Tuesday, August 30, 2005

The Two Million Dollar Man

I'm pretty excited about all this, so forgive me if I get a bit fanboyish here. Whew. I want to thank Mike, of course, and Chris, for facilitating this by being "busy" with a "job" or something. And, of course, Gordie Howe.

Anyway, I was doing some thinking, and after drunkenly muttering about this to Chris last night in the wake of some probably wild trade rumours (Oil picking up Kozlov and White for Rita, Cross and a pick), I've come to the conclusion that, in the new NHL, paying big money for just about anybody (except a goalie, but more on that later) is almost entirely asinine. For one seven-million-dollar, first-line winger you acquire, you're basically giving up three perfectly talented second-liners for about 2mil a piece, and increasing the number of washed-up veterans/unproven AHLers you're stocking on your bottom lines for $450,000 per. Now, if hockey were a game like basketball, where one player is more often than not the difference between being a playoff team and not being a playoff team (think Iverson, who has carried Philly more or less single-handedly for years, or the difference Shaq made to LA when he left, or Lebron to the Cavs, etc), this wouldn't be a problem, but in a game where even your best defenceman isn't going to play more than half the game, tops, sacrificing depth is done at your own peril--it's like signing one ace pitcher and a bullpen full of slo-pitch machines and expecting to win in softball. Except, of course, for the goalie, who can and usually does spell the difference between what is good and what is bad, as evidenced by Buffalo with Hasek or the Rangers, who never did anything after Richter lost a step in the mid-90s, despite their acres of hired guns.

The relevance of this to the Oilers, of course, comes in the form of the unending stream of fans screaming about our need for a top-line centre, or scorer in general (for honesty sake, here, I should point out that I suscribed to this line myself a while ago, and while it might be the best bet for the current squad, it's foolish in the long run, but I'll get to that). Fans, it seems, are still stuck in the old model, where there was no reason not to always go for the best player, so long as you could afford him, since it wouldn't affect your depth, if your wallet was fat enough. It's time, though, for a different approach: successful teams in other leagues with salary caps rarely employ the equivalent of one-shot wonders. Instead, it takes a balanced approach that stresses all-around quality: the Patriots have done better in the NFL than the Colts, who focused only on offense, or the Ravens, who stress all-star defence--even though both other teams have had some success, it hasn't been as good or as consistent as the Pats (a couple championships in, what, three or four years?).

Consider that, for Jarome Iginla (7mil), you could have, say, Daniel Briere (1.9mil), Michel Handzus (2.1mil) and Mark Recchi (2.3mil), all of whom scored at least 55 points last season (65, 58 and 75, respectively). Add the fact that, while one guy/line/defensive pairing can key on Iginla, you can spread the other three out over two (or three) lines, decreasing the effectiveness of matchup. And, you know, if Iginla goes down, your hooped, whereas if, say, Recchi goes down, you still have two 60-point guys on your top line and the PP.

Just because I had some time on my hands, I went looking through the NHL for players who make between 1.5 and 2.5mil to build a team. To make it a bit harder on myself, I tried to limit it to people who were either free agents this season or last, or have been the subject of credible/conceivable trade rumours (in other words, could be readily available to teams that wanted them). I came up with some pretty interesting things.


Whitney Handzus Recchi
York Nedved Amonte
Friesen Lindros


Brewer Sopel
Berard White

For that line-up (basically two-thirds of a team), it cost me 23.9 mil. The only forward on the list who had less than 35 points is Lindros, who played less than 40 games last season--the rest averaged about 45 or so. The defencemen are a little on the offensive side--Berard and Sopel both had more than 40 points, but neither is especially adept in their own zone--but Brewer is a fine two-way guy and White is an epitomical net-clearing bruiser who also plays pretty smart (only 96 PIMs). On top of that, this is an experienced but not ag├ęd group: most of them are late-20s/early-30s, either entering or slightly tailing off of their prime.

Now, if we wanted to get optimistic here, we could also add, say, Daniel Briere, (1.9mil, 65pts), Marco Sturm (2 mil, 41 pts), and Brad Stuart (1.9mil, 39pts, +9), giving us three totally solid lines with one extra, five top-three defencemen and a payroll of only 29.7mil. If, say, we were a team like the Oilers who were aiming at a 34-35mil payroll, that's enough to sign a decent (2.5-3mil) goalie and have about 2.5 mil left for the remaining four or five roster spots, easily filled by cheap rookies/veterans for near minimum (or, you know, spike Sturm and sign four 1mil guys, keeping with our strategy).

