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How to Build a Cup Contender in Atlanta, Part 4

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The Atlanta Thrashers sit in a big market with big potential (Part 1), but they haven't come close to building a Cup contender and are now caught in a ugly cycle of low revenue, low payroll, low talent and low attendance (Part 3). In the long run, the Atlanta market has the potential to generate revenues comparable to Dallas (around 10th in the NHL) but to earn that revenue will require winning a lot of hockey games. Therefore, the Thrashers must build a Cup contender on a budget because of their low revenue status.

Can You Contend for the Stanley Cup on a Budget?

In Part 2 of this series, I looked at past Cup winners (1980-2009) and found that 90% of Cup winners finished very high in the regular season (between #1 and #6 overall in the NHL). Therefore, I define a Cup contender as a top six team in the final NHL regular season standings. Can you build a Cup worthy team on a below average budget? Yes, you can. Using salary data from the last 10 NHL seasons, I found that 18 out of 60 teams that meet my definition of "contender quality" were constructed with a below average payroll. After the jump we will take a look at those teams to see if any patterns emerge among these "cheap" contender clubs.

What do these 18 budget-minded contenders have in common? Can are notable characteristics of an affordable Cup quality team? To answer these questions I put together the table below. In this table I list each team, their payroll compared to the rest of the NHL, and where this club ranked in multiples key areas: goal scoring, goal prevention, special teams, save, shot and faceoff percentages and bonus points.

Chart 1: Cup Contenders on a Budget: NHL Rank by Category (Cup Winners in bold)

Year Team Payroll % (100% = NHL Average)
Goals For Rank Goals Against Rank Goal Differential Rank Power Play % Penalty Kill % Save % Shoot % Face Off % OT/SO Bonus Points Won
1998 BUF 96% 17 3 10 20 18 1 14 23 8
1998 PIT 96% 7 4 6 11 9 3 4 16 10
1999 NJD 93% 2 6 3 4 11 16 8 13 5
1999 OTT 71% 5 3 2 15 8 7 12 22 21
2000 NJD 99% 2 7 4 3 3 14 20 16 24
2000 WSH 90% 14 4 7 21 7 2 14 2 5
2001 OTT 90% 3 9 3 10 3 8 5 21 20
2003 OTT 67% 3 5 1 2 10 11 5 26 6
2004 OTT 90% 1 8 1 1 18 16 1 27 21
2004 SJS 79% 11 4 12 14 7 1 12 24 22
2004 TBL 76% 3 11 3 16 10 14 6 16 18
2006 BUF 84% 5 10 3 3 2 9 4 17 11
2006 CAR 91% 3 20 10 17 19 15 2 5 8
2006 NSH 86% 11 8 8 10 5 1 11 1 17
2007 NSH 94% 5 8 4 18 3 2 2 12 14
2008 PIT 96% 7 10 4 4 1 4 3 30 19
2008 SJS 90% 19 3 5 10 23 15 22 8 12
2008 NJD 88% 15 4 5 15 20 4 25 9 1
Average Rank 88% 7.3 7.1 5.1 10.8 9.8 8.1 9.4 16.0 13.4


A few things jump out. Cheap contenders are elite with respect to both goal scoring and goal prevention and they have outstanding Goal Differential numbers. Goal Differential is the single most important in terms of predicting regular season outcomes. Goal Differential alone predicts 93% of the NHL standings over the last 50 years. Of the two our cheap contenders had a slight tendency to be better at Goal Prevention than Goal Scoring, but it was quite close.

The next more important thing was not having fantastic special teams, but having above average TEAM goaltending (SV%) and above average finishing (ST%). These teams with a high SV% ranking often had quality back ups netminders (cough, replace Hedberg, cough). Some of the teams on this list had Hasek and Brodeur but other clubs had non-Hall of Fame level goalies.

Another factor here is good luck. There is powerful evidence that Even Strength Shot % at the team level is essentially a random variable--in plain English--at ES there is no real gap between NHL teams' ability to finish off chances. This sounds very shocking the first time you read it, but it is a very real pattern. A team that is "good" at finishing one season is highly likely to regress to the NHL mean as time passes--at the team level a "good" shooting percentage is not sustainable from one season to the next (unlike good offense or good defense which do persist over time). Now a team can beat the odds--and be "hot" or "lucky" for an entire year--but in the long run the odds will catch up to you (luckiest 2009 team the Boston Bruins). Now, if you are a NHL GM you can't plan on good luck, so you should concentrate on the things that you can control and pray that Fortune will smile on you and give your club a full season of helpful bounces and calls.

