Who You Calling Weak? Draft Class Variance

This year’s NHL draft class is weak. I don’t follow junior prospects closely, but that’s what I’ve heard from more knowledgeable sources. It’s a fair claim; Nolan Patrick and Nico Hischier seem talented but not among the game-changing talents that have recently been drafted first overall.

However, it’s harder to judge the draft class past the very top. Scouting is hard, especially for hundreds of prospects across the world. It’s possible that while there is no clear star in the draft class, the rest of the draft is as strong as ever.

That would have big implications for draft strategy. The conventional wisdom is that teams may trade more picks this year because they believe the weak draft class makes the picks less valuable. But if the draft is typical after the first few picks, that would be a poor use of assets.

We don’t yet know how well this year’s draft class will do in the NHL. But, we can use historical data to ask questions that establish expectations: how well does each draft class typically perform, and how much does this vary by year?

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Friday Quick Graphs: Points Per Goal

In my last post, I based some work on The Numbers Game by Chris Anderson and David Sally. It was a fun book about analytics in soccer even though I do not have much of a background in soccer. There was one other section of the book I found particularly applicable to hockey. They created a few charts on the expected number of points a team gets depending on how many goals they score in that game. I went through every regular season game from 2007 – 2016 to produce the below version for the NHL:

Plot 1 - PPG Overall

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Strong and Weak Links: Talent Distribution within Teams

In the salary cap world, hockey is a game of resource allocation. Each team is given a set amount of money to acquire players. Consequently, hockey inevitably becomes about tradeoffs. When building a team, every dollar spent on one player is a dollar that can’t be used for another. There are certainly times when you can get a bargain, but you will always have to make decisions about spending priorities.

One frequent prioritization question is high-end quality vs. depth. How much should a team focus on the very top of its lineup vs. ensuring it has adequate depth? Should a team maximize its strengths or minimize its weaknesses?

This question is relevant to many front office decisions. The Bruins traded Tyler Seguin for several assets, and some argued that the Penguins should do the same with Evgeni Malkin to improve their depth. As Steven Stamkos approached free agency, many teams were deciding just how much they would be willing to pay him while knowing that signing him would inevitably come at a cost lower down the roster.

We can think through these tradeoffs by studying talent distribution within a team. If you hold total talent constant, is it better to have a team where everyone is equally talented, or one where a few elite players are trying to shelter a few terrible ones? We know from current Florida Panthers consultant Moneypuck that contending teams have at least one elite player, but to my knowledge, very little work has been done on the broader question of total team structure. This article mirrors my presentation at the Vancouver Hockey Analytics Conference 2017, at which I dug into talent inequality within teams to demonstrate:

  • Hockey is a strong link game, i.e., the team with the best player usually wins
  • Therefore, teams should prioritize acquiring the very best elite talent, even at the cost of having weaker depth than opponents
  • This is important for roster construction now and has the potential to become even more important as teams get better at assessing talent and market inefficiencies become less common

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There’s No Secret to Protecting a Lead

I was born into a family of Islander fans, so I never had a chance to avoid the sadness that comes with that fandom. While Islander fans are sad for a lot of reasons, one constant complaint over the past several years has been their inability to protect a lead.

However, this is not a unique complaint of Islander fans alone. Fans of other teams have similar gripes. For example, the Leafs have been criticized this season on the same grounds. And here’s fellow Hockey Graphs write Asmae when I suggested doing some research on blown leads:

image-0-asmae

So, are some teams particularly bad at holding leads? Asked another way, is keeping a lead a skill distinct from the rest of the team’s performance, or is it just a function of the team’s overall skill and luck?

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25 Games In, What Does the Corsi Say?

Happy Max Corsi Productivity Day! We’ve reached the point in the season where Corsi best predicts future winning percentage. There’s plenty of more advanced ways to better predict how the rest of the season will go, but Corsi offers a simple baseline in a way that helps explain why it is so important.  I’ll first explain what that means and why it matters, then take a look at how we can use it to predict basic shifts in the standings for the rest of the NHL season.

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Neutral Zone Playing Styles

Player A is a sniper. Player B is a playmaker. Quick: If the two of them get a 2-on-1 break, what do you expect each of them to do? Odds are you would expect the playmaker to pass and the sniper to shoot. You may not know how good each of these players is, but the monikers give you a rough idea of this player’s relative strengths and how they generally try to succeed.

We have plenty of different names that explain a player’s general “role”. We use words like sniper, dangler, two-way player, and power forwards (even if we can’t agree on what that last one actually means). However, these names are usually limited to the offensive zone. We have no easy way to describe what a player does in the neutral zone.

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Entry Generation and Suppression

Intro

Hockey analysts have repeatedly shown the value of neutral zone play. If a player performs well in the neutral zone, he or she is helping generate offense for their team and limiting the opponent’s chances. In addition, neutral zone play is repeatable, and the player is likely to continue to drive possession for their team. If you can identify players who thrive in the neutral zone, you are in a position to help your team improve.

But while neutral zone play is important, we still have a very limited understanding of it. Between the distance from the goal, the fluidity of play, and the relative scarcity of data, most people don’t know how players perform in the middle third of the ice. Furthermore, we don’t even have a complete idea of how to make those evaluations. When figuring out how good a player is in the neutral zone, should offense and defense be evaluated separately, or are overall results enough? What skills translate to strong neutral zone play? What playing styles?

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