The “Moneyball revolution” is alive and well among National Hockey League fans and writers. There is no shortage of people thinking they can be a general manager from the seat of their coach.
The majority of hockey stat geeks don’t realize that Michael Lewis’ book Moneyball is more fiction than fact. It credits the Oakland A’s playoff berth to sabermetrics; however, in reality, their three star pitchers, Mark Mulder, Barry Zito and Tim Hudson, were the biggest reason for the A’s success. The three pitchers, who were brought into the organization through scouting at the draft, led Oakland to having the lowest ERA in Major League Baseball that season. But the movie sheds very little light on them.
To relate the book to hockey fans, essentially the puck version of Moneyball would be writing a book about how the Phoenix Coyotes made the post-season last year without giving much credit to Shane Doan, Ray Whitney, and Keith Yandle.
The movie/book also fails to point out that Oakland was a powerhouse ball club in the 26 years prior to Billy Beane becoming their general manager in 1998, winning six pennants and four World Series victories.
To poke more holes into its theory that stats can build a team, Beane’s A’s missed the playoffs for five straight seasons under him from 2007-2011.
The hockey stat geeks of the world have made some wild arguments and have assessed players in skeptical fashion.
The biggest aspect of the game that seems to be over their heads is the mental part. Anyone who played or plays competitive hockey knows confidence is the be-all and end-all of the game. Without it, you are hopeless. With it, you feel as though anything is possible. Therefore, you can have all the stats you want in certain situations, but it won’t be a correct analysis if confidence is the reason for success or lack thereof.
Off-ice issues, as hidden as they may be, can’t be taken lightly. A perfect example of this is when I read a black-and-white layout from a stat geek on why a player had been struggling. In the assessment the writer was confident that the player was struggling because he was bumped up to the first line from the third line; therefore, he was playing against tougher opponents. I didn’t know the player, but my college buddy use to room with him in his junior hockey days, so I asked my friend to find out why he was struggling. He got back to me with “His girlfriend of three years just broke up with him. He has been having trouble sleeping and concentrating.” You can’t blame the writer for not knowing that personal information, but it shows sometimes the obvious reasoning for a player’s failure or success isn’t the reason at all.
Two ridiculous arguments are that hits and blocked shots don’t translate into wins.
It is just common sense that teams who dominate puck possession won’t be put into situations where they need to lay the body and block shots. So sure, talented teams near the top of standings probably won’t be on top of those two departments.
Nevertheless, that doesn’t mean teams who don’t have the skill to keep the puck on their stick all game can’t generate wins partially because of being physical and getting in front of the puck.
Finishing checks wears down your opponents. It also can make some players more hesitant to go hard into the boards after a puck. Therefore, although there isn’t a specific stat to back it up, hits can translate into edging out a tired team in the third period and winning more puck battles along the boards, which translates to scoring more goals and letting fewer in the back of your own net.
Obviously, blocking shots leads to goaltenders facing fewer shots. It also makes opponents pass around the puck more in attempt to look for a straight-threw shot, which can lead to turnovers. It is not that tough to see that fewer shots on net plus turnovers can equal more nights in the win column.
All that being said, there is no denying advanced stats are a piece of the hockey pie. But they are a small piece. They only tell a sample of the story on a team or player.
Nearly every elite hockey mind will say if you want to breakdown players properly, you start with their skating, speed, skills, and smarts. From there, you dig into their attitude, if they are the right player for a system, and advanced stats.
As long as robots don’t take over hockey, the crucial mental aspects of the game will keep the player evaluations the same.