Currently I'm reading the brilliant book Soccernomics, which examines some previous history and possible future trends from a variety of non-performance angles. I'm currently up to the part which talks about upgrading a club, the factors which play into it and how to exploit the inefficiencies of the system for maximum gain. Within the same vein as the Billy Beane-focused book Moneyball (which I haven't read), this area of Soccernomics looks at how certain soccer figures have taken different approaches at talent acquisition and what worked for them. So does looking at the world of hockey with this eye produce similar successes for those willing to invest in it? Or, more to the point, would it?
Two of the figures mentioned in Soccernomics' section of the transfer market are Brian Clough and Peter Taylor. While those names are familiar to some since they are the focus of the recent (and excellent) film The Damned United, the fact remained they had an excellent working relationship. Clough coached the hell out of his teams, winning championships in England and Europe. The benefit was that Taylor as personnel director (or a GM, if you will) would shrewdly acquire assets on the cheap, which could then be incorporated into the system where they could flourish. Perhaps more importantly, he also followed three rules when it came to acquiring and selling talent:
- Be as eager to trade away players as you would be to trade for others. Above all else Taylor would never let moss gather on rolling stones. In Taylor's book (which the authors liberally cite), he says, " Son, the first time we can replace you with a better player, we'll do it without blinking an eyelid...If we see a better player than you but don't [acquire] him, then we're frauds." George McPhee has said multiple times that he wants the Capitals to contend for the Cup for several years, which I presume would include making an unpopular choice about moving a popular asset. Gould Old Days crystallized this philosophy in a recent comment (that I'm too lazy to find). Paraphrasing, he said that looking at the roster, if there is an available player you can bring in that will be an improvement over the player you have in that position now, examine the risks and cap ramifications and make the decision.
- When it comes to aging players, trade your scorers, keep your defense. One of the common strategies by Arsenal's Arsene Wenger is to transfer/trade their top scorers on or around their 30th birthday. The goal of this is to gain a premium on the transfer to bring in multiple components within the team that can help them elsewhere. But additionally, seeing forwards/attacking midfielders exerting more effort by running to and chasing after soccer balls lended itself to having the player wear done much more and at an earlier age, whereas a defender was on a much slower burn, not having to exert himself as much.
So how does this number figure into the NHL? Well, since the lockout, there have been 40 instances of players hitting the 40 goal landmark in the league (as of the Olympic break). Of those, 7 players were over 30 (Shanahan, Selanne twice, Alfredsson twice, Jagr, St. Louis, Iginla and Hossa), and four of those instances occurred in the first post-lockout year. Since the lockout, the 100 point threshold has been crossed 19 times, with 3 of those being over 30 (Jagr, Alfredsson and St. Louis), and the first two occurring in Post-Lockout Year One level. For an even better question, out of those over 30ers, how many of them have played with one team throughout their career?
Admittedly using a similar offensive barometer for defenseman is tough, so in using Norris Trophy winners as the measuring stick, consider that the 10 guys that have won the trophy for the top "defense player who demonstrates throughout the season the greatest all-round ability in the position," since 1993-94, 3 have been under the age of 30, and the only one younger than 28 was Chris Pronger, who won the trophy before his 26th birthday.
Now does all this mean that Alexander Ovechkin, Alex Semin and Nicklas Backstrom should be traded for picks and prospects in the next 5-8 years, and that the real Washington Capitals Young Guns are Mike Green, Jeff Schultz, Karl Alzner and John Carlson? Hardly, though it should mean that someone should know when to put the bridle on Messrs. Ovechkin, Semin, Backstrom and Green and when to ride without the whip, as it were.
- Don't be afraid to take risky leaps. Clough and Taylor were not afraid to pick up perceived "head cases" from other clubs for a discount, work with them and eventually see them flourish under them. One of the attitudes mentioned in Soccernomics regarding athletes is "We paid a lot of money for you, now get on with it," meaning professionals should act as such for the paying customer/fan, regardless of their issue. Clough and Taylor were aware that both a player's demon should be worked with, and if the player was a new arrival, he should get acclimated as quickly as possible. Todd Bertuzzi is scoring 15 goals a year since the suspension for his hit on Steve Moore, either proving anyone will sign anybody to a contract, or that teams have worked with him to get past the gruesomeness of the incident, and he's returning to be a contributor to whatever team he's played for.
