Within the hockey media and analytic community, there may be no one I trust more Micah Blake McCurdy. I’m honored to have him join me for my 3rd interview in my summer series where I highlight my favorite hockey media members. Micah is an all-around great guy who sees the game on a different level. His visualizations on HockeyViz are so insightful that they have been featured all over the hockey media landscape. I kid you not, HockeyViz has a permanent place in my bookmarks in the 1st spot. If…I’m sorry WHEN you fall in love with HockeyViz you’re going to want to join the Patreon Page. The features are amazing, and it will without a doubt help you to make more informed decisions in fantasy hockey. I could go on about HockeyViz for 3,000 words, but why don’t I let the creator himself enlighten you…
TCB: For those reading who are unfamiliar with your work, how would you describe the HockeyViz brand and offerings? And how did HockeyViz get started?
Micah: “So the site grew organically out of people asking me questions. Originally, I started in hockey because I was curious with my own questions. I wanted to see how many points the Senators might take on a Western road trip and that extremely simple question turned into a very complicated bit of data analysis and I needed to do a lot of work to figure out exactly how it would work. I had to make all of the visualizations to understand what I was doing because I get lost easily without making pictures. Once I had all of the viz for all of the data I was making I did it for all teams in the NHL to keep me honest. I showed them to other people and they wanted to see them, so I made a website, so people would stop badgering me on Twitter all the time.
Now, that is the origin, but from there its grown into a real passion project of mine which is also my day-job as to get access to some of the fancier features at HockeyViz at only $5 or $10 a month depending on what you want to get. Those subscribers are my primary source of income now.”
TCB: That is awesome, how would you describe just a couple of the offerings on the site to someone who is not analytically driven yet, but maybe wants to be?
Micah: “The most basic is, who is generating offense and which teams are generating offense? It’s also important to see where it’s’ coming from and where they are allowing other teams to generate offense from. So, I have shot maps that show where the Sabres are taking their shots from when 5v5 as well as 5v4. Some teams you can see a lot of structure, some teams you see no structure.
Most of my sites work is focused around shots because that is a tangible, clearly important way of turning your dominance in the game into winning. After that, there is a lot of details which are less interesting, but more peripheral so if you wanted to know details on who is going to play well with whom then I have a lot of charts that show this. Almost all of my data comes down to outcomes such as shots, goals, penalties.”
TCB: Well why don’t we get to the Buffalo Sabres off-season moves, we can start with the Conor Sheary and Matt Hunwick for a 4th or possible 3rd round pick from Buffalo.
Micah: “I thought that trade was a bit unusual from Pittsburgh’s point of view. I thought that Buffalo came out well ahead of that trade. In particular, it’s because I think that Sheary is a fair bit better than people think. There’s no question that a huge amount of his point total is related to playing with Crosby and he won’t replicate some of those totals playing on a much weaker team and in particular, his immediate linemates won’t be of Crosby’s caliber.
I think in particular he has a great bit of speed and that is something the Sabres could use a good bit of. They have only a handful of really fast players and he will add to that, so I didn’t mind that deal at all. The pick in return is an extremely meager payment. What you get in Hunwick is a contract you will have to pay, and he is paid more than he is worth, but he is not completely useless. I think you will get minutes out of him as well so it’s not a pure salary dump, so I really like that trade from Buffalo.”
TCB: I had similar thoughts on Sheary, but why don’t we get to the big deal. Ryan O’Reilly to St. Louis for Berglund, Sobotka, Thompson, a 1st round pick which is lottery protected in 2019, and a 2nd round pick in 2020?
