In the last month one of the main sources of discussion around here has been the value of UFA contracts. Colby Armstrong gets $3M. Brett Lebda gets $1.45M. With a few exceptions, it is not so much the addition of the player that has created controversy, but whether they were worth the money spent. Those who would say the Leafs have overpaid point to the stats, compare the hard numbers, and come to the conclusion that these guys are not worth that much. On the other hand, some (seems like fewer, though maybe the stats-heads are just louder and more self-righteous in their pleadings) suggest that the value of these players lies not in the stats alone, that there are certain intangibles that fill out the value beyond PPG, Corsi, and GVT.
I want to give my perspective on this. I am a coach in a sport that is certainly much more purely stats based than hockey. I coach distance running, specifically cross country. The stats are simple. There are no other prizes for gentlemanly running, or for best middle lap, or anything other than 1) finish place and 2) finish time. Despite that, in building my team, I rely quite heavily on the intangibles different players can bring. The way we "score" a team is simple: you add up the placings of the top 5 runners from each team, and the lowest score wins. In this way, you would think that intangibles such as how well teammates get along, how funny one guy is, leadership skills, intelligence, life skills...that shouldn't matter because essentially it is an individual sport, masquerading as a team game. Yet it does. I have seen time and time again that the group can become larger than the whole. Runners don't get paid, but in terms of value to the team, it is clear that there is not just a simple linear equation between that value and their easy to read stats line.
To bring it back to hockey...if this is the case in such a purely stats-oriented sport as distance running, then in a complex team endeavour like hockey, things like trust, energy, experience MUST have an impact on the players' execution of their skills. And if that is the case, then we can't just look at the stats to determine players' values. The salary cap makes this valuation more important than it used to be, for sure, and the cries of opportunity cost spent on a number of assets that might have been used on one larger asset are valid, to a point. If you have $59M to build a team, you have to make careful choices about where you spend your money. It would be foolish, in that case, NOT to consider intangibles.
The problem for us is that these intangibles are not easily measured anyway, but we are also missing the big picture: we don't know what the GM's full plan is. He may have his eyes on certain players next summer, or in trades, that are going to fit in to this group in a certain way. As a result, it may be worthwhile to pay more than what someone else would for a certain asset, if he knows he can under pay for others. Or if he knows that if the market value of the team he desires down the road might be closer to $52M, then he has some wiggle room. Further, he knows the players personally, or at least he has second-hand knowledge of them through his fellow GMs, through scouts, and through coaches and players on his team already. We may know a guy who went to school with a guy...but that's not enough information. I should hope the GM is basing his decisions on more than that.
So how about it? Intangibles...not the root of all evil? Or a better question, how can we as fans better understand and measure intangibles? Stats have been pushed pretty far. I am not super well-versed in them, but it seems like the QTEAM stat might say something about it, even if it is based on points. I suppose my suspicion is that those stats seem circular to me. How do we know if the quality of one player is based on his own skills, or the skills of those he's playing with? Do these stats account for chemistry between a couple players? Is this whole stats thing ruining fandom, kind of the way grad school ruins Shakespeare? Or does it enhance it?
Lots of questions at the end, but I hope we can have a kind of meta-stats discussion, not focused around certain players and their value, but around the way we use stats and perceive them, vis-à-vis intangibles.