The League of Extraordinary Statisticians: The Franchise

The League of Extraordinary Statisticians is a weekly forum bringing together top analytical minds in the hockey world to answer a variety of questions that straddle the line between stats analysis and something you might hear floating around section 304.  They have agreed to answer these questions in a few paragraphs or less, and with minimal formulae.  Because this is a forum, we'd encourage you to use the comments section to answer the questions yourselves, or to discuss or debate the answers given.

Every team has one or two players that GMs, coaches, and fans alike refer to as a "franchise" player, aka the player who will (ideally) be the first to carry the Cup and get his/her picture on the DVD commemorative.  The current trend seems to be smacking said player with a fat contract, spanning an absurd number of years, and hoping the player doesn't fold under the ensuing, recurring, and eternal scrutiny.  Injury isn't even a "safe" way out of this phenomenon.

Nevertheless, this is the path frequently chosen by NHL teams, more specifically the ones that want to bankroll it.  And should the NHL hold the status quo when the CBA is negotiated, it will be a common trend; it usually makes sense financially.  With that in mind, we wanted to give our League a clean slate and ask them who they would choose to build their franchise around.  

By the way, I totally faked you all out with the Ovechkin picture; he did not run away with this one...

You might notice that there are some interesting new names in the League this go-around; I invited a number of team bloggers from around SB Nation that have been very impressive at holding the statistical line in some of hockey's hotbeds.  Also, because there's no way that Geoff Detweiler would pick a Flyer.

As I stressed last time, this is not meant to represent the whole of the hockey stats world.  There are many other statisticians that were not able to get the free time to respond or were difficult to contact.  That being said, I want to thank the respondents who were able to contribute and I want to encourage you to check out their sites, linked next to their names.

This week's question: If you had your choice of any of today's NHL players to build your franchise around, which player would you pick?  Why?

Tom Tango's response appropriately kicks us off...

I've never liked the question.  One guy says Crosby, another says Ovechkin, and the other says Zetterberg, and...then what?  I've never seen one answer to this question that is remotely interesting or memorable.  It would actually be interesting if my answer to this question preceded everyone else's, to either prove my point, or show how much of a jerk I am.  I'm willing to accept that I am a myopic jerk, if proved wrong.

- Tom Tango, tangotiger.net and author of The Book: Playing the Percentages in Baseball

Drew Doughty.  The guy is young and dominant.  The biggest value contract in the entire league.

- Gabriel Desjardins, behindthenet.ca and, of course, Behind the Net

I pick Alexander Ovechkin.  I believe he is the best player in hockey.  Generally this argument comes down to Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby, although it might be intelligent to soon include Steve Stamkos.  In the last three complete seasons, Ovechkin has two MVPs and deserved a third despite having missed ten games last year.  Ovechkin is clearly the dominant one of these players when looking at puck possession (Corsi) numbers.  He is the player who most consistently drives and NHL team to success today.

The only concern might be age.  Ovechkin is 25, Crosby is 23 and Stamkos is 20.  There might be reason to imagine that Ovechkin may not have as big a future as the other younger candidates.  However, this is probably a misguided reason to change the selection.  Steve Stamkos has not proven to be on the level of the other two for any long period of time and though it is an interesting gamble to pick him on hopes that he truly is as good as the top two players in the game and is several years younger.  It is a gamble that could fail if Stamkos is merely off to an unsustainable start this season and falls short of the other two.

Ovechkin is one draft year ahead of Crosby, but almost two years in actual age.  This does provide the possibility that Crosby has more time left in his prime, but I don't think this is enough to overcome Ovechkin's higher ceiling.

When you build a team around one player you want to grab the best player who most likely has the best hockey ahead in the future.  The best player in the game is a good bet if he is still young enough to have most of his career ahead of him.  The only other candidates are younger players who might be better than he is in the future.  In this case, I don't think any of the other young candidates are a good bet to rise to the levels that I expect Alexander Ovechkin will.

- Greg Ballentine, The Puck Stops Here at Kukla's Korner

I'd pick someone whose projected remaining value is highest - a cross between youth and talent.  Also, someone who played a position or role at a level far above what could be found in another player.

So it would probably be yet another study to come up with an answer, but off the top of my head I'm guessing that Sidney Crosby would probably come out #1.

- Rob Vollman, Hockey Prospectus

I'm torn between two guys - Drew Doughty and Sidney Crosby.  If I have to pick one based on their existing contract value, it would be Doughty.  Desjardins has demonstrated how valuable Doughty's contract will be this year and for the next three, and if he gives the Kings any sort of concessions in negotiating a long-term contract, he'll remain one of the most valuable players in the league for a long time.  In a capped league, value means everything.  The General Manager that is able to squeeze the most value out of his long-term deals and win his short-term deals is going to build a team capable of success every year.