What you're left with is a team that is basically injury-proof, can throw three lines capable of consistently scoring on the ice (and as such has a built-in safety net against veterans passing their prime or inevitable slumps) and has enough cap space to go acquire whatever it is they need to get them over the hump if the time comes (like, say, a sniper for a Cup run or a big-name D-man). Consdering that even one 7mil player would essentially wipe out an entire line, or defensive pairing, or cap space, and thus expose a weakness, signing franchise players looks sort of suspect.

Now, of course, there are problems with this system: for starters, it would probably take several years just to build a team of this quality (although the Bruins, who had virtually no one under contract, could have done something like this instead of shooting money at Thorton, Leetch et al, ending up with Brad Isbister as a projected second-liner). That said, teams like Phoenix, who will be terrible this year, and San Jose, who won't, have the ability to do things like this; both have upwards of ten players signed for money between one and 2.5mil, and could easily add even four or five more over the next few years. On top of that, though, you probably couldn't just be content with signing UFAs and trading--you'd likely need to raid RFAs, something teams seem pretty lax to do. Regardless, considering the relatively small cost for these 2mil guys (a second-rounder for anyone between 1-2mil and a first- and third-rounder for anyone 2-3mil, I believe), it's nothing a team couldn't forfeit once or twice without too many ill effects.

So, yeah, anyway, perhaps I'm slightly misjudging hockey as a game, but the fans screaming for top-tier talent, and the GMs signing them to huge contracts, seem pretty short-sighted to me, given what can be had for modest prices and some foresight.


mike w said...

Thanks Dave.

Yeah, I don't know where I stand. Obviously blowing $10 million on Peca and Pronger wasn't very wise. And yet, I can't quite say I entirely agree either. I like the Iginla signing, for instance.

I agree that it's a matter of balance, but I think it goes both ways. I think every NHL team can probably get away (and often does) with a fourth line of AHLers, but on the opposite end, I'm not sure if they can get away with having SOME high-end talent upfront. Without Iginla half of those 2004 playoff goals wouldn't have been scored. It's kind of like watching the mid-90s pre-Weight/Arnott Oilers, completely helpless since no matter how hard they worked, their lack of talent got them in the end.

Watching NHL network lately, hockey reminds me of bridge building. Three to four passes/plays are needed to make a goal, and a player has to be fast and smart enough to be in the right place and finish the play. There are hundreds of plays in a game, most of them broken, and I think the margin of success is so slim that you need players that are truly high end to make things happen.

And I guess there's less measurable things, like the player's role on a team. With Pronger, we get many of the needs we were looking for: a puck-mover, some more grit, and someone to play the point on the powerplay, plus he can play megaminutes. He does some things maybe two Brewers can't do (here's hoping).

When we talk about points, what kind of points? Quality points? Points on a highly talented team that scored a lot?

Whitney's points (which weren't enough) are worth his defensive liabilities and almost 2/3 of Recchi's came on the Poweplay. Amonte is just a goal scorer, and a fading one at that.
It's the same problem with the Rangers teams of the past years: compared to Iginla, these players would have no defined roles.

Pleasure Motors said...

Just a thought about roles (I'll get a real post going later, though it's pretty slow these days):

I'm not sure finding players for "roles" is such a great idea. I mean, obviously, you have to have some general idea of what kind of players you have when you're building/coaching a team, but I think the whole "we need [insert type of player here]" isn't necessarily the way to go, especially in a situation where resources are limited.

For instance, the Oilers got someone like Isbister because he was a big, strong, supposedly talented winger; a prototypical power forward. Because he fit this particular "role" that we felt we needed, he got overplayed, and was given, in my opinion, way too many chances to try and succeed. Despite his incredibly minimal returns, he was always given a shot, mostly because the Oilers just didn't have a player to fit the perceived role.

Likewise, one could look at Team Canada: in the past, especially the '90s, teams were generally built with a thought to "roles": you needed your two scoring lines, your checking line, your energy line, your puck-moving defencemen, your net-clearing defencemen, etc. The Nagano team, for instance (as Chris pointed out to me last night), was essentially the epitome of what a hockey team should look like: Adam Foote, Mike Peca and all. And it failed rather miserably. Conversely, the 2002 team was built more on a model something like what I'm advocating: they picked what they thought were the most talented players and went with it. Despite the fact the "checking line" was Iginla, Lindros and Smyth, neither of whom is known for their defensive prowess, we were still able to shut teams down, and we won a gold medal for it.

