On “Talent Dilution” – re-assessing one of history’s greatest foregone conclusions – PART 1 (Intro)

Expansion, expansion history, and expansion analysis is my passion.  I don’t believe that’s a surprise to anyone who’s spent more than two minutes glancing around this site.

I was initially introduced to the “deeper game” in numbers, analysis, and all that other fun stuff many years ago through baseball.  Inevitably, so much of modern analysis goes back to Bill James, a former security guard at a pork and beans factory who initially wrote about baseball as a side project.  I have several books written by James, and have a great appreciation for the way that he can get to the point, either quickly or in a very informative and circuitous manner before circling back and tying everything up neatly.

When expansion of a pro sports league is brought up as a topic, inevitably there will be someone or many someones decrying the inevitable “talent dilution” which will result.  There will be comparisons made to Olympic matchups, or other best-on-best tournaments, used to bolster this argument.  This discussion/diatribe has existed for a long time; I’ve found a couple of articles previously going back to the 1960s which suggest that the NHL expanding past six teams would be bad for just that reason.

In early 1986, as firewagon hockey ruled the day, Wayne Parrish of The Toronto Star wrote an article on the state of the game.  It included this snippet:

It’s difficult to pinpoint just how, where and why the NHL braintrust lost sight of such things, allowing a league once splendidly balanced between offence and defence to deteriorate into a pell-mell goal derby. For a quarter century after rosters stabilized with the return of the regulars from World War II, the league’s goal average hovered between 5.5 and six per game.

The initial expansion in 1967 had no profound impact, perhaps because the league was careful to have the new teams play 70 per cent of their games against others in the same leaky boat. However, subsequent expansions, in 1970, 1972 and 1974, each sent scoring totals soaring. The largest single-season increase occurred in 1980, when production jumped .78 goals per game.

Because of the correlation with early ’70s expansions, it would seem dilution of talent is one factor at work. So it would seem, given the dramatic increase in the ’80s, is the underage draft. Where offence is something of a natural talent, defence is an acquired skill. Too many kids coming into the league at 18, 19 and 20 simply haven’t had the time, or the occasion, to learn it.

Parrish, Wayne. “‘Basketpuck’ entertains but it isn’t real hockey.” The Toronto Star, SPORTS, 27 Jan. 1986, p. B5

I’m not going to criticize Mr. Parrish; I’m largely unfamiliar with his work, and anyone writing about hockey in January 1986 would have had access to an extremely limited set of data to work with and to derive conclusions from.

One from Lance Hornby of the same paper, with a nice nod to history:

The president of the National Hockey League had his hands full trying to calm the clucking expansion alarmists.

“There is no shortage of hockey players,” he assured. “But the question is whether or not the dilution of talent will be a disappointment to the public. We don’t know.”

The exec in question wasn’t John Ziegler – it was Clarence Campbell, speaking in 1965 when the NHL had just decided to flex its horizons and double its six existing teams.

Well, it quickly became clear there weren’t quite enough good players to go around – especially when the NHL kept bloating, to 14, 16 and then 18 teams.

Hornby, Lance. “TALENT POOL MIGHT BE TAXED.” The Toronto Sun, Sports, 21 Nov. 1989, p. 59

And kind of a throwaway from an article on whether Brett Hull could exceed his 72-goal output of 1989-90:

Blues general manager Ron Caron has said that with the talent dilution brought by expansion, Hull could score 100 goals.

Luecking, Dave. “HOT SHOT … Blues Hoping That Fame, Fortune Don’t Change Brett Hull.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Sports ed., 4 Oct. 1990, p. 1D

Side note: Ron Caron might be one of my favorite people in hockey history.

In December 1992, Miami and Anaheim were announced as new expansion cities to begin play in 1993-94, which prompted this:

Cynics say the NHL is only interested in the money. That’s true to a certain extent. It will be a refreshing change for enormous corporations with whopping financial resources and stability to join the NHL.

For once, expansion won’t be accompanied by questions whether the new people can scrape up the next franchise payment by the due date.

But as I see it, the only drawback to adding Anaheim and Miami – the likely cities – is further dilution of the talent base.

