Is consistency the unrecognized analytics factor?

I’ve been thinking a lot about this Senators’ goalie situation and the fact that we just absolutely MUST trade a goaltender and get good value back otherwise everyone’s going to write 200 blog posts about how we didn’t. I was also thinking about how Chicago is probably going to have to trade another 3-4 good players to stay under the cap next year, and Cory Crawford, he of the lucrative new deal could be on the block.

If I were a GM in either situation, what would I do? Could Chicago really go into next year with Scott Darling as its starting goaltender? Would Ottawa go into next year with an injury-prone older starter and Wildcard Hammond? How about Lehner, who has all of the potential in the world but is in the middle of his own personal time travel journey?

This led me to think about how much GMs pay for potential and projections, and how little they pay for consistency. Here’s a theory:

In an analytics-driven, salary-cap era, a player’s value is expressed in three ways: 1) The degree to which he drives possession. 2) His statline relative to his peers. And 3) How much money he makes.

Each of these three factors are dependent on one another. It’s why expensive Alex Ovechkin can be one of the best players in the world and still have people question his value, and why scoreless Erik Condra can be cheap and drive possession but be allowed to walk for nothing.

(I guess there’s a fourth factor in here encompassing all of those other intangible qualities, like sticktoittiveness and likeability and being a good dude.)

One factor that I think might be missing in all of this is if a player performs consistently. I know, you must be thinking “this is obvious. If a player performs well consistently, then a GM knows it and factors it in.” But I’m talking about if a player performs only averagely, but consistently. I’d like to argue that that consistency provides a level of value over and above the player’s statline and possession metrics.

Because a player is consistent, it means that a GM can plan around him. He can better understand the gaps on a team in a coming year and spend his meager resources, in terms of picks and cap space, to plug those gaps, confident in the knowledge that they won’t produce yet more gaps.

This is the place in the blog post where I would love to include a spreadsheet of the most consistent players, but frankly I don’t have the data. War on Ice will give you cumulative totals, but I don’t have the patience to download stats season-by-season and run the spreadsheets to describe variance. What I’d love to see, though, is which players above a certain threshold for possession (so we weed out the players who are consistently bad) display the lowest variance from season to season. Basically what you end up with are players about whom you know what to expect. And that, in itself, has value.

I know I’m mixing up skaters and goalies here, and I don’t know if Chicago will trade Cory Crawford, especially if he helps them win another Cup. But I do know that if Chicago can find a cheaper option with less variance in his statline, they can reliably pour the savings elsewhere to compensate. The same holds true for Ottawa. Lehner might have a higher ceiling, but also a higher variance than, say, Craig Anderson. And knowing that variance has value.

I hope you enjoyed this summertime blog post. Stay safe everyone, and wear sunscreen.

“Let’s go get a defenceman! Has anyone thought of that? Oh, literally everyone?”

Looking at how close this series has been against the Habs – every game won by one goal, two in OT, Sens holding the lead for longer than Montreal – I can’t help but think of how the results might have bent ever-so-slightly in Ottawa’s favor if they’d been able to rely on a bottom pairing of defencemen other than Gryba or Borowiekci.

I’m not trying to jump up and down on anyone after the fact – they’ve been dependable warriors for this team throughout the miracle run to the playoffs – but the fact remains that after two straight months of playoff-like hockey, it looks like some of the younger, less skilled d-corps are wilting.

Add to that a lack of size and experience, and it’s only natural to wonder “what if?” Chris Phillips’ decline has been well documented. Jared Cowen has faded out of existence, going all the way from franchise darling to distant memory. Patrick Wiercioch, possession mustang though he is, is soft as hell. Cody Ceci is still very young, and it’s shown at times. And Erik Karlsson is playing every single important moment of the game. That’s a lot of risk tied up in basically Karlsson and Methot. Having at least one other NHL caliber vet to rely on might have made all the different heading into tonight’s “what the hell (shrugging emoticon)” fourth game.