But Crosby is the best player in the NHL since Jagr's prime.  On a list of forwards playing the tough minutes year after year, Crosby only misses the top list because of his injury in 2007-2008.  He plays the game in all three zones and spends as much time below his own goal line as his opponent's goal line.  He was fifth in faceoffs taken in 08-09, led the league last season and is second this season behind Jonathan Toews.  He's consistently won more than 50% of his faceoffs as well.  He's got an Art Ross Trophy, a Rocket Richard Trophy, a Pearson Trophy, a Stanley Cup, another Eastern Conference pennant and Olympic Gold.  And he's only 23.  There's a really good chance that his best hockey is going to come in the next 5-6 years.  He's a tough minutes player who will outscore the league's best at even-strength and he's a superior performer on the power play.  If there's a forward in the league worth the salary cap max, it's Crosby.

- Derek Zona, The Copper & Blue 

Is this a trick question?  Otherwise, it just seems to boil down to the usual Sidney Crosby or Alex Ovechkin debate.  In a league without Crosby and Ovechkin, you'd certainly have a greater variety of responses, with players like Steve Stamkos, Zach Parise, Daniel Sedin and Nicklas Backstrom in the discussion.  But as is, there are only the two legitimate choices...regardless of Stamkos' hot start.

Before last season, you were probably justified in giving Ovechkin the nod - despite Crosby's championship - given his prolific scoring: over five-season careers, the 25-year old Russian winger led the 22-year old Canadian center by a count of 269 goals to 183 goals, and consequently by 124 GVT to 109 GVT.  But of recent, Crosby has edged ahead of Ovechkin.  In 2009-10, he outscored Ovechkin 51 goals to 50 goals.  And while you put a tick in Ovechkin's column for his intimidating physicality, Crosby plays a more premium position and has become one of the league's best faceoff men (55.9% in 2009-10) and shootout performers (9 goals in last 12 attempts).  This season, the pendulum has continued to swing in favor of the Penguins' captain - Crosby leads Ovechkin in goals, assists, and points.  One trend to keep an eye on is Ovechkin's shots-per-game, which have droppd from 6.7 in 2008-09 to 5.1 in 2009-10 to 4.1 through the first quarter of 2010-11, keeping in mind that Ovechkin's prolific goal scoring has historically been predicated on his high shooting rate.

- Timo Seppa, Hockey Prospectus

It would be easy to pick Crosby or Ovechkin, but because they have cap hits of $8.7 and $9.5 million respectively, it would be really difficult to build a team around them.  Without years of high-end draft picks, that team will struggle.  I would next move to Stamkos, but as he is in the final year of his $3.725 million entry-level deal, I worry about what his next contract will be.  If that deal is under $6 million, I'd gladly pick Stamkos and build a team around him.  But to avoid the hypothetical, I have to go with the Flyers' Claude Giroux.

Giroux will turn 23 in January, and while he hasn't had the kind of success that Crosby has had at that age, Giroux has been turning heads in Philadelphia for over a year and a half.  He's played on the wing and in the middle; he's played on the power play and on the penalty kill; he's played with poor teammates and good teammates; and through it all, he's succeeded.  This year, while playing mostly with Jeff Carter, he's performing at over a point-per-game pace.  He's got 6 PP goals and 3 SH goals, while playing over 6 minutes on special teams per game.  Still think I'm a homer?

He's playing tough minutes, even if they aren't the toughest of minutes.  With a 42.9% offensive-zone start so far, he's playing the toughest minutes outside of the team's fourth line.  With his 53.8% offensive-zone finish, he's leading the team in tilting the ice in his favor.  And he's doing all of this against above-average competition (0.013 QualComp / 0.067 CorsiRelQoC) with below-average teammates (-0.094 QualTeam / -0.775 CorsiRelqQoT).  Throw in his three-year extension at only $3.75 million a year, ending in RFA status, and I have to go with Giroux.

- Geoff Detweiler, Broad Street Hockey

Editor's Note:  D'oh!

When you're starting a team, I feel that you need to start in the back and build forward.  Goaltenders can always be found, but there's nobody on defense that combines age and skill better than Drew Doughty.  He is an incredible mix of offensive talent with superb defensive skill.  He plays on all 3 units and plays them well.  The Kings use him against the best competition they see (two years running now of having 1st pair Corsi QC and Rel. Corsi QC), and he comes out the other side ahead of the game.  He's doing all of this at age 20, at a position that traditionally takes players much longer to develop.  There just is not a young player like him in the league, so he's my choice.  Steven Stamkos would be the very deserving runner-up.

- George E. Ays, Blueshirt Banter

As some of you might notice, there's not even a whisper about goaltenders, which gives you an idea of where goalies have stood in stats analysis (the recent popular feelings about goalies have actually been held by statisticians for quite a while).  I'd like to call attention to two important things that come out: for one, in a capped league contracts have become a major issue, and so your franchise player might not necessarily be a Crosby or Ovechkin.  For two, Stamkos is rapidly moving up the list; his standing in this question next year could be closely tied to where his contract ends up and little else.

A couple of questions for discussion (in addition to the normal chatter)...what do you think of Tom Tango's response?  I think he has a point, even though I came up with the question.  Furthermore, his response leads to my next question: is it useful for teams to designate a "franchise player"?  Or would they be better off building their team differently?  

See you again next week, with any luck Sean Connery joins the fray.

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