Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Baseball to Hockey, A Natural Progression


Lowetide just made a post defending the way he frequently compares hockey to baseball. First of all, it’s his blog he shouldn’t have to. His blog is top quality and the first thing I read each morning.

I've been planning a series of posts about where I think the direction the future of hockey statistics is moving but this post sparked a quick blurb here - mostly to avoid putting a 2 page comment on LT's site ;)

In the field of computer modeling, prediction, statistics (artificial intelligence) the typical development in research is to start with smaller easier to solve problems and progress to larger ones. Over the last 20 or so years there has been a progression from checkers to chess to the hottest game in AI - poker. Since 1989 researchers at the University of Alberta worked on playing perfect checkers until last year it was finally solved. Computers are able to beat humans far before achieving perfect play. In chess, a computer can beat the best human players but to my knowledge the game hasn’t been solved. Chess is a harder problem to solve than checkers because there are more possibilities and states. While in poker, pokerbots do incredibly well for themselves but the best human players can still beat the computer. This however wont last long.

I see a lot of parallels between the progression of solving games like checkers, chess and poker to the way that computers will be able to model/simulate baseball games way before being able to accurately do so in hockey games. Similar to checkers and chess, baseball is a game that has a limited set of states. When a player is batting, there is up to 3 runners on base and a limited set up outcomes. You might be able to think of 30 different events that can happen during a batting sequence but it all boils down to a limited set. For example, when a player gets beamed by a ball it’s really the same as getting walked or getting a single with no runners on base. The set of outcomes can be reduced. With hockey, the game is constantly changing, happens at such a fast pace and has tons of factors effecting every decision. In short, simulating a baseball game is much easier than a hockey game. Sports results are also different from other games because in sports, you play a team once (or even a best of seven series) and there is still a lot of variance in the expected outcome. For chess or poker, you can eliminate this by playing thousands or 10s of thousands of games. In hockey, for example, you don’t have the option of playing Sam Gagner on the powerplay 1000 times to see how he'd do. You have to make decisions based on a much smaller set of data.

As Lowetide mentioned, "baseball is wise for hockey fans because it is so much farther ahead in terms of math and math my friends is your friend when it comes to figuring things out". I think he is right and as I've tried to allude to it’s happened for a reason. As technology advances, more and more information will become available. Sites like behindthenet.ca have come up with more (and better) statistics to use when evaluating players that didn’t exist until recently. As more of this information becomes available and evolves analytical hockey fans will come up with much better ways to "suss out Bill James equations".

Keep up the good stuff LT!

Monday, July 21, 2008

Forward flexibility


I've commented recently that the Oilers are in trouble from an experience perspective if Shawn Horcoff gets hurt. I don't think that point can be disputed. However, its interesting to point out the number of players who can play both centre and wing.

Penner - Horcoff - Hemsky
Cogliano - Gagner - Nilsson
Cole - Brodziak - Pisani
Morreau - Pouliot - Stortini

Horcoff, Cogliano, Gagner, Brodziak and Pouliot are all natural centres who can play wing. Penner is also a winger who has played a bit in the middle. Jason Strudwick and Steve Staois are also both capable playing up front although in Staois' case, I doubt we'll see that happen. Its been several years since "Steady Steve" has played up front. This roster flexibility is something that should work to the Oilers advantage during the season.

The kids are alright


It dawned on me recently how highly the Oilers staff think of the kids on the team. Looking back at last seasons roster, the lineup that went 18-10 (with Horcoff injured) looked something like this (I'm not too sure where Pouliot played).


Penner - Stoll - Hemsky
Gagner - Cogliano - Nilsson
Pouliot - Reasoner - Pisani
Glencross - Brodziak - Stortini

Gilbert - Grebeshkov
Pitkanen - Staois
Smid - Greene

Gone are Stoll, Reasoner, Glencross, Greene and Pitkanen (and Torres). An argument could be made that each of the players no longer on the roster (with the exception of Glencross) were passed by players with less experience and hopefully better upside. To me thats a strong indication of how the Oilers management feels about the team. My only concern is that the Oilers are too green down the middle. Right now, heading into the season I'd guess our centre's will be Horcoff - Gagner - Brodziak - Pouliot. If Horcoff gets hurt, we're going to need an experienced replacement in a hurry!

Horcoff for another 6


This is Shawn Horcoff celebrating my favorite goal I've seen him score. The signing of Shawn Horcoff is excellent news. I knew his cap hit would be over 5 million and I'm glad it didn't hit 6 (which he would have cost on the open market).

