Intangibles – worth every million. #MyColumn

The Age of Analytics has helped us understand the value of players whose boxcars don’t necessarily help them buy cars. Instead, it has helped players turn possessing the puck into possessing a mansion. 

But somehow, analytics have cast a negative light on the group who are most vital to winning – character players.

You hear it all the time – “don’t overpay for intangibles! pay for skill!”. But what people don’t understand is that it is technically impossible to overpay for character and grit. Character and grit are known as intangibles. That means they quite literally cannot be measured. Meaning it is literally impossible to overpay for them. Their beauty is in the eye of the be(er)holder in the stands and in front of the TV. 

Let’s look at an example.

A lot of people made fun of the Anaheim Ducks – a noted anti-analytics team who also happens to be at the top of the standings every year (kermit sipping tea dot jpeg) – for the deal they signed Ryan Kesler to. It is important to note that everyone who slagged the Ducks for this are people who care more about cells on spreadsheets than celebrations on the ice. And celebrations are something Kesler knows a lot about. He is a winner. 

The reason Kesler is a winner isn’t because of the points he puts up – it is from his toughness, character, grit, and leadership. These are the things that win playoff games. They might not win you regular season games, but those don’t matter. The playoffs matter. The regular season is just an 82 game pre-season where coaches get to experiment and Euros actually play well. The playoffs are where legends like Danny Briere (RIP), Darcy Tucker, and Mike Cammalleri are made. 

Notice how the three names I chose to list above AND Ryan Kesler are all either Canadians or played for a Canadian team? Makes you think about how hockey is Canada’s game. 

In fact, legend has it that Ryan Kesler is who Brian Burke thought he was acquiring in the infamous Seguin-Kessel trade. And if that had gone down the way Burke hoped, it’s obvious who would have won that trade (hint: The Leafs). 

Pop quiz: who has been to the playoffs more times – Phil Kessel or Ryan Kesler?

But this isn’t just about Ryan Kesler. This is about Mark Fraser, Colton Orr, Frazer McLaren, Ryan O’Byrne – the kind of guys that might fall down a lot but make sure they get in the way of a shot or a fist. The kind of guys you win with in the playoffs. Look at the Leafs – they almost won a playoff series with those guys. And that’s more than you can say for Phil Kessel (who will fit in perfectly with the Penguins and their underachieving ways) or Nazem Kadri. Yeah those two really showed up when it counted all right. At McDonald’s. 

And still, despite all the evidence, people are trying to force the beautiful sport of hockey onto a USB drive instead of appreciating the tenacity of a good net drive. People can keep preaching to only pay for skill, but ever since the Leafs started following that mantra, they’ve been terrible. Proof is in the pudding. 
Maybe, just maybe, we should stop trying to discount intangibles. They are worth paying for, just like goals and assists. But how much they are worth is not known. It might never be. That’s what makes them so beautiful.
  • magesticRAGE

    Good article Bobby. Analytics are interesting but you can’t measure heart.
    Grit and toughness makes for good hockey and there is such a fine line between good and really good players. Everyone has a good shot and can really fly on the ice, but when a player “takes one for the team” and plays through the pain, that is what makes hockey so great. Loose 7 teeth and still play on like Duncan Keith. That’s a guy that is a winner. Don Cherry rocks!!

  • I’m not sure if this is satire.

    If serious, its pretty brutal. Those pluggers were so important to the playoff success that McLaren played less than 8 minutes in the entire series. Orr averaged 6 and a half and blocked one shot the entire series.

  • Bobby, what do you call it when management instead of overpaying for character players you so satirically yearn for, instead choose to pay and effectively subsidize for the skilled players of other teams by retaining salary in trades for their most talented player?

    In your sardonic opinion, is this an even “better” outcome.

    • Gary Empey

      But you can’t overpay for character! He demonstrated it with math or something. Anyhow even if you do exceed the cap on 9 guys for your 4th line (can never have enough!) you can always find a GM on who will trade you an effete European like Filip Forsberg so you can save a few bucks!

  • I believe the article is not just about one dimensional players, but as a whole package. Kessel is one of, if not the most talented offensive player the leafs have ever had, but who are the most popular leafs of all time? Gilmour, Salming, Clark and for an older generation- Tim Horton. Why? Because of skill and grit. Most famous goal in maple leaf history was scored on a broken leg!
    Have an appreciation for the history of hockey and understand where others get their point of view.

  • Inline with the analysis presented, the question that arises is whether or not to pay for intangibles when putting together a Hockey Analytics Department. Should a team forego some skill (mathematics, critical thinking, etc.) for grit, tenacity, powerful keyboard strokes, etc. when hiring “fancy stats” personnel?

    Furthermore, the employment of an analytics staff with intangibles raises a question akin to “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?”. In this case, does a fancy stats person blessed with intangibles, but lacking in critical thinking skills, accept the hockey analytics mantra that you don’t pay for intangibles in a player?

    There’s some deep thinking to do folks!

  • SEER

    You have to have a balance of elite scorers and “grit” on a winning team.., but guys like Clark & Horton could also put up points and be part of set plays… The guy who is “just” a fighter.., isn’t going to be around long…, anymore…

  • hi its me

    Eh good article I guess however meanwhile grit is good and valuable that gritty player should atleat be able to contribute offensively and defensively and have some speed to contribute to the team and not be a liability. For example there is a guy like Clarkson and a guy like winnick. Winnick is a better overall player than clarkson because he is Abel to contribute more to his team and be versitie. Id rather take Winnick over clarkson .Yet both have gritt and leadership you see. But I do get your point. However I don’t think any team would want to spend valuable cap space on a gritty and leadership type player over a more versitile skilled player to have the gritty player be a liability on the ice.

  • Gary Empey

    I wish analytics were invented when I was playing. I could have been one of the giants of the industry. Instead it was those character players with the intangibles that shortened my hockey career.

  • silentbob

    analyitics are legit and have their place (and its an important one) in evaluating a players talent, and value to a team. However thy are not the end all, be all. There are things, the “intanglables”, that players do bring to the table that are important whic don’t show up on a score sheet. If that wasn’t the case we wouldn’t need Hunter, Morrison or any of he other scouts, just people to input data and someone to read the spreadsheets.

    Just look at Oakland, the team that really started this March toward analytics in sports. They’ve done very well with budget teams, using “advanced stats” build themselves up in a different, “non-traditional” way. But in over ten years, since they started down that path, they haven’t played a single World Series game. The teams that have won utilize a hybrid system of “old school” scouting and “new” analytics and they still spend big money on super star players.

  • silentbob

    Fights win games. This is why we won the cup so many times in the 1960’s.

    Tim Horton = fighter, Bobby Baun = fighter, Johnny Bower = figher.

    There’s your math for you.