If you've read my blog at all, or listened to me on the radio, you know a theme of mine is the ever-evolving influence of advanced stats in sports, or “analytics.” When the book Moneyball by Michael Lewis came out in June of 2003, few sports fans (including me, a hard-core baseball fan) had any understanding of what the Oakland Athletics were really doing and how it worked. Not only did the core fans not know, but virtually no other Major League Baseball general managers were using advanced stats as a tool to make decisions.
Fast forward to today, and times have changed. Whereas at one time it was fun for execs to poke fun at this number crunching - insert: “These nerds doing these stats have never played the game” line - that seldom happens anymore. Now, in all major sports, if you aren’t using analytics as a tool on some level? The joke is on you.
Just like in the other major leagues, NHL front offices and media constantly debate on the true value of these “fancy stats.” But now virtually everyone is paying attention, including the Nashville Predators. In a salary cap world where a few bad contracts can put you at a disadvantage for years to come, you must use everything at your disposal to constantly tackle questions like:
- What players are really worth investing big money in for the long term and which are not?
- Are there players on the free-agent market who are inexpensive but have hidden value?
While General Manager David Poile doesn't go into detail on how he balances the “old school” evaluations (scouts’ takes, traditional stats and simple observation) with analytics, it's clear that he and his group are influenced by advanced stats more so than just a few years ago.
Let's take the Preds’ free agent signing of Cody Hodgson for example. Rob Vollman of HockeyAbstract.com recently wrote an article on "Moneypuck" players and how to define them.
According to Vollman, two elements of a Moneypuck player would be:
- The ability to contribute in ways that are undervalued (in the free-agent marketplace).
- Something outside the player's control that artificially deflated their own value.
For Hodgson, the key stat to look at is shooting percentage, both individually and what his team did while he was on the ice. In his first three seasons, the former first-round pick's scoring totals were as follows:
|2011-12 ||VAN/BUF ||83 GP ||19 G ||22 A ||41 PTS |
|2012-13 ||BUF ||48 GP ||15 G ||19 A ||34 PTS |
|2013-14 ||BUF ||72 GP ||20 G ||24 A ||44 PTS |
Hodgson had solid numbers during the 2010-11 to 2013-14 seasons (at the ages of 22 to 24), which earned him a big pay raise. But last year for the struggling Buffalo Sabres, his production dropped off a cliff (78 games: 6g-7a), prompting the Sabres to buy him out of the contract. With that, his value on the open market dropped, and Nashville was able to scoop him up for just $1.05 million for the upcoming season.
Now, back to shooting percentage. In the NHL, the average shooting percentage over the last eight to 10 seasons has been between nine and 10 percent for all players. For forwards who are expected to score, the number should be higher, more like 11-15 percent. In Hodgson's first three seasons, his percentage fell right in that range. However, there are seasons where an individual player's shooting percentage varies greatly with either good or bad luck. For example, the Calgary Flames’ Jiri Hudler scored on 19.6 percent of his shots last year, and piled up a career-high 31 goals. That is not likely to repeat this year.
For Hodgson, it went the other way, as he connected on only 4.7 percent of his shots. That’s an extremely low total, even if you believe his level of play dropped. You can speculate that there will be a rebound, or to use an analytic term, a "regression to the mean.” Think Predators forward Craig Smith in 2012-13 when he had a similar nightmare, scoring four goals in 44 games with a 4.8 percent shooting rate. He has rebounded since as we know with back-to-back, 20-plus goal seasons.
Going a bit deeper into the fancy stats, Vollman looks at the Sabres 5.4 percent team shooting percentage when Hodgson was on ice - it's a ridiculously low rate even when considering Buffalo's overall poor talent pool.
Does this guarantee Cody Hodgson bounces back this year? Of course not. First, he has to earn the ice time and create opportunities for himself. But the numbers provide a clear cause for optimism. Vollman summarizes it this way:
"Ultimately, Hodgson is a 25-year-old who can score 20 goals and 40 points, while adding depth to the power play and the list of shootout options, and without hurting the team in terms of puck possession. That's a tremendous value for a no-risk, one-year, $1.05 million deal."
To win big in the NHL or any major league team sport, you need contributions from players not making big money - especially in the salary cap era. Cody Hodgson is a guy hungry to rebound, and the analytics suggest he can.