Its funny, a couple days before the signing I was having a conversation with Jonathan about the last UFA target I'll like to see the Oilers pursue. In our brief discussion I made the comment "I'm not interested in signing anyone left at the expense of Horcoff. But when the Oilers were chasing Hossa, they had Horcoff making calls. I expect he is in the plans." I had no clue it would be this quickly but I'm glad the Oilers got it over with.

Shawn Horcoff is going to be perfect for the development of Sam Gagner. I expect that Horcoff will be the #1 centre for a season or 2 with Gagner getting 1st line PP time much before he ever becomes the #1 centre. In fact, it could be 4 years of Horcoff's contract before Gagner is ready to play PVP. At that time Gagner will still only be 22 years old. A 6 year deal for Horcoff puts no pressure on 89 to develop. I wonder how much better the previous 89 would have become if the Oilers had that luxury back then.

Many others have commented on the contract and the general opinion is positive. There are a few posters out there that seem to think Horcoff isnt a true #1 centre and will thus be overpaid. One poster compared Horcoff to Holik. I could be wrong on this but I believe Holik made 8 million dollars a year and scored 45 points for those seasons. I've compared Horcoff to Brind'amour for a couple years now. The other guy who I've recently started to compare Horcoff to is Henrik Zetterberg. Zetterberg is obviously in a different class but both players are extremely hard workers who are tenacious on the puck. We also aren't too far away removed from Horcoff outscoring Zetterberg in the 2006 opening round. Horcoff's development as a player is also similar to Zetterberg's in the sense that both were good defensive players who learned to adapt their offensive game over time. In a recent post I made, I quoted Babcock about the development of Zetterberg "he has always been a great defensive player but he never shot the puck. Now he shoots the puck more anyone in the league (well not a quite as much as Ovechkin) so he scores all the time". As a player, Horcoff is evolving his game in a similar fashion. In the last couple years, Horcoff has become more effective offensively by learning to shoot the puck more. Mentally that is a tough switch for a player like Horcoff to make and he has benefited from it.

Ok now that I've done the ridiculous and compared Horcoff to Zetterberg let me ask - other than Zetterberg, who is a better 2 way centreman in the league? In other words in a PVP situation, who would you take over Horcoff. My early guesses are Zetterberg (and Datsyuk), Crosby, Mike Richards and Ryan Getzlaf. Crosby is a better player by a large margin but I thought he was worth mentioning because the progression in his game in this years playoffs to becoming a more complete player.

Langkow - nope
Brindamour - not anymore
Koiuvu - I'd take Horcoff
Lehtinen - not anymore
Drury - debatable
Pahlsson - maybe better defensively but Horcoff gets 3x the points

Anyone I am missing? Either way, Shawn Horcoff is a good guy to lock up.

Oilers sign Zach Stortini


In other news, we landed on the moon ;) I've been meaning to get to this but I've been swamped at work. So here is my thoughts on some old news. This signing isn't a blockbuster move but I for one am glad. He adds grit to the lineup and annoys the piss out of Calgary and Vancouver. Most importantly, he is a team guy who works his bag off. Reminds me of a one of our recently hired coaches - Kelly Buchberger.

Stortini's job is not the easiest one in the NHL. He has to take face washes and cheap shots without retaliating. His job is to get other players to take runs at him. But hey, he plays in the NHL and I'm sure he's thrilled. I don't even really care if he isn't a great fighter because the Oilers are far removed from being an intimidating team.

With the cap going up, 700k for 3 years is very reasonable. Good for Zach and another good contract for KLo/Olczyk. With Zach's work ethic, there is very little chance he wont cover the contract.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Meeting Georges Laraque


Last night I had the privilege of meeting Georges Laraque. My good buddy Kyle won an autographed Sidney Crosby jersey from the Team 1260 and BG came by and personally delivered it to us (5 hours late ... haha). I bought my friggin signed Crosby jersey on eBay so obviously I got ripped off ;) Kyle and BG were able to compare Memorial Cup rings and talk hockey. It was really cool. Both guys played with Hossa so it was neat.

Highlights (most of which isn't exactly news):

1) Georges talked about how it was Katz who made numerous phone calls trying to get Georges to play here. Oilers offered the same money 1.1/year and a year longer contract. Georges insisted at least 3 times that he wants to finish his career in Edmonton.
2) Georges thinks the Oilers will for sure make the playoffs this year.
3) I asked him how good he thought Montreal would be and if the Oilers had a chance to win the division. His response "Lets be honest guys, Detroit is going to win the cup".
4) He said Hossa wanted to go to Detroit all along.

