Thursday, April 11, 2013

Blinded by Flash

I figured I would elaborate a bit on this post. To repeat the message of it for a second, my belief is flashy goal scoring wingers are the most overpaid/overrated position in the NHL. Why does that happen? In short, their contracts get inflated for two reasons:
the positive part of their game is the most easily recognizable – be it stickhandling, shot, skating etc. and easily quantified by statistics, 

 the negative part or the part that is often lacking is however easily dismissed or overlooked – the lack of boardwork, lack of winning puck battles, poor defensive zone game, perimeter only positioning etc., none of that shows up in statistics (save for advanced stats but there is still progress to be made even there especially on the defensive side of game)

It is human nature to put excessive importance on point 1. It's far more breathtaking watching a succesful dangle rather than 5 board battles won. And then you have the fact that point 1 is far easier to quantify with traditional statistics.  

I'd like to focus now a bit now on concrete examples. First let's take a look at some of the highest cap hits among forwards and identify the type of wingers I wrote about, for the lack of a better term let's just call it the "flashy winger" position. There can be some debate on who qualifies or not for that, but I will try to to name some players I think most people would agree fit the bill.
Cap hit rank among forwards
Cap hit amount
Dany Heatley
Marian Gaborik
Alexander Semin
Ilya Kovalchuk
Mike Cammalleri

Of course there are other potential candidates to point out with similar cap hits in excess of 6 million, for example some would argue Patrick Kane is another "flashy winger", but I did not include him for the reason that I feel he provides an additional dimension in being both a playmaker as well as possessing an excellent shot.

Now consider the following metrics:
First to spare you an enormous table, you would have to go all the way back to 1995 to find a winger winning the Conn Smythe trophy, and that winger was quite different from the type we're talking about here, it was Claude Lemieux. You would have to go futher back to 1982 to find another one in Mike Bossy.

Now let's take a look at the way coaches shell out ice time to their forwards (we know goalies and defensemen play more due to the nature of the position so that would be rather unfair to compare). We're going to take a look at some Stanley Cup champions' playoff statistics and analyze them.

2012 – Los Angeles Kings
The most noticeable winger on that squad was Dustin Brown, who is far from the protoypical flashy winger and whose cap hit is only $3,175,000. He was tied for first in points (PTS) on the team with Anze Kopitar, and was second among forwards in time on ice (TOI). Jonathan Quick was the Conn Smythe winner.

2011 – Boston Bruins
Another team like the Kings notorious for not spending on that type of winger, the closest was Phil Kessel whom they traded to Toronto. The most noticeable winger was Brad Marchand, another winger far from the prototypical flashy winger, another small cap hit. He was 3rd in PTS, Milan Lucic received the most TOI among wingers and ranked 3rd among forwards. Tim Thomas was the Conn Smythe winner.

2010 – Chicago Blackhawks
Chicago is the first team with a somewhat of a fit in Patrick Kane. Kane was 2nd in PTS, 2nd among forwards in TOI, Jonathan Toews was the Conn Smythe winner.

2009 – Pittsburgh Penguins
Pittsburgh is another team who didn't invest in a flashy goal scoring winger. I don't think there is any need to further look into Pittsburgh when Bill Guerin received the most TOI among wingers and we know the team boasted Crosby, Malkin, Staal down the middle. Conn Smythe to Malkin.

2008 – Detroit Red Wings
Another team without a flashy goal scoring winger, their most noticeable winger was Johan Franzen – a power forward with skill, lower cap hit, 3rd in PTS among forwards, 3rd in TOI among forwards. Conn Smythe to Zetterberg.

I'm going to stop here because as you can see this excerise goes on for a long time without much of a change. While these metrics are not perfect, they do tend to give you the general idea that highly skilled wingers just aren't that important, so it makes me curious why year after year we see the obscene contracts (the latest being Semin) handed out to them. 

I can think of three ways to better allocate funds rather than engage in seemingly endless stupidity of reckless spending on flashy wingers:

Option A: If you really feel like you need that highly skilled winger, I suggest going for a slightly less statistically impressive options and have more money to allocate to C/D/G. Bobby Ryan has a cap hit of 5.1 million, Jeff Carter 5.27 million, Tanguay 3.5 million, Parenteau 4 million, Whitney 4.5 million, S. Kostitsyn 3 million, Vrbata 3 million, Havlat 5 million, C. Stewart 3 million, then there's J. Lupul at 4.25 million etc. Now some of those of course are more attractive than others, but there's really no need to spend 7.5 million on Gaborik or Heatley (heck who wouldn't take Bobby Ryan at 5.1 million over them).

Option B: Go after all around wingers with slightly worse numbers, these guys are cheaper and you'll find a boatload of them playing a prominent role on recent Stanley Cup champions. Again more cash to spend on C/D/G. Some names: Dustin Brown, Justin Williams, Brad Marchand, Milan Lucic, Johan Franzen, Jason Pominville, Loui Eriksson etc. Some guys mentioned here could also be in option A and the other way around, again this is a bit of a gray area (B. Ryan, J. Carter, Pominville and Eriksson could really go either way for example) but I'm trying to give a general idea behind it.

Option C: If you really want to pay a winger make sure that not only is he highly skilled but that he boasts a full all around game as well. Examples: Rick Nash, Zach Parise, Marian Hossa, Thomas Vanek etc.

Now any combination of these three options is fine, but it' still somewhat interesting seeing GMs shell out money to players like Semin, Gaborik, Heatley etc. year after year despite there being no track record of that ever working. It is far more prudent to spend less on wingers in general and spend your money on C/D/G, but this holds especially true for the flashy wingers with attractive traditional statistics, best avoided as their market value seems to be significantly out of whack with their overall contribution to a winning team.

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