The free agent market, unfortunately, doesn’t offer up much. But there are a couple of dependable, workhorse guys who log 20+ minutes on their teams now. If Ottawa signed, and then insulated, a Zybnek Michalek or Francois Beauchemin, I could see them spreading out some of the risk in the lineup. I’m not saying these guys are the answer – older and increasingly injured as they are – but just that they could turn in a solid 17+ minutes, providing opportunity for favorable zone starts for the puck movers.

If Murray, or his follower, really wanted to swing for the fences, they could get into the running for Johnny Oduya, which, to me, would seem somewhat similar to Tampa going out and spending for Anton Stralman to be a second-pairing guy. Or they could break the bank on a do-everything, Christian Ehrhoff type. Then there’s Andrej Meszaros, who was overshadowed this year because he played on a terrible Buffalo team, but he’s been known to play big minutes and put up points if the stars align.

If Ottawa is swept tonight there will be a lot of questions, some of which will have nothing to do with the defence. Where have Bobby Ryan and Mike Hoffman been, for example? But the fact remains that outside of Erik Karlsson and Methot’s reliable unspectacular play, the defence has had its challenges. It won’t take much to improve, but it’s becoming clear that it will take something.

Totally surreal

Back when the season started, did anyone imagine in a million years the following image being something that appeared in reality?

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That’s the front page of the Ottawa Senators website. It features a picture of a 27 year old undrafted goaltender with terrible AHL numbers. That’s right: Andrew Hammond is now the central draw and face of a franchise for a team with a Norris winner and candidate again this year as its captain and a couple of Calder candidates tearing it up shift after shift.

It’s a surreal season, and not just for us. Ask LA Kings fans this morning how they feel. Ask Winnipeg fans, and Calgary fans, how they feel. Teams that aren’t supposed to win are winning, teams that are supposed to casually dominate are falling apart, and at the center of it all is a small market team with the lowest payroll in the league shutting out the Presidents Trophy winners to cap off one of the most unprecedented winning periods in decades.

For Boston, you have to wonder how widespread the changes will be if everything doesn’t go just their way over the next couple of days. It feels like Ottawa has been chasing them for months, winning and winning only to see Boston picking up just as many points. Finally, in the final days of the season, their time is running out. (Not to be morbid, but could we see the return of Peter Chiarelli to Ottawa?)

Seems like everything is coming together for Ottawa at just the right time, but it bears mentioning again that there are many factors to Ottawa’s success. Obviously there’s Hammond’s play, but also possession black holes Chris Phillips and Chris Neil haven’t played in weeks. Young players are being trusted with key minutes – how much money does that Lazar – Pageau – Condra line make compared to the Rangers line they matched up against last night? Patrick Wiercioch is finally out of the doghouse for being the kind of player everyone knows that he is.

And though it doesn’t seem to be talked about enough, Dave Cameron might be the second Jack Adams winning coach for Ottawa in the last two seasons. A team simply doesn’t turn around like this without at least a few votes going the coach’s way.

The incredible thing here is the real possibility that Ottawa could meet the Canadiens in the first round – a dream match up for this team. What seemed totally impossible only a couple of months ago – playoff success – is within reach.

Ottawa’s surreal, dreamlike season keeps getting dreamier.

Beat the fucking Flyers. Go Sens.

Trading Goalies: Don’t Hate the Player, Hate the Game

So, this is a bit of a weird one, innit?

We began the season wondering if the extension to Craig Anderson was prudent given that Robin Lehner was clearly ready to ascend to both his throne of human skulls and the starting position, in which case we’d have an overpriced backup goaltender who’d already proclaimed he needs to start a lot of games to be effective. And now, with only a handful of games left, Lehner is all but an afterthought, Anderson continues to have a puzzling number of hand problems, and an unheralded, undrafted goaltender with terrible numbers in the AHL is pulling the earth off its orbit by ignoring the rules of physics and chance.

