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Beyond the Numbers

By Larry Barrett  |  Posted 2004-05-14 Print this article Print

The National Hockey League team analyzed its players' numbers, cut payroll per victory in half—and produced a record season.

Beyond the Numbers

While the RinkNet system might tell a team that a player logged 15 minutes of ice time and didn't score any goals or log any assists, it doesn't tell a team if a player created scoring opportunities with his physical play or if he's an exceptionally fast skater. For that information, the Sharks send out scouts armed with their choice of handheld computer, such as a Palm digital assistant. They can upload commentary and analysis in straight text, which is then added to the existing statistical and contract information residing on the Sharks player database. Combining this data with the RinkNet statistics gives the decision-makers in the Sharks organization a complete view of every player's performance that day as well as a chronological history of their careers.

The Sharks then turn to the NHL's Local Arbitration Solution system to help them plot their fiscal course. The system's database contains the salary, age and contract information for every player in the NHL. It also holds historical information for every player, meaning that a general manager can see not only a player's performance over the years but how much he was paid for each season and how that compares to the performance of other players with similar salaries or statistics.

"We can go into the system and make a query for all players who scored 20 goals [a season], give or take 5%, in the last four years and what their average salary is," Will says. "Then we can take a look at our roster and determine whether or not, again statistically, it makes sense to sign a free agent who can give us X goals or X points for X dollars over X number of years."

Using current salaries and statistics, as well as historical information on players' performances at different stages of their careers, the Sharks took some calculated risks. They gambled—but with statistical support—that certain younger players could perform as well in the coming year as veterans had in the past.

The team traded captain Nolan, 32, and his $6.5 million-a-year contract, to the Toronto Maple Leafs for Alyn McCauley, 27—a forward with half the NHL experience as Nolan. They also picked up 22-year-old center Brad Boyes and a first-round draft pick that they coupled with another draft pick to select 19-year-old forward Steve Bernier.

The Sharks traded to Toronto 16-year veteran defenseman Bryan Marchment, 34, and his $2 million-a-year contract, for a pair of draft picks, and opted not to re-sign all-star forward Teemu Selanne, 33, with his $5.8 million-a-year contract.

With McCauley on board at $1.2 million, the Sharks traded a minor-league prospect to the New York Rangers for forward Nils Ekman, 28, at $575,000 a year, and brought up minor-league defenseman Tom Preissing, 27, at $800,000 a year.

The new Sharks—McCauley, Ekman and Preissing— tallied 44 goals and 77 assists in 2003-2004 for a total salary of $2.575 million, or $21,281 per point. The former Sharks— Nolan, Selanne and Marchment—combined to score 36 goals and 48 assists for a total salary of $14.3 million, or $170,238 per point.

After finishing last in the five-team Pacific Division in 2002-03, the Sharks rallied to win the division and secured home-ice advantage for at least the first two rounds of the playoffs. The 31-point gain was the largest improvement of any NHL team this season. The payroll? $34.5 million, down 29% from $48.5 million in 2002-03.

The Detroit Red Wings, perennial Stanley Cup contenders, had the league's highest payroll at $77.9 million and finished atop the NHL with 109 points. But big salaries don't always translate into big success. The perpetually underachieving New York Rangers finished with 69 points despite having the league's second-highest payroll at $76.5 million.

"There's no question that we've been lucky this year in some respects," Will says. "But we put ourselves in the position to be lucky based on sound decisions made using this data."

Corporations reeling in the wake of a disappointing year or mired in a painful reorganization might not see the immediate improvement that the Sharks enjoyed. But committing your organization to reevaluating the way payroll and individual responsibilities are managed can be the first step toward regaining credibility and profitability.

"Obviously a lot of other factors go into winning and losing hockey games," Will says, "but getting the most value out of the players you draft and sign makes all the difference."

Senior Writer
Larry, of San Carlos, Calif., was a senior writer and editor at CNet, writing analysis, breaking news and opinion stories. He was technology reporter at the San Jose Business Journal from 1996-1997. He graduated with a B.A. from San Jose State University where he was also executive editor of the daily student newspaper.
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