By day Stephen Burtch is a mild-mannered math teacher who connects with at least some of his students at Toronto’s Oakwood Collegiate by showing them how statistics, data and probability can be used to discuss sports.
But at night and on weekends and sometimes even at lunch Burtch leads a second life as a Toronto Maple Leafs superfan armed with data he uses to eviscerate the ill-informed with a scything slice from a spreadsheet and some well-timed tweets.
On Friday morning, for example, it was a quick and efficient takedown of anyone among his nearly 1,200 followers who believes David Clarkson is a more valuable player than Nikolai Kulemin:
If you watch and follow hockey, and on any level think Kulemin is worse than Clarkson (objectively) – then your analysis scares me.
Not surprisingly, when he hears MLSE president and chief executive officer Tim Leiweke suggest—as he did this past week—that the Leafs 10-4-0 October was representative of the team’s potential compared with their 14-16-5 mark since, he gets a bit worked up.
“When Leiweke is giving interviews saying October wasn’t a fluke [he’s wrong],” Burtch told me as he was watching the Leafs 4–3 shootout win over the lowly Buffalo Sabres Wednesday night. “They benefitted from unsustainably high team shooting percentages and save percentages, and the odds of that continuing all season long were very, very, very low, to the point of them being non-existent.”
And that the Leafs have won three straight heading into Saturday night’s game against the Montreal Canadiens? Burtch remains unimpressed.
“Every time they win or every time they get lucky and score a power-play goal or two it goes back to that same narrative: We can breathe now, everything is back to normal, hopefully we can get on a roll,” he says. “Well, no: You guys are doing the exact same thing. It’s like they think they can break math. They aren’t righting the ship. It’s bothersome. I do get worked up about it because I do care.”
What separates Burtch from many fans who recognize the smoke-and-mirrors of the Leafs strategy is that he forecasted a lot of the Leafs’ issues.
In a blog post on Aug. 22 he analyzed the Clarkson signing using a metric he cooked up and calls dCorsi. Even he admits it’s a bit complicated, but it assesses player performance by comparing a team’s puck possession while a given player is on the ice and controlling for factors such as who he’s playing with, who the team is playing against and the situation they’re playing in (offensive-zone starts compared with defensive-zone starts, for example).
Burtch then cross-referenced Clarkson’s performance and his salary with players across the league and came to a stark conclusion: “Clarkson is extremely unlikely to live up to his contract for even one year, let alone seven,” he wrote.
And given the 29-year-old Clarkson has so far managed just three goals in 36 games, Burtch may well be right.
The Leafs’ defensive struggles? Burtch sees the issue being connected to captain Dion Phaneuf, who just earned a seven-year, $49-million (USD) contract despite being the lynchpin of one of the worst defensive teams in the NHL—one being outshot by 8.8 shots a game. Burtch doesn’t think Phaneuf is a bad player as much as one who is horribly miscast as the all-situation stud he’s being paid to be.
“Defensively, [the data says] he’s giving up more shots than anyone expects given who he’s playing with, who he’s playing against and the zone starts he has,” says Burtch. “But he’s one of the best in the NHL in terms of shots for… so he’s basically the player he was in Calgary except we use him as a defensive defenceman and suffer for it.”
Burtch was similarly convinced the Leafs’ decisions to part ways with Clarke MacArthur (17 goals and 19 assists for $3.2-million in Ottawa this season) and buyout Mikhail Grabovski (12 goals and 21 assists for Washington) were dumb.
“Sometimes I wish could look into their mind’s eye,” he says. “But then I don’t want to because I’m worried about what I’ll see. “
It’s all good fun for Burtch, who was raised by a math-teacher mom, talks hockey with his brother, an economics professor, and has an engineering degree from Queen’s. But like anyone with a secret super power, he picks his spots.
A born-and-bred Leafs fan from Pickering, Burtch has to tiptoe through everyday life in a city where repatriating Clarkson and his homegrown intangibles is a worthy signature off-season move or water-cooler talk turns to how much better Phaneuf is playing this season.
“When it comes to work acquaintances or people I don’t know as well or if I’m at a social setting and the Leafs come up as a topic I tend to not air my real opinions in any detail, for fear of stepping on toes,” he says. “It happens at work every day: you’ll hear opinion X, Y,Z —‘Man, we’ve really figured things out’ or ‘Man, Tyler Bozak is an amazing player.’ The amount of time it would take to convince people in that forum, I just don’t have it.”
So he resorts to Twitter and writing blog posts for Pension Plan Puppets, although not as prolifically as before he and his wife had a daughter 17 months ago, and over time his views have been surprisingly prescient. He’s developing a forecasting model to crystal-ball the likely game outcomes, and was both delighted and disappointed when he predicted the Leafs’ December swoon within a single point.
But being able to find data-driven holes in the Leafs’ personnel moves and load up with math-driven artillery to win hockey arguments when he chooses to engage is bittersweet. The fan in him wishes the people running the club were as good at their jobs as he is at his hobby, but the data shows otherwise.
“I’m kind of getting to the point where I expect the worst to happen,” he says. “I used to be annoyed by the media’s view that this team can’t do anything right… but the more they start drowning and going backwards I think: Maybe they will do everything wrong.”