The OHL is a long way from the NHL and it goes without saying that coaching the Soo Greyhounds bears little resemblance to coaching the Toronto Maple Leafs.
But Sheldon Keefe has an interesting perspective on what impact Kyle Dubas, the Leafs stats-friendly newbie executive can have on a hockey coach, and as far as he’s concerned, it’s considerable.
“The biggest thing on our staff was that it created daily discussions and debate,” says Keefe of the spreadsheets he’d be given to review after games and the more in-depth breakdowns he’d look at during various points in the season. “What did we see in the game and the video compared with what the numbers said?
“We were constantly looking for solutions to try and make everything make sense. Instead of going just with the numbers or just what we thought we saw on the ice, we tried to go through everything to make it all compute so we could come up with a solution and a direction.”
There was enough success to turn Keefe from being curious about so-called ‘fancy stats’ to a believer.
The looming question as the Leafs take an obvious turn in how they run their hockey operations is what impact Dubas can have on the richest organization in hockey, one that seems to have failed to innovate despite having all the resources to be able to do so.
Analytics or advanced statistics weren’t a big point of the interview process when Keefe was hired by Dubas to take over the Greyhounds midway through the 2012-13 season. Dubas didn’t hire Keefe from the Central Canada Hockey League’s Pembroke Lumber Kings – the Junior A franchise Keefe owned and led to five league titles and the 2011 national championship -- because he was versant in Corsi or Fenwick or PDO. Keefe had nothing more than a passing knowledge of advanced stats and most of what he knew he’d gleaned from following Dubas and others on Twitter.
“He began to build an interest,” says Dubas. “And then he began to see the synergies between what the theory was and what the numbers were saying and the value in altering our strategy a little bit. It just takes time. It’s slow and you have to slowly present the ideas and they might be rejected or they might be wholly accepted or it might be somewhere in between.”
Keefe, 33, says that being open-minded about what he could learn about his hockey team via data as he settled into his first OHL coaching job helped transform his outlook on the sport he’d been playing and coaching his entire life.
“I look back at what I valued and how I coached in Jr. A and I don’t even recognize myself,” Keefe said while taking a moment to talk about his old boss while on vacation in Arizona. “I believe I have an understanding of the game now that works for me and our organization that I just did not have previously before getting introduced to this.”
Now, how much impact a 28-year-old, rookie assistant general manager can have on the likes of Leafs coach Randy Carlyle, who was playing in his 10th NHL season the year Dubas was born, is a matter of debate.
Under Carlyle the Leafs have been one the worst possession teams in the NHL and in his last few years coaching Anaheim the Ducks, they weren’t much better.
The question is: is it Carlyle’s system, the Leafs personnel, or a combination?
When Leafs president Brendan Shanahan talked Tuesday about those in the organization who were “afraid” of certain terms and concepts, it was hard not to imagine general manager Dave Nonis or more significantly, Carlyle as foremost among those who recoiled at the idea of ‘spreadsheet hockey.’
But Keefe says change can come quickly to those open to them, and Dubas is the right kind of teacher.
“He has a very articulate way of explaining how these numbers can help and the theories behind them versus saying ‘hey, look at these numbers’,” says Keefe. “He presents them in a way that’s a lot less intimidating.”
In the beginning, Keefe says his implementation of advanced stats wasn’t very advanced: It was the basics -- Corsi, Fenwick and PDO – which taken together capture how much each team has the puck; how often they shoot it and how much ‘puck luck’ and goaltending are reflected in goals for and against.
Last season Keefe said he began incorporating data – more as a guideline or a support -- in how he deployed his lineups.
But the real breakthrough came when he found himself developing his own data to test his theories about how to play and coach the game.
“I ended up being hungry for the numbers and what they could do as far as helping develop a system of play that could possibly influence those numbers,” said Keefe.
The biggest revelation, he said, was finding the relative risk of a turnover in the defensive zone by over-handling the puck in their own end was far out-weighed by the benefits of exiting the defensive zone in control of the puck, which in turn allowed the Greyhounds to enter to offensive zone in position to make plays.
Chipping pucks out or rimming them off the glass became taboo. Instead the emphasis was on making as many passes inside their own zone as needed to leave the zone with control.
With a small, young, skilled team battling on the wall wasn’t conducive to the lineup he had, and by doing his own analysis – “I don’t have a fancy name for it” – he found that there was strong correlation between having the puck exiting the zone and keeping it in the other team’s end.
Keefe favoured a rugged, tough game when he played and early in his coaching career, but this past season he come to acknowledge that he underrated other attributes.
“Just like anyone else I valued size and strength and toughness and physicality – and I still do,” says Keefe. “However at the Junior level and Kyle feels the same way – we weren’t prepared to sacrifice skill and ability in order to get bigger or tougher.”
There are risks – “we looked kind of chaotic at times,” said Keefe – but upon review the damage caused by the inevitable turnovers in their own zone were minimal compared to the benefits of making the plays needed to control the puck.
Keefe emphasizes that he’s not claiming to have reinvented the wheel, and takes pains to point out that a successful season in the OHL – the Greyhounds won 44 games and finished second in the deep western conference --doesn’t make him an expert on what it takes to win at the NHL level.
But he’s a hardened hockey man who has worked closely with Kyle Dubas and is here to say that there is a lot to be learned about the game from the way his old general manager – now the youngest executive in hockey -- sees the game.
The question now is what will Randy Carlyle see?