Monday, November 28, 2011

Get There From Here

It is generally bad form to try to talk people out of their team loyalties. Not that loyalty should never be questioned, but a fan’s feelings for their team are personal, complicated things that often have their basis in childhood dreams and family relationships and other such areas that outsiders oughtn’t muck about in. Asking someone to give up their team is like asking them to put aside their religion or their homeland- doesn’t matter whether they should, because often they can’t.

Even in Toronto, people do not try to talk me out of the Canadiens. They’ll trash the team left and right in no uncertain terms, but they seem to take it for granted that a Habs fan is a distinct species which could no more convert to the Leafs than a lemur could convert to a gorilla. So I find it a bit surprising when the gentleman in the Oilers jersey, having met me for the first time literally the period before, takes it upon himself to try to convince me that the Canadiens are not worth my time.

I am not even here in my capacity as Habs Fan. I am here as Girlfriend, which means I sit decorously beside and make pleasant conversation about Katie Perry and other such girlfriend-suitable topics. I am not arguing nor deconstructing, hell, I am not even snarking, and that is a great sacrifice, because I have been honing my Oilers-snark for nigh on three years now. But this is not my team, not my city, not my friends. I am a guest. I am behaving myself. I did not come girded for rhetorical battles.

Ambush. Not fair.

I start with the standard Habs-fan justification: 24 Cups, bitches, can’t argue with that. Unless you’re an especially contrarian Oilers fan, apparently, because he’s not buying it. A) That’s only a justification for liking the 1950s or 1970s Canadiens, not the modern team, and B) Most of those don’t count because the so-called ‘Original Six’ era wasn’t even really modern hockey, which didn’t start until at least the absorption of the WHA (we will not deign to point out the blatant self-servingness of this timeline). Okay, on to my next stop: cultural depth/specificity (as per three posts back). Sure, he says, great, but it ain’t your culture so can’t be nothing more than novelty to you. Yeah, says I, but without those kind of novelties all that’s left is the game-to-game ups and downs of the season, which are much the same for every team, so why favor any one over any other? And he says, oh, but it’s not the same for every team. The Canadiens haven’t done anything interesting in a decade or more.

I don’t have an answer for that one.

After that the conversation shifts to some anecdote about tits and shopping carts which is apparently a hallowed piece of Oilers folklore, and then somehow something about West Asian language groups (not sure where that came from), and ultimately everyone is perfectly pleasant and I am very kindly permitted to leave with my attachments intact. But sometimes my mind is like a cow: chew chew chew -> swallow -> partially digest -> regurgitate -> chew chew chew, and it keeps regurgitating that final point: The Canadiens haven’t done anything interesting in more than a decade.

It’s true. Step back from the chaos, then step back again, and then one more time and the Canadiens come into focus as a stunning mediocrity. They regress consistently to a respectable but unimpressive average. They’re not especially bad, neither are they particularly good, there just sort of there, hanging out in the middle. They’ve had their swings, like every team- a weak season here and a strong one there- but it seems rather like the luck swings against them, a counterbalance pendulum, the Damper Baby of hockey. When they’re not all that good, they get lucky, when they are good, the bounces go against them, and so in the end it all comes out to the same thing, and that thing is fourth place in the Northeast and elimination in the quarterfinals.

You couldn’t ask for a harder curse than unremarkability for a team carrying so much cultural and historical weight. No wonder the fan base gets so hateful so easily, no wonder they’re so ready to fire/trade/beat the snot out of anyone affiliated with the franchise, not for sins of failure but for sins of dullness. There is a point of frustration where we all would rather burn the house down than repaint the damn thing one more time. Better to free-fall into darkness than trudge through a dull twilight forever.

And anyway, maybe you have to take that free fall in order to rise. The current structure of the League is designed to support a cyclic pattern of rises and falls, or rather falls and rises. The draft lottery is the single greatest loser point in hockey history; a veritable Loser Cup. For a game that’s supposed to reward intense competitive drive and sacrifice on the altar of victory, it is a curiously generous consolation for complete and total failure.

It’s not necessarily a bad thing. I don’t even think I disagree with it, really. It redistributes wealth, creates parity, prevents the formation of dynasties and just generally keeps things interesting. I have no particular recommendation for a better system. But the fact is that the so-called ‘Chicago Model’ of success is structurally implied within the system itself. It is easier to go from terrible to great than from mediocre to great simply because there is a reward for terrible, and moreover that reward is the exclusive right to a very scarce resource at an incredible discount, the giving of which actively deprives other teams of access to that resource.

