I’m genuinely curious to find out what comes out of this weekend’s MIT Sloan Analytics Sports Conference in the field of hockey analytics. In the second year of the panel’s existence at the six-year old sports analytics conference, Brian Burke will appear alongside Peter Chiarelli.
I look at Chiarelli and Burke and how they’ve constructed their respective Boston Bruin and Toronto Maple Leaf teams and can’t help but think that the Bruins are the team that Burke strives his Leafs to become. He made headlines and ledes when he was introduced as the new General Manager for the Leafs talking about the four qualities a Leaf player needs to succeed: “pugnacity, testosterone, truculence and belligerence.”
Nearly four years later, the Leafs are younger but just a touch closer to the playoffs than they were when he took over. There’s a lot of turnover on the roster, but the unfortunate deals that Burke gave to players like Colby Armstrong, Mike Komisarek and Joffrey Lupul—Burke’s guys—have handicapped the rest of the roster and don’t leave a lot of wiggle room for the Leafs to add players, an unfortunate reality of a bad contract handed out under today’s salary cap.
After a promising start this year, of course, the Leafs’ poor goaltending caught up to unsustainable shooting and the team now hangs onto just a slim glimmer of hope for the postseason.
I’ll use Colby Armstrong as the example. Armstrong is a guy who drops his gloves, who hits, who skates hard and competes. He works in the tough areas, gets his nose dirty, and is one of those guys that “you’d go to war with”. But is he worth $3M on a hockey team? Similarly, Mike Komisarek is tough and punishing, and no player really wants to go into the corner with him, but he has limited ability to move the play forward and hadn’t displayed a large amount of all-star calibre play since Burke signed him to all-star money with a $4.5M cap hit.
We are, in effect, looking at third line and third pairing players. Gritty or no, Burke’s guys or no, those aren’t the players you want your team to dish a lot of dollars to and expect to be successful.
The reason I bring up MIT is because, in looking over video of last year’s conference, I was listening to Chicago Blackhawks’ general manager Stan Bowman discuss a system the Blackhawks used when Bowman joined the hockey operations department. It was a simple tool to chart out the coach’s player rating for a player over the course of a game on a scale of 1-to-5.
Well, Bowman pointed out, the ratings provided by the coach, tallied up after every game, never matched reality. A coach’s subjective bias, he explained, benefit the third line players and the players who were closer to replacement level. Those players ratings were “unfairly propped up because the expectations for that player are much lower.”
For a grinder, “he’s expected to go out on the ice and create energy,” Bowman continued. “That player can probably do the job to the coach’s liking without a doubt as long as the effort’s there.”
But for a scorer, things are more different. While any scrub with a strong set of shoulders and good skating ability can go out, bang and crash and get the crowd into the game, a scorer requires a different skill-set. The best scorers and players in the game will usually benefit from three or four scoring chances a night and six or seven shot attempts. When you consider that a fraction of those chances or attempts hit the back of the net, you can find that a grinder is more likely to do his job than the scorer.
“You can’t necessarily score every game, no matter how hard you try.”
Bowman’s solution to this problem was to ask the coaches exactly what they liked to see out of a certain player. Bowman admitted there are now scouts studying every Blackhawks game from above the ice and the video who chart certain events that take place over the course of a game. You can keep the subjective system and see if it matches with objective reality.
Whatever comes out this week from the mouth of Chiarelli ought to be something. For sure he will talk about the importance of hard working players and maximizing their value through effort, but Chiarelli holds an ace in the hole. He has a collection of scorers that is nearly unmatched: only him and the Bowman-led Blackhawks had 10 players with at least 10 goals at even strength last season. While a lot of credit is given to the Bruins for their toughness and goaltending, they really do have impressive depth up front.
What, for example, led the Bruins to think that Rich Peverley could help their team better than Blake Wheeler, or to believe that they could get significant player value out of Chris Kelly? On draft day 2010, the Bruins pulled off the biggest trade of their upcoming season, shipping Dennis Wideman and a pair of picks for Nathan Horton and Gregory Campbell. While Campbell is a tough minutes checker, he also was counted among last year’s 10-goal scorers. Horton filled in as one of the Bruins’ most key offensive pieces (and you can see how much the team misses him as he sits out with a concussion) and scored 20 even strength goals last year at a salary cap cost of just $4M.
Analytics aren’t necessarily used to separate the star players from the pack, but a few extra notes in the margin can give your team seven or eight 10-goal scorers rather than five or six. Finding a cheaper 20-goal alternative opens up space to pay a little extra money for a third line player who can score as well as compete hard every night. Those little differences can add up to extra wins in the standings when all is said and done, when you’re investing resources in a player like Peverley over Armstrong, even if the players appear to bring similar effort to the table every night.
So will Chiarelli drop anything important at the conference that Burke will pick up upon when it comes time to re-do his roster sans Armstrong, Lupul or Komisarek? All three are expensive players, easily replaceable (don’t let Lupul’s 66-point season fool you. He gives it back at the other end of the ice rather frequently) with the right approach.
Of course, the other difference between Boston and Toronto is that Boston got a .937 even strength save percentage from their goalies last year while Toronto got a .916, and this year the gap has widened. But Toronto’s goaltending is a topic for another day.