Things that matter less than you might expect: Special Teams matter, but what really marks a budget contender isn't a hot power play but the ability to score at Even Strength. Of the two special teams areas, the Penalty Kill rates as more important. Special teams run hot and cold (and they can be lucky and unlucky as well) but quality teams are good at outscoring the opposition at Even Strength.

One thing that REALLY does not correlate well with budget contenders is Faceoff %--arguably the single most over-rated stat in hockey in my opinion. Faceoffs Win % is very poorly correlated with who wins an individual game and which teams do well over a full season. Faceoffs matter but not in the way most NHL observers think. It isn't who wins the faceoff that is crucial but WHERE the faceoff occurs. Bit-by-bit analysis by Vic Ferrari and Tyler Dellow and others point that hockey is not a game of "puck possession" but "puck position"--all things being equal the team that plays in their opponent's end is more likely to win the game and finish high in the standings.

My final observation from Table 1 is that budget contenders won 3 Stanley Cups in the last 10 NHL seasons. Here is the best news of all Thrasher fan: If you build a "budget" contender it has an equal chance of winning the CUP as a "luxury" contender does. In these admittedly small sample, 3 out of 18 budget contenders won for a 17% success rate, while 7 out of 42 "luxury" contenders won for a 17% success rate. Lesson? The puck has no idea if your team was cheap or expensive--the puck only responds to talent, "cheap-but-talented" is equal to "expensive-and-talented".

What Type of Team Should the Atlanta Thrashers be Building?

Chart 1 above clearly shows that it is possible to build a variety of budget contenders. You will find great offensive teams with average puck prevention and you will find great defensive teams with a pedestrian offense. So my next major point is not supported by data, but by logic. Which is cheaper to build an offensive oriented team or a defensive oriented team? Another way to ask the question is: "Which area does the NHL as a league struggle to price accurately--offense or defense?"

I believe that NHL prices offense very accurately because there is clear set of data (Goals-Assist-Points) that everyone uses and understands (even if that indicator is imperfect). Any 13 year old hockey fan can list off the top scorer on his team and the top scorers in the NHL. Offense is well quantified and offense ALWAYS gets paid.

Is the same true for defense? I think not. If we had a defensive stat called "goals prevented" that had existed for 75 years the way G-A-PTS has existed, then the playing field between offense and defense might be equal, but we don't. Assessing defense is much less obvious and much trickier.Goal Differential is an extremely accurate predictor of the standings--if you think about that for a moment and you realize that a GOAL PREVENTED IS EQUALLY VALUABLE AS A GOAL SCORED! Defense is much less accurately priced in the NHL, therefore a GM looking to build a contender on a budget ought to construct a great defensive team because that is where the bargains are more likely to be found. (Please note that I'm not saying all defensive players are cheap, Wade Redden is grossly overpaid, but on average a quality defensive player is more likely to be underpaid than a quality offensive player is.)

Now let me admit that my personal preference is for up tempo high scoring hockey. But I prefer watching wins more than I prefer watching offensive hockey. I would happily trade watching another high scoring loss at Philips Arena for some Predators style wins. Fans love seeing Kovalchuk score, but walking out the door a winner is what brings them back for more--not style points.

If you're a NHL GM of a low revenue team you must assemble a top six finisher to have a decent shot at winning the Stanley Cup. I have argued that a GM is more likely to find bargains (aka "market inefficiencies" in economic language) on defense because it is harder to measure. The good news is that major strides have been made in the measurement of defense and who moves the puck. Two years ago the NHL changed the way they reported their ice time data and we can now see who was on the ice for every shot and every faceoff (thanks to Vic Ferrari). We can now figure out which players are more likely to play in the other team's end (ahem, Colby Armstrong) and which ones are spending the game retreating into their own end (hello Eric Boulton!).

A GM that embraces and uses these new indicators of "puck position" is much more likely to discover quality "undervalued" (meaning "under paid") players and therefore gain a critical edge in the hyper-competitive environment of the NHL. In the cut throat world of the NHL, every GM should be asking "how can I get the most points out of my payroll?' which then leads to "how can I assemble a great puck position team given my payroll?" What concerns me most about the Thrashers is that I'm not even sure they realize they should be asking themselves that 2nd question. Every player should be evaluated using both your grandfather's stats (G-A-PTS) but also the new ones like Corsi Number and Zone Shift Rating.

Conclusion: When faced with a hyper competitive environment in which you must compete at a disadvantage (less $) the optimal strategy is to take the under-valued route (defense first) to your goal (contender status). The new measurement tools (Corsi, Zone Shift) make this route easier than in the past. Will the Thrashers travel the shortest road to contention? When a franchise is floundering it needs more than a seat-of-the-pants strategy to pull out of the tailspin.

Next Post (Part 5): Building Through the Draft