How many of the League’s recent powerhouse teams owe their top-end talent to the Loser Prize? The Hawks, surely, and the Penguins, and the Capitals. Even the Bruins and the Flyers and the Canucks have taken a brief stopover in the toilet to pick up some cheap assets which, if not the proximate cause of their later ascendance have certainly been critical elements of it. The Sharks are further removed from their era of tank-picks, so there’s been a fair bit more wheeling and dealing to keep that team in the air, but in my time I can't think of many teams that have risen high and held there on strategy alone, without partaking of the League's charity.

And those who didn’t suck their way to success seem to have lucked their way there. The Red Wings get a lot of propers, but if the Zetterberg-Datsyuk 7th-round-star trick is something they can repeat, it’s rather curious that they’ve chosen not to do so. Neither the Ducks nor the Sens were able to keep it together much past their shared year, nor the Hurricanes nor the Oilers after theirs. The sacrificed the right animals on the right altars and they got their one big shot and then vanished- whatever that is, it’s closer to chance than brilliance.

In the course of research for the previous piece, I came across this article where the Venerable and Terrifying contends that there are no great GMs in the NHL for exactly this reason: either they tank for picks, break hot at exactly the critical moment, or just hover noncommittally in the beige territory between abysmal and adequate. Every year somebody wins because somebody has to win, but there’s not a lot there to suggest that any one guy has anything substantive, in terms of either native intelligence or deliberate strategy, over any of the others.

It’s perhaps not quite fair to say that there are no great GMs simply because no one has beaten the system, because the thought must be entertained that this system is not beatable. Intelligence is only as useful as the game allows it to be. Great for chess, not so helpful for rock-paper-scissors.

There are at least three problems facing every general manager in the NHL that no amount of genius, scheming, or research can solve. Firstly, the market for top-tier talent is relatively rational. On the open market, there are overpayments galore, but not much in the way of underpayments. No matter what metric you use, scoring ability remains one of those stubbornly obvious things- everyone knows where it is, everyone pays for it. The only reliable way to get first-line production at fourth-line prices is the ELC, and that presumes you can get access to a first-line caliber rookie, about which (see above).

Second, the margins of winning are so narrow that even the best players have a fairly limited impact. If the value of the best player on any given team is only perhaps three wins over replacement, then the value of most players is some small fraction of a win. Many great individual decisions might still, in the aggregate, have a negligible impact in the standings. Moreover, hockey player skill might average out in time but in the playing it is frustratingly inconsistent. Even presuming a GM knows enough to understand a man’s true value, there is no guarantee that he will ever actually get that value embodied neatly within a season. More likely he gets a series of streaks and slumps that conspire to provide a year of sheer awesomeness followed by a year of comparative uselessness, and then age-related decline

Thirdly, and worst of all, there’s the injuries. The constant, inevitable, even intentional injuries that strike at totally random intervals and force one to patch up one’s carefully crafted, finely tooled, well-oiled machine with duct tape and silly putty. I have never been a GM and never will be, but if I were no hockey cliché would fill me with so much inchoate rage as the standard way of shrugging off injuries: “Good teams find a way to win.” Bullshit. Sometimes teams manage to play well through short stretches of injuries, but if it were possible to be just as good without your stars as with them than stars wouldn’t be stars, would they? Might as well just call up your whole AHL roster, pay them to the salary floor and be done with it. Unfortunately for the Bulldogs, though, there are plenty of bodies with rare skills that cannot be readily replaced, and every year some of those bodies get broken, and the plans of the GMs with them.

Gauthier/Gainey have gotten a lot of shit, not all of it unearned, but honestly- other than taking on the Gomez contract, which I still can’t agree with, although I do understand the logic- how many bad decisions are the Canadiens holding on their roster right now? The internally-drafted kids are coming along well, the UFA signings are at least legitimate talent if not exactly great values, and they’ve been able to dig up some obscure and unhearalded supporting cast members who can do the job well. We’re not carrying any goons, and my God, Gauthier deserves a fucking medal for making the right call on the Price/Halak ‘question’, public opinion be damned. There are always improvements that might be made, but given the small pool of players actually available for acquisition in any given season, most of them are no more than wishful thinking.

