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How NHL trade became a referendum on intangibles (Trending Topics)

Ryan Lambert
Puck Daddy

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The 2006-07 Anaheim Ducks will swear on a stack of bibles that the reason they won the Stanley Cup is that the team acquired Brad May at the end of February. The evidence in support of their claims is that the team went from a winning percentage of .756 in their first 41 games from October to January (28-7-6), then dropped to .586 in January and February (15-10-4). Following the trade, the team romped to the playoffs winning .735 of the points they had available to them (11-3-3).

Did correlation, in this case, equal causation? There's probably always going to be that argument about whether “intangibles” exist in sports, and how much they mean.

So the question becomes does winning and losing affect intangibles like chemistry, or does it work the other way around? This is, of course, an impossible question to answer. Do those “heart and soul” guys engender winning more so than, say, the elitest of elite athletes in their sport in the world? That's a bit easier to answer: “Probably not.” If you had a team of Sidney Crosbys they would beat a team of Gregory Cambells 6,200-0.

The reason any of this is relevant in the hockey world's unending discussion machine right now is because of a frankly bizarre trade made by Craig MacTavish in Edmonton, trying to shuffle some deck chairs for the team's doomed season. Effectively, in the course of an afternoon, he traded a third-round pick and Devan Dubnyk (with half his salary retained) for Ben Scrivens and Matt Hendricks. The latter player was the weird part, because while Hendricks is a lot of things, “objectively good at hockey any more” seems to not be one of them.

Hendricks had just four points in 44 games for Nashville this season before being traded, playing mostly on the wing despite his typically being a career center. The position change seems not to have agreed with him. His corsi for percentage is hovering at 42.3 percent, the worst of any Predators position player this season, despite a relatively soft quality of competition. This is, of course, judging a player on about half a season in which he's played out of position, when we have at least a little evidence to suggest he was effective before this. But the fact of the matter, too, is that he's now 32 years old, and also in the first year of a deal paying him $1.85 million a season for the remainder of this one and three following.

In addition to acquiring a past-his-prime player whose on-ice positive effect on the Oilers will be limited in an absolute best-case scenario, MacTavish also took aboard that salary.

No, $1.85 million a year for the next three and a half isn't going to kill the Oilers' cap situation, even if Hendricks is dramatically overpaid now, let alone in 2015-16. The money is in fact a drop in the bucket. But what it does, however, is take away a roster spot that could have theoretically been used on a player with far greater utility.

The trade was, therefore, almost universally derided by the so-called “advanced stats” community on Twitter because it shows absolutely no forethought other than “The Oilers need to get tougher.” The question is whether that's actually the case. Edmonton has shown itself to be somewhat of two minds on the question of whether advanced stats can be effectively applied to hockey, on the one hand hosting an annual contest to find if other people are seeing things they're missing, but also apparently not applying anything they obtain from these contests to very much in the way of roster construction or utilization.

However, the Hendricks deal had its notable defenders as well, mainly among those who could be categorized as “mainstream media,” who — let's be honest — have been far more intransigent on the subject overall than their online counterparts. But this includes those who are demonstrably “smart” to the value of corsi and so on, so their sticking by this kind of player has come off as a little strange.

They generally believed that Hendricks provides more than things like corsi and point totals tell us they do. Take, for example, his faceoff abilities. This year he's taken but 26 draws, winning 53.8 percent of them, though he's also one win away from being just 50 percent. But last year, with Washington, he took 259 and won 56.8 percent of them. That's a tangible skill that leads to possession, which may further lead to wins (though obviously you'd have to use him a lot, lot, lot, lot, lot more for that effect to be notable, and the numbers suggest you should absolutely not do that).

If you want to use Hendricks as a fourth-line faceoff specialist, that's fine. Now. Three years from now, it is probably not fine, especially because it seems that even when he wins draws, he gets buried in possession; as a Capital last season, he got slightly more difficult competition and easier zone starts, but was still a negative possession player even despite all the faceoff-winning he did. Data shows that faceoff percentage has little impact on possession overall and Matt Hendricks backs that up.