From a resource management point-of-view, it’s an enviable position for the Sens to be in, and I know we’re all into hockey because it fulfills our need to debate about resource management. They have a bona-fide starter with a reasonable salary. A young, prestige goalie with the potential to be a franchsie cornerstone, also with a reasonable salary. And a player who is either nothing or the second coming of the son of god on whom to sell high.

The problem with trying to cash in on Hammond while his value is high is that the number of times someone has pointed out that Andrew Hammond’s performance is not sustainable has now reached stratospheric heights. I don’t think there’s anyone in the league, Sens fans included, who think that what’s happening right now is normal. I mean, it’s fun as hell and I don’t want it to ever stop, but if Ottawa were to try to cash in on him, what would they get? A draft pick, AKA a lottery ticket? Maybe a later-round prospect?

Jaroslav Halak once had a magical run for the Canadiens, carrying the team on his back to the Eastern Conference Finals. And Halak – an NHL goaltender who was actually drafted and developed – yielded two prospects in return: former first round pick Lars Eller, who could be a second-line player, and Ian Schultz, who has yet to crack an NHL lineup.

In retrospect it seems like a decent enough return, in that Eller has cemented a place in the Habs lineup. But two untested prospects for the hottest goaltender in hockey, and who was only 24 at the time–supposedly entering his prime–held a lot of risk. Neither player is really comparable in worth to a starting goaltender, even if the Habs didn’t know at the time that that’s what Halak was.

Hammond is 27, and has far worse numbers than Halak (up until recently, obviously). A team might want to gamble on him by sending a later pick Ottawa’s way, but what’s more valuable to the Senators: a pick with a tiny chance of becoming an NHL player, and likely a third or fourth liner at that, or the chance, however slight, that Hammond is a legit starter? If it doesn’t pan out, it seems worth the risk.

Given how little it will likely take to re-sign Hammond, and how little the team will get in a trade, I think it only makes sense to keep the good times rolling and swing for the fences on this one.

What about Anderson? For all of his injury problems, has also been stellar for Ottawa this year, deserving a far better fate in many of his losses. Injuries will always be a concern with his age, but I think he can provide value at least through the end of his current deal.

Which brings us to Robin Lehner.

Now, I like Lehner. I think he gives Ottawa just the amount of crazy it needs to get by, especially considering their lineup is made-up of fresh-faced, genuinely nice guys like Turris, Karlsson, and Lazar. I love this speedy, skilled iteration of the Sens, but let’s admit that they’re not the most intimidating bunch. In that context, I enjoy Lehner’s goat sacrificing, Satanistic ways. But the number of times he’s been mentioned in a package deal for something truly ridiculous – Rick Nash or Taylor Hall fer Crissake – makes the potential for a deal too tantalizing to pass us. Lehner still has the perceived value to wrest something of qualitatively demonstrable value from another team’s grubby hands.

There’s a lot of risk in what I’m describing, of course. Going into a season with a 33-year old starter and a 27-year old backup, and without a blue chip goaltending prospect in the hopper, is generally not a recipe for sound sleeps.

I maintain, however, that the opportunity here is just too interesting to pass up. I’ve seen what Bryan Murray and his drafting team can do with a mid-round pick (names rhymes with Schmarlsson) but it’s truly tantalizing to think of Ottawa packaging their first rounder in the draft this year with Lehner to plug a hole on their blueline, or add scoring help up front, or both.

Murray and Melnyk must feel a bit vindicated with this recent run–it turns out that the team is a lot better than anyone thought, and all it took was all of the team’s bad players getting injured at once to prove it. But they could turn into a really interesting dark horse contender in the East if they added that gamebreaking piece that only a prestige player like Lehner can get you.

