Colby Armstrong, Intangibles and Measuring Hidden Value


While the NHL and game of hockey in general is harder to quantify overall player value than an almost purely numbers based game such as baseball, I feel attempting to identify (and measure) the hidden value of intangibles could be a real advantage to a team.  Since the explosion of advanced statistical analysis in baseball there have been a ton of different stats, ratios and metrics come and go and while they can be a bit intimidating and confusing they also all serve a simple purpose for the most part, establishing value in some form or another.

Baseball teams don’t pay their stats and math gurus to simply do long division all day. No, they are paid so they can extract every last ounce of value out of their team’s payroll.  Baseball payrolls are pretty massive in comparison to hockey (New York Yankees spend over $200 million alone) so teams needn’t worry about this right?  Not anymore, I think with the NHL in a revolutionary economic time (read, salary cap era) I think it is now just as important for NHL teams to start placing a huge premium on extracting value.

I have seen a few different ‘advanced’ stats being used in hockey like CORSI (as one example) which is simply defined as the shot differential while a player was on the ice.  This includes not just goals and shots on goal, but also shots that miss the net, and in some formulations, blocked shots.  In other words, it’s the differential in the total number of shots directed at the net.  Is this a stat that you value and follow and are NHL GMs starting to value stats like these?

For years (decades) baseball GMs decided to simply ignore the vast wealth of various ‘sabermetric’ analysis at their own peril and they all ended up in the same regrettable position, unemployed.  Adapt or die.  Can any these stats start to quantify the ‘intangibles’ in hockey that are often hidden to the naked eye and certainly do not show up on the score sheet?

I bring this up because among Leafs fans there probably isn’t a player more argued about than Colby Armstrong since signing his three year, nine million dollar deal with the team.  A lot of people initially felt this was a big to moderate overpay for a guy like Armstrong who in 47 games this season has scored 8 goals and added 15 assists.

Some agreed with this and some didn’t.  Those who didn’t proposed I wasn’t taking into account his abilities and skills that might not necessarily show up on the score sheet each night.  Things such as puck battles (winning them), hard back checking, proper positioning and in general helping to ‘shut down’ the opposing team’s better offensive lines.

Since 2008/09 here are the stat lines for two different NHL players.  One is 27 years old (Player A) and the other is 24 (Player B).  Player B has won a Stanley Cup while the other has toiled in three different organizations and it’s fair to say public opinion of Player B is significantly higher than Player A and maybe it is warranted, but you can be the judge.  Colby Armstrong was also added for context.

Player A22356671230.551454510.2
Player B21160771370.651647612.6

Did anybody guess Player A and Player B yet?  One more hint, according to Player A earns $1.9 million while the other $3.083 million.  Player A is none other than former Leafs forward Lee Stempniak and Player B is former Leafs forward Kris Versteeg.  I know the market basically crashed in front of Lee Stempniak’s eyes this past off-season, but how can we properly explain the rationale for the disparity in salary?

Is it Versteeg’s age and potential to improve his current game, a simple market correction where Stempniak couldn’t get the necessary bidders or is it again a case where the intangibles makes up for the difference in base salary?  All three players compared above are strong third line players on deeper rosters with the potential to play on your second line, and all have clearly different skills sets.  Yet as we see there is a pretty big difference in salary cap hit and this is where teams could make a huge difference to the overall output of their roster.

Being able to effectively value and measure these intangibles could allow a team to spend more on the scarcely available high end skilled forwards even if it means going slightly above market price to do so.  It would also allow a team to focus purely on the highly skilled, high ceiling talents in the draft that are almost impossible to add at a reasonable price in free agency.  Teams could do this knowing they can always fill the “pick and axe” roles effectively and cost efficiently, provided they can come up with a way to properly value said players.

In today’s day and age is it really enough to just say he is (or isn’t) worth it because of the intangibles that simply don’t show up on the score sheet or highlight reel?  Can we possibly prove with any certainty that Armstrong truly provides the Leafs a hidden value that a guy like Luca Caputi (or whomever) could also potentially provide at a fraction of the cost?  Is spending $3-million on any 3rd or 4th line type because he ‘fills a role’ truly worth it in today’s super frugal NHL?  On the flip side I also don’t believe we can safely say that Colby Armstrong isn’t worth what the Leafs are paying him because a lot of what he provides a team is integral for a championship.

If this means at least attempting to quantify and value things that haven’t traditionally been measured in the past, then so be it.  We have the resources, technology, bright minds and the wherewithal to come up with some exciting and relevant new hockey metrics and stats.  Now we need the motivation from front offices (and fans) to want to use the potential knowledge to become more efficient.   I think we can all agree the flawed and antiquated plus/minus system surely isn’t it.

Are any of the current ‘advanced’ stats useful; is this even a realistic option for hockey?  Maybe the traditional culture of the game is unwilling to embrace a new way of viewing the game, as baseball (one of the oldest sports) also was at one point?  I know I don’t hold all of the answers and I won’t pretend I do however these are all questions I am hoping to get opinions on from the very knowledgeable readers of this site, what are your thoughts?

Other Links of Interest:

Jacob Volkmann Challenges Barack Obama To Fight?

Chris Bosh Struggling

Can You Quantify Disappointment?  An interview with sabermetric legend.