze who wins the deal, I'm here to analyze the deal from the frame of reference of Mike Gillis and Dale Tallon. Each is qualified and intelligent; neither would make a deal that they didn't benefit from in some way.

Here's what I believe each GM was thinking when they pulled the trigger on the year's first major trade:

Vancouver Canucks:
The trade is perhaps more easily understood from the Vancouver perspective. The Canucks are a team desperately in need of secondary scoring (outside of the Sedin twins). Booth fits the type of player that they need. He's going to play alongside Kesler, who he played with as a kid growing up in Michigan, and he should fit nicely alongside the former Buckeye. Mason Raymond is still battling injury, and he's an RFA after this season--it might not be necessary to gamble on him now that Vancouver has Booth locked up for three years after this one.

Booth has often been regarded as an up-and-coming player, but he simply hasn't been the same after the crushing Mike Richards hit that concussed him in 2009-10. His 2008-09 season was a great one and earned him the current deal he has now which carries a $4.25 million cap hit. That's a contract I wouldn't have a problem giving to a 60 point scorer in his mid-20s, but the thing is, I'm not sure Booth is that anymore. 

He had a terrible season last year, his first full one since the concussion, and that's even if you ignore his -31 rating, which I will, for reasons discussed on this blog. (It's important to note that Booth's PDO was only about 96 last season, the direct cause for his -31.) Regardless, the thinking is escaping Florida and giving him a change of scenery/a competitive environment should ignite him. Mike Gillis can hope. If he doesn't rebound, he's stuck with a $4.25 million hit and no longer has the contracts of Samuelsson and Sturm coming off the books after this season.

Many people wonder why Florida would give up on him this easily, and I'll address that, but from the Vancouver side, they can afford to take the gamble on Booth. Florida can't. That's the difference. It's also why Steven Reinprecht was included in this deal, as I'll also get to in the Florida section.

As with any move, there are the obvious benefits, and the subtle ones that really make or break the deal.  Most of the Florida benefits fall under the subtle side, however, Vancouver has one of note: the 2013 third-round pick they acquired was actually their own pick, originally traded to Florida for Chris Higgins last season. 

What does this mean? It gives them the freedom to potentially sign a big name 2013 restricted free agent to an offer sheet if they wanted to, as you need to have your own picks as potential compensation. Your list of 2013 RFAs? Among others: Lucic, Hall, Seguin, Pietrangelo, Hornqvist, Wheeler, Marchand, Bogosian, Skinner, Shattenkirk, Eberle. RFA offer sheets might be regarded as taboo today, but in two years, who knows? Getting that flexibility to potentially make a franchise-changing move qualifies as a no-brainer for Gillis. It might also be a fallback option if Booth flops and Vancouver has to buy him out and/or add the secondary scoring they presumably will still be looking for in 2013 should Booth not work out.

Regardless, the opportunity to take an affordable gamble (for them) on a potential 60 point player who's in his prime (age-wise), while giving up a package that upside-wise isn't comparable has to qualify as a good trade for Vancouver. It's clear why Mike Gillis made this move. 

Florida Panthers
It's also clear why Dale Tallon made this move, albeit harder to figure. Let's think about Dale Tallon's reign as Florida Panther GM. Committed to reshaping the franchise, at the deadline last year, Tallon cleared out the bulk of the team to any and all buyers, receiving only expiring contracts in return. It's almost as if Tallon did not care whatsoever what kind of team he sent out on the ice in March and April of last season, as long as their deals came off the books July 1, 2011. Those expiring contracts gave Tallon the roster space, and to a lesser extent, cap space, to shape the team as he desired. That resulted in the big free agent frenzy this summer, and also this trade.

It's clear that Tallon did not think that David Booth was part of the Panthers core. There were rumors of Booth being shopped last season, so it didn't surprise me one bit he was moved. If you're Dale Tallon, what can you reasonably get for Booth? He hasn't been the same player since his concussion, and in the Crosby/Savard/Mueller aftermath, Tallon isn't going to convince anyone otherwise. At the same time, he doesn't want to pay a player $4.25 million a year if he doesn't believe in him being part of the franchise's future. So a trade is a given.

But what can you get in return? No team is going to give up an appreciable young asset for the reasons I described above. Tallon's only option was to make another expiring contract trade. If he could have gotten young talent that he liked in exchange for Booth, he definitely would have. GMs make the best trades they can make when a situation like this comes up. It's like the Dany Heatley trade from Ottawa to San Jose--Bryan Murray admitted he didn't think he was getting the better of the deal from a raw player-for-player evaluation, but it was simply the best offer he had received. This offer from Vancouver was undoubtedly the type of deal Florida would have had to make, and it helps them in several other ways too.

1) They no longer have to pay Booth. Like I said, he clearly wasn't fitting into their core. This is still a team that's a few years away. If Booth didn't fit into those plans in two years, it makes no sense to keep him around now. Plus, even in the small sample size of this season, Kris Versteeg and Tomas Fleischmann look better than Booth, who had been pushed to second line duty.

2) They no longer have to pay Reinprecht. I guarantee you that this was the key point of the deal for Tallon. Florida is a team that can't afford to stash salaries in the minors. With Steven Reinprecht down in San Antonio, that's essentially $2.175 million of literal wasted money for Florida (his cap hit is slightly less, but in this instance, raw salary is the number that matters). Without question, Tallon insisted that if he was going to take perceived lesser talent back for Booth, the other team had to take Reinprecht's salary with him. Vancouver can stash Reinprecht in the AHL, where his cap hit won't count and his paycheck won't matter. That latter statement doesn't apply to Florida and it's extremely important for a small-market team like the Panthers.

3) They get two expiring contracts while still staying above the floor for this season. I can see this being the pattern for Tallon. He's finding creative ways to maintain and build a young core while complying with the salary cap floor. I can see him acquiring a few more contracts like Samuelsson's and Sturm's this season if the team doesn't contend, and quite honestly, I doubt it will. I could even see him trading a few of the big names he signed this offseason for players with expiring contracts if the team falls out of it. Don't count this out, by the way. It makes total sense.

4) They get a player who can potentially help them this year. I'm not as sold on this fact as the Panthers president appears to be, but still, Samuelsson can play. He's a big body who doesn't always play big, but still, he's scored 50 points in back-to-back seasons and isn't a totally worthless throwaway. He doesn't play defense and is unlikely to gain consideration to be re-signed next year, but you could do a lot worse if you were trying to trade for a player solely because his deal expires in the off-season. I'm disregarding Sturm from this classification because he's done and is solely a throw-in.


An all-around fascinating move, and another great example of a trade that has more underlying explanations than "player A is better than player B." Both teams knew just what they were doing and what they were getting. Vancouver gets the potential top 6 forward they need. Florida gets more cap flexibility on their rebuilding path and sheds a huge contract they clearly didn't believe in anymore. In my opinion, a good trade for both sides once the respective goals are understood.