• Sound Hockey Strategy

    by  • February 26, 2008 • Uncategorized • 3 Comments

    LoweTwo of my favourite posts I’ve written here were trade deadline posts. Last year, on a date that continues to live in infamy, Kevin Lowe traded Ryan Smyth for Robert Nilsson, dominant ECHLer Ryan O’Marra and the draft pick that turned into Alex Plante. Kevin Lowe’s money quote from that day should be on his managerial epitaph in Edmonton, whenever that’s written: “I want to be very clear that making this trade today is a hockey decision. It was not financial.”

    Pat LaForge’s money quote was good for a laugh too: “While on the one hand some Oilers fans might be distressed that this trade was made today, I want those same fans to be assured that the Oilers will use these excellent young players and our own deep pool of young talent in a new plan for this team. We can afford to spend the money necessary to have the kind of elite players expected. This was about the Oilers staying true to a plan. I know our hockey strategy is sound.”

    A year later, the faithful have seen Lowe acknowledge that he made a mistake and the Oilers run up a 30-45-6 record.  With Detroit tonight, we can probably just chalk this up as a 66 point team over the last 82 games.  Lots of fun for the fans.

    Two years ago, I touched on whether or not deadline deals were good ideas. I don’t think that the view I expressed at the time is a particularly unique one – the general view seems to be that they aren’t really worth doing. I did qualify that, though, by noting that it all depends on the situation of the team picking up the player:

    I would expect, in a rational player service market, that getting anything more than future considerations at the deadline for a player like Samsonov on a team in the Bruins situation would be driven entirely by the demand side of the equation. Presumably, people like Kevin Lowe and Darryl Sutter could go through the same process I’ve described and come up with some assessment as to how their team’s expected revenues change with the addition of someone like Samsonov. You’d then expect them to be willing to exchange anything up to the point, in revenue terms, that they would be breaking even. Given that it would be pretty easy to figure out the other guy’s situation as well, every GM should have an excellent idea of the minimum needed to offer the other guy a deal on which his team profits. It then comes down to haggling, with the upper hand going to the team that has more palatable alternatives (dealing Roloson to another team for a second rounder vs. dealing for Mika Noronen, for example).

    …I suspect that if I ran a conservative analysis on how the acquisition of Roloson changes things, I’d find that that deal makes sense financially for the Oilers. It obviously made sense for the Wild, even before they take into account the expected return on the first round pick which is just gravy for them. The investment in Roloson is costing the Oilers somewhere in the neighborhood of $367K. A key point here is that it’s a win-win deal. Many commentators try and tag a “winner” label to deals; if my proposed method of analysis is correct, it should be quite common to have deals at the deadline that both teams win and so naming a winner is foolish. The Oilers are hoping that Roloson helps them acquire wins and revenue that will come at the expense of teams other than the Wild (at this point of the season, a win is worth far more to the Oilers than it is to the Wild) while the wins and revenue that the Wild hope to acquire from the first round draft pick in addition to the savings on Roloson will be taken from the league as a whole.

    I still think that holds true. I’m starting to wonder about the conventional wisdom that there’s little point in doing these deals from the perspective of the team acquiring the players though. My suspicion is that it’s started to make more sense, for a couple of reasons.

    I saw a list in the newspaper the other day, listing something like the last ten Stanley Cup champions and the deadline deals that they made.  Generally speaking, they didn’t do a whole lot.  What I think that this sort of retrospective analysis misses though is the increased NHL parity.  Take a look at the last ten Cup winners and their goal differential, starting with Detroit in 1996-97: +56, +56, +68, +48, +78, +64, +50, +53, +34 and +50.  A single Cup winning team below +48.  Other than Detroit, it’s unlikely that any NHL team is going to make even +34 this year.  For whatever reason, the gap between the best and the worst has shrunk.

    If you looked at the East standings today (and didn’t account for the fake shootout goals), you’ve got +22, +22, -13, +15, +16, +8, -2 and +10 in the 1-8 spots.  I’ll accept from that Carolina (guess which one they are) has larger problems but for everyone else, getting a star who addresses an area of weakness could really tilt the balance.  It’s not like trying to improve 40 goal differential, it’s about improving 10 goal differential for a lot of these teams and turning any series that they might play in into a tossup.  The historic risk/reward ratio for a move like this has been altered by the parity – as the teams are so close, a big addition can tip the balance of power more than it has in the past.  In the old days, an elite team was unlikely to add a guy who was going to make them any better.  A playoff bubble team was unlikely to add a guy who’d make them much more likely to win a round.  You had to factor the large space between teams into the calculation.

    I would assume that this has a lot to do with the salary cap.  Teams can’t afford to be as deep as they once were, so they’re forced to make hard decisions.  Take Ottawa for example.  At 5 on 5 this year, they’re +145 -120.  When Jason Spezza isn’t on the ice, they’re +75 -77.  When Dany Heatley isn’t on the ice, they’re +76 -85.  Alfie is +10 at 5v5, so they don’t flail around quite as much when he isn’t on the ice but still.  Those guys are playing the hardest minutes on the team and Ottawa is a below .500 team at ES without them – that’s against a weaker than average level of opposition.

