Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Can a Sister Get Some Moneyball up in this Joint?

This has been a really frustrating Worcester Sharks season. It's even worse because it comes with a sense of deja vu. A couple seasons ago, the Sharks iced a team that was lackluster, rudderless and suffered from a serious dearth of veteran players. It was boring hockey, and it did very real damage to the fan base. The first season the Sharks were in Worcester was a cardio workout - they'd lose and scrap and get way behind and then somehow come back and outshoot everyone and then lose some more and then win a bunch and it was just mayhem all the time, but it was really fun hockey to watch. Even when they were losing, it felt like they were pounding the other team. Not so this year.

San Jose has an interesting relationship to its minor league team. On the one hand, they do actively use Worcester as a development location. Coach Roy Sommer has been kept on staff specifically because he's good at teaching San Jose's prospects the San Jose system, so they don't miss a beat when they get the call. (Frankly, the idea that Sommer is supposed to be giving the players the system is the only thing that explains the godawful line changes, the timing of which is only viable at NHL speed and is terrible in AHL play.) I like Sommer, but his role here makes me hate him a little during games. It's a sprint-hate. We've seen plenty of guys come through Worcester and make it up to the Show successfully; just looking at San Jose's current roster, you have Logan Couture, Benn Ferriero, Brandon Mashinter, John McCarthy, Jamie McGinn, Torrey Mitchell, Joe Pavelski, Devon Setoguchi, Jason Demers, and Derek Joslin, all of whom have been through Worcester in the previous four seasons. Several of these guys - Couture, McGinn, Pavelski, Setoguchi - would have made it to the NHL if Finz was left in charge of coaching them, but the others have had pretty dramatic improvements that I am inclined to think are the result of good coaching from Sommer, Assistant Coach Cunniff and the rest of their staff. If you had told me when they were in Worcester that Derek Joslin and Jason Demers would have consistent and quality NHL careers, I would have attempted to slap the crazy out of you. Those kids were train wrecks.

Despite this focus on development, I'm still not sure San Jose knows how to run a consistently successful AHL team. As far as I can tell, they set the roster before the season starts, and then leave it unsupervised, trusting in Sommer & Co. to make the lemonade. That is dumb hockey. I really enjoyed Michael Lewis' Moneyball, a book chronicling the approach taken by the Oakland A's and other teams who made low-cost player investments based on statistical analysis on what I guess you'd call "less popular" statistics. In hockey, it would probably be like looking at someone's plus/minus rating instead of their point totals. I think San Jose has something like the moneyball approach in mind when they stock up Worcester; my best guess is that they're stocking a supporting cast for their top prospects, and trying to reserve their funds for those future stars. The problem is that a moneyball approach relies on constant monitoring and tweaking, and I don't think that San Jose hockey ops carries through on that end. It doesn't help that Wayne Thomas has openly admitted that they occasionally decide to run lean, exacerbating all of these problems and guaranteeing stagnation.

It's pretty easy to just say that San Jose is interested in developing its prospects, and not in the supporting cast, but that doesn't let them off the hook. Teamwork is an essential part of player development, and the current arrangement presents several challenges on that count. First of all, since there's very little in the way of AHL depth built in, or of ECHL support, when people start getting tired, then hurt later in the season, there are dramatic shifts in chemistry and team cohesion. That changes your ability to develop your players. Secondly, your prospects' teammates should challenge them as much as the opposing players. If you're not paying attention to your second, third, fourth liners and beyond, you're not working your prospects to their full potential. Third, when you leave your own ass out in the wind, you're going to need to scramble for bodies when you get call ups or injuries, so your prospects and the guys who are supposed to be developing then know that they're going to be getting people who can be signed to PTOs mid-season, which of course means people who have already been passed over and who have gotten through waivers with the NHL giving a collective shrug. Not exactly inspiring stuff, not is it going to provide you with the kind of veterans that can help develop your prospects.

Though there are clear flaws in San Jose's approach, you can rationalize it to a point, but it falls apart when you consider that both San Jose and Worcester are owned by a company called Silicon Valley Sports Entertainment. All players and franchises are investments on SVSE's part, and if you look at it all in that context, Worcester starts looking a lot more like a badly handled investment. Not an inherently bad investment, mind you, but one that is being chronically mismanaged. Worcester should be another moneymaking opportunity for SVSE, and leaving it unsupported is not going to produce exciting hockey that gets people in the building to spend money. It's not going to sell merchandise, nor concessions, and it's not going to convince people to buy season tickets or corporate sponsorship. Thanks to Worcester exemplary front office staff, I understand that corporate revenues have remained high, but that is in spite of this season's hockey product, not because of it. The Worcester front office is singularly dedicated to making an impact on the community and making things happen - they brought the All Star Classic to the city in 2009, which the Icecats never seemed to have the backbone to even bid for, for instance. The staff in Worcester could bring a Calder Cup here given freer rein, but with SVSE's laser focus on San Jose and their desire to view all their investments through that lens, the Worcester front office has a significant challenge before them.

I personally would just like some exciting hockey. It's getting increasingly difficult to muster enthusiasm for games, and if my enthusiasm is waning, the Sharks organization is going to have to fight hard to keep butts in the seats next year.

1 comment:

  1. I wish I could openly rant about hockey like you!!