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Moneyball, shooters, and scorers

Moneyball, the analytics movement in baseball, was all about budget teams finding ways to save money.

NHL: Winnipeg Jets at Buffalo Sabres Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports

Moneyball is the concept of finding inefficiencies baseball to find low-cost players that can perform the same job or close to the same job as someone who costs a lot more to perform the same task. It helped close the gap between the haves and the have-nots in baseball until the haves started using the same statistics to pursue the same players. At that point it became about creating the most efficient team. This idea also applies to the NHL although it has not gone through the haves and the have-nots phase for various reasons.

For baseball, there are those who watch, write, and read about baseball who do not believe in advanced stats or moneyball. This is true for any sport that has more advanced stats than boxcar stats. In baseball though, there is no war between the two sides. It is understood that both sides have a right to exist without being bothered by the other side.

One of the reasons that this bridge seems harder to cross in hockey might come back to the idea that there are some talented players who have strong boxcars (goals and assists) who are derided by advanced stat followers because of their poor advanced stats. A player who scores 20 goals in a season, but does not drive possession is not as good as one who does, but for them to be derided as bad makes it seem like scoring is of little use in the NHL. Scoring is a specific skill that only a few hockey players possess and even those players possess it in ebbs and flows. While it is key to have many players who do the little things that drive scoring; having a player who just scores is equally important when it comes to winning games.

Two players who embody this idea of scoring without driving possession are Drew Stafford, who is not as skilled at the scoring part, and Thomas Vanek, who was seen as an elite player by many when he was in his early to mid twenties. The similarities between Vanek and Stafford in possession is eery. They both fell off around the age of 30, in part because of a lack of powerplay time when it comes to Vanek and most likely Stafford.

Both Vanek and Stafford are players who are career negative possession players, but because they have brought other skills to teams over the years. Now that both players are over 30, those skills have diminished and they are bringing less to their teams than before. Vanek is still a positive contributor to the Detroit Red Wings because he was always the better player than Stafford, but Stafford used to bring scoring ability to his team in past seasons.

If we revisit the idea that there are scorers like Vanek and Stafford and shooters; what are shooters and who are some examples of them? A shooter is a player who may not score a lot, but drives possession at a solid rate. A shooter is someone like Joel Armia or Lars Eller. These players might be able to score more if they play with scorers, but even when they do not score they help their teams win.

Players like Eller and Armia are more than capable of filling in for a scorer when injuries occur because a team is replacing one needed skill with another different, yet equally important skill. In fact, a team might realize that the player who scores less but drives possession more helps them achieve more wins. However, having too many shooters without any scorers creates a team that always has the puck but struggles to score; see the Carolina Hurricanes for an example.

Instead, teams need to find a balance between shooters: players who put up few points, and scorers: players who put up more points, but fail to drive possession. There are players who do both like Blake Wheeler and Bryan Little, but not all players are this gifted. Finding the balance between the two solitudes seems to be the best way to build a balanced team.

To build a good hockey team you need to have your Joel Armias and Lars Ellers. You also need to have your Drew Staffords and Thomas Vaneks. And you especially need to have your Bryan Littles and Blake Wheelers. Finding inefficiencies comes from identifying the one-dimensional shooters and one-dimensional scorers and paying them fairly. One skill should not be valued over the other, but one skill (shooting) should be appreciated to last for longer than the other skill (scoring).

In hockey, the faction between those who value advanced stats and those who do not stems from ignoring there are some players who fill a specific need to a short amount of time before falling out of favour. There is more of a place for players who drive shots, but do not necessarily score. Both are players who have flaws, but one flaw could come back to hurt a team defensively while the other flaw could lead to a team having a harder time scoring and therefore losing games because of a lack of finishing skill. The idea is to build a balanced efficient team that is a blend of shooters, scorers, and all-around players. That is the mark of a team that values advanced stats while also valuing scoring.