With more and more Europeans and U.S. collegiate players joining the NHL, there won’t be a dearth of actual bodies to fill the teams and their minor-league affiliates. The skill level, however, will be a question mark. Just see Ottawa or its New Haven farm team (5-20-5) as an illustration.

Sottile, Dave. “Hockey.” York Daily Record, sec. B, 15 Dec. 1992, p. 05

And from three months later:

Please don’t ask me to call Anaheim’s expansion team the Mighty Ducks – for at least another seven or eight years. And don’t expect the South Florida Gators, or whatever they will be named, to have much bite.

To call a team mighty is a mighty big reach in the NHL, where parity is king.

The fact that 18 of the 24 teams have a chance to finish at or around .500 is something the NHL likes to point to as fierce competition.

But the truth of the matter is that there are more ordinary games played now than before, and suggesting that the talent pool can provide another 50 or so players for the fourth and fifth expansion teams in three years is asking too much. It’s just that NHL officials can’t stop seeing $50 million signs flashing in front of their eyes long enough to check quality control.

“I don’t think we need to worry about dilution of talent at this point,” NHL commissioner Gary Bettman says. “There’s been a great influx of fabulous European players and there’s plenty of talent to go around.”

Wigge, Larry. “NHL Is Not Getting Any Better.” Chicago Sun-Times, SPORTS SUNDAY, 14 Mar. 1993, p. 26

Major League Baseball was going through their own expansion around this time, with the Colorado Rockies and Florida Marlins joining the league – and talk of further expansion on the horizon.

Eventually, according to informed sources, expansion will bring four divisions (four teams in each) to each league, with a 32-team total and perfect playoff symmetry. The dilution of talent might be severe, but baseball has always survived expansion with minimal trauma.

“Everyone thinks this will be the end of the world,” says local baseball sage Leonard Koppett. “But you know, it really won’t. We thought it would be the end of the world in the ’50s, when the players had to take their gloves off the field.”

Jenkins, Bruce. “Baseball Makeover Coming.” THE SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE, SPORTS, 10 May 1993, p. C1

The late Leonard Koppett was 69 years old when he provided this quote, which is a stark contrast to the “back in my day!” ramblings that might be expected from someone who had seen the changes in any sport over a long period of time.

As the 1993-94 NHL season began, and as newcomers Anaheim and Florida (previously designated in writing as “Miami”) showed themselves to be respectable, it gave rise to these viewpoints within a very short period of time.

Since the NHL added five new teams over the past three years, many figured that the dilution of talent would result in a decline in the caliber of play.

But so far this season, one third of the way through, the opposite seems to be true.

Not only has the caliber of play risen, there’s evidence of parity almost every night.

There are a number of reasons why expansion seems to be working in the NHL.

The latest expansion coincided with the influx of Europeans. Among the top 25 scorers there are Russians Sergei Fedorov of the Detroit Red Wings, Alexei Yashin of the Ottawa Senators, Alexei Zhamnov of the Winnipeg Jets; Finns Teemu Selanne of the Jets and Jari Kurri of the LA Kings; Czechs Jaromir Jagr of the Pittsburgh Penguins; and Swede Mats Sundin of the Quebec Nordiques. There’s a broader base of talent and thus less dilution.

The NHL’s new expansion rules not only helped this year’s two new clubs, Anaheim and Florida, but also made up a little bit for past sins committed against Ottawa, San Jose and Tampa Bay.

Burgin, Sandy. “EXPANSION SPELLS PROGRESS FOR PRO HOCKEY.” Worcester Telegram & Gazette, SPORTS, 19 Dec. 1993, p. D5

 

Clearly, there’s a faction in the NHL in favor of grabbing another $100 million if investors are ready to pay it up front.

“People need to realize just why it is we’ve been able to accommodate five expansion teams in just three years,” [Toronto GM Cliff] Fletcher argues. “We’ve had an influx of something like 50 players from the old Soviet Union. This represented a significant increase in the talent base.

“But now that source has dried up. It’d be difficult to stock another two new teams today. The dilution of quality would be very noticeable.