Point being, I can’t say if the man’s a genius but he sure as hell isn’t an idiot. But how much he can really do, given the structure of the League and the Canadiens place in it? From my limited outsider perspective, there are managers who routinely make terrible decisions whose teams are nevertheless on the rise, and some pretty shrewd GMs struggling to hold .500, because that’s the way the talent-distribution system is designed. It is possible to tank for talent and still fuck it up- see the former Thrashers and the current Islanders- but is it possible to improve from a mid-range team to a top-level team while still making the playoffs every year? With no top-ten picks whatsoever, either spent or traded?

The Chicago Model: yes, it’s a contemptible thing, but what exactly is the alternative? What exactly are the principles of GMing that could get the Habs back to greatness from where they are? Specifically, I mean, no vapid generalizations like ‘draft well in the lower rounds’ or ‘get more production out of your fourth line’. Any method that suggests an outcome without specifying the process by which that outcome is achieved is not credible. How do you draft better in the seventh round? How do you find free-floating unsigned players capable of acquitting themselves well in the NHL for next to nothing? How do you avoid overpaying for scoring if you can’t draft it?

I don’t know the answers to these things, but I’m starting to suspect nobody else does either. Hockey analysis is long on generalizations and short on specifics, and once upon a time I would have thought that the specifics were just carefully-guarded trade secrets, but now I’m not so sure. Lot of ex-insiders running around with media jobs; more than enough incentive to explain the minutiae of how good GMing works. If the knowledge isn’t out there, like as not the knowledge doesn’t exist at all.

So if you know (yes, you personally) the axioms of general management, please please please please do share, because I need to believe there is some way to get there from here without taking the free-fall in between.


Scott Reynolds said...

I tend to agree with the thrust of your article, but if I had to pick a general manager doing well, I'd go Doug Wilson. Not every move works out for the best, but he's consistently been willing to move significant assets in order to acquire star players in their prime, and he generally does a good job of moving up in the draft too. Both of those things help to acquire impact players, which is, in my view, the most difficult thing to achieve.

Trade Examples:

November 2005: Acquired Joe Thornton (26) for Wayne Primeau, Brad Stuart, and Marco Sturm.

July 2008: Acquired Dan Boyle (32) for Matt Carle, Ty Wishart, 2009 1st Rd. and 2010 4th Rd.

September 2009: Acquired Dany Heatley (28) for Jonathan Cheechoo, Milan Michalek and 2010 2nd Rd.

June 2011: Acquired Brent Burns (26) for Charlie Coyle, Devin Setoguchi and 2011 1st Rd.

July 2011: Acquired Martin Havlat (30) for Dany Heatley.

Draft Examples:

At 2005 draft he traded #12, #49 and #207 for #8.

At 2006 draft he traded #85, #113, and 2007 SJ 2nd Rd. for #36.

At 2006 draft he traded #20 and #53 for #16.

At 2007 draft he traded #13, #44 and #87 for #9.

At 2007 draft he traded #41 and #57 for #28.

At 2011 draft he traded #59 and 2012 3rd Rd. for #47.

E said...

thanks, this is exactly the sort of thing i'm looking for. my instinct was that the sharks do better than most but i was rather at a loss to explain how they were doing it, which you have addressed most clearly.

follow up question, though: with regards to trading particularly, do you think wilson has made better attempts than other gms or just been more successful? it seems like the sort of trades he makes are the kind of blockbuster deals that the media salivates over and plenty of other gms go in for, but either don't close or misread (i.e. overpay). so i wonder how much of that is his skill and how much of it is good fortune.

maybe everyone just wants to play in san jose. the winchester mystery mansion is pretty fucking awesome.

Scott Reynolds said...

I think that teams are generally too cautious when very good talents in their prime become available via trade at times other than the trade deadline, although I can understand why the acquisition of Gomez might have a Habs fan disagreeing on that point!

Wilson is fortunate that San Jose is a destination city (both because of the city itself and because the team is a consistent winner), but he also makes way more successful pitches than other teams, so I think some of his success is because of his willingness to part with good young players and high picks.

Doughboy said...

Hi Ellen, first-time commenter long-time Oilers fan.

Hope you don't mind if I speak to a few of your points.

