Thursday, February 26, 2009

Curse of the NHL Overseas Opener

For the past two years, the NHL has launched their regular season on the other side of the Atlantic. And for the past two years, the head coach of each participating team (save Randy Carlyle coaching his defending champion Ducks) has been fired within the year.

After opening the 2007-2008 season in London against Carlyle's Ducks, Marc Crawford led his Kings to a league worst 71 points, clinching the number two overall pick in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft with a 31-43-7 record. Sadly, Crawford would never meet the offspring of his efforts as he was junked on June 10, 2008, two weeks before Drew Doughty was crowned.

The following year, Tom Renney's Rangers played Barry Melrose's Lightning in Prague and Craig Hartsburg's Senators met Michel Therrien's Penguins in Stockholm. None lasted past February 23, 2009.

Melrose was the first to go. His November 14, 2008 departure followed a 4-3 loss to the Red Wings. The mulleted one lasted only 16 games behind the bench, posting a 5-7-4 record, before being booted back to the booth and replaced by his assistant Rick Tocchet.

Hartsburg led the February firings, collecting his walking papers on February 2, 2009 after OV unleashed a Sunday afternoon hat trick yielding a 7-4 loss for the Senators. His record to date was 17-24-7.

For Therrien, a 6-2 loss to the lowly Maple Leafs sealed his fate on February 15, 2009. Despite a 94-51-19 record in his first two seasons, an appearance in the Stanley Cup Finals eight months earlier, and a respectable 27-25-5 thus far this year, the ill-tempered Therrien was tossed.

Coach Renney made it all the way to February 23, 2009. He started the season 10-3 and finished it 3-10, leaving a record of 31-23-7. For the second week in a row, the Leafs hammered the final nail into a coach's coffin, dealing the Rangers a 3-2 loss in Renney's last game.

Next season, the Red Wings are scheduled to play the Blues in Stockholm, with the Blackhawks and Panthers meeting in Helsinki. Mike Babcock, Andy Murray, Joel Quennville, and Peter DeBoer, you're on notice. If history holds, the ax will fall unless you arrive in Europe wearing a 2009 championship ring.

Bon voyage! Or rather, trevlig resa and hyvää matka!

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Statistical Anomaly - Shane Battier +/-

In the NHL, the only statistic that matters is winning. A GM's job is to piece together 23 players (within the league's salary cap limitations) that collectively will yield the most number of wins. The skill lies in adding the right players. The tricky part is knowing which individual statistics translate into team success.

This past weekend author Michael Lewis (famous in sports circles for reporting on Bill James' Sabermetrics in his 2003 release Moneyball) turned his lens on basketball, specifically the Houston Rockets and their point guard Shane Battier, contributing this piece to the New York Times. Once again, Lewis investigates which empirical gauges are being employed by GMs to value a player's worth.

Of his point guard Shane Battier, Rockets' GM Daryl Morey claims "[he] can't create an offensive situation . . . he can't dribble, he's slow, and hasn't got much body control." Conventional statistics show that he doesn't score many points (6.4/game), snag many rebounds (4.8/game), block many shots (0.8/game), steal many balls (0.7/game), or dish out many assists (2.1/game), either.

Hidden from Morey's comments and Battier's current season statistics are his invisible strengths. Battier excels at playing an unselfish game that improves upon the offensive and defensive efficiencies of his teammates, and corresponding inefficiencies of his opponents. When he's on the court, teammates get better and opponents get worse.

One statistic Morey uses to illustrate Battier's value is plus-minus, which simply measures what happens to the score when any given player is on the court. Morey understands that plus-minus in its crude form is hardly perfect (noting that a player on the same team with the world’s four best players, and who plays only when they do, will have a plus-minus that looks pretty good, even if it says little about his play), though he claims to be able to adjust for these potential distortions.

Morey notes, a good player might be a plus 3. That is, his team averages 3 points more per game than its opponent when he is on the floor. In his best season, the superstar point guard Steve Nash was a plus 14.5. At the time of the Lakers game, Battier was a plus 10, which put him in the company of Dwight Howard and Kevin Garnett, both perennial All-Stars. For his career Battier’s a plus 6. By Morey's standards this is huge, likening it to the difference between 41 wins and 60 wins.

Statistics perceived to contribute to a team's success in the NHL include the number of goals a player scores, the percentage of shots a goalie stops, the number of wins a goalie collects, and the number of goals a team scores. You might think having 2 of the top 3 league scorers, the goalie with the 3rd best save percentage and 4th most wins, or the team with the 3rd most even strength goals would spell success, but ask the Pittsburgh Penguins, Minnesota Wild, or Toronto Maple Leafs, respectively, and they'll tell you these accomplishments may not even produce a playoff spot.

For GMs looking to quantify a player's likelihood of winning, Frankensteining a Morey-esque adjusted plus-minus per game measure might be a smart place to start. After all, it's not only how good a player is but how good he makes those around him that often dictates success.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The Truth About NHL TV Ratings

“I think all of this blanket categorization that ‘hockey doesn’t work in the Sun Belt’ is complete hogwash. We have a lot of great fans throughout the Sun Belt.” Gary Bettman, February 4, 2009
Really? Do they own television sets?