Proudfoot, Jim. “Fletcher hoping expansion talk dies.” The Toronto Star, SPORTS, 23 Dec. 1993, p. C1.

 

Through Sunday night, there had been an average of 6.6 goals scored per NHL contest this season, down .6 from last season and 1.3 from the NHL’s peak offensive years (1984-85 and 1985-86).

“These things go in cycles,” said [Rangers coach Mike] Keenan. “Within a few years the game will head back into an offensive direction.”

Expansion has always triggered conservatism. In the last season of the six-team NHL, there was an average of six goals scored per game. The next season, when six new teams clutched and grabbed to survive, the average dropped to 5.6.

Gradually, the offence picked up. Whatever, the era, it usually does in the playoffs, when enforcement is stricter and better teams go at each other harder.

So dilution of talent is not the problem. We’ve seen old kinescopes of the ever-romanticized six-team league and fail to be impressed.

There are more good players than ever. The NHL just has to decide how much it wants to let them play.

Greenberg, Jay. “THE LAST WORD.” The Toronto Sun, Sports, 5 Jan. 1994, p. 50

 

These are greedy times on the pro sports scene and it’s clearly reflected on the court, on the diamond and at centre ice all over North America.

And, of course, in your pocketbook.

In the last half-dozen years, the NFL, NBA, NHL and Major League Baseball have soaked new owners to the tune of nearly $1 billion for new franchises. In return, fans all over the continent have gotten more than their fill of lousy games.

The dilution of talent is manifesting itself in a variety of ways, but nowhere is it as obvious as in the NBA and NHL.

Not so long ago in the NBA, road victories for all but the very elite teams were few and far between. The average winning percentage in the league was about 25%. This year, visitors have won more than 41% of the games in the NBA simply because there are so many bad teams who can’t even win with any regularity in the friendly confines of their own court.

Similarly, in the NHL, where the winning percentage of visiting teams used to be about 40%, the number is closing in on 50%. Which is to say, the notion of home-ice advantage has all but disappeared.

Fidlin, Ken. “THE LAST WORD.” The Toronto Sun, Sports, 10 Jan. 1994, p. 46

In 1996 and 1997, as talk of further expansion loomed, a new wave of hand-wringing began.  I can go much further with this, quoting from articles that have titles like:

  • “NHL IS GOING NOWHERE WITH EXPANSION”
  • “NHL EXPANSION PLAN – CARRIES A DOWNSIDE”
  • “READY OR NOT, NHL EXPANSION IS COMING – QUESTIONS ABOUT DEPTH OF TALENT POOL WON’T DELAY LEAGUE’S DECISION TO ADD AT LEAST TWO MORE TEAMS.”
  • “VIEWPOINT: NATIONAL HOCKEY LEAGUE – LEAGUE’S GREED PUTS PLAYERS ON FIRING LINE – THE NHL IS THE ONLY PRO SPORTS ORGANIZATION THAT ALMOST ENCOURAGES LESSER ATHLETES TO BRING THE STARS DOWN TO THEIR LEVEL.”
  • “WHERE WILL THE PLAYERS COME FROM?”
  • “NHL NEEDS TO TAKE A HARD LOOK AT ITSELF”
  • “NHL PARITY LOOKS GOOD IN SEATS, BUT NOT ON ICE”
  • “ANY FURTHER EXPANSION CHILLING IDEA FOR NHL”

A couple years ago, I wrote something that dismissed the idea of talent dilution on the basis that countries which were not previously producing NHLers were, that countries which had produced NHLers had seen massive surges in the number of registered hockey players, and so on.

I wasn’t necessarily content with all of this, but I felt like simply throwing a dart at people who simply blast expansion and don’t bother to do ten seconds of research.  And for a while, I was happy to leave it at that.  I’m a historian and a researcher, and have little tolerance for jeremiads that are long on nostalgia and whining and short on actual facts – being able to jab with research is, to me, both useful and fun.

But then I was recently reading through a Bill James book (Whatever Happened to the Hall of Fame? Baseball, Cooperstown, and the Politics of Glory), and found this.

