Sooner or later, it all comes back to Moneyball.

Sportswriting has a lot of famous books, but for the most part they’re famous for style. The Game is full of brilliant observations about hockey and hockey players, but its reputation rests on the artistry of the expression. Which is to say, it interested everyone who loves hockey, but it didn’t really change the way anyone thought about hockey.

Moneyball, though, is a truly seminal sports book. Perhaps the only truly seminal sports book. Like The Origin of Species or Orientalism, it was a game-changer in its field. It precipitated a massive shift in the way the average journalist and the common fan think and talk about the games they love. It ignited debates that we are still debating nine years after its publication. Love it or hate it, you cannot but respect the scope of its impact.

But what is especially fascinating about the book is that it makes two distinct arguments, which sync up neatly in the case of Billy Beane but are not always so harmonious. The first argument is that evaluation of teams and players should be done rationally and objectively, mostly by means of statistical analysis. This is the major thrust of Lewis’s narrative, the part he embroiders the most aggressively, painting Beane as nothing less than an Enlightenment philosophe leading benighted baseball men out of the Dark Ages. But the other, less grandiose argument is that shrewd managers should first and foremost pursue market inefficiencies. Now, in Beane’s case, other teams’ reluctance to consider advanced stats was the inefficiency, but such is not necessarily always the case. Superstitions distort the market in all sorts of ways; over-reliance on boxcar stats is only one of them.

In fact, as more and more NHL front offices begin considering and even manipulating advanced stats in their personnel decisions, a knowledge of Corsi and PDO becomes less of an edge and more of a basic requirement. We know that Boston and Vancouver are already highly stats-literate, and it seems quite likely that Detroit and San Jose are as well. I’ve heard speculation about half a dozen others, although given managers’ notorious reluctance to explain the actual motivations behind their decisions, it can be hard to know for sure. But the point stands: objective metrics are on the rise in the NHL, and increasingly the players they isolate are no longer undervalued or underappreciated. The statistical inefficiencies in hockey have always been more marginal than they were in baseball- you’re not going to find an overlooked guy in the AHL who turns out to be a plausible second-line scoring forward- and they’re only becoming narrower. Good possession players, nowadays, are mostly known for what they are and appreciated accordingly. A hockey GM in search of inefficiencies has to look to other areas.

Which brings me, as so many things do these days, to the LA Kings.

Every season, as the Cup final approaches, analysts look to the teams that have gone far this year for clues about the best way to build a winning roster. Every year, we come up with models. The Boston Model, much like the Anaheim Model: Be big, be aggressive, be intimidating. The Pittsburgh Model, much like the Chicago Model: tank for picks, then build around your young, cheap stars. The Carolina Model: Do absolutely nothing sensible and get lucky with your goaltending. The Detroit Model: Just somehow manage to do pretty much everything perfectly, possibly through the use of the Dark Arts.

Although the Cup has not been won yet, LA’s miraculous postseason run already has us scrambling to define their model. Hell, even if they lose, this is a team that went from long-shot eighth seed to lock-up-your-daughters juggernaut in a matter of weeks. Everybody wants some of whatever they’re having.

Much of the analysis so far has focused, quite rightly, on LA’s drafting ability. The Kings have twelve players that they drafted and developed themselves, making them a largely freestanding organization. But as advice to other GMs goes, ‘built through the draft’ is a bit problematic. It’s very easy to say ‘draft well’, but outside of the top round, nobody has really unlocked the secrets of good drafting yet. There are some good general principles- take forwards high, defensemen low, don’t go off the board in the top-ten- but there’s a ton of luck involved still. Detroit has been getting credit for being a great drafting team for years on the strength of picking up Zetterberg and Datsyuk in the bottom rounds, but even they can’t replicate that trick.