Trades I Wish Ottawa Made: Brett Connolly

If you were up at 2am waiting for the Nikkei Index to open, you may have seen a curious trade take place between the Tampa Bay Lightning and Boston Bruins. GM Stve Yzerman sent former 6th overall draft pick Brett Connolly to Boston for a 2nd round pick in 2015 and another 2nd rounder in 2016.

Connolly is only 22 years old, and playing in his second full NHL season, but apparently his 134 NHL games were enough for Yzerman to know that his development is off track.

I say “curious” because after spending a resource as valuable as a 6th overall draft pick on Connolly, Yzerman just traded him for the equivalent of a couple of lottery tickets. Even if Connolly wasn’t in “win now” Tampa’s plans, I would have thought they could have packaged him to bring in NHL-ready help. Instead, whoever they take in those rounds won’t be NHL ready for another 4-5 years, if at all. Finally, Connolly fits in well with Tampa’s young core. He’s about the same age as Namestnikov, Palat, Kucherov, Panik, Hedman, Drouin, and Ashton.

Which brings me to Ottawa, a similarly young team who’ve been trying to add a top six winger since roughly 1982. Connolly would have been a nice addition, kept with the tradition of Ottawa buying low on other team’s reclamation projects, and not cost too much, either in assets to acquire him or money to resign him. He’s on an expiring deal where he’s making less than a million a season. A two-year “prove it” bridge deal would align nicely with the Melnyk’s plan to return those empties now that it’s getting warmer out.

Connolly isn’t setting the world on fire offensively, and he’s only having his first positive possession season this year, but he’s the kind of young, swing-for-the-fences player with pedigree that Ottawa could have spent a couple of later-round picks on. They have an extra second rounder from the Spezza deal. Instead, he goes from one division rival to another. I mean, I guess I can’t blame them. It was 2am.

I’m pretty sure none of us know what to do with this

Four Andrew Hammond starts. Four wins. .962 SV% and a 1.15 GAA. And a nice little curve there on the end of the playoff probability chart. Like a hook in our hearts.

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Yes, Hammond is looking positively Brian Elliott-esque out there. And as a result, for the first time in over two months, Ottawa’s playoff chances are higher than 20%. Somehow this was achieved with even better goaltending for a team whose only strength was goaltending. Hockey is the weirdest. Or, as James put it:

A survey of Twitter last night at 1AM – usually the hour for calm, rational assessment – revealed schizophrenic levels of indecision. We’re in the middle of a hockey analytics renaissance; the supremacy of cold, objective logic and infallibility of numbers. And yet here we have a 27 year old with mediocre AHL numbers in the NHL driving Ottawa within five points of a wild card spot. It’s unsustainable and a small sample size and yadda yadda yadda. But in the meantime we actually have a reason to watch the Ottawa Senators play hockey again.

It’s a weird thing to root for, to be sure. Of all the teams with a shot at a generational talent in this year’s draft, Ottawa is the one who could turn around into a contender the quickest. They’re already on the tail end of a rebuild. Adding a high end prospect in the mix could be the thing that turns a fully developed Sens team from a playoff hopeful to a genuine threat. Finishing 9th in the East this year would be soul crushing.

Or, on the other hand: fuck it, let’s go for it. Is there anything more compelling, any better distillation of why we watch sports, than the story of an almost washed-out goaltender getting his shot in the NHL for a team that has nothing to play for and turning them into world beaters? Don’t you want, at the end of the day, people to want to watch your hockey club? Shouldn’t we be excited for the next game as opposed to being excited for the next draft?

So, against all logic, with 23 games left and five points out, with two teams to leapfrog and the Bruins of all teams holding down that last wildcard spot, I for one will be cheering on Andrew Hammond. Not just as our goaltender, but because in the back-half of a too-long season it’s outliers that make hockey hockey and sports sports. Because for all of the revolutionary democratization that analytics brings to this old boys club, and as completely into overturning the moneyed order as I am, sometimes you just want to see the plot of Rudy play out in your team’s colors.

At least until we flip him to Philadelphia for a prospect.