Micah: “This deal I liked less for Buffalo. A lot of people will just say ‘well O’Reilly is the best player in the deal and therefore the Sabres lose the trade’ and that is a little simplistic. I think Buffalo fans have underrated O’Reilly slightly I think he’s an extremely high-quality player, in fact, I think last year he may have been their very best player better even than Eichel. I’ve said in the past that I think he’s underpaid. I’m increasingly unsure about that, although he certainly is paid an incredible amount I don’t think he’s overpaid though. He was massively put upon in Buffalo he had incredibly difficult zone starts and every time the Sabres had the lead it was the Reino, O’Reilly show, and he played an incredible amount of minutes. I have a very high opinion of O’Reilly, much higher than most Buffalo fans and so I thought in that level that the Sabres lost the trade. On the other hand quality for volume trades can have more value to teams like Buffalo where having a single superstar is not what they need. They need a whole stable of players who can be solid there’s a there’s a real need for four NHL quality guys and although I don’t want to be cruel to say it but, there’s really been a shortage of NHL caliber players on the Sabres broadly over the last handful of years. Sobotka will play and Bergland will play and they’re both extremely capable players. Tage Thompson, although I don’t know much about him or for that matter many other prospects, I think will also play and so getting that kind of knockdown effect on the depth chart I think is going to be substantial for Buffalo.”
TCB: I did do a look into Tage Thompson and his P1/60 were pretty on par with Brandon Saad at the same age in the AHL. Might not be the fairest comparison, but time will tell. Moving on to my next question, is there anyone in the Sabres organization that you believe could be a breakout candidate or someone who could be a bounce-back candidate.
Micah: “I think a guy like Sam Reinhart at age 22 could be that guy. I mean he’s only 22 he’s still pretty young and I thought he had a decent season last year where his point totals were really underwhelming but he played consistently very well and was burned by poor finishing by his teammates when he was on the ice. he faced considerably tougher goaltending then he got from his own netminder. that’s not likely to last next year so I’m optimistic for Reinhart that he is going to have a significantly better season. He is going to be scoring more like a middle six forward and less like almost a fourth liner like he was at times last year.”
TCB: Next I have to ask about your feelings on the one Sabre the analytics community seems to have a huge question mark on in Rasmus Ristolainen, One of the three Rasmii if you will. I wondered where you stand on the debate as we see where his career can go looking forward.
Micah: “I have spent a fair bit of time looking at Ristolainen because he’s attracted so much attention and the really unusual thing about Ristolainen is that the year before last, so two years ago, he was your classic offensive defenseman. He was given somewhat sheltered minutes, he was given a scoring role and he did score very well, especially on the power play. Ludicrous first assist rates on the power play [that year]. He was also very respectable at five-on-five scoring compared to the rest of the Buffalo Sabres. The previous year he had a much heavier defensive role which did not suit him.
[What was so unusual] was the specific pattern of shots that he allowed, so unlike any other pattern that I’ve seen. Not just of any other player on the Sabres, but of any player I’ve ever seen in the league; so much so that I became increasingly convinced that he was doing the wrong thing on purpose. I don’t mean that he was doing something wrong deliberately, I mean that somebody was telling him what to do and he was carefully doing it and they should have told him to do something else.
Specifically, the pattern I mean is that when he was on the ice, the Sabres allowed hardly any shots from in between the circles below the dots (what might better be known as “the house” or more simply, the low slot). Outside of that, it was open season to take as many shots as you like. I think that’s definitely a mistake, the front of the net is the most important place but it is kind of like saying “I’m not going to ever give away a dollar, but I will give away quarters to anybody who asks!” You know it isn’t going to take very long before you’re going to be out money compared to where you would have been had you just given away the one dollar.
So if you just looked at the shot totals you would have said he sucks, end of story, but if you only look at the crease you say he’s clearly not letting them have good quality shots. This all tells me that there was a coaching mistake where they were making him play a style and he was faithfully doing it even though it wasn’t a good idea.”
TCB: Shifting to the NHL now what improvements would you want to make to the NHL as a whole or potentially a change to the game itself?
Micah: “One thing I would add if I had the iron fist to rule the league would be to implement Gold Drafting. So instead of having the teams with the lowest number of points get the best chances based off the lottery, I’d have the teams with the highest number of points after being eliminated from the playoffs receive the first overall pick. I’m extremely fond of this idea and I think Sabres fans would have benefited from this; and not so much in that the players they would have gotten would have been that much better. I think they would have been broadly similar, in fact, the change is not really that it benefits a particular franchise by giving them better players. The benefit is to the fans who get to watch better hockey and who get to enjoy the pleasure of cheering for their team and having their interests be aligned.”
