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.