NASHVILLE, TN - OCTOBER 01: Niclas Bergfors #18 of the Nashville Predators skates away from Ryan Murphy #38 of the Carolina Hurricanes at the Bridgestone Arena on October 1, 2011 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images)
Despite the many positive similarities between the current Predators and the turn-of-the-century Oakland Athletics, it's the villains of the new film Moneyball, not heroes Billy Beane and Paul DePodesta, who most evoke David Poile and Barry Trotz.
In the film's opening scenes, banners portraying Oakland's departing "big three" fall from the Coliseum's facade. Billy Beane, played by Brad Pitt, sits at a conference table inside the stadium and listens to his aides debate potential replacements for Jason Giambi, Jason Isringhausen, and Johnny Damon. Scouts take turns enumerating the positive attributes of their favorite free agents and prospects. But after each pitch, an increasingly frustrated Beane simple asks, "If he's so good, why can't he hit?" Himself exasperated at Beane's unflagging pessimism, head scout Grady Fuson turns and utters a mantra harrowingly familiar to any Nashville Predators fan:
"We're just looking for some players who can play 'Oakland A baseball'."
Billy Beane rolls his eyes.
If, after this NHL season, the Predators lose their own impending-free agent "big three," which role will David Poile play? Based on past statements and actions, do you expect him to be soberingly realistic about the need for change? Or will he double-down on familiar sloganeering?
The fundamental story of Moneyball, the Michael Lewis book, is of a team that decided to ignore all the player attributes that teams craved, but didn't directly contribute to winning. Sandy Alderson, a Marine and lawyer by trade, took the reigns of the A's in 1983, with no baseball background. Unable to maintain the payroll of Tony LaRussa's powerhouse teams, Oakland tasked Alderson with building a championship team on a small-market budget. To do so, he reevaluated the sports' hallowed ideas, to which he had no allegiance.
"You have to remember to remember that there wasn't any evidence that any of this shit worked," said Alderson (Moneyball, p. 57).
So Alderson audited baseball. He commissioned an analytic appraisal of the game from aerospace-engineer-turned-writer Eric Walker. The pamphlet Walker produced made a very simple, yet profound point. If baseball is half offense and half defense, and pitchers account for most of the defense, position-player fielding is necessarily a small percentage of the overall game--by Walker's estimation, just 5%.
So the A's strategy became: find the hitters who provided the most runs, even at expense of defense. And since On Base Percentage statistically correlated better to runs than any of the favored statistics of the time, that meant pursuing the hitters who walked.
There's an obvious analogue to hockey here: the shot. Statistical analysis shows that, in the long haul, the team that shoots the most, not the best, wins. Like the walk in baseball, the shot in hockey carries both an explicit and implicit value. When a batter walks, he forces the pitcher into a deeper count and runs up his pitch count. When a skater shoots, he forces the goalie to make a save, allowing the possibility of rebounds and deflections. Oakland's strategy in Moneyball was not so much to walk a lot, as to not make outs. Until you make the third out, there exists an infinite number of possible runs to be scored that inning. And until you shoot the damn puck, there are zero possible goals coming your way.
We can even make a simple application of Walker's theory to hockey: if hockey is equally about taking shots and preventing shots--and a team taking a shot is necessarily, at that moment, not allowing a shot--forward offense is hugely more important than forward defense.
If there's a correspondant Oakland team to today's Predators, it's the mediocre A's of the past five years, not the hugely successful Moneyball teams of the five years prior. Since the Red Sox made traditional Moneyball tactics work for a big market team, Oakland (among other teams) tried to stake out a new niche in building defense-first teams.
Over and over the old scouts will say, "The guy has a great body' or, "This guy may be the best body in the draft." And every time they do, Billy will say, "We're not selling jeans here," and deposit yet another highly touted player, beloved by the scouts, onto his shit list. --Moneyball, p. 31
"The Predator Way" is a tolerable concept and marketing slogan, as long as it means teaching forwards responsibility and developing great defensemen and goaltenders. When "The Predator Way" starts to favor acquiring hustling, defense-first forwards, instead of teaching defense to forwards with talent, we're selling jeans here. These past few years, David Poile has nearly built a team that plays perfect "Predator hockey." Now its time to build a team that just wins.