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NHL Free Agency 2016: Easy availabilty of advanced analytics raises fan expectations, pressure on GMs

With the rise in fancystats, it's no longer possible for NHL GMs and media to sugarcoat bad deals to their public...and that is a good thing indeed

Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Free agency. The time of year more than any other when economics become paramount in the minds of NHL fans, players and teams and every single dollar spent is scrutinised to see if it's getting the maximum possible value. This, more than any other, is the time of the NHL yearly cycle when terms like AAV (Average Annual Value), "bonus structure", "term" and any number of other contract buzzwords come out from the arcane domain of the accountants' offices where they reign most of the year and become key topics of conversation.

In the salary cap era, having a basic knowledge of how the CBA and contracts work in the NHL has become increasingly important to even the casual fan, but particularly so if you're intending to write about the NHL at any source. After all, it's impossible to work out the value of something or have any sort of opinion if you don't actually know what that something is, right?

To its credit, NHL fandom has embraced this world strongly in the main, and we can't have a player sign a new contract nowadays without social media and bulletin boards lighting up with discussions over whether or not this is a good, bad or fair deal. NHL team staff are judged as much on their performance in the boardroom and juggling the numbers as they are on draft picks and on-ice performance.

Terms like "roster management", "asset management", "cap flexibility" and other terms previously only seen in the most obscure of internal presentations are now commonplace and used by NHL fans and media to assess the success or otherwise of GMs across the league, with every new contract, trade or renegotiation a source of intense scrutiny.

Some in the NHL, it appears, do not like this brave new world of risk assessment, financial examination and constant pressure to maximise every dollar. Here, for example, are Eric Engels of Sportsnet in Montreal and Mike Kelly of TSN, last night.

The key bit we're looking at here, and the comment that in part motivated this article, is the question of "Why do fans pick every contract apart? Be happy!"

Or, to put it another way "Why are you bothering to actually look into whether the millions of dollars your team are paying out are being well spent? We think it's a good deal and we know what we're talking about from experience or simply because our gut says so, and we're the people who control the message and tell you what to happy with it!"

This is something I find immensely interesting, as it's an attitude that seems to be massively symptomatic of the ongoing discussion in the NHL regarding the use and effectiveness of "fancy stats". It's also an attitude that brings me to the main thrust of this article.

Now, there's been enough written arguing about the effectiveness of analytics vs more "traditional" methods of evaluation over the past few years to fill more than a few websites. The divide between the "stats crowd" and the traditionalists still exists and if you get more than three or four hockey fans in a bar, there's probably going to be people who will argue for both sides being more effective.

That is not a debate we're going to have here (although...full-disclosure, as anyone who's read my writing here or seen me ranting on Twitter will know, I am very much a fan of the use of fancy stats at all opportunities as evaluation tools, and the work done by those involved in advanced statistics has both been recognised in NHL teams creating advanced stats departments/appointing people working on them to high positions). The traditional evaluation methods still have their places alongside stats models, particularly when evaluating draft prospect or minor-league performance due to the lack of widespread tools for such leagues (I speak as a native pro leagues have only just started releasing plus-minus believe me...I know about having to use the value of the "eye test" to try and evaluate players).

What is interesting is the way that fancystats have given the NHL fan in the street the tools, should they wish to use them, to dig much deeper into the performances of their favorite players and teams on the ice...and more importantly (mainly thanks to the excellent and truly illuminating work done by people like Domenic Galamini (@mimicohero) at OwnThePuck, who has made the terms "HERO/WARRIOR chart" almost a byword for evaluation over the past year or two, and many other sites such as and hockeystats) how they've been made both easy and accessible to understand.

This has allowed far more scrutiny and comparison of players not just for conversations in NHL draft rooms and front offices, but in local bars or arenas. It's meant that an ever-growing body of statistical and empirical information and insight that was previously only available to a few is suddenly available to anyone who wishes to access it.

Crucially, too, it's opened up the arcana of hockey to the spotlight. Now, if you want to know how valuable a player is to a team, you can find out based on literally hundreds of criteria, and even more, you can compare them with other players.

So how does this relate to fans scrutinising contracts and being more likely to do so?

Simply put..because now it's much easier for anyone who wishes to to quantify and measure "bang for buck". The ability to compare player performance statistically and more importantly do so in a way that allows for easy visual interpretation, coupled with the open availability of the salary of (almost) every player in the NHL, means that you can instantly see whether or not a player is performing at a comparable or better level than any other player with a similar salary. The claims that previously sustained NHL media and teams and made them able to obfuscate and obscure poor performance for any given salary (or indeed attempt to claim a player was overperforming) are gone.

If fans want to, they can now take a massive range of data and do an in-depth and searching evaluation of players themselves in a way that they simply were not able to do so before.

This puts GMs and media under the spotlight. No longer can they hide behind claims that fans "don't see what value" a player brings to a team for their wage or claim that their player is paid a "reasonable wage for his production" without being challenged.

Some have welcomed this accountability. Others, like the people mentioned earlier in this article, are still adjusting to the fact that the arcane has now become commonplace and their mastery of information and ability to present a narrative without challenge is now under threat.

But like it or not, the rise of advanced statistics means that now more than ever, free agency is a pressure-filled time in the NHL, and it's easier than ever for fans to evaluate who's done a good job and who's done a bad one without recourse to "insiders" or "experts"

And that, whether NHL GMs and the media like it or not, is a state of affairs that they're going to have to adjust to if they haven't already, because it's here to stay.