With armchair GM season in full effect and the trade market being a bit more active than speculated prior to the season, now is a great time to dig into some numbers to see if we can provide guidance for NHL GM's as they shape their roster with the trade deadline of March 2 approaching in the distance. But instead of looking at possession stats and points per game, we'll be taking a macro-view of the roster construction of several contending teams across the NHL in the 2015-16 season to see if there is a golden thread that can show us what the good teams are doing and try to calculate a secret formula or build a model for winning points in the NHL.
We've used the top six point-gathering teams in the NHL (as of 1/15) including the Washington Capitals, Dallas Stars, Chicago Blackhawks, Florida Panthers, St. Louis Blues and Los Angeles Kings to break down some of the things they are doing with their roster and to relate that to the success they are having on the ice. We have broken down the teams with regards to 2 major components: Personnel and Payroll. In breaking down those items, we will be looking at veteran presence and youth presence and will be using the age of 26 as the age when most players achieve veteran status. So for this exercise, players 25 and below will be considered youth and players 26 and above will be considered veterans.
This chart represents an age-based review of the rosters, providing overall numbers as well as a positional breakdown of the team's veteran versus youth presence. Goaltenders are not broken down simply because most NHL goalies are 26 and above as it takes longer for those players to develop. The numbers in each column of this graph represent the percentage of the position occupied by youth or veterans.
There isn't a lot of disparity in the average age of players on a contending team, but this number will be important later. Contending teams tend to be a bit more veteran-heavy on the blue line, and forwards seem to break into the league at a younger age on contending teams. This could indicate that like goaltenders, defensemen take a bit longer to fine-tune their skills while forwards have a better chance of carrying forward based on their natural ability and that drafting forwards is more important than developing them.
This chart represents a salary-based view of the rosters, again providing overall numbers by position but also further breaking down the position between veterans and youth. Goaltenders are included in overall numbers, but again are not broken down by age for the reasons mentioned above. The numbers in the columns of this graph represent the percentage of the team's total payroll against the designated category.
There's a bit more to be taken away here, especially when it comes to the total payroll applied to each position on the team. As a basis, there are 360 minutes logged in a regulation game (60 min each times 3 forwards, 2 defense, 1 goalie). Forwards receive half (50%) of the minutes, defense receives one-third (33.3%) of the minutes and the goalie gets one-sixth (16.7%) of the total minutes played. By pure projection of those numbers, it could be expected that the salary disposition of the team would match that. But as you can see here, that isn't the case. Contending teams are spending nearly 10% more than expected on their forward group, a few percent less on their defenders and consistently less on their goalies. So, it appears that in today's NHL, investing in your forward group tends to equate to gaining more points. But this could also infer that forwards are overpaid, defenders are paid fairly and goaltenders are underpaid in the current NHL system.
Overall, contending teams are paying 76% of their payroll to veterans while only 62% of the roster is made up of veterans - which makes sense as veteran players are generally compensated more with experience. However, what doesn't become completely clear in these numbers is that most of these teams have at least one youth forward and one youth defender that are getting a big portion of the youth salary for their team. That indicates that the player has achieved star-status very early in their career, and puts a bright light on the importance of how well a team drafts when equating it to points earned by the team.
Putting It All Together
To further understand what all of this means, we look for correlation between some the numbers presented to try to see what leads to a winning formula. The stronger a number correlates to earning points, the easier it will be to determine a trend, or in essence, reveal a truth about how age and spending drive points in the league.
This graph shows the strongest correlation amongst the numbers reviewed above. The X-axis (horizontal) represents total points earned, the Y-axis (vertical) represents average age of the team and the bubble size indicates the percentage of the team's payroll spent on youth. The thing that absolutely jumps off the page here is that the younger the team is, the more points it earns. As mentioned above, there isn't a lot of disparity amongst the average of contending teams, but even a small shift appears to make a big difference as Washington leads the points at 69 with an average age of 27.2.
Another strong correlation comes from the percentage of the roster occupied by youth to points earned. This graph represents points on the X-axis, % of total roster youth on the Y-axis and average age in the bubble size. This graph seems to contradict the previous, as the correlation here is that the less spots filled on the roster by youth, the more points are earned. However, the outliers of Los Angeles and Washington begin to show hints that there might be a point of convergence that this graph doesn't show because it only includes contenders.
This graph represents Points on the X-axis, % Salary spend on Defense on the Y-axis and % Salary spent on goaltenders in the bubble size. Here, a point of convergence starts to emerge. The average spend on Defense is 30.7%, which is where the line seems to converge most, suggesting that spending above 30.7% leads to less points and spending below 30.7% also leads to fewer points.
The final graph depicts Points on the X, % Veteran D on the Y and % Vet D Salary in the bubble size. This digs a bit deeper into what might appear to be a less meaningful stat, but there is a strong point of convergence correlation to gaining points, and Washington appears to have figured it out. At 62.5% Vet D on the roster, Washington seems to have hit the ideal spot that equates to gaining points. There would have to be a lot more work done to prove causation between the two, this is merely reflecting the correlation in the results.
There are definitely some truths to be unearthed from looking at NHL rosters in this way. It would be interesting to do a more exhaustive review and incorporate each team, but in looking at the contending teams, there do seem to be some secrets to their success. Some of the most interesting things to come out of this view are how teams allocate payroll by position and how that leads to their success. It is also interesting to note which underlying numbers seem to contribute to winning in the NHL and whether a secret formula can be discovered by reading between the lines. There are likely many more truths to be discovered by further investigation of the numbers, so here is a copy of the spreadsheet for you to download and take a look at on your own. Please leave anything you determine in your review in the comments section.
What Should The Wild Do?
In looking at the Wild's trends compared to the contenders, a couple of things jump off the page. First, the Wild's average age is higher than the rest of the contenders, and predictably is leading to less points. However, the Wild does have higher than average percentage of their roster occupied by youth players. This suggests that the Wild carries veterans that are older and push the average age up. One of those veterans is Niklas Backstrom, who is 37 and will fall off the roster next year. The two numbers also suggest that a bigger percentage of the Wild's youth is a bit older than most contenders, which includes a number of 24- and 25-year old players. The second is that the Wild is currently fairly in line with the contenders on the amount they spend on Defense. As a matter of fact, it's lower than the contenders' average right now, but will jump a bit next year as Jared Spurgeon's new deal kicks in. Reading between the lines also shows that trading a high-salary youth defender for a high-salary youth forward would have a positive impact on the team, which confirms the wants of the fan base.