Applied Soccernomics: Part I

I’ve been currently reading an excellent book called: Soccernomics: Why England Loses, Why Germany and Brazil Win, and Why the U.S., Japan, Australia, Turkey– And Even Iraq — Are Destined to Become the Kings of the World’s Most Popular Sport. Aside from the absurdly long title, the book is an amalgamation of the only two things I actually enjoy reading during college; economics and sports.  Throughout chapters of the book, I’ve tried to find areas in which the analyses of sports writer, Simon Kuper and economist, Stefan Szymanksi could be relayed to the beloved NHL. The book centres on finding relations on and off the field. They assess data from countries’ demographics, economic output and other indicators in an attempt to find a correlation for the success (or failure) of international and pro club soccer teams. Some other chapters are dedicated to the intricacies of the game’s actions as an shining example of econometrics at work. Econometrics as it is described in the book as the ability to “taking the data down into the basement and torturing them until they confess”. Though in trying to write this article there are difficulties in trying to compare the two sports in general. From terminologies, league structures, fan cultures. I’ll try to clear them up as they appear.

Somehow only economists are excused for run-on sentences.

One chapter in particular I’ve looked at trying to see if it would work translated into the NHL. In the book, there is a chapter that focuses on the transfer market. A system completely foregin to North American professional sports, at least within in the last 40 years. This is thanks to the Curtis Flood court challenges in the 70s that looked to circumvent the substantial ownership of players that was held by professional baseball clubs in North America. Since this time, the NHL, NBA, MLB, and NFL have instead a system of free agency that will allow the players negotiate their own transfer to different teams and negotiate wages on their own accord.

For the first post, I’ll look at the rule suggested by the authors: A new manager wastes money on Transfers.

It’d probably be best to break down the terminology to get a firmer grasp of the rule to equivocate it to the NHL. For one, managers in soccer have the same duties as both the general manger and coach in hockey. They are primarily responsible for the management of roster on and off the pitch field. The management of the roster on the field (or ice) is pretty self-explanatory for either fan of the game and is easily translated for either or; minus the schematics of the game.

It is the transfer market where trying to translate the games becomes difficult. New managers in soccer often try to make a big splash on and off the field. They may change the soccer strategies that is reflective of their own strategies that they have focused on. Off the field, the acquisition of marquee players or picking up role players to fill areas which were deemed as a deficieny in previous iterations of the team. They will typically overpay as reflected in the price paid compared to the market price. While talking about professional athletes this does suggest that the labour market for their skills is in high demand.

In hockey, GM’s are typically responsible for the acquisition of new players and other roster management tasks. They will often be asked right away, if they will be making big moves once they get in to their position without even properly assessing their teams. The hiring of a GM is typically a hastily process. To a point where eventual GMs may not have a full assessment of what the team’s needs are without being given an appropriate amount of time to go over the organization. For those, who would say that teams now are as transparent as ever with the amount of information and technologies available. Then why are we still questioning the moves teams will make regarding lineups and roster adjustments. It’s simply because we’re on the outside as observers and not part of the complex system that is running a professional hockey roster which extends all the way from it’s 1st line forwards to recent draftees who are still developing within their respective  junior leagues.

Though one of the signature moves when a new GM is signed or promoted is for an adjustment to the roster in a way that implants that GM’s presence as the new admiral of the ship. Of the recent promotions since 2010, 5 of 7 GM promotions have commited this act. The two omitted GMs are Pierre Gauthier of Montreal and Kevin Cheveldayoff of Winnipeg. In Pierre’s case, his employment with the Canadiens has been for an extended period of time that it didn’t seem necessary to really add his imprint on the team. He had been the assistant GM since 2006, and been director of scouting for the team since 2003. So it’d be fair to say his input has been featured long before he was officially attributed GM of the club. In Mr. Cheveldayoff’s case, he had the pleasure of flying under the media radar for the management of the team’s roster thanks to the media worrying more about the circumstances regarding the team’s relocation from Atlanta to Winnipeg. Now that he is under the watchful eye of a frenzied hockey base in Winnipeg, expect Cheveldayoff to be quick on the trigger if the honeymoon of the Jet’s return to the ‘Peg begins to dissipate.

Tallon was also responsible for another "rebuilding" project. The project was completed when Patrick Kane scored in game 6 of the 2010 NHL finals.

Under Florida’s new GM stewardship by Dale Tallon, they traded away promising young guns David Booth and Nathan Horton. He was also quick to part ways with veteran defencemen Bryan Allen and Bryan McCabe. Even after acquiring Dennis Wiedman he was quickly packaged at the trade deadline to Washington. It could be said in the example of Tallon that he decided to start a new rather than work with what was given with him. A lot of his trades and FA picks up have focused on acquiring draft picks and players who have not yet reached their NHL prime as of yet.

Steve Yzerman’s hiring in Tampa might have been the most speculated and observed of the GM changes due to his prominence as a player and his success on the ice. It also didn’t hurt the fact that he isn’t too far removed from his playing days (he retired in 2006). He spent a couple of years under the tutelage as an assistant to renowned NHL GM Ken Holland. Desiring to grab a GM spot sooner than later he set his sights on the Tampa Bay Lightning GM position.  He was fortunate to land in a place with good weather and long-term roster, typically this combo had been a rarity with only the Anaheim Ducks being able to achieve it as of late. Luckily for him, his first moves were considered no brainers as he extended contract extensions to the likes of Pavel Kubina and Martin St. Louis. Players who may have garnered more on the FA market but instead took pay cuts from their previous contracts. Stevie Y’s more dubious decisions came after that with the acquisition of Dan Ellis via free agency(Ellis played only 31 games for the Lightning going 13-7-6 as a starter, and is now playing for Anaheim as a backup) and Simon Gagne through trade (Touted as a marquee winger to supplement the developing superstar centre Stamkos; he ended up playing only 63 games and then shipped off to Los Angeles during the next summer).  The midseason pickup of  Dwayne Roloson will often be seen as a success of Yzerman’s with Tampa’s drive to game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals. Though without winning the Stanley Cup and extending Roloson’s services for only one more year after their trip to the Conference finals begs the question of the long-term stability of Tampa’s goaltending. The acquisition of Roloson should have only been the “final ingredient” for another Lightning stanley cup bid. Instead praise would be bestowed upon Yzerman and Roloson for their almost playoff success. As they go into the 2011-2012 season with a one year agreement between them to do better than the conference finals. Yzerman is 46, and Roloson is 42. Only one of them can have a long-term career at their respective positions at this point.