What interests me about the Kings is not who they draft, but who they trade for. The Kings have eight players acquired through trade, and four of those players occupy high positions on the team: Penner, Carter, Richards, and Williams. After homegrown talents Dustin Brown and Anze Kopitar, they’re the four highest-scoring forwards in the Kings’ playoff run. These aren’t ‘supporting cast’, they’re capable top-six guys, playing the positions that every team in the League needs an extra body for and very few franchises are willing to trade away. There are probably 25 franchises in the NHL perpetually in search of a plausible top-six guy or two. There should be a lot of competition for such players. LA managed to acquire four of them in three years.

Why? Because three of them had personality conflicts with their previous team. Richard and Carter had conflicts with their coach over their off-ice lifestyle, which the media pounced on and blew up into a storm of fan outrage. Penner had conflicts with his coach over his character- not competitive enough, not fit enough- that made him the butt of endless jokes and contemptuous asides in Edmonton. All three got caught on the wrong end of personality-driven narratives that made their relationship with their previous team tense, unhappy, and ultimately untenable. If they had played their good Canadian boy cards right, if they had said the right things and charmed the reporters, it’s unlikely that any of the three would have come up for trade (okay, maybe Penner, the Oilers being what they are).

Lombardi’s pursuit of such players exemplifies two of the most valuable qualities in a GM: opportunism and disregard for superstition. The kind of ‘bad make up’ problems that Carter, Richards, and Penner were accused of on their former teams were likely off-putting to some traditionally-minded GMs. There are managers who will not participate in the market for such players, no matter how good their performance is or how reasonable the price. The bidding for them is softer, making them easier to acquire for less of a return. By waiting for these kinds of opportunities to come up- team in a hurry to move a high-end guy out of an emotionally tense situation, other teams skittish because of character anxieties- Lombardi is exploiting a market inefficiency. He’s giving himself the best possible chance of getting a valuable piece at a reasonable exchange rate. Consider that he picked up Williams when his value was depressed by injury concerns, and Lombari’s sense of timing and lack of sentimentality are doubly impressive.

Personality may well be one of the greatest inefficiencies remaining in hockey. As well as leading to undervaluations, such as described above, it also leads to overvaluations. On the UFA market, guys like Chris Drury and Mike Komisarek have benefited tremendously from the perception that they were character guys with terrific attitudes. A similar process of overvaluation will likely hit Zach Parise and Jordan Staal, should they ever come onto the open market. There are NHL GMs who love bloodlines and character so much that they will gladly pay extra for it, in salary or trade. A guy who is great on the ice and great in the room will always be difficult and expensive to land. Great on the ice and questionable in the room, though, can be surprisingly affordable.

Comments (35)

  1. He also brought in Willie Mitchell after his concussion, who has been possibly the best defensive player on the team this season and a huge benefit in the locker room by all accounts.

    • Great point. Willie Mitchell has had a huge impact on this team. He was Vancouver’s best defenseman…. and now he is the King’s…. all because the Vancouver coaches, GM and media deemed him worthless just because he missed 1/3 of a season with a concussion. I live in Vancouver and listened to the idiots on their sports radio station 1040 talk about how Willie hadn’t lived up to his expectations and how he wasn’t making an impact (when in fact he just injured). Great news for the Kings, and one of Lombardi’s best moves. It worked out especially well for the Kings in this post season because the first big challenge in Vancouver was a lot easier since Vancouver was lacking in this same position that the kings now excel at.
      Willie might be the best penalty killer in the league also… and he costs much less than Vancouver’s highest paid defensemen!!

      • Nice story, except it’s not true. The Canucks certainly didn’t see Mitchell as worthless: they offered him a contract, but were understandably nervous about signing him for longer than one year due to the uncertainty surrounding his concussion. The Kings were apparently the only team in the league to offer him a 2-year deal.

        While the Kings should certainly be credited for taking a chance on Mitchell returning to full health, saying that the Canucks “deemed him worthless” is completely off base. Yes, some media members might have said that, but don’t confuse what the media say for what the organization believes and does.

        • Agreed. This is a far more reasonable and proper description of how Vancouver’s management viewed Mitchell.