All in all a cool experience. BG is a class act and a great guy. Spending every Friday night of his summer giving away jerseys and talking to fans is such a generous move. Nicest pro I've ever met. Good luck in Montreal Georges!

Monday, July 14, 2008

How could we? How could we not ...


All summer there have been 2 players who I was quietly hoping the Oilers would pursue - Sundin and Jagr. These are not the typical big name UFA players who sign highly inflated long term contracts. When the Oilers were offering Hossa 92 million over 9 years (or whatever it was) I cringed at the idea of paying 38 year old Hossa 9 million dollars*. It could not have been good value. Sundin and Jagr would be different because they'd be short term contracts. I think a short term overpayment like Sundin or Jagr would be acceptable because of their impact on the rest of the Oilers roster. I am a believer that the Oilers need a player of Sundin or Jagr's ilk to speed up the development process of the kids. Otherwise we won’t hit that level until Hemsky or Gagner can lead the ship. Looking down the road, a short term deal is also ideal for the Oilers who will need cap space when its time to extend Gagner and Cogliano.

Therefore, it was my opinion that the Oilers were bang on chasing Jagr. It’s a shame he ran off to Russia chasing millions of tax free dollars. But Sundin is still available. How come we haven’t even heard of an attempt to sign him? Was it shunned that severely?

Tyler at mc79hockey.com suggests here and here that Sundin is a very good UFA option who did well with little help and I agree. Yet for some reason, the only team left making noise on the Sundin front is the Canucks. Does that mean he is going to retire? Does he really want to go back to a rebuilding Toronto? I don’t really see Sundin going to Vancouver. Even though they have a lot of Swede's they don’t have the talent up front to attract Sundin - granted, adding Demitra does help.

The Oilers have had a good off-season with the additions of Visnovsky and Cole. IMO they should make the playoffs and could possibly win the division (more so due to the steps back by Minnesota, Calgary and Colorado). Now if you could add Sundin without removing much other than salary (which could almost be done simply by removing Roloson) the Oilers lineup would be stellar. My quick lineup guess would be:

Penner - Sundin - Nilsson
Cole - Horcoff - Hemksy
Cogliano - Gagner - Pouliot
Morreau - Brodziak - Pisani

I put the Swedes together and put Penner on that line because I think Penner could learn a ton from Sundin positionally. Either way you shuffle it that lineup would be grose! We'd have 3 lines that cold play PVP against almost any other line. Adding Sundin would IMO put us in discussions with Detroit, SJ, Dallas and Anaheim as candidates to represent the West.

It may not be realistic to suggest the notion that Sundin would come here but I'd still like to at least hear of an attempt. Agree?


* This ignores the fact that you could front load the contract and make the salary more attractive for a small market team (potentially Edmonton if the dollar tanks again).

Thursday, July 10, 2008

The cupboard is full


As a result of a combination of excellent scouting and a couple quality for quantity moves (Pronger and Smyth), the Oilers depth is at a level I haven’t seen it before. Its interesting that several of their prospects/players who are developing are doing so ad different ages.

- Oilers have guys like Tom Gilbert (2002), Kyle Brodziak (2003) and Robert Nilsson (2003) entering their second NHL seasons who appear to be locks for roster spots in key development years.
- Oilers have guys like MAP (2003) who hasn’t done much at the NHL level yet but seems poised to earn his one way deal.
- On the other end of spectrum there is soon to be 19 year old Sam Gagner (2007) who is entering his second NHL season and could end up a star in the league.

The Oilers also have several decent prospects who potentially could force themselves onto the roster like Gilbert did last year. Peckham, Chorney, Hrabel, Schremp and Brule are candidates this year. The signing of JFJ is an indication the Oilers still have hope in him too. Despite this, even if one of them shoot the lights out, there isnt much room to fit in the roster and the player will end up in the minors anyways.

As a fan I can’t help but be excited because when players (young and younger) develop together the result is almost always positive. Usually when it fails, there is a lack of experience/leadership but I am a believer in the leadership ability of Morreau, Staois and Horcoff. The youngsters also have a skill player in Hemsky to learn from as well. Potentially with this many prospects developing this could be a great season for the Oilers as players grow from each others success.

Lets look at the Oilers current roster. These are my lines.

Nilsson - Horcoff - Hemsky
Penner - Gagner - Cogliano
Cole - Brodziak - Pisani
Morreau - Pouliot - Stortini

13th forward - Reasoner

Extras: Schremp, Brule, Reddox

Gilbert - Grebeshkov
Souray - Visnophsky
Staois - Smid

Extras: Roy, Peckham, Chorney

Right now there are some gaps in the Oilers roster such as more experienced 3rd line centre and a shutdown D. As Jonathan points out here , here and here Marek Malik is a good shutdown option but other than that there aren’t any many UFA options that are guaranteed upgrades.

