In 2011, Brad Pitt starred in a film based on the Oakland Athletics during their rise to be a contender in the 2002 season. The A’s front office was able to achieve this playoff goal, by re-evaluating their strategies, and to eventually build a team with a salary worth 1/3 of major-market baseball organizations. Oakland ultimately used the the limited money and resources provided to construct a low-budget team in a game overtaken by big-time spenders. The team’s GM Billy Beane was also able to be strict with prospect selection, which led to a higher level of affiliate competition. The story recapitulates the Oakland A’s period of rise to the top of the MLB in a matter of a few seasons.
As insane as it may sound: Yes, the Phoenix Coyotes are, in fact, the National Hockey League’s own variation of the Moneyball. The two teams (Phoenix and Oakland) are constructed very similarly, and, while the Coyotes may not have undergone the same vigorous overhaul that the Athletics did, the Coyotes situation is identical to Oakland’s.
Frankly, sports in our modern Twenty-First Century have become an egotistical, mercantile mess. The best teams are the ones that can lure in the big-time free-agents, and persuade the multi-billionaires to buy them. The best teams are the large market, and high profit organizations that can attract a full stadium each night. The best teams were the best teams in their league, and will remain the best team in the league until further notice; unless they start to lose games. The Phoenix Coyotes are none of the above. The Coyotes have the worst attendance in the NHL. The Coyotes have the 22nd ranked salary cap in the NHL out of 30 teams. The Coyotes don’t even make enough money for their own city to want to keep them. The Phoenix Coyotes are the opposite of what a Twenty-First Century sports organization is supposed to look like. But somehow, the Coyotes have managed to overcome the array of obstacles to own the fourth-best record in the NHL.
The Coyotes have done so by spending their money wisely, among other things. Phoenix is on pace to spend $61,401,898, which ranks 22nd among other NHL teams. In fact, eighteen teams spend more money than Phoenix, and are below them in the standings. The Coyotes have invested in the cheaper options in free agency as opposed to the more expensive ones, which has benefited the organization immensely. For instance, Phoenix forward Mikkel Boedker will earn $2.3 million following the ’13-’14 season, and he has scored four goals, with nine assists so far this season. Winnipeg Jets star Evander Kane has the same amount of points as Boedker, but is being paid $6 million this year. Boedker is paid 38% of Kane’s salary to produce at the same rate, and, in addition, help win games for Phoenix. And Boedker is not nearly the last Coyote on the list of “bang for your buck” players. Martin Hanzal has 18 points so far in 2013, and will be paid $2.5 million for his efforts. Washington Capitals forward Mikhail Grabovski has the same amount of points as Hanzal, but is also due $6 million at the end of this year. I know it’s repetitive, but to emphasize the insanity in some of these contracts I’d like to point out that Hanzal is making 42% of Grabovski’s paycheck for the same production. This trend is obvious throughout the Coyotes roster, and is a major contributor to their record.
Remember Oakland’s ‘strict prospect selection’ mentioned earlier? Well, back in 1995, the Coyotes, back when they were the Winnipeg Jets, selected Shane Doan in the first round. Doan has been the center of the organization since his rise to stardom in 2000. Shane Doan has been the consistent contributor for the Coyotes for over 12 years, and has done so without the line mates that other NHL superstars are surrounded by. Doan is on pace for a 42 goal season, and has been one of the MVP’s of the Coyotes’ season so far.
The other major centerpiece to this well crafted Coyotes roster is goaltender Mike Smith. Smith was drafted by Dallas in the 5th round of the 2001 Entry Draft, and eventually was signed by the Coyotes in 2011 for a mere $2 million contract. Smith was awarded with a larger contract ($4 million) prior to this season after his stellar performances two years in a row. But there are still only two starting goalies in the NHL that have contracts worth less than Smith’s. Therefore, 27 goalies are being paid more than Mike Smith in the NHL, and there are 26 teams worse than Phoenix in the NHL. Smith is arguably the cheapest and most efficient option at his position in the league.
The Coyotes have been working on achieving the status of “elite” since the beginning of their existence as a franchise. The Coyotes have finally found an owner, and no longer will they worry of relocation. The team doesn’t have the money to offer, nor do they possess the fan base to impress a big time free agent. But the Phoenix Coyotes have taken and learned from the example Billy Beane set back in 2002. In the 2011 Moneyball movie, Peter Brand (Jonah Hill) declared his opinion of the state of his game, and summed up what the goal of an organization should be, and how one should work.
“It’s about getting things down to one number. Using the stats the way we read them, we’ll find value in players that no one else can see. People are overlooked for a variety of biased reasons and perceived flaws. Age, appearance, personality. Bill James and mathematics cut straight through that. Billy, of the 20,000 notable players for us to consider, I believe that there is a championship team of twenty-five people that we can afford, because everyone else undervalues them.”
That is how to create a major contender in sports. That is how to achieve: Moneyball.
-Tyler Jones, Howlin’ Hockey