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Playing Moneyball

by Jeff Paterson / Vancouver Canucks
 Just because Mike Gillis is on record as subscribing to the Moneyball theory of building and managing, don’t look for the new man in charge of the Vancouver Canucks to be in any hurry to add a switch-hitter with a knack for avoiding double plays or a slugger who can’t hit a fastball but still draws his share of walks. Those types of players might help the Canucks off-season slo-pitch team, but they won’t do anything to make the on-ice version of the Canucks any better.

But if Gillis can get his hands on hockey’s equivalent to those types of undervalued and underappreciated players, it’s a good bet they’ll be part of the mix when the new-look Canucks assemble for training camp in September.

Moneyball is the name of a 2003 book that examined the success of Major League Baseball’s Oakland A’s, who managed to compete with the sport’s heavy financial hitters despite operating with a substantially lower budget. The A’s managed to do much of that by thinking outside the box when it came to player evaluation and development. The term has now been adopted into the sports lexicon and has come to represent any team that operates with the belief that conventional wisdom and clinging to long-held truths is no longer the only way to do business.

Jeff Paterson is a Team 1040 broadcaster and a regular contributor to the Georgia Straight.

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In that regard, Mike Gillis is vowing to take a different approach to assessing and evaluating talent whether it’s for next month’s National Hockey League entry draft or for his first foray into the unrestricted free agent market. And on Monday, Gillis introduced 43-year-old Laurence Gilman as the Canucks new director of Hockey Administration. The former assistant general manager of the Phoenix Coyotes will serve as the Canucks’ ‘capologist’ helping Gillis on all hockey matters as they pertain to the collective bargaining agreement allowing the hockey club to spend its money most effectively. Gilman’s hiring should also allow the new GM to focus his energy on team-building rather than getting bogged down in contract negotiations.

As far as the draft is concerned, the Canucks have always been among that group of teams looking to take the best player available and allowing him to take his time in junior and the minors to develop. Perhaps Gillis and the Canucks will employ a radically different approach this year and look for the player most-likely to make the jump to the NHL and step in to immediately help the hockey club. It’s been a while since the Canucks have had a junior-age player in their line-up on a regular basis. In today’s NHL, where youth comes at a salary-cap friendly price, several teams have had great success allowing top draft picks to get on the job experience in the best league in the world.

Another area the Canucks have not been terribly active in the past but might explore a little more is the undrafted crop of NCAA players. Guys in this group are usually a little older and more mature and may need less time to develop on the farm before they can step in and help the big club.

When July 1st rolls around, the Canucks will be one of several NHL teams with the resources to be active in the unrestricted free agent market. But throwing big money after big names isn’t necessarily the way to go. Adhering to the principles of Moneyball, Gillis will have to decide if the Canucks will be better off spending $6 million a season on a one-dimensional 40-goal headliner who can win hockey games on his own or finding a pair of 20-goal scorers who also possess other attributes that can help the club who’ll play for $3 million a piece.

But the idea employed by the Oakland A’s – and now copied by organizations in all team sports – wasn’t so much about looking at things like offensive output to determine a player’s true worth to a franchise. The A’s examined all sorts of statistics in an attempt to find those things that players did well that were undervalued by other clubs, but that ultimately were the important things when it came to winning.

It’s that type of evaluation process that Mike Gillis wants to put in place to help get the Canucks to the top of the NHL heap. Maybe it’s finding players who score third-period goals or goals when games are tied. Perhaps it’s finding players who perform well in divisional contests since those have such an impact on how a team fares in the regular season. Maybe it comes down to looking at a guy’s shooting percentage instead of the number of goals he’s scored and then put him in better offensive situations. Or perhaps his production compared to the amount of ice time he had needs to be looked at. Or even the number of penalties he draws that lead to power plays and scoring chances for his hockey club. Defensively, maybe preventing a goal is actually more important than scoring one at the other end of the ice.

There are so many little things that go into making good hockey players and ultimately it’s a collection of guys who do all of those little things well that make great hockey teams.It’s no longer enough for NHL clubs to look for the biggest guys around and then find out if they can skate. Now it’s about scouring the planet to find the best available talent and fitting it all in under the salary cap. Times have changed and teams have no choice but to change along with them.

As Mike Gillis begins shaping the Vancouver Canucks for next season, he’s vowing to bring a fresh and unique perspective to assessing his team’s needs. It’s all about looking for things that others don’t see in a player and then finding a way to get the biggest bang for the buck.

The talent evaluation is entering the home stretch and six weeks from now the Vancouver Canucks will start putting the pieces of next season’s puzzle in place. That’s when Mike Gillis will get the chance to step into the batters box and ‘play ball’ – Moneyball, that is. But it won’t be until this time next year that we all know if Gillis and the Canucks have successfully employed their unconventional methods to hit a hockey ‘home run’.
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