Though it was completely tangential to @SteveBurtch’s line of thinking, his brief comments pondering the competitiveness between the middle of NHL lineups yesterday (which I can’t locate now, natch) got me thinking about whether the NHL and team management has gotten any more efficient or competitive overall the last decade. With 10 years in the books for complex Corsi data, and hockey’s seeming “Moneyball moment” fully here regardless of the quibbling on social and mainstream media, is the league getting any tighter?
Most years, the NHL trade deadline is basically the equivalent of an annual Y2K party: Much Ado About Nothing. The issue comes from the underlying inertia the permeates most of the league’s landscape.
The best players almost never switch teams in their prime (Seriously, who was the last top 10 player to leave their current team? Marian Hossa?)
Even when a trade does get made, there’s often no rhyme or reason to how it plays out. Sometimes you trade your team’s top disgruntled forward and get Seth Jones. Sometimes you get Adam Larsson.
So, to give the league’s decision makers a little kick in the butt, I’ve put together a trade model that identifies the trade value of every regular NHL player and determines what would be a fair return in a trade.
“They don’t ask how. They ask how many.”
“But seriously though… how?”
To state the obvious: goal-scoring is an essential skill for a hockey team. Players have made long careers by putting the puck in the net.
But how do players create goals? Skaters rely on all sorts of skills to score; some are fast, some have a huge shot, and some know how to be in the right place for an easy tap-in. But we don’t have a rigorous view of what those skills are, how they fit together, and which players rely on which ones.
In this piece, I take 100 of the top NHL goal-scorers and apply unsupervised learning techniques to group them into specific goal scoring types. The result is a classification that buckets the scorers into 5 categories: bombers, rushers, chance makers, chaos makers, and physical forces. These can help players understand how to apply their skill set to goalscoring. It can also help teams make sure that their system is putting their top players in a position to score.
Hockey fans and analysts have always appreciated the importance of passing. But until the passing project led by Ryan Stimson, we couldn’t quantify that importance. His work supported by a team of volunteers and other analysts has established that the passing sequence prior to a shot is a significant predictor of the likelihood of the shot becoming a goal. His work also showed that measuring shots and shot assists combined as shot contributions is a better predictor of future performance for both players and teams than shots alone.
Knowing that, the logical next step is to use passing data in analysis whenever possible. Unfortunately, the NHL does not provide passing data so it must be manually tracked by people like Corey Sznajder. Corey’s work is invaluable and I encourage you to support him but he’s only one person.
This article attempts to estimate a player’s quantity of shot assists in a given sample using publicly available data to help fill in gaps where tracked data doesn’t exist.
In part 1, I laid out the basis for Weighted Points Above Average (wPAA). Now it’s time to change the baseline from average to replacement level. A lot has been written about replacement level, but I’ll try to summarize: replacement level is the performance we would expect to see from a player a team could easily sign or call up to “replace” or fill a vacancy. In theory it is the lowest tier NHL player.
Aggregate statistics in sports have always fascinated me. I might go so far as to say my need to better understand how these metrics work is one of the reasons I became interested in sports statistics in the first place. I also feel the process of developing them raises an incredible number of important questions, especially with a sport like hockey. Rarely are these questions raised in a more succinct and blunt manner than when a new aggregate stat first emerges and people see how good Oscar Klefbom is.
These questions mainly focus on how to value, weight, and interpret the various metrics that are available. For instance, should we value primary points per 60 more than relative Corsi for/against? How much more? Is there a difference? What’s the difference? Should we use some sort of feeling or intuition to determine which stats we like best? How do we address the issue of different metrics being used in conjunction to evaluate players? There have been multiple attempts to “answer” these questions (and many others) in hockey – Tom Awad’s Goal Versus Threshold (GVT), Michael Schuckers and Jim Curro’s Total Hockey Rating (THoR), Hockey Reference’s Point Shares, War-On-Ice’s (A.C. Thomas and Sam Ventura) WAR/GAR model, Dom Galamini’s HERO Charts, Dom Luszczyszyn’s Game Score, and most recently Dawson Sprigings’ WAR/GAR model… (Emmanuel Perry is also in the process of constructing a WAR model that I’m very excited about).
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?
Injuries are an inevitable part of the NHL. An 82 game schedule guarantees that all teams are going to deal with injuries during the season but not all teams deal with them equally. Quantifying the impact of injuries is difficult. The introduction of better individual player impact stats gives us some new tools with which to approach this concept. In particular, DTMAboutHeart‘s Goals Above Replacement stat seems a useful place to start because it allows for estimating how many goals above replacement a team loses while a player is injured.
How do NHL players age? When do they peak? How quickly do they decline? Questions about player aging in the NHL have been debated for years, and an incredible amount of research has already been done trying to answer these questions. Within the past 3 years, however, it seems a general consensus has been reached. Rob Vollman summarizes this quite well in his book Stat Shot: The Ultimate Guide to Hockey Analytics: “Most players hit their peak age by age 24 or 25 then decline gradually until age 30, at which point their performance can begin to tumble more noticeably with the risk of absolute collapse by age 34 or 35.”
The vast majority of this work has been done looking at points, goals, shot attempts, special teams, etc., but the release of Dawson Sprigings’ WAR (Wins Above Replacement) model gives us a new statistic from which we can derive value and, possibly, a new way to look at how NHL skaters age. It seems only natural that we’d revisit the NHL player aging question using this new model. If you’re unfamiliar with his WAR model, you can read all about it here.
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