TCB: The drawback I hear a lot about Gold Drafting is it would mess with the trade deadline and maybe teams wouldn’t want to trade any of their assets because they know they’re not going to the playoffs so we should keep players to help once eliminated to still win. It also could entice teams to bottom out faster to accumulate Gold Points faster
Micah: “I think there is defiantly a case where some teams would prefer to get Gold points instead of playoff points faster. If that is the case, then let them. Just let them publicly declare we aren’t going to make the playoffs this year to eliminate themselves then they can start accumulating points as soon as they want to. I think that makes an interesting set of decisions where teams will ask themselves, do you want to advertise to your fans that you’re done with this season? To in fact literally, eliminate yourself so even if you get the points that would let you make the playoffs you don’t get the playoff spot because you took yourself out of the playoff race to accumulate Gold Drafting points. I think that would make a lot of extremely interesting choices and I’m always down for anything that changes the league in that manner.
I think the other aspect about Gold Drafting that you mentioned that maybe it would ruin the trade deadline is very valid. I think that there would be considerably fewer trades, but on the other hand, I’m not completely sure that it would be worse. This is because the players who were in a good position to move would become increasingly more valuable. In other words, the number of trades would go down so the price of each trade asset would go up for teams who are fighting for a playoff spot or a drafting spot.”
TCB: As you have mentioned, you are an Ottawa Senators fan and I wanted to dive in on that and hear your opinion on the organization as a whole. Maybe some Eugene Melnyk.
Micah: “I think the organization as a whole is a disaster and I think it starts at the top with Melnyk. There is not a doubt that Melnyk is the core of the problem and I don’t think there are going to be any lasting solutions to Ottawa’s problems on or off the ice until he leaves. It’s sad, but his track record of venality and criminal cheapness is never going to go away. That’s the beginning, but I don’t think the rest of the organization has covered themselves with glory. I was optimistic when Alfredsson came back joined the front office and he was driven away by the corruption. Obviously, I’m extremely disappointed in Randy Lee for whatever happened at the combine in Buffalo and I hope justice is done there. I’m extremely disappointed in the way that the organization has handled the allegations against him. I also don’t think that they have enough people simply to do the work that they need to do especially after they finally suspended Lee. They’re massively understaffed and they’ve always been understaffed because of how cheap they always been.
They have to get a contract for Mark Stone and he’s filing for arbitration and he’s extremely important. You also need to get a contract for Cody Ceci as he has also filed for arbitration. I don’t think he’s an especially strong defender, but you need him under contract if he’s part of your plans. There are no suggestions from what I can see that they have the people that they need to get the work done that they need to in order to run a hockey franchise.”
TCB: I know the whole Karlsson, Mike Hoffman situation cannot be blamed entirely on the organization, but how would you grade the organization at handling the news of that situation?
Micah: “It’s obviously horrific to see Melinda (Karlsson) and Erik harassed in that way. I have sympathy for them to have to go through losing a child. That happened in my family too and I know that feeling extremely well and so my first sympathy is with them for that reason. It’s difficult for me to believe the specifics of how that was handled and what the organization says about how it was handled. What the organization knew and when they knew it doesn’t make a
great deal of sense to me. I’m suspicious that they handled it as best they could even if I believe their account of what they say happened. I haven’t given much thought to exactly what I would have done, but it would have come from a position of doing what I could to support the people in the organization who were being hurt.”
TCB: I absolutely agree with that even as a Sabres fan you don’t want to see another team go through these kinds of tragedies even if they are in your division. Speaking of the Atlantic I was wondering on how you see the standings falling into place as I assume you have not yet run your simulation for next season?