  2. Not to take away from some salient points made here, but you can’t write about Carter, Richards or Penner without mentioning money. Lombardi traded for two of the 10 longest deals in the NHL and Penner’s contract was a straight albatross.

    The character narrative is fine and all, but Carter/Richards were equally big risks because their deals cost $127 million combined. Not a lot of GMs were willing to choke that down; Lombardi was, and he’s still gotta pay Quick.

    Of note, I think the character thing is totally overblown, because in the same breath you can say Carter, Richards and Penner all went to a Cup finals (Penner won), and that playoff experience has been invaluable to the Kings’ run (under the umbrella of veteran presence/grizzled experience/knows-what-it-takes-to-win-ability, etc. etc.)

    • But the money thing HAS been covered, well: http://blogs.thescore.com/nhl/2012/05/28/the-flexible-elephant/

      It’s clear, that making a move to drop a contract like those is not nearly as hard as we seem to be led to believe. If it can be done by both NYR and Philly as well as Chicago and CBJ (involving one of the players Philly moved) than a deal can be made, when necessary. And yes, the deals were risky, but the REASON teams soured on those deals is because of CLEAR personality issues. At least, that’s the narrative the teams clearly pushed after the trades in question.

      True? Maybe. Maybe not. But if a team is giving up on a player THAT good, that they were willing to pay that much money to (who’s not in a clear decline)? There’s got to be a reason. And given Carter’s behavior in Columbus when the season fell apart? Who’s to say some that’s not really true?

      Frankly, Lombardi convinced himself that the things that were being said were unimportant. What WAS important was beefing up what was clearly an already-talented team with MORE talent.

      Was he right? I think three more wins validates that. Banners ARE forever. Even if they DON’T get those three wins, he was, arguably, right.

      Character may more may not be overblown, but it is OFTEN overrated.

    • How was the Penner contract an albatross? Whether he played up to his potential at $4.25mil or not, he’s off the books at the end of this season.

    • Penner’s deal an albatross? It had far less than two years left on it when he was dealt…

  3. Lombardi clearly uses a ‘Moneyball’ approach. He even admits it. Williams, Carter, Richards, Penner etc. all looked like good pickups by the underlying numbers. It’s far better to go with that strategy than to be influenced by media-driven controversies, which are generally pretty dumb.

  4. “Much of the analysis so far has focused, quite rightly, on LA’s drafting ability. The Kings have twelve players that they drafted and developed themselves, making them a largely freestanding organization. But as advice to other GMs goes, ‘built through the draft’ is a bit problematic. It’s very easy to say ‘draft well’, but outside of the top round, nobody has really unlocked the secrets of good drafting yet.”

    More than ability actually it was brute force. Over Dean Lombardi’s rebuilding years (let’s call them ’06-’09) he accumulated more draft picks than any other team in the NHL with 38 (also note that 2009 they entered the draft with 14 picks but traded down to 10). In addition to that Lombardi has signed 14 undrafted free agents (8 of whom have gone on to see time in the NHL). So maybe the secret to good drafting is draft a lot?

    • Defending Big D would like to argue with you about Quantity over Quality: http://www.defendingbigd.com/2012/5/17/3026596/2012-nhl-draft-dissecting-the-dallas-stars-draft-history-part-2

      I don’t know the Kings’ draft strategy in-depth (or Dallas’ that matter), but just saying “MOAR Picks” isn’t necessarily the way to go, any more than continuously grabbing the highest possible pick or biggest name free-agent.

      • a difference from the Kings and the point being made in that article is that the Kings didn’t give up their high first round picks to accumulate more later round picks. They accumulated picks mainly by trading away veterans.

    • good point. there were 2 or more that didn’t make the kings team for every one that did. king’s also put their faith in character players… brown, kopitar, williams, mitchell (acquired by trade) through thick and thin.