1) Yeah, the storied Canadians franchise, in the greater context of Quebec/French Canada, is an entity unto itself. We're talking about something more than even a cherished hockey team. Arguments to the contrary are uninformed, and refusals to appreciate the admitted fact are, I suppose, a matter of taste (or good for a goad). Nor do I need to qualify the success of that team on ice, or its 24 cups, on the basis of the hockey eras or styles of play involved. Such arguments do apply, if 'lesserly,' to the years of the Oilers’ heyday: inflated scoring due to less refined systems play, lesser refinement of development systems (i.e. at the advent of hockey players as a professional caste), etc. Today's D-men, particularly, are held superior to those of previous eras.

But since we are talking draft picks, we need to address a point tied to much of the Habs’ success historically. For many years le Canadien had dibs, as by Right of Clergy, to the first pick among Francophone prospects, amounting to a top 2 pick every season regardless of the team’s end-of-season ranking. This in addition to, and not in place of, their regularly allotted draft position (I’m pretty sure. Need to fact-check that). So if we’re talking history, dynasties, and les Habitants, we have to make that mention.

Doughboy said...

2) It is too much to say that the Habs have done nothing lately. I lived through the dynasty Oilers, so it took some time to understand that trips to the Stanley Cup Final aren’t the norm. That said, some of my most riveting Oilers memories involve first round upsets but second round exits. The excitement and satisfaction of Oilers over Dallas, and there an end, was the first inroad to empathy with fans of lesser hockey franchises. Montreal battling one and two through Washington and Pittsburgh? Both favourites for the conference? Don’t tell me that wasn’t huge for you at the time, or that that time is very far gone. Besides. Imagine if this were pro baseball (though I believe they just added seeds).

Doughboy said...

3.1) I must contest the assertion that the draft, in its current or previous forms, operates as a preventative mechanism to the creation or continuation of dynasties. Look instead toward owner finances and to the current cap system. And of course to luck, as you point out. (And latterly to the erg of team culture, personality).

The aforementioned Oilers lucked out in the form of prospects drafted low and high (e.g Messier at 48th overall). That team fell apart solely b/c of owner financing. The woulda shoulda couldas are the hardest part of being an Oilers fan who remembers that era. Ten cups minimum, we say. Anyways. Following the dynasty, the Oil were middling to lower end for a good long while, but continued to acquire and develop exceptional talent only to see it fly away. Though the Oilers became a farm team to the league entire, they demonstrated an ability to transmute a roster of elite talent into exceptional talent, to strong to middling to...well. It was not the draft system that dictated this slide, but money. Money being no object, a dynasty echo could have persisted beyond the *full* careers of Gretz et al (or not). Who knows.

Doughboy said...

Winning upholds winning. Not necessarily, but possibly. At least it once had a better chance. Money had once been no object in places like Detroit, a team able to hold the top talent that came to it, able to attract outside talent by virtue of a roster featuring such draws as Steve Yzerman (later Lidstrom), and able to cover costs for the whole kit. Detroit like Edmonton has lucked out hard at the draft table, but a cap-free NHL might have secured Motor City a cup or two more the past few years, and moreover secured Red Wing dominance until such time as truly horrendous luck, or out-and-out mismanagement, finally intervened. In other words, without the cap we mightn’t now be talking of the Red Wings’ decline. Mightn’t.

Forgetting Edmonton and Detroit both, say an unadulterated hockey genius lands as GM some place like New York. In the old days, theoretically at least, a strong team core could be cobbled together by simply outpaying the other guys, and then supplemented/solidified via trades/drafts. Once the formula of genius + money paid off, or peaked in the form of a cup, it would then achieve the mass critical to recouping cup runs as part of a short and habitual cycle. If not this year then next, and this without delusion (Think recent successes of Yankees [but not recent flubs]). There are always reversals, but the genius of this mythical GM would ride the ebb and flow not to mediocrity, as you suggest for your beloved Canadians, but to glory.