Another factor that is supposed to influence the quality of play is expansion; major league baseball had 16 teams from 1901 to 1960, and has added twelve since – two in 1961, two in 1962, four in 1969, two in 1977, and two more in 1993.  Many people sincerely believe that expansion has diluted the quality of play.

Well, certainly an expansion causes a sudden downward movement in the quality of play.  What is not clear is what meaning this has over a long period of time.  The ratio of major leaguers to the population has not changed substantially in the last 50 years.  In 1950 there were 16 major league teams, but the population of the United States was 151 million people, a ratio of 9.4 million people for each team.  In 1994 there are 28 teams but more than 250 million people in the United States, essentially the same ratio.  Further, we have now a substantially increased number of players in the major leagues from Latin America, which in effect broadens the population base.  If we made the comparison to 1940, when there were fewer people in the United States and black players were not allowed in the majors, the ratio would be markedly favorable to the modern players.

The “expansion argument”, carefully considered, would seem to me to lead, again, to the conclusion that the quality of play is probably better now than it has ever been.  On the other hand, it seems to me extremely questionable whether the population ratio means anything at all.  The population of Topeka, Kansas, today is larger than the population of London in Shakespeare’s time of the population of ancient Athens.  One cannot use this ratio to argue that the best playwrights in Topeka today are better than Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, and Christopher Marlowe.  If the population ratio is the determining factor in the quality of play, where is the Chinese national team?

A million people is an unimaginably large number of people.  A million people is far more people than you will meet in your lifetime.  My own belief is that once the population-to-teams ratio exceeds a million to one, the population available vastly exceeds the number needed to produce 25 quality major league quality athletes, and thus the exact ratio no longer means much of anything.  I would point out, for example, that San Pedro de Macoris, a Dominican town with a population too small to support any minor league team (about 30,000) has produced a substantial number of major league players.  The town has an extremely high interest in  baseball, a strong development program, and the kids who grow up there have very few other options to make a million dollars a year.  Given those conditions, you can produce one major league player per 1,000 population.

So if the ratio of population to teams is 10 million to one or 7 million to one, it seems to me, means nothing.  Of course an expansion has a short-term impact on the quality of play, but this washes out very quickly.  I honestly believe that if the major leagues expanded immediately to 50 teams, in ten years it wouldn’t have any impact on the quality of play.

The entire chapter (“The Time Line”, chapter 18) of this excellent book looks at other arguments over the development of players and their skill over the span of baseball history.

One more snippet:

Kevin Cook, in a baseball preview article in the May 1992 edition of Playboy, wrote that “the vast majority of baseball history is fat, slow white guys being viciously exploited by fat, rich, white guys…a game between last year’s Cleveland Indians, who went 57-105, and the 1954 Indians, who went 111-43, would be no contest.  The old-timers would be begging for a slaughter rule to stop the modern Indians from scalping them.”  That’s nonsense; that’s the ramblings of a young man intoxicated by new-found voice, and essentially ignorant of history.  One can demonstrate that it is nonsense, because if history’s incline was that steep, then the best players in the game in 1954 would have been pushed to near mediocrity by the mid-sixties.  This did not happen.

I don’t believe that baseball has improved dramatically since 1954 – but I do believe that it has probably improved.

I must emphasize these two points very carefully:

  • James’ publication of this book was in 1994.  It is very possible that he no longer feels the same way about expansion, the talent pool, or quite frankly anything else.  I do not believe that people’s opinions should be forever locked in some type of stasis.
  • I quote this part, particularly about playwrights and population, because….have you ever been around someone who’s just way more put together than you are and felt personally convicted for it?  I won’t say I was content with my own population argument, even though it was slightly more fleshed-out in the form of looking at hockey-playing population rather than raw population numbers, but I didn’t necessarily look to go further.  Reading that part of that book at that moment in time made me realize in an instant that I had to go further.

And so I am.  I’m going way further in-depth into the issue of talent dilution in the NHL over history, using publicly-accessible data to explore what I can in order to….okay, I can’t settle this debate.  But I can certainly put the information out there and allow people to draw their own conclusions, based on actual fact and not on vague notions and feelings.

NEXT: Part 2 (Methodology)