Wednesday, July 6, 2011

why everyone will be traded forever amen

0. Introduction: Confusion Is Sex

So it's been some baffling months for the Avalanche faithful. The organEYEzation seems locked into a give-with-one-hand, take-with-the-other paradigm, everybody agrees that the team refuses to advertise for shit and is faceless except for Burnaby Joe Sakic (hallowed be his name) in the front office, and it's just not clear at all that there's any kind of actual plan in place.

That last point bears some elaboration. Early last season, when the team was half-ass good, the plan seemed to be: be the fastest team in the NHL (especially on defense). Moose of a Dman Colby Cohen was traded for sprite Matt Hunwick, strong defensive Dman Scott Hannan was booted to the curb in favor of feathery-but-clutch-as-fuck Fleishmann, and by the All-Star break, the Avs had ended up with a well-deserved and accurate reputation for having a tiny, mobile, fast (and useless) defensive corps. This stopped working after a while.

At that point, it appeared that the brain trust shit the fucking bed with panic: they banished Kevin Shattenkirk, who'd months before been the future of their blue line, along with Chris Stewart, one of the two or three best young power forwards in the game and a marketer's absolute wet dream, for behemoth all-rounder of a Dman Erik Johnson, best known for (a) being a disappointment of a highest-pick-in-the-draft and (b) losing a season to a ripped-up knee earned in a golf cart accident. They strode forth and acquired 6-5 Ryan O'Bryne, who's who Colby Cohen wants to grow up and turn into.

In other words, the team seemed to be in full retreat from what it had established as its identity, jettisoning two young players who had proved themselves to be at worst competent NHL contributors,* and making multiple moves designed to slow down and beef up the defensive side of the roster.

*And it's still bullshit of the highest water that Chris Stewart wasn't an All-Star last year.

1. The Deepening: Wallow in That Muddied Water

Since then, the following:

  1. drafting a physical, dickish young Dman who won't sniff the NHL for a half-decade or so
  2. drafting a canonical man-among-boys player who is huge for his age and probably not coincidentally has dominated players his age
  3. signing a solid, stolid defensively-minded Dman with excellent size--except he's 33 and signed to a four-year deal
  4. picking up a depth forward who looks like he's been a decent power play contributor
  5. replacing last year's worst-in-class goaltending tandem* with one young guy and one old guy, both worrisomely injury-prone--and the young guy cost a first-round draft pick, suggesting strongly that:
  6. the rebuild is over

*Check it:

a league-worst 3.45 goals-against average and .890 save percentage

But if the rebuild's over? Why in the holy hell did the squad also:

  • ditch their best offensive defenseman, receiving only a future second-round pick, in what has generally been interpreted as a straight salary dump?

None of it hangs together, none of it makes any sense. Or anyway, that's what I thought until the afternoon of 3jul2011, when I had either a stroke or a flash of insight.

2. Taste My Deep Strokes Insights

The Avalanche are trying to run a MoneyPuck organEYEzation.

To elaborate on that will require a digression into two of America's dullest pastimes: baseball and misinterpreting clearly-written texts.

Moneyball has been misportrayed wildly since it came out. I'm not going to bother playing Whack-a-Mole with the wrong versions that've proliferated, I'm just going to explain what the book actually describes and its application to the Avs. The misperception is that the book concerns the Oakland As, who used advanced statistical analysis and a deep distrust for conventional wisdom to win lots of regular season games but not playoff games. This is essentially incorrect.

There was exactly one "advanced statistic" the As front office was actually interested in: the ratio of wins to dollars spent. Every other statistic the front office used to build a squad was an epiphenomenon. The As asked how a team could win the most games on the lowest payroll and reached the obvious conclusion: find something that (a) contributes to wins and (b) that other teams undervalue and (c) acquire as much of that thing as possible as cheaply as possible. At the time, that meant non-conventional pitchers (Barry Zito, Chad Bradford) and players with bad bodies and good on-base percentage. Why? Respectively, because (1) non-conventional pitchers could (a) be effective and (b) be gotten cheaply. And because (2) their analyses suggested that on-base percentage contributed more to winning games than other statistics did. (And those bad-body players could, again, be gotten on the cheap.)

A subtle corrolary of the As approach was this: personnel moves were not about one player and another; they were--always--about the core "statistic": wins gained per dollars spent. The crucial move illustrating this corrolary was losing all-world hitter Jason Giambi and getting better as a team. The guy was great: he kicked ass; he cost a lot of money; he left for nothing; the team won more games the next year.

This, I suggest, is the lens through which the Avalanche personnel moves in the Greg Sherman era must be judged.*,**

*Review the bulk of these moves in the indispensible and insightful Anyone But Detroit post.
**The other key here is this: Jibblescribbits is wrong--there wasn't a rebuild phase and now it's over; this is SOP going forward, Just The Way It Is like Bruce Hornsby said. They're not "building from within", they're just flipping assets over & over again.