    • Islanders have had 8 of their 9 picks from the forth round or later in 08 & 09 already play in the NHL and the only one who hasn’t (Anders Lee) is one of the top power forwards in the NCAA. Some of it is opportunities being there because of the Isles record but it cannot cover the success completely. Matt Donovan has turned in to a high D prospect. Poulin is a high G prospect. Matt Martin led the league in hits last year. Spurgeon looks to be a top 4 D in Minnesota for a while to come. Cizikas seems to be a good middle six center. That is way too much sucess to be luck.

  5. LMFAO – you say the character thing is overblown and I say the character thing is overblown but for some GMS (and lots of fans) its not at all. We see it all the time.

    Contracts did play a role in this as well although the Penner contract only had a year left on it and for a guy who scored 25-30 goals a year on the Oilers that’s not so bad I think. Sure he had a bad year but he was hurt and going through a divorce.

    Anyways you just have to see the contracts guys like Colby Armstrong and Ben Eager get to see that ‘character’ and ‘grit’ count for a lot more than they should.

  6. I certainly get where you’re going with this, and in terms of Carter and Richards I pretty much agree, but I’m not so sure about Penner. Penner arrived in LA at the deadline last year and it’s only very recently that he’s actually started to be of any use at all. It took some pretty major changes in Penner’s personal life before he started living up to his potential. Six months ago, everyone thought the Oilers got the better end of that trade. Maybe it’s the same with Carter and Richards. Happy players make good players, and for whatever reason, LA’s found a way to help these guys get happy.

  7. Lombardi and Hextall were both part of the Flyers organization when Carter and Richards were drafted (both are now GM and assistant GM with the Kings). Lombardi has been quoted as saying that he used to drive Carter to practice or camp in his first year in the league.

    He’s had a personal relationship with these players and knows far more about them than anyone in the public. Although he did take a chance, I think in his mind the risks were minimal.

  8. This risk of searching for patterns (or models) where there are none is that it becomes pathologically obsessive and self-serving…(apophenia.)

    That having been said, Lombardi was a whisker away from (probable) termination when he hired Darryl Sutter (the missing piece?) He had been throwing money, somewhat haphazardly, at (what were supposed to be) elite scorers, with no discernable result, and had finally risked all in firing Terry Murray and hiring (the presumably “old school”) Sutter.

    Let’s not forget that Lombardi also threw money at (the perpetually injured) Simon Gagne, and had openly talked of making Dustin Brown available to the market (a shrewd motivational ploy? no.) – He was damned serious about it, at the time.

    Hindsight is always anecdotal at best – What happened to the Bruins, these playoffs?

    Did losing Michael Ryder to free-agency and Nathan Horton to concussion really impact their complexion that profoundly? Or, was does it fall upon the ever-elusive intangible of “chemistry” and the supposed discord sown by Tim Thomas’ behavior, that was part of their undoing?

    It’s always seemingly easy to herald the obviousness of one’s analyses; ex post facto – And yet, the truth remains that one cannot anticipate a “perfect storm” of favorable circumstances that will inexorably drive an organization to a championship – One can acknowledge a sound groundwork for probable success, then sit back and marvel at what (in retrospect) appeared inevitable, once such a storm has run its’ course.

    Exploiting so-called market inefficiencies seems brilliant, only if such “inefficiencies” truly exist – Quite often (however) one man’s trash is another man’s rubbish, as well.

    All too frequently, “hitting them where they ain’t” finds a lot of air and nothing more.

    • This is a part of an ongoing plan of mine to figure out the best core principles of effective GMing. LA is a case study that suggests to me that not giving too much weight to ‘character issues’ could well be one such principle, but I’m open to reconsidering it as further evidence presents itself.

    • And giving that much money and term to Jack Johnson, while it worked out in nabbing Carter, was a horrible, horrible move at the time.

  9. This is the first of Ellen’s articles I actually could read all the way through. Very interesting and well done.

  10. i would also add that NONE of this worked without the right coach – and maybe that’s the most important thing lombardi did. you can collect all the right pieces but until they’re all willing to listen and buy into a leader and his systems, it isn’t going to work.

    lotta people questioned the sutter hire. we’ll know in a few days if he made the right call.