Micah: “No, I haven’t and there is sort of two aspects which need to be addressed still. One is that as players move they take on different roles and that can be hard to project so I’ll get to that in time because there have been some serious player movements. O’Reilly most obviously and John Tavares. I see Buffalo taking a step forward, but not a very large one. I think they will probably sniff the playoffs in a couple spots during the season, but I don’t believe they will get there. They will benefit from the fact that both Montreal and Ottawa are going to be weak again. I could see Ottawa doing better than last season as well while still missing the playoffs. Detroit will be weak again and this is where we can see the strong divide between the weak and strong teams in the Atlantic. Those four teams or Buffalo, Ottawa, Montreal, and Detroit will comfortably be the bottom four in the Atlantic. In what order, I don’t think anyone of these teams will be dramatically underneath any of the others. At the top, you see Toronto, Boston, and Tampa clearly at the top of the division. Florida could go either way based on how well they perform. I see it as two different classes with a swing vote in the middle.”
TCB: That’s definitely fair and one side question would be how do you factor in a Rasmus Dahlin into your simulation?
Micah: “Well with difficulty would be the short answer. The actual practical answer is that because I’m not good at prospects. I don’t have the kind of data collection that I would want and even if you do you have to try to make them NHL equivalents as all prospects come from other leagues. It is very tricky, and I love the work from Manny Elk who is getting a hold of a lot of the important info you would need. What I am going to do again is contract an expert and I use Hannah Stuart. For a guy like Rasmus Dahlin you have to create his imaginary first year so on one hand, it’s not very mathematical, but on the other hand, it’s tailored by design to fit in with my model. The guesses are done by an expert whose guesses are informed.”
TCB: That may have been more of a personal curiosity and it was very interesting to hear your process here. Another question that I didn’t mention before we started, but I wondered if you wanted to touch on is that a lot of people are talking about how income tax effects player contracts. Cap Friendly recently posted a tool to calculate the contracts actual value by a team which stirred some feelings. I’m not sure if you’ve done much research here, but if you have thoughts on this I’d love to hear them.
Micah: “So that only thing I’ve discovered from the research I’ve done is that it is quite a bit more complicated than it first appears. You don’t get all the right numbers if you pretend they are working regular 9-5pm jobs in the cites that their home clubs are in just with massive salaries. Almost every hockey player is incorporated as a business under their own name which makes sense because a lot of them have to have their own employees. Most obviously their agent, but often there are more besides that.
So, it is more of a corporate taxation question rather than a personal taxation question. Also, the taxes relevant for athletes are only somewhat the taxes of their “home city”. They also have to pay taxes based on the other cities that they play in. So, it can be different for different divisions. I think that players keep track of this information, but also one of the things that you do as a corporation is pay people to help calculate the impact of moving to a different franchise in the next season. I don’t think it’s as straightforward as the income tax in Ontario is way higher than Tennessee.”
TCB: I love this conversation and I’m sure you’ve done more research than I have on the topic so I won’t interject my opinions here, but this could be another whole podcast in itself. We have reached an hour of total conversation here and I want to thank you again for giving so much of your time to the Charging Buffalo, but before we end this if you would like to give any advice for anyone trying to get into hockey analytics what would you say?
Micah: “I always give the same two pieces of advice. People seem to ask me all the time which I find strange because I don’t think my particular path into analytics is especially typical.
My two pieces of advice which I think are generically useful are one, answer your own questions. Try to satisfy something that you don’t understand about hockey. Focus on solving those questions to your own satisfaction, but at a standard which is really high.
The other advice is when you’re looking for people to follow and learn from you should focus your attention on experts who are kind and who have time, not just for you specifically, but to gauge with uncertainty.
If you find someone who seems to have an answer for everything and doesn’t say “I don’t know” then you are finding someone who is making up some stuff. I put an extra focus on people who are contributing positively to the health of the community as a network. Mathematical skill is considerably less important than some handiness with regression, some facility with data at work is. Those are all things that you can pick up with a book and some determination. Whereas kindness and treating your fellows with respect is considerably more valuable.”
I wanted to thank Micah again for giving me over an hour of his time. If you have been living under a rock and do not follow his work, it can be found at these locations.
I would strongly suggest taking the time to look through his visualizations and consider signing up for the Patreon. This information will be mentioned many times throughout my writings because it is work that I trust.