NY’s a good hypothetical because the metropolis itself, aside from the east as a whole, is a good draw for on-ice personnel. But this hypothetical GM, if ever (s)he was or could be, is according to the terms of the present collective bargaining agreement too constrained. The present arrangement is unforgiving, and makes genius insufficient to the negotiation of dynasty. It’s just too difficult to manage one’s mistakes. Want to buy out a bad contract? Well, that counts against the cap. Want to bury a contract in the minors? That’s your prerogative, and it might not cost you your job, but it hurts the ‘soft’ draw of team reputation. The cap even hedges against the stupidity of other management groups. Want to toss that contract at a truly moronic GM? For a likely top five pick? For his top prospect? He would if he could, but he’s at the ceiling. Lucky or not, deserving or not, it’s little stretch to say that the recent Chicago championship team, if it had held together, would at this moment be threatening dynasty, or else be poised to stand as the Detroit of this decade. Oops, cap.

None of this is intended as any kind of repudiation of the NHL Collective Bargaining Agreement, soon to expire, of which I’m more or less a fan. And this last point is too much energy to have expended, I think, in response to what I imagine was a passing, throw-away comment. I suppose the best way to close is to sound rousing agreement with Gauthier’s trading Halak in the wake of that playoff run:

A medal? How about bronzed elephant balls.

Doughboy said...

4) In retrospect, I should have just posted this somewhere and linked it.

E said...

holy shit, that's a lot of commentary. i like it! really! but it's going to take me some time to get to all of it.

#1 paragraph 2 is easy, though: the 'french player' draft rights for the canadiens only applied to players who had not been signed to a c-form prior to age 18, in an era when almost every kid with potential was signed at 15 or younger. in the entire history of the rule, only three of the players the canadiens took under it ever played in the nhl, the most successful being rejean houle. there have been a bunch of debunkings of the whole myth on the various habs sites, but somehow they never seem to get any play in the overall media. here's a pretty thorough one, though:

Doughboy said...

Uh, that first point was a softy, meant to warm you up.(Godammit Espisto, I can't trust even your spoken word.)

This is in fact the third time this month I've been burnt by forwarding something I sort-of-knew. Never again. Never ever will I stand, again, behind something for which I am not a first-hand witness, or for which I do not have primary documentation.

That will learn me.

E said...

hey, don't feel bad, it's a really common mistake among non-specialists.

on to #2: you're right, it was huge for me, but it was huge in a very ambivalent way. i mean, i loved it, but the whole time i didn't dare trust it, because it was a very chancy thing riding on an unspeakably wonderful but wholly aberrant goaltending performance. it felt like being a spoiler rather than a winner, you know?

that's probably due for a post in it's own right, since i wasn't writing much then.

Doughboy said...

Yeah, that's right! I'm not a specialist. Thanks for the out :)

And yeah, I know. It's just that by the time the Oilers finally won a series again, my expectations had been beaten down to zilch. I just hoped they won a game, or managed scoring above that for Canada's showing at the World Cup of soccer.

Also: 24 cups is a lot, I guess. But now that you've taken away unfair drafting I *do* want to qualify it somehow. At any rate. Edmonton's almost ten is almost half that.

E said...

okay, on to 3.1-

my knowledge of hockey in the 80s/90s is still pretty weak, so i just have to take your description of the oilers at face value, but i agree that i should probably have acknowledged that the cap plays a role in making drafted talent so essential, in that it forces every team to think about efficiency rather than only those teams with cheap/poor ownership. another element might be that drafting has gotten much more sophisticated in the past couple decades- just the sheer speed and convenience of sharing information and video across tremendous distances probably makes it easier for all teams to have a pretty good idea of all players. i would suspect that back in the day you could get great talent in the lower rounds if you were looking carefully in underscouted areas, but now that's not so easy.

Doughboy said...

Ah you've been a gamer. You can worry less about 3.2 and more about doin what you do.

Besides, with Detroit I may be talking through my hat again (not from certain knowledge). They just seemed rich back when the Oilers were on a shoestring and their own prospects started calling them things like "communist."

Anonymous said...

It can't be both true that the WAR of good players is insignificant and that injuries hobble a well-built team. If the WAR of the best players is totally not the same as the impact of them being injured, that means it's being calculated incorrectly.

As for draft pix, it's my sense that the expectation value of a draft pick falls off very sharply somewhere early-mid-1st round and I guess someone out there has run some kind of stats to figure out where that inflexion point is and how to leverage it into trade wins.

Asidewise, maybe you're right and a team has to be terrible once in a while, but there can be different styles to terribleness, also.

E said...

hmmmmm. that is most excellent point re: WAR/injuries. will give it more thought/research and revisit it in another post, okay?

what do you mean by 'different styles of terribleness'?