    • i’d say he already made the right call. the kings season has been a huge success already. a great turnaround from a team that wasn’t quite where it should have been… and it was taking too long, arguably….

  11. The Sharks have had both success and disaster with the same approach. Joe Thornton was clearly such a case – young talent at odds with ownership/management. But on the negative side, Danny Heatley’s situation could be described in the same way.

    It’s always a risk.

  12. To wit, L.A. Kings Director of Amateur Scouting Mark Yanneti.

    “[Beyond] viewing and judging talent [...] what [do] scouts do that people may not realize?

    Judging character…and not just the good old all-american boy whom you’d want your daughter to marry. Many times the things that make you a fierce competitor, single-minded and, especially, a winner, are not the traits of a good citizen. [...S]ome of the players I’d want in the playoffs would not pass people’s or society’s test. it’s all about figuring out which flaws can be overcome and which cannot be overcome – and which you can live with.

    Sometimes the best talent doesn’t equal the best player – actually quite often.

    [...The] toughest part [...] is projections [...]. [E]ven though player A will be better than player B, there are circumstances where I will choose player B because of intangibles – such as taking a hard, nasty physical defenseman over a more skilled wing because the defenseman are harder to find [...].”

    http://www.jewelsfromthecrown.com/2011/6/14/2224391/quote-of-the-day-many-things-that-make-you-a-fierce-competitor-and-a

    • Thanks for sharing that link. Opinions about which ‘intangibles’ matter and how do vary in hockey, and sometimes many of us- including myself- fall into the trap of assuming most GMs value the same character traits that the most vocal media members do. Good to be reminded that that isn’t always the case.

      • Thought it fit in nicely with your premise that flawed (off-ice) characters can sometimes be undervalued. That, and the fact it was a Kings scout making that observation which further supports your story. Some teams can try to be too family friendly at their detriment.

  13. Maybe someone will get a bargain with Semin. Russians will be the new market inefficiency.
    Penner is definitely getting overpaid. A lot of these narratives get driven by luck and because we focus so much attention on playoff play.

  14. ” you’re not going to find an overlooked guy in the AHL who turns out to be a plausible second-line scoring forward”

    Isles found two: Matt Moulson & PA Parenteau. Even if you want to argue that their numbers were helped by Tavares they are still plausible top 6 guys (at least).

    • Matt Moulson also came from the kings. One of the fish they lost… although it appears now, that maybe they were just fine without him.

  15. See Toronto Blue Jays

    Case points Brett Lawrie, Yunel Escobar and Colby Rasmus. All perceived as toxic in the clubhouse or not receptive to coaching staff or out right fought with the coaches. All fantastic players the Jays got for much less then the would actually cost if they had good reputations.

  16. About bloodlines though…when thinking of bloodlines it is also the GM trying to be financially responsible but also rolling the dice on that player.

    A good example of this is minor-leaguer Bourque (Ray’s kid) getting traded to Boston. Having him in a B’s uniform will help sell seats and merchandise. At 27 yrs old, he’s a bust.

    • Bourque isn’t a bust, he’s an exceptionally skilled player who is 5’8”, the chances of him making the NHL as a regular were slim to start with.

  17. Yup, drafting is the key. Draft and develop. What good are Penner, Richards, Carter, without Kopitar, Doughty, Quick, and Brown? Just guys who make you better, but no way a contender.

    Every single team in your analysis is stocked at the top, in the core of the team, with draft picks, guys who bleed home team colours. Every year it’s the same, you need guys who leave nothing behind every game, and 99% of those guys are draft picks, guys you drafted. It doesn’t mean drafting makes you a winner because 20 other teams do it too, but one of those 20 will win it all. Before the playoffs started I counted out any team built on trades and FA’s, I do it every year, and I never finish lower than 3rd in a playoff pool.

    You fill your core with solid drafted guys, you have a chance for the Cup. Don’t, and never win. Don’t need advanced stats to figure that out.

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