Debating which NHL team should be the next to relocate has become one of the cool things to do in hockey, and the Thrashers / Jets move from Atlanta to Winnipeg over the summer has only served to ramp up the debate about which franchise will be setting up shop in Quebec City in the near future.
The two teams that are almost exclusively offered as the prime candidates to wear a hockey playing igloo on their chests soon are the Phoenix Coyotes and the Florida Panthers. While I think that it is likely that one of them ends up in Eric Lindros’ favorite province soon, I would rather talk about the fact that Phoenix and Florida are sitting in 7th and 11th overall in points percentage, or points gathered per contest.
The reason I want to cite this stat is that it’s impossible to talk about the standings in just a total points construction because there will never be a point in the season in which every team has played the same amount of games. So to be fair to every team, we’ll use points percentage.
I thought about why Phoenix and Florida are so high in the league’s overall standings, and on the same line of thinking, why seemingly none of us saw any success coming for these two. It’s not like everyone was saying that each team should be contending for the eighth playoff spot in its respective conference. Rather, the general idea was that both teams would contend for a top-five overall draft pick.
We could cite the individual players, but that would be missing the point. Sure, Phoenix is led by Shane Doan, a man that has earned the nickname “Captain Canada,” but we already knew that coming in. So why the widespread prediction that a team that has made the playoffs the past two seasons would go into the tank? Some of the disfavor was surely linked with the departure of goalie Ilya Bryzgalov to Philadelphia over the summer, but I don’t think that explains all of it.
And for Florida, we all knew of and followed the early-July spending spree that they went on just to try to reach the salary cap floor, but the prevailing comment on the situation was that the Panthers overpaid for players that nobody else would have offered anywhere near that much money to. In other words, they got a lot of players, but they didn’t get much value. And when you have a squad near the bottom in player payroll, and everyone thinks those players have essentially no trade value, then it stands to reason that things should go negatively for that franchise. Maybe we all overlooked how good Brian Campbell really is (and I think we largely have), but again, he’s one player. Stephen Weiss makes two. We all saw the rosters coming in, so why are the Panthers outdoing expectations by so much?
I came up with three reasons that despite very low expectations, the Coyotes and Panthers are sitting pretty through 13% of the season.
1. Predictions are based too much on last season
Freakonomics co-author Stephen Dubner recently hosted an episode of the podcast of the same name entitled “The Folly of Prediction.” In one of the interviews, he talks to researcher Hayes Davenport, who has looked at NFL predictions made by “experts.” Davenport cites the fact that any untrained animal could look at any of the NFL’s four-team divisions, throw out the worst team, and predict the division champs at a 33% success rate. He then reveals that the league’s pundits have been predicting NFL division winners at just a 36% success rate.
One main reason that he offers for the 64% failure rate is, “They tend to rely much too heavily on the previous year’s standings in making their picks for the following year. They play it very conservatively, but there’s a very high level of parity in the NFL right now, so that’s not exactly how it works.”
I would suggest that today’s NHL sees more parity than at any time in the league’s past. This is probably largely due to the existence of a salary cap (and salary floor), which mandates that all teams spend within $16 million of each other on yearly player salaries.
If we look at most hockey predictions, we see very little in the way of sweeping changes in the makeup of either conference. This is probably because when we go to make predictions, one of the tabs that we have open in our web browser is last year’s standings. I know it played a role in my projecting the Panthers for last in the east. Now, part of it was also the departure of Tomas Vokoun coupled with my expectation that Jacob Markstrom, an undoubted future all-star goaltender, would not be given the chance to play early and often for the big club this year. But, a lot of it also had to do with last year’s standings. And I know I’m not the only one guilty of that blunder.
2. Hockey is played on a sheet of ice, not a balance sheet
It’s easy to see how relying too much on last year’s standings could have led a person to shortchange the Panthers, but what about the Coyotes? They’ve been a playoff team the past two seasons, and play a rough and tough style that would be coveted by any northeastern city. So, the “last year made me do it” excuse couldn’t possibly explain the en masse assumption that Phoenix would suck this year.
Instead, I think many of us have read way too much into the Coyotes’ off-ice financial issues. It was widely assumed that they would be the team to move to Winnipeg (or in the Coyotes’ case, move back to Winnipeg). But, another $25 million set aside by the city of Glendale kept the team in Phoenix for another season, while Winnipeg’s thirst has been quenched.
As the business of sports has become much more covered in all facets of the media, fans have become de facto GMs. Or, at least they think they have. I mean, capgeek.com exists almost solely so that people like me can get on the internet and critique a player’s “value” based on his salary cap hit to his team. It’s fun and intelligent, and I’m not going to stop, but sometimes I think we all overrate how the financial struggles of a franchise’s ownership group will affect the team’s actual on-ice play.
Jokes about the L.A. Dodgers paying their players in ramen noodles have been rampant in the past year, but hockey doesn’t get that kind of coverage on ESPN. If it did, how could everyone not be making fun of the fact that the Phoenix Coyotes have been owned and operated by the NHL for a few years now, and operating at reportedly huge losses?
Well, hockey people are aware of it, and hockey people make predictions. I think there is a huge tendency to assume that bankruptcies and rumors over relocation or contraction will cast a cloud over the franchise, and that the players won’t be able to shine through the fog. But let’s get real: these guys are getting paid a lot of money to play the game they love. They’re going to play it hard and to the best of their abilities. Why would all of this balance sheet stuff enter their minds before laying down to block a shot or going hard into the corner to dig out a puck late in the second period of a game in November? It wouldn’t, and I think that for the most part it doesn’t.
3. It’s still very early
Pointing out the early successes of two franchises that everyone verbally craps on is nice, but it would be ill-advised not to point out that those successes are still just that — early.
We are 11 games into the season, and a lot can still go wrong over the next 71 for either team. The positives are that their styles of play and cohesion seem to be working. Each has a pair of goaltenders that can be relied on to be solid at times, although I’m not sure anyone would vouch for the absolute impossibility that Mike Smith, Jason LaBarbera, Jose Theodore or Jacob Markstrom go sideways at some point this year.
Also, are these teams deep enough if and when the injury bug comes around? Surely the Panthers cannot afford a long-term injury to Campbell or Weiss, but what about the third through seventh-best players? Can Phoenix play the style it wants effectively if Martin Hanzal or Captain Canada go down? Will they create enough goal scoring chances in the absence of Keith Yandle? The answer to all of these questions is probably “no,” and so we must remember that these two teams are only 13% complete in their seasons. Surely their goals should be to make the playoffs and cram all of our predictions down our throats, and they’ve each got 71 more games to try to make that happen.