But again, faceoff percentage is a tangible stat, and we're told what Hendricks brings to a team like the Oilers goes beyond that. Things like grit. However, this too has become quantifiable to some extent; he's blocked 28 shots, thrown 92 hits, taken the puck away twice as many times as he's turned it over (10-5) and even in the extraordinarily iffy world of the NHL's real-time statistics, that says that he does the things coaches like. The counterargument to that, though, is that to be doing all these things means he often doesn't have the puck on his stick. Which is true, and also lets you get to the ultimate point of hockey, which is scoring goals.

Hendricks has also obviously been known to fight, having engaged in six such events this season alone for Nashville. But is that something Edmonton needs? If he's being acquired for his use in other areas — such as hitting or winning draws — that the Oilers so desperately need, then having him in the box for five minutes every few games doesn't really help very much.

Further, the Oilers may be just 23rd in the league with 18 bouts prior to last night's games, Luke Gazdic is as willing a combatant as one is likely to find, with 10 fights under his belt this year alone. That's second in the league behind only Tom Sestito. If Hendricks is being brought in as a Shawn Thornton type, to both fight and play some hockey, then his utility in the former regard is detrimental to the latter, which is barely replacement-level to begin with.

So maybe it comes down to something as simple and indefinable as “leadership.” Maybe he'll yell at Taylor Hall for taking a shift off, or Ryan Nugent-Hopkins for not coming off quickly enough on a power play. Get guys to pay attention to “the finer details” or whatever you want to call them. Does this mean Hendricks effectively becomes the team's Chief Accountability Officer? Is that worth $1.85 million until 2017, plus Dubynk's retained salary for the rest of this year? Logic seems to dictate that it isn't.

(There is an argument to be made here that the Oilers were obviously going to let Dubnyk walk this summer anyway, so getting any kind of asset in return for him — even if they had to eat some money — is a job well done. The contract Hendricks lugged to town with him, however, says otherwise, as does the list of similar players in recent memory compiled by Tyler Dellow.)

So the question of whether saying the occasional honest-but-maybe-mean thing in the dressing room (“You gotta get your act together, _______.”) is valuable comes up again. I would say that it probably is on some level; some guys are jerks, some guys are fun to be around, and some guys will get on your ass if you're not doing your job to the best of your capabilities. That's not just in hockey or sports, but in life. But if intangibles of the type Hendricks brings don't have a tangible and positive effect on the game, then the question is a lot murkier.

Getting back to those Ducks, who had a number of future Hall of Famers on the roster. They're going to tell you for sure that it was indeed May who kickstarted their resurgence, but reason says no. Again, they cratered almost immediately as January began, and you can probably look for any number of reasons that happened. Fluctuations in shooting or save percentage could be one major cause. But so too could the fact that Chris Pronger, who should have won a Hart Trophy that year, was injured just six shifts into a game on New Year's Eve and missed nearly the entire month of January.

If you divide up those 2006-07 Ducks' season into pre-, mid-, and post-Pronger injury — rather than by month — the results make May seem far less talismanic. They were 28-7-6 with him before the injury (again, .756), 2-5-2 without him (.333), and 18-8-6 (.656) after he came back. The reason May is ascribed such talismanic properties based on experiential data rather than anything objective is that when he was acquired, the team was just emerging from a run of taking just six points from their previous five games, with just one of the losses coming in regulation; in the seven games before he was acquired, the Ducks went 4-1-2. But if you think May is the reason the Ducks won the Cup, perhaps you'd like to buy my rock that keeps tigers away.

In any case, the point of what Hendricks brings to the Oilers is moot; the Maple Leafs have shown us time and again in the past 60-something games that the things we're being told are the way they'll find success are in fact not effective in helping teams win in the NHL in 2014. Period. Maybe the Oilers didn't have enough good-in-the-room guys, but they almost could have found one that's going to be better and cheaper for more time than Hendricks. This is Asset Management 101. Were half a season and the rights to career backup Ben Scrivens really worth it?

We'll find out, but it's not hard to make a pretty safe bet.

Ryan Lambert is a Puck Daddy columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.

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