Toronto Maple Leafs: An Economic Model of Leafs Hockey

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Toronto Maple Leafs: An Economic Model of Leafs Hockey
Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

The accomplishments of an NHL general manager is not easy to assess. Exactly how much of a team's success is owed to the general manager, and how much of it is just pure luck? That's the question we can answer with an economic model of hockey.

Take the Pittsburgh Penguins, Chicago Blackhawks and Los Angeles Kings, and compare them with the Boston Bruins, Anaheim Ducks and Detroit Red Wings. We have two models of how to win a Stanley Cup.

The first group found success through years of "tanking" and accumulation of upper first round picks. The second group secured long-term success through trades and free-agent signing. Certainly the impact of the GM is different in the two groups!

No offense to Oilers GM Steve Tambellini, but with three consecutive No. 1 overall picks (Hall, Nugent-Hopkins, Yakupov), it's kind of hard to screw up. Therefore, to model the assets of a hockey team, we need to separate a team's natural growth and induced growth in assets.

Since NHL is set up in a way that balances the powers of the teams through draft picks, we can assume a fair game. In other words, all teams will win equal number of Stanley Cups in the long run. What causes the short-term "fluctuation" is the works of the general managers.

There are four ways in which a team's assets can increase (or decrease):
1. Draft picks
2. Player development
3. Free-agent signing
4. Trades
5. Cap space increase

Even without any trades, a team will see its assets increase naturally; this is because each team is awarded with seven draft picks each season. Draft picks are commodities that could be traded for other draft picks or players. Each draft pick has a specific value attached to it; the earlier the pick, the higher the probability of selecting an impact player. However, once a draft pick is used to select a player, the draft pick is no longer an asset of the team. Instead, the team gains an asset in a young player. The young player's value is subject to "player development."

For instance, the Ottawa Senators were awarded the No. 1 overall pick in the 1993 NHL Draft. With the pick, the assets of Ottawa Senators increased significantly, but as soon as they selected Alex Daigle, Ottawa lost the value of the No. 1 overall pick. Instead, they gain a young player in Alex Daigle. Since Alex Daigle never lived up to the expectation of a first overall pick, Ottawa's assets decreased.

For the equalization process to work (that all teams are equally competitive in the long-run), we assume GMs have perfect knowledge of players. It is assumed that GMs always select the best player available with their draft picks. This allows us to use draft picks as a benchmark to evaluate a team's assets. The difference between the team's assets and the benchmark evaluates the performance of the GM.

This may sound confusing, but let's use my favourite team— the Toronto Maple Leafs— as an example to clarify things.

When Brian Burke took over the Leafs in 2008, he inherited some assets in players (both in the NHL and AHL). Under natural growth, the Leafs gained 28 draft picks, one pick in each round of selection from 2009 to 2012. Players, draft picks, and some cap space make up the Leafs' total assets.

In terms of draft picks, the Leafs did not miss a single pick from the first three rounds of selection from 2009 to 2012. This means that the Leafs were able to at least grow at the natural rate of growth.

The following is a list of Toronto's top three draft picks from the 2009-2012 drafts:
1. Kadri
1. Biggs
1. Percy
1. Rielly
2. Blacker
2. Ross
2. Ryan
2. Finn
3. Devane
3. McKegg
3. Olden
3. Leivo

Since these assets were added for free and we assumed the GM always drafts the best player available with each pick, Burke cannot take credit for these additions. This is also the reason Tambellini cannot take credit for adding Hall, Nugent-Hopkins, and Yakupov.

Next, let's look at what Burke did with his roster players— the stock capital. The list below includes all transactions Burke conducted since his takeover. Any change in asset value would be considered the work of the GM.

Traded away                                                  Received

1st (2010) Seguin 1st (2011) Biggs
1st (2011) Hamilton 1st (2011) Percy
2nd (2010) Knight 2nd (2009)
2nd (2011) 2nd (2009)
3rd (2011) 2nd (2010)
3rd (2012) 2nd (2010)
4th (2010) 2nd (2012)
4th (2012) 3rd (2010)
5th (2010) 3rd (2011)
6th (2010) 4th (2009)
6th (2010) 4th (2010)
7th (2010) 4th (2010)
7th (2011) 4th (2013)
7th (2012) 5th (2010)
Antropov (1st -1998) 5th (2010)
*Beauchmin 6th (2011)
Berry 6th (2011)
Blake 7th (2010)
Earl 7th (2011)
Giliati 7th (2012)
Hagman Ashton (1st -2009)
Hayes Colborne (1st -2008)
Kaberle Deschamp(2nd -2008)
*Kubina Franson
*Lebda Gardiner (1st -2008)
*MacDonald Kessel (1st -2006)
Mayers Lashoff (1st -2005)
J. Mitchell Liles 
D. Mitchell Lombardi
*Moore Lupul (1st -2002)
Petiot Phaneuf (1st -2003)
Pogge Steckel
Ponikarovsky van Riemsdyk (1st -2007)
Schenn (1st -2008) *MacArthur 
Slaney *Komisarek (1st -2001)
Stajan *McClement (2nd -2001)
Stalberg *Connolly (1st -1999)
Stapleton  
Stefanovich  
Stralman  
Tlusty (1st -2006)  
Toskala  
White  


Bolded names are roster players.

*Indicates players picked up through free agency

From the list of players Burke traded away, arguably only a handful are currently regular roster players, most of which are past their prime. In the list of players the Leafs acquired, however, most of them are young players yet to reach their full potential. It's also worthwhile to note the players acquired were mostly former first or second round picks. Clearly, Toronto's assets increased quite significantly under Burke's management.

Now, let's factor in "player development," which is a form of natural growth (or decline).

Projected Leafs lineup:

Kessel - van Riemsdyk - Lupul
Kulemin Grabovski - MacArthur
Frattin - Bozak - Kadri
Steckel - McClement - [Open]

Phaneuf - Liles
Gunnarson - Gardiner
Komisarek - Holzer

Reimer - Scrivens

Many of these roster players were already in the system before Burke arrived. Their values have increased over the years due to their development as hockey players. These values should be accredited to previous general managers John Ferguson and Cliff Fletcher.

For a more accurate evaluation of a team's assets, we need a mathematical model that assigns a numerical value to each player, also taking account of his age, potential and development level. Fortunately, this has been done by EA Sports in the making of its NHL video games.

Hopefully, now you have a new perspective of the Toronto Maple Leafs and GM Brian Burke.

 

Twitter @Pieconomics

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