17 July 2009

Numbers Game - The Curious Case of Mikhail Grabovski

grabboIn these, the Dog Days of the NHL off-season, I’ve come across multiple Toronto  Maple Leaf fans with a rather optimistic view of Mikhail Grabovski. Knowing the player fairly well, and having watched him play over a period of time, I found myself rather surprised by the idealistic perception of his forward potential in the NHL and with the Leafs.

One of the simplest and most invaluable lessons learned in the early stages of my career in business (as a vendor of domestically retailed product) is that results rule the day. As my tremendously experienced father/boss/mentor repeats time and time again, “there are a lot of stories in the naked city, but numbers never lie.” Organizations (like the one I represent in sales) can claim as many reasons as they like as to why their product is going to be outstanding, or as many excuses as they like as to why their product didn’t perform as well as anticipated, but one thing stands above all the stories and substantiates reality—numbers.

More interesting still, these numbers don’t change; a product’s performance in one setting will very closely dictate its performance in any comparable setting and, with proper historical knowledge and a small subset of relevant data, can be forecasted to within a few percentage points of its results for the total season based on a few simple statistics and trends.

Though admittedly far more complex than the retail sales of a given product, the development and contributions of a given hockey player can be roughly forecasted based on extremely similar principles as those found in the retail game. Pierre McGuire’s comments regarding Cristobal Huet immediately come to mind, as he repeatedly suggested that Huet’s suddenly All-Star worthy play as the Canadiens’ goaltender, in his 30’s, was probably more of a blip than an indication of his true level of play. A product, my father says, does not suddenly become good; it either is good or it isn’t, and the proof is in the pudding.

Bringing this all back to the case of Grabovski, it struck me as being completely out of line that segments of Leaf-nation believe he may score 30+ goals next season, though a quick glance at his career stats reveals that he has never scored more than 20 in any single season as a professional.

“Yes,” Leafs fans will protest, “but he’s just getting started at this level.” To that I must defer to Gabriel Desjardins and his work on League Equivalencies, where he begins by offering the statistical tidbit that NHL players actually peak in terms of point-production between the ages of 23 and 26, and that their point-per-game production reaches 90% of its peak value even earlier (Grabovski is 25). The depth of his research, however, focuses on the average statistical translation of players’ point-production from one league to another. As with comparing results at Wal-Mart versus those at Zellers, for example, different settings or leagues have different standard values by which similar data may thus be extrapolated. For players with little NHL experience, this study and its findings therefore serve as a crude barometer of what may be expected of a given player based on his production at another level.

ahl For AHL players making the jump, a point in the American Hockey League will equal, on average, 0.45 points at the NHL level. Grabovski’s 25 goals and 74 points in 78 total games in the AHL therefore suggests he should score, per 82-game NHL season, about 13 goals and 37 points. As for his experience in the Russian Elite League, where one point equals 0.91 points in the NHL, Grabovski’s 10 goals and 27 points in the 2005-06 season (his best of 3, statistically) suggest an output of about 16 goals and 44 points per 82 games at the NHL level. Having already reached the age at which most players see their production peak, and with a relevant set of historical stats that suggest 20 goals may in fact be a relatively high output, the numbers are clearly stacked against Grabovski ever attaining the 30-goal mark.

“Yes,” Leafs fans will protest, “but he’ll see more time on the PP this year.” While potentially impactful on his overall point totals, Grabovski’s elevation within the ranks of the Toronto Maple Leafs’ roster has to cut both ways. Yes, he will now very likely centre the first PP unit, but he must also now contend with opposing teams’ #1 defensive matchups on a nightly basis. In the end, the issue of dealing with such uncertain variables is both tricky and misleading, and so I will turn once again to a slightly more empirical method of projection of the expected output of a player, by way of ‘Triumph’ at Hockey on Paper. Determining the estimated production of a player moving from one team to another by comparing the two teams’ offensive stats, Triumph’s formula can be adapted as “a reasonable ballpark metric” for players entering another season with the same team.

In this case, changes to the Maple Leafs’ roster from 2008-09 to 2009-10 become relevant in the projection of individual goal and point totals, as the Burkeian shift in team identity and personnel may have a significant impact on the Maple Leafs’ overall offensive output. Building from the backend with big, physical, stay-at-home defensemen, Burke and the Maple Leafs have temporarily abstained from acquiring top-end offensive talent and, with the departure of their #1 centre in Nik Antropov, have let go of one of their top point-producers. Should Tomas Kaberle be moved, as rumoured, it would appear increasingly unlikely for this Maple Leafs squad to generate much in the way of offense, with very little reason to believe they will (as a sum of their parts) match last year’s 250 goals for.grabovski While this last look does nothing to necessarily discount Grabovski’s potential production next season, it certainly puts a caveat on it: a player’s production may spike when introduced to a stronger overall setting or when suddenly surrounded by greater support, but the reverse is also applicable.

There exists, of course, an as of yet undetermined myriad of factors that can and will play a role in Grabovski’s end-of-year goal and point totals; the bottom line, however, is that there is at this point nothing more than stories to validate the opinion that Grabovski has the potential to reach 30 (or even 25) goals next season. Until those stories are played out in next season’s scoresheets and bylines, they remain nothing more than fantasy and unsubstantiated hype.



  2. This is of course accepting the ideas that

    1) the good work of Mr. Desjardins is of course accurate and applicable to all players in the league (it's not) and that
    2) We accept that Grabs has been getting weaker D pairings, which I don't think was the case all season
    3) That we agree that the Leafs won't score as many goals without Antropov and Kaberle, which while logical has yet to be shown, especially in Antro's case as the team did just fine without him

    I agree with you though, Grabs is not a 30 goal scorer, at least not next season, and if anything is not yet a legitimate top line scoring forward in the NHL. Player development with regards to their numbers is not an additive sort of equation, 20 goals at 24 does not mean 25 goals when a player turns 25.

    I don't think, however, that anybody with a reasonable head on their shoulders actually believes Grabs is going to go 30/45 next year centering... Kulemin and Ponikarovsky. If Grabs can keep chugging at around the same offensive output next year I'll be satisfied.