Maple Leafs at forefront of NHL’s biomechanics movement

With training camps opening Hugh Burrell joins us to discuss the Mike Babcock era, the acquisition of Michael Grabner and how the departure of Phil Kessel will impact the squad.

TORONTO — The perch above the Toronto Maple Leafs practice rink was once a spot where executives could stand and watch what was going on below.

Not now.

When training camp shifted back home from Halifax, the balcony was occupied by a laptop and some high-tech equipment designed to give the organization an entirely different view of what is happening on the ice.

The Leafs are one of the NHL’s early adopters of the Catapult Sports tracking technology, which sees GPS units placed inside or below shoulder pads that transmit approximately 300 pieces of data per second — per player — in real time.

There are a whole host of different ways to use that mountain of information and the Leafs naturally declined to elaborate on what exactly they have planned. However, the mere fact they've invested in the pricey technology suggests that biomechanics is now an area in which the organization hopes to use its financial might to gain an edge.

Its arrival here follows the off-season hiring of Dr. Jeremy Bettle to fill the newly-created role of director of sports science and performance. When that move was announced in June, Leafs assistant GM Kyle Dubas said:

"Our sole objective is to be able to have our players know that as a program we are doing everything we can in all aspects to optimize their performance and maximize their potential as a hockey player, regardless of what stage of their career they're at."

The Philadelphia Flyers and Buffalo Sabres are the only other NHL teams known to use Catapult — Ben Peterson, the company's sports performance manager, hinted in an interview with Sportsnet that there are a couple others — but GPS tracking is already commonplace in virtually every other major professional sport.

The biggest benefit it has in hockey, according to Peterson, is reducing the number of repetitive-use injuries by quantifying the workload of each player throughout the season.

For example, when a skater's force output starts to drop in one leg and not the other it's usually a sign that some rest is required.

"A lot of times with players that eventually get a groin injury it starts out as just a very small shift or discrepancy; a very small little tweak of something that's not normal," said Peterson. "And if you can track athletes over time you can start to see those things change long before it manifests as an actual injury."

The use of Catapult by NHL teams is currently restricted to practices because it hasn't yet been approved by the NHL Players' Association for games. However, Peterson said that GPS tracking is permitted in the American Hockey League and it's believed that Toronto plans to have the AHL Marlies outfitted throughout the coming season.

In addition to establishing a log for the organization's minor-league players, that would also provide an indicator of how much intensity and workload is required during a specific game situation like the penalty kill. That information could be useful in helping the Leafs coaching staff ensure it gets the most out of practice.

"Organizations have been really smart just to put monitors on guys in games in the AHL, which are running the same system as their big club," said Peterson. "[They can] take that information to the big league club and they'll compare it to when they're running a penalty kill in practice and say: 'Are we hitting the same workloads and creating the same type of real-type of environment that these guys are going to have to perform at during a game?"'

One rival executive predicts that GPS tracking will eventually be used by every NHL team. He added that the only thing preventing his organization from jumping on board right now is the price.

Peterson, who made a presentation at last year's MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in Boston, doesn't hesitate when asked why it's a worthy investment.

"Catapult will admit that it's by no means the cheapest thing in the world, but that's because it's a very complicated integrated device," he said. "When you compare the price of a Catapult system to keeping your best player on the ice for an extra 10 games in a season, then it really becomes a small expense for what you're getting for it."

The potential for player tracking in hockey is only now being realized. Already well-rooted in ground-based sports like rugby, soccer, basketball and football, the Catapult system took some time to be adapted to the ice.

"This year really marks that first year where we really feel that we've kind of nailed it," said Peterson.

For simplicity, teams have the ability to filter the millions of data points gathered during a practice into one printed sheet within 20 minutes. That could prompt coaches to change the following day's schedule or alter an individual player's training and recovery protocol.

However, as new applications for the raw data continue to be developed and competition among teams gets fiercer, we're unlikely to hear too many specifics about how it is being used.

"We have a non-disclosure contract with all of our clients," said Peterson. "We work with some organizations that really view all of this data as a competitive advantage, which in a lot of a sense it usually is."

You can certainly put the Leafs in that category. That much we know for sure.