Recently, the Washington Post and New York Times calculated the number of households in US markets, save Carolina and Nashville for which data was unavailable, watching their local NHL team on TV during the first half of the season. The chart below builds on their work, showing the total number of households as well as the number of households per capita watching each game in their respective market.

Team: Per Capita=Total
BUF: 1/11 = 55,980
PIT: 1/16 = 71,006
DET: 1/27 = 71,297
PHI: 1/45 = 65,494
MIN: 1/45 = 38,417
BOS: 1/46 = 52,036
COL: 1/60 = 25,149
CLB: 1/70 = 13,239
STL: 1/76 = 16,497
SJS: 1/80 = 30,955
WAS: 1/83 = 27,859
CHI: 1/93 = 37,373
NYR: 1/97 = 76,568
DAL: 1/192 = 12,947
PHO: 1/200 = 9,279
TBL: 1/209 = 8,928
NJD: 1/263 = 28,248
LAK: 1/263 = 21,486
ANA: 1/344 = 16,397
ATL: 1/435 = 5,450
NYI: 1/588 = 12,637
FLA: 1/667 = 2,320


The per capita data shows that 1 in 11 households in Buffalo caught each Sabres game while a mere 1 in 667 Miami-Fort Lauderdale households tuned into the Panthers. (Both amazing statistics in their own right.) In fact, 7 of the weakest 9 teams in terms of household viewership per capita are located in the Sun Belt (Dallas 1/192, Phoenix 1/200, Tampa Bay 1/209, Los Angeles 1/263, Anaheim 1/344, Atlanta 1/435, Florida 1/667).

If total households is your game, how about this fun fact. More people living in Buffalo (51st largest US TV market) watched their home team each night (55,980) than did fans of the Ducks (16,397) in Los Angeles (2nd largest US TV market), the Stars (12,947) in Dallas (5th largest US TV market), the Thrashers (5,450) in Atlanta (8th largest US TV market), the Coyotes (9,279) in Phoenix (12th largest US TV market), the Lightning (8,928) in Tampa Bay (13th largest US TV market), and the Panthers (2,320) in Miami-Fort Lauderdale (16th largest US TV market) watch theirs, combined. Yeah, combined.

In terms of on-ice success (as measured by Stanley Cup Finals appearances), Buffalo has been to the finals only twice (1975, 1999) in their 39 year franchise history, losing both times. Collectively, the aforementioned Sun Belt franchises have enjoyed 6 cup appearances (Dallas 2, Anaheim 2, Florida 1, Tampa Bay 1) in the past 13 years, winning three times (Dallas 1999, Tampa Bay 2004, Anaheim 2007). If anything, fans south of the 35th parallel should have more to cheer about than their Buffalonian counterpart.

Anyway you slice it, the NHL's Sun Belt teams pull up the rear in terms of TV ratings. Does that mean "hockey doesn't work in the Sun Belt"? Technically hockey works anywhere you can freeze water and field five skaters and a goalie. Is there "a lot of great fans throughout the Sun Belt"? Well they may be great, but there sure ain't a lot of them.

And that's no hogwash.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

2007 Commissioner Compensation

Recently the Sports Business Journal reported on commissioner salaries for the fiscal year-ending 2007. In that year, Gary Bettman collected $5.59m, ahead of the PGA Tour's Tim Finchem ($4.8m) and behind the NBA's David Stern ($10m), the NFL's Roger Goodell ($11.2m), and MLB's Bud Selig ($18.35m).

While only four baseball players out-earned Selig that year (Rodriguez, Jeter, Giambi, Clemens), 26 NHL players bested Bettman.

$8,360,000 Jaromir Jagr
$7,800,000 Brad Richards
$7,600,000 Nicklas Lidstrom
$7,600,000 Mats Sundin
$7,600,000 Alexei Yashin
$7,500,000 Zdeno Chara
$7,500,000 Patrick Elias
$7,166,667 Vincent Lecavalier
$7,150,000 Bryan McCabe
$7,000,000 Jarome Iginla
$7,000,000 Ed Jovanovski
$6,750,000 Nikolai Khabibulin
$6,750,000 Scott Niedermayer
$6,670,000 Joe Thornton
$6,500,000 Wade Redden
$6,250,000 Chris Pronger
$6,080,000 Sergei Federov
$6,000,000 Rob Blake
$6,000,000 Martin Havlat
$6,000,000 Marian Hossa
$6,000,000 Roberto Luongo
$6,000,000 Markus Naslund
$6,000,000 Martin St. Louis
$6,000,000 Marty Turco
$5,750,000 Peter Forsberg
$5,750,000 Joe Sakic
$5,590,000 Gary Bettman
When evaluating Bettman's bank in relation to his performance remember a commissioner is hired to serve the league's owners, not the fans. A subtlety likely not lost on lovers of the NHL.