Anyway, aside from that, I generally agree with your points, Mike, though I'm really not as convinced that you need a high-end guy to be successful (outside of a goalie, of course). Most players get somewhere near the points they deserve to get (with the exception of a few floater PP specialists, like Bondra) and, especially in today's NHL, there aren't a lot of people who are riding coattails to especially inflated scores. The one place this might stick, and I was going to mention this in my post but forget, is that a big-ticket defenceman might turn out to be worth more than a 2/3 guy, just through the sheer number of minutes played--an elite guy who plays 30 minutes (Pronger) basically means you could have a lawn chair as your sixth d-man, since he'll only see five minutes of ice a game. I could see the argument being made for an elite winger, too, but I don't think it's a fair comparison, given the different roles: an elite defenceman who only gets 25 points is still actively shutting down the other team's stars and keeping a goal a game off of the scoreboard, whereas an elite forward who only gets 45 points is pretty much just taking up space, cap or otherwise, unless he also happens to be a world-class checker, which few of the forwards getting paid franchise money (Iginla, Thorton, Lecavilier, Jagr, Yashin, etc) are. Meh.

Whole lotta Rosie said...

Sorry, had this earlier, but got wrapped up watching Dawn of the Dead play out in New Orleans

First of all, let's give Pleasure Motors a big thumbs-up coveredinoil salute for verve and thoroughness, but unfortunately I must take issue.

You mention that goaltenders are the key factor, whereas I would argue that the guys who have the ability to score a hat-trick or two late-game goals against said goalies are the real game breakers in this NHL or at least the NHL of the last five years.
Lots of middling goalies have succeeded, but how many 40 goal scorers are there.
They say scoring is on the rise, so let's leave that alone.

My opinion maybe married to the mythic, but has there ever been Stanley Cup winning team that didn't have at least one big-time player strap the team on his back and carry them through to a few tough wins.
Even among the recent losers there is Kariya in Anaheim, Iginla and Kiprusoff in Calgary, can't remember Carolina that well, Hasek in Buffulo.

Sure, I think we're all intrigued by the idea of a team of 20-goal scorers.
Your theory is based, I feel, on the seldom realized idea of third and fourth line scoring.
Basically, if 1-6 on each side match up then a better 7-12 is going to mow over the opposition's low rent meatheads who swim a weak player pool.
Perhaps, but under the Pleasure Motors system the corresponding 1-6 do not match up. You're matching No. 1 versus a league-wide No. 4-ish. No. 2 versus 5, etc.
Handzus against Iginla isn't no matchup at all.

All the really "deep" teams that hove ever succeeded, have been deep behind a handful of superstar players.
Or, like the repeating Stanley Cup champs offenders (Colorado, Detroit, Dallas) from the last ten years have been holding tanks of superstars (one through 6 are arguably No 1 or No. 2 guys on any team.

The Flames and Lightning are both meticulously crafted teams, with well-defined roles from uberstar to 9th forward. Even the Devils have had their 30- and 40-goal guys.

Plus don't discount the idea of superstar, and that superstars excell in the superstar role.
Petr Nedved became the obvious No. 1 guy in Edmonton and scored 5G and 15P in 16 games after scoring 31 pts in 65 games with the Rangers.

Think of Salt Lake and how unbalanced that Canadian team appeared heading in. They had basically the same lineup as teams in previous years (arguably younger), but my impression was that the 2002 team was more stylized in the role-fashion than previous editions.
I thought the 1990s teams were just Ranger-esque piles of "top guys" who, it was assumed would succeed by their godly annointed talent.
In 2002, they let Maltby and Draper be Maltby and Draper, and sold Iginla on not being a top-line guy, but like Hell Iginla will do the same in Turin.
The Olympic team is an extreme example, and therefore probably can't be translated directly to the NHL, but I'd say that it works against your point.

All this considered, I think the idea is absolutely do-able and could be very successful, yet very hard to do right.

To deal with a stable of thoroughbreds, in a salary capped league the difference might be management (i.e. coaching/gm salaries that aren't counted against the cap). Sutter in Calgary didn't do a whole lot inititally but changed the mentallity, and now is managing his incredibly deep team very well.

The Patriots, arguably, are so succesful because they get very good players at each position to play for less than they are worth on the open market because the Pats gaurantee success, and hats off to their coaching staff for keeping this together. But then again, Bill Belichick is a genuis.