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