On a less instinctual approach.
In examining the success of another one of the European teams (France's Olympique Lyon), the book notes that the club went from second division languishing to be a frequent League champion and competitor in European play. Club President Jean-Michel Aulas appears to be a Moneyball advocate, asserts that in part, "if you buy good players for less than they are worth, you will win more games. You will then have more money to buy better players for less than they are worth." Striking, particularly if you're a GM working under a financial restriction. Game results aside, it does place a premium on developing home grown talent and allowing patience for them to develop into solid contributors on a team so you can make the next step and acquire the missing piece. But as a GM, you must have confidence that the assets who can replace the departed ones are ready to contribute for you, or the better/overvalued asset will look all the more worse. Nevertheless, Lyon also has its own credos.
The main one is "the wisdom of crowds wins out." When Lyon decides on a player acquisition, Aulas, the technical director (GM), manager and several coaches sit in on a meeting. Assuming a similar McPhee-run meeting takes place, it would include Ted Leonsis and/or Dick Patrick, Player Personnel Director Brian MacLellan and the current coaching staff, with capologist Don Fishman and Player Development Director Steve Richmond as "optional attendees." Boudreau may have very little say in asset acquisition, as a quote from this Craig Custance article might imply. Unless we do have Scotty Bowman's older brother behind the bench, any counsel Boudreau is providing is being done with the short-term view of the club at hand. Say what you will about Lou Lamoriello; the man has three Cups, won by three different head coaches, all on his watch.
The Lightning Round.
There are some other, more intriguing ones which have less to do with actual metrics and are more anecdotal. 60 seconds on the clock please? And...
- Acclimate the relocate(d). After the initial shock of the move, once his wife moved onto the next steps in transitioning, it was nice to see Jason Chimera go on a mini-tear before getting hurt, wasn't it? Regarding asset acclimation, soccer is ripe with stories of failed transfers when a player when to a prestigious team in another country and flamed out, simply because they never really received a proper introduction to the customs and habits within the club and country. I'd be curious to hear how much of that translates into other sports, particularly when I read the occasional story about Mark Cuban buying nice things for his basketball players' lockers. I wouldn't be surprised if there was a percentage of players acquired in deals that didn't worked out who cited lack of acclimation as one of the reasons for their struggles. Helping players relocate may be an unwanted expense, but it could go a long way towards reducing the lack of acclimation to the team's system and locker room dynamic, thus ensuring a more productive tenure.
- Certain nationalities are overvalued. Soccer clubs have a tendency to bring in players who have not been extensively scouted, relying on the fact that some mysterious "previous experience" in a prestigious country's lower divisions or heritage being the reason why they'll be an impact contributor for a team. Look at Brazilians; while there are many who are solid, even exceptional players, there are scores of others who have a tendency to "fail upward," gradually landing more visible experience in leagues where their skill doesn't match the league's, and they wind up on the bench, cashing a paycheck. Not to get all Don Cherry about this portion of things, but people put up several lightning rods all over the place, rather than one in one area, so that they can get the stuff in many bottles. Use every resource at your disposal.
- Identify and abandon "sight-based prejudices." Otherwise known as the "Gentlemen Prefer Blonds" theory (or pro-Kevin Smith argument). For humor's sake, if he wasn't setting the scoring lamp afire, someone would have likely told Mike Green to get on the South Beach Diet before being considered for a one-way pro deal. Scouts tend to place more emphasis players who look the part. To use the book, "the more available a piece of information is to the memory, the more likely it is to influence your decision, even when the information is irrelevant."
So with all of this information in hand, I leave you with your questions and discussion points.
- Do we think some (or all) of this is being employed in NHL front offices? If so, can we point to any success stories?
- If it's not being used, should it? What is the value (if any) towards incorporating these strategies for the betterment of whatever team you root for?