3. Explaining the Past

My anguish over losing productive John-Michael Liles is, given this perspective, completely beside the point: Sherman, I argue, is calculating that the contributions to winning Liles made simply weren't worth his 4+million wing-wangs/year. Sherman's not wagering that he can score a player superior to Liles with the draft pick he got for him: he's wagering that he can replace Liles' effectiveness and save money doing it.

This perspective offers some insight into the roster changes made on defense beyond Liles, too: I suspect that Sherman decided (a) defensive speed was undervalued and that (b) it was about to become overvalued. So he stockpiled it. Then he started trying to acquire assets he thought were more useful for winning (non-fast Dmen O'Byrne, Johnson, Lilja) while moving/losing assets he thought were overvalued in the marketplace (Fleishmann/Shattenkirk/Stewart). (Also just possible that he decided speed was undervalued but not that important for the winning of hockey games: for this latter point, he had some ample motherfucking evidence in the Avs' performance last year.)

One crucial piece of evidence supporting my theory about what Sherman is up to is this: he traded Chris Stewart. I claim that nothing is as attractive to Team B as Team A's young power forward. Check the trades: GMs love picking up a young power forward and they will pay a real premium to do it. --Don't get me wrong: I would never, ever have traded Chris Stewart. But I might have traded Kevin Shattenkirk, because it's not clear to me that "puck-moving defensemen" are very rare. Useful on the ice? To be sure. Hard to find? I'm not so sure. Whereas a defenseman like Erik Johnson, who can play in all situations and has size, skating ability and a high degree of hockey skill is exceedingly rare* and arguably extremely valuable for win-producing.

*The San Jose Sharks, who are an absolutely superb hockey team in every respect, don't have one. The closest Tampa Bay can come is Eric Brewer, who is exceedingly comparable to Erik Johnson + 8 years. The Canucks don't have a Dman like that and they should have won the Cup last year!

I'm not going to go through every single move of Sherman's career to convince anybody that my idea about what he's up to is right. Instead, I'm going to extrapolate and make a couple predictions.

4. Your Future (If You Have One)

If Sherman wants to maximize the wins he can get per dollar he spends--take a big breath, Avs fans--don't expect a big raise for Matt Duchene. Expect him to get traded for a top-five draft pick before he comes due for his second contract. In general, expect all good young players to be traded before their raises come due.*

*This ties in with the otherwise-baffling reluctance of the Avs to advertise their actual players. The As found that fans would come support a team that won, regardless of the marketing/marketability of their players. The Avs are likely to be banking on the same.

Expect other roster churn: the Avs will be one of the most active players on the trade market, always. Moves will tend to be central/tangible assets (Liles...and this fucking kills me Stastny) for peripheral/cheap/intangible ones: good players for draft picks, All-Stars for depth forwards, and the moves will always, always save money instead of costing it.

Finally, if I'm right and if this what's going on, don't expect the Avs to contend for a championship: that's not Sherman's goal. Sherman's goal is to get as far as possible without spending money. His Grail is to be the most efficient team in the league, not the champion of it. This means first and second-round playoff exits around the salary floor year after year, and a steady stream of new players replacing proven ones...

5. Wrap It Up (dunno if I'll take it)

I'm not judging this strategy (yet): I'm just trying to describe what I'm now sure is going on. Nor am I saying that Sherman is good at the strategy he's trying to implement--one of the crucial components of the As success is that the undervalued commodity they were interested in was well-established and well-understood, and easy to identify and verify. So far as I know, there is nothing even close in hockey to the statistical precision and accuracy available to baseball. This (so sadly fucked) fact introduces considerable capacity for error as Sherman marches forth. If he's wrong about what contributes to wins, Avs fans are in for some deep hurting: because he's going to be getting as much of that as he can as cheap as he can. Brad Richards isn't great, but a team with him is sure as hell likelier to win than the same team without him, and Sherman's not even in the conversation about adding him.

6. For the record, the team that scores more goals is by definition the one that wins the game (good to think)

One final note: one thing Sherman seems convinced he can replace on the cheap is goals for. The intensely productive and indisputably offensively gifted Fleishmann cost a valuable (but expensive) shutdown defenseman; Fleishmann was allowed to walk away for no return after playing a scant 21 games. Assist machine Shattenkirk and team-best goal-scorer Chris Stewart were flicked away for a number-one Dman who might match in a career Stewart's last two years of goal production.

What I fervently hope this means is that Sherman is all like "shit, with playmakers like Matt Duchene & Paul Stastny around, goals are gonna happen: we're going to build around these exquisite setup men--who both have more than adequate finish, by the way--and let them improve whoever they play with."

But I kind of doubt it.

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