    This isn’t necessarily to criticize the Senators but they’ve clearly elected to proceed a certain way.  They’ve tied up a ton of money in their Big Three (as well as some in Redden and their backup goalie, whoever that is today) but it’s hard to criticize the resuts.  If they can sell off some future at the trade deadline to make up for their inability to field a really deep team all year long, I don’t know that that’s necessarily a poor decision, given the constraints imposed by the salary cap.  Like anything else, it requires understanding your team’s strengths and weaknesses pretty well (the Owen Nolan to TO trade was a classic example of not understanding this in my mind) but for Ottawa, it’s pretty obvious that the weakness is depth.  They have Cory Stillman in the fold up front already and might still be in the running for Marian Hossa.  Given where Ottawa’s pick is likely to be, I can certainly see an argument for making a move to upgrade the second line and find some guys who can eat soft minutes.

    If you want to really compete for the Cup, I think that you’re essentially obliged to do this if you don’t have a bunch of young guys  who give you great bang for the dollar, like the 05-06 Oilers or 06-07 Ducks.  At some point, someone is going to hit big on one of these moves.  Which will of course up the pressure for everyone to pull off moves the following year.

    *   *   *

    David Staples wrote the following on his blog today as a sort of response to my guest bit over at the Battle of Alberta:

    It gives me some pause that Garon is only coming into his own this year at age 30. But NHL goalies appear to peak at an older age than other NHL players, and they’re near peak years often run into their mid-30s, which makes them better bets than other more injury-prone NHLers of that age.

    When you look at NHL goalies this year, 11 of the top 20 in save percentage are 30 years and older, and 13 out of the 20 in wins are 30 years and older.

    So Garon is a good bet. Signing him to a three or four year deal is a better idea than trading him, because in the final few years of that contract, when Garon is 32, 33 and 34, the Oilers could well be a playoff team and a Stanley Cup contender.

    I don’t particularly think that the logic follows here, even before we get to the suggestion that the Oilers could be a Stanley Cup contender by 2009-10.  While I’ll take David’s word that old goalies dominate (slightly) the save percentage and win rankings, the key thing to me is the churn.  I’d like to know how many goalies who’ve been league averagish or worse until 30 suddenly turn into stars.  As someone who’s spent a lot of time pouring over goalie stats, I would guess that the answer isn’t that many.  The good ones tend to reveal themselves before that point.  The guy who’s currently at the top of the save percentage chart has certainly mixed in some bad years and moments with his good ones.  Everyone else has good years and bad years.  Time will tell if this was a good year for Garon but if he posts a .910 in 60 games next year, the Oilers aren’t coming near the playoffs and people will be talking about how he looks like Toskala if the lighting is right.

    I also found his rejection of my point about Dan Haren and Nick Swisher to be less than compelling.  He wrote:

    Swisher and Haren are excellent young veterans and they will help some baseball team win over the next four or five seasons. They are good long term bets. But there was no way that Beane could hope to sign Haren and Swisher because baseball has no salary cap, and teams like New York and Boston spend three or four times more on player salaries than Beane’s Oakland Athletics.

    Swisher was already signed when the A’s dealt him, through 2011, for $26.75MM, with a $10MM option for 2012.  The A’s could afford that – it was a pretty cheap deal.  Dan Haren was signed for another two years at $9.5MM in total, with a $6.75MM club option for 2010.  The point that I made when I wrote my bit over at Battle of Alberta was that Beane made the move he made to shift the wins those players represent to a point when the A’s are more likely to be competitive.  I stand by that – they could have afforded those players now but it would have been money poorly spent because they don’t have enough other talent.


    3 Responses to Sound Hockey Strategy

    1. Bruce
      February 26, 2008 at

      I’d like to know how many goalies who’ve been league averagish or worse until 30 suddenly turn into stars.

      Well I don’t think I’d choose the word “suddenly”, but Garon, Roloson, Huet, Thomas, and Conklin** all fill the bill. And there’s a few others who turned in to star-ters around 30, like Legace, Gerber, Mason …

      (** – I remain to be convinced, but Ty’s been outstanding for two solid months in Pittsburgh)

    2. dubya
      February 26, 2008 at

      OK, but Huet has comparable stats, more track record, and cost a 2nd round pick.

      Would you really trade Garon for a 2nd/3rd round draft pick? What are the odds that would help us more than Garon might over the next 5 years?

    3. March 16, 2008 at

      I honestly think I want to be married to a pro athlete. I love sports and have loved sports my entire life. I’m not one of those girls who just watches basketball, football or baseball because she is trying to impress her man. I truly love sports and would prefer to be married to an athlete.

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