Not Selling Jeans and Niclas Bergfors: Judging the Limits of "The Predator Way"

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. 

And while teams like Oakland and Seattle no doubt reached their goal of evaluating defense better than the rest, they betrayed their ultimate goal: winning. Oakland's slick-fielding, low-OBP speedesters dominate that 5% of the game. But alas, it's still just 5%. 

Today's A's teams are hard to score against, but beatable. Sound familiar? Unfortunately for Billy Beane, he's running out of options--On Base Percentage is now the opposite of a secret. Fortunately for the Predators, hockey is decades behind baseball, in this regard.

The Predators are right to define themselves in opposition to the big-market, traditional models of building a team. But they need to stop obsessing with being the most defensively responsible team and start being the shrewdest.

Later in Moneyball, Brad Pitt returns to his roundtable of scouts, this time awakened to Eric Walker's lessons, with his protégé "Peter Brand" in tow. Beane lays down the law: they're going to sign the following players, whether his scouts like them or not. The scouts resist. Scott Hatteberg?!  He's slow. He has a bum elbow. He can't play first. He doesn't hit for average.

Beane: "But what does he do?" /points to Jonah Hill

Brand: "Do you want me to talk?"

Beane: "When I point to you, yes." 

Brand: "He gets on base."

The Predators managed 12 shots the other night. 12! That's like letting an opposing pitcher beat you with 80 pitches. They need to get the puck on the net. Matt Halischuk is not getting it there. Nick Spaling won't get it there. Brian McGrattan sure won't get it there. 

J.P. Dumont was old. He was slowing down. He didn't backcheck. 

Beane: "But what does he do?"  /points to Paul Fenton 

He shot the puck. The Predators would have been better off keeping him than paying him to play for someone else.

There are several such examples in Predators' history. Players that pushed the shot differential in the right direction got dumped, while players hurting the cause got adulation. Good riddance Dan Hamhuis; come home Greg Zanon. We won't miss Jason Arnott, but we'll never fully replace Scott Nichol. Replacing Joel Ward will be easy. Antti Pihlström took 88 shots in 53 games, playing fourth line minutes, but couldn't even get a one-way contract.

Niclas Bergfors. Lazy. Plays at half-speed. A defensive 0. But...

Brand: "He shoots the puck."

Niclas Bergfors is currently getting benched for all the same reasons he's been bounced to four teams at just 24 years old. Yet every team that got sick of Bergfors significantly outshot their opponents when Bergfors was on the ice for them. Last year, Matt Halischuk hustled, worked hard, and endeared himself to the coaching staff. But the Predators got badly outshot with him on the ice. I completely understand why Barry Trotz will never bench a player like Halischuk for a player like Bergfors. But if you favor the process that produces the much worse result, maybe it's time to reevaluate how you look at the process, not stubbornly accept the bad result.    
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. 

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