That leaves the trade option. I'd love to get a guy like Regher out of Calgary who is desperate for forwards (that will never happen by the way so please ignore me even mentioning it). The question then is who would we move? We've already gotten rid of the expendable assets in Piktanen, Green, Stoll and Torres. I don’t see much flexibility in the roster for trades. As I've recently posted on, I'm not a fan of trading 2nd year players. In the comments at Lowetide's site, several posters mentioned the possibility of moving Nilsson for a player and replacing him with Rob Schremp who seems to be turning the corner as a player but has the odds stacked against him for making the team. I don’t think Nilsson has enough cachet around the league to justify his return. Furthermore, I don’t consider the Oilers a contender (yet). Does it make sense to risk trading Doug Weight to get Esa Tikanen or Todd Marchant for Craig MacTavish when we won’t realistically have a shot at the cup next year? Dibs out.

Conclusion: Unless they completely tear it up in training camp leave Peckham, Chorney, Schremp and Brule in the minors. Let the players decide who develops and who becomes expendable. Once you can identify who is Jani Rita or Tony Salmelainen then make your move. There should be tons of cheaper rentals available if this team is in a playoff position. Agree?

Caution: Trading 2nd year players is a risky move

I'm newer to some of the modern stats on sites like behindthenet.ca but a firm believer in them and that the best way to predict the future is to base it on the past. With that in mind, I am having a hard time predicting how the Oilers with do next season because of the number of (highly skilled) players entering their 2nd NHL season. Without 2 years experience, I don’t think last years numbers are a good indication of next years.

Players entering year 2 of the NHL: Gilbert, Grebeshkov (ok 2.5), Gagner, Cogliano, Nilsson (ok 2.5), Brodziak

Lets look at some players (not named Crosby, Malkin or Ovechkin) and how they have done in their 2nd season.



I excluded Getzlaf and Perry's rookie seasons which were half AHL/half NHL. Their numbers are still a good comparison for a guy like Nilsson who is entering year 2.5. Plus it proves my point better ;) I could elaborate on this with more stats later as points alone doesn’t tell the picture. I acknowledge there are counter points to this theory like Svatos, Jordan Staal ect but for the most part, in general I think players improve significantly in year 2. DONT TRADE 2ND YEAR PLAYERS! THE RISK IT TOO HIGH! If I hear much more about trading the players above, I'm gonna snap.

2 random comments:

1) Its worth mentioning that even though Smid is young, he is entering his 3rd year this year and if no progress is made he should likely be traded as he will hopefully be getting past on the depth chart.

2) Tom Gilbert is a guy I'm especially interested in because of the game he plays. If you watch him, he is a lot like a Nick Lidstrom. Comparing the two players obviously is ridiculous but the similarity in the type of game they play worth noting. Gilbert relies heavily on his smarts and stick work rather than his speed and size. One of his best strengths is his ability to anticipate the play. For this reason, I am optimistically hoping that another years experience will result in big improvements again this season. The fact that he is an older player to be in his 2nd year NHL is a good counter point but nothing replaces experience at the pace of an NHL game.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Robert Nilsson - definite outperform potential


Robert Nilsson is a player I am very excited about next season. Over the past week as the Oilers persued both Hossa then Jagr, I couldnt help but notice that Nilsson became the odd man out and often times mentioned as a guy to go in a salary dump. I realize that the team is much better with Hossa than Nilsson but I'd be very hesitant to trade Nilsson's beauty contract. Signed early this summer for 3 years at a 1.8 cap hit I think he has a very good chance of outperforming his contract. As a player, Rowbert is an elite player in the skill department and a good skater. That wasnt enough to make him a good NHL player but at some point last season something clicked in his head that changed him from a drifter to a player. He isnt quite established yet but I got a hunch he will be soon.

According to behindthenet.ca Nilsson was the second best player on the Oilers 5 on 5. The fact that Nilsson was one of the first RFA signings that KLo made and that MacT spoke positively about him is a good indication that the Oilers think highly of him too.

Over at Lowetide's site, Lowetide has the projected forward lines to be:

Nilsson-Horcoff-Hemsky
Penner-Gagner-Cole
Moreau-Cogliano-Pisani
Pouliot-Brodziak-Stortini

Look where Bobby Nilsson is playing! Definitely a player to watch closely this upcoming season. If he can make similar strides this year as he did last year, Oilers are going to be well positioned up front for the next 3 years.