Can this be deemed success? (Getty Images)

Jay Feaster’s hiring in Calgary is similar of that to Pierre Gauthier’s as he paid his dudes as an assistant to then GM Darryl Sutter and then took over as GM in December of 2010. Though what makes Feaster’s situation a bit different is that he did spend a whole 2 years away from the game as a pundit writing about hockey for The Hockey News.  Also in the example of Gauthier, his input must have been used as an assistant to Sutter during the 2010 FA period. The chances he was was probably in part of the consensus to resign Ollie Jokinen and Alex Tanguay is pretty high. Even if the re-signings were only for marginal pay cuts. He must have also considered it sufficient to let those moves play out before making any moves as the official GM. In the following season, where it was evident that their biggest acquisitions of that summer didn’t payoff with a playoff appearance Feaster made his first big moves as GM. One saw sending fan favourite Robyn Regher and person non grata in Calgary, Ales Kotalik to Buffalo. Feaster was also responsible for sending out another fan favourite in Dan Langkow to Phoenix in exchange for Lee Stampniak.

Doug Armstrong maybe the one most glaring examples of new GM’s looking to make their face presence known within an organization. Taking over of the St. Louis GM position after a change in ownership and still reeling in a stagnant period of “rebuilding” since 2006. Doug Armstrong was fortunate enough to have one of the league’s deeper prospect pools. Since 2005, the team’s first round draft picks have included: T.J. Oshie (2005; 24th overall), Erik Johnson (2006; 1st), Patrik Berglund (2006; 25th), Lars Eller (2007; 13th), David Perron (2007; 26th) Alex Pietrangelo (2008; 4th), and David Rundblad (2009; 17th). Some of the players noted above are now established on the St. Louis Blues roster while a few others have been turned into pawns into the Doug Armstrong GM reign. Most notably would be the trading of Lars Eller and defenceman Ian Schulz to Montreal for Jaroslav Halak. The trade had been highly criticized as it came on the heels of Halak’s impressive playoff performance where it saw Montreal’s backup goaltender for the majority of the 2009-10 season becoming the man responsible for not allowing Pittsburgh and Washington advance in the playoffs in series succession. The second trade that Doug Armstrong undertook was to trade away the first overall pick from the 2006 draft, Erik Johnson. 5 months prior to trading away the defenceman who had not lived up to the hype of his draft position was re-signed after being a restricted free agent during the summer of 2010. February 19th, 2011 Armstrong traded Erik Johnson along with forward Jay McClement and a conditional first round pick to Colorado in exchange for forward Chris Stewart, defenceman Kevin Shattenkirk, and a conditional second round pick.  Much of the fanfare of the trade focused on the comparisons between Shattenkirk and Johnson. Both players being defencemen and drafted in the first round. The edge had been given to Shattenkirk as it appeared his game had developed at the NHL level faster than Johnson considering he had the year advantage (Erik Johnson was taken in the ’06 draft, Shattenkirk in ’07). Though it should be noted that typically defencemen are typically late bloomers in NHL development in comparison to their forward counterparts. Case in point, if you were to look at the last 5 Stanley Cup winners the majority of minutes played by defenceman the average age would be around 28-29. Still it might be difficult to infer the success of this trade since it is still relatively fresh and statistical data is still too small to gather a reliable sample considering the players ages.

First defenceman to be taken 1st overall since Ottawa took Chris Phillips 1st in 1996.

So while the specific rule in Soccernomics suggests that mangers waste money in the transfer market, my NHL comparison took a slightly different tangent and didn’t focus on the money aspect but possibly the inefficiency by new GMs in making decisions regarding their rosters soon after their hiring.  It could be argued that bringing in new GMs are essential to help bring along better teams. Imagine if the same scrutiny applied to areas of scouting who have a much more hands-on approach of assessing talent and relaying it back to management. Nonetheless, I highly recommend you read the book if the combination of economics and sports interests you like it does for me.

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  1. Applied Soccernomics: Part II Argue All Day About Sports Argue All Day - March 29, 2012

    [...] In Part I, I briefly detailed the front office organization differences and similarities between the two sports. The most glaring difference between the two was the division of powers in hockey with the utilization of  both a General Manager and Coach. In soccer, both duties are held primarily by just the Manager. Though in soccer there appears to be a formal division of these powers with the appointment of other club official titles like assistant manager, first team manager, fitness coach, goalkeeping coach, director of football, academy director, youth manager, etc. These titles typically work under the manager. Overarching managerial positions exist, such as President and various VP positions but I’ve yet to really to figure out their purpose in the grand schemes of running a football club. At the end of the day, much of , if not all of the on-field performance is attributed to the manager and his doings. Not much credit is given to those working in the more technical areas. It maybe attributed to sports media, as it isn’t as cool to talk to the strength and conditioning coach unless he’s doing something stupid like this. [...]

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