Death of the Underdog

Mikael Backlund (Greg Thompson/Hammersmith Studios)
Mikael Backlund (Greg Thompson/Hammersmith Studios)

Analytics are killing the underdog. Well, not the actual player, but the role of the underdog.

Teams have long kept their own statistics on things like shot attempts, so certain qualities of certain players have long been well documented within organizations. During these times fans would pick out certain players they would classify as underrated; skaters unheralded amongst other fans for seemingly bring the puck from their own zone to the offensive zone with consistency, or forwards who somehow always managed to throw everything towards the net. Now there are stats available to the public that keep tabs on these tendencies.

Take a quick look at Calgary Flames centre Mikael Backlund’s point totals this past season. The six-foot, 198-pound Swede racked up 10 goals and 27 points in 52 games. Then in the playoffs he had a goal and an assist in 11 contests. Now he’s signed to a three-year extension worth $3.575 million on average.

Before advanced stats really hit the mainstream, it would be easy to scoff at this contract. They’d say Calgary GM Brad Treliving was overpaying for a former first-round pick that’s entering his prime at the age of 26. But of course there would be a few who paid attention to Backlund’s play and deemed it a great deal for a young centre that plays a strong defensive game and contributes a bit offensively.

Fast-forward to 2015 and it’s hard to find people in the hockey community criticizing the three-year extension. Backlund was fourth among Flames forwards in 2014-15 as he started 39.6 percent of his shifts in the defensive zone, but he finished the season tied for fifth (with centre Sean Monahan) in Corsi percentage amongst forwards with a 45.6 rating. Nobody ahead of him started as many shifts in the defensive zone.

(Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports)
(Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports)

We can go back a little further to the summer of 2014 – often referred to as the summer of advanced stats – and see how puck possession stats brought defenceman Anton to the forefront of blueliners. With the New York Rangers during 2013-14, Stralman scored one goal and 13 assists in the regular season before adding five points – all assists – in 25 playoff contests that same season. The ensuing summer Tampa signed him to a five-year contract worth $4.5 million on average.

This marked a watershed in player valuations. Traditionally a quick look at those scoring statistics and the contract would lead you to believe Stralman plays a rough-and-tumble game. But the Swede stands at 5-foot-11, 190 pounds.

Steve Yzerman, GM of the Lightning, obviously embraced the analytics that showed Stralman played against a very high level of competition during his last season with the Rangers, and still managed to lead the team (including players with a dozen games or more played) in Corsi-for percentage with a 56.4 rating. The return for Tampa? Nine goals and 39 points in the regular season and an additional goal and nine points in 26 playoff games as the Lightning reached the Stanley Cup Final (where they ultimately lost in six games to the Chicago Blackhawks, who are hockey’s current dynasty).

There will always be some guy people consider an underdog. But it is more likely someone who defies the odds, like 5-foot-8, undrafted Lightning winger Tyler Johnson who tied Patrick Kane atop the postseason scoring charts with 23 points. Today, if you ask hockey executives, writers, or fans how badly they’d want Johnson on their team, only the most incongruous wouldn’t say “very badly.” Not many people are left wondering why Tampa would sign Anton Stralman for $22.5 million, just like many people weren’t surprised anymore when Tyler Johnson scored this go-ahead goal in Game 2 of the Finals.

So much of the game today is quantifiable. And since numbers can be broken down to show, in depth, how effective players are in certain situations, not much is kept secret any longer. Sure, there are NHLers people will always regard as underdogs, but it’s not because their production flies under the radar of statistics. It’s because they overcome a certain disadvantage to defy the odds in the best hockey league on Earth.