Proponents of advanced analytics who wonder when NHL teams will embrace the method en masse should have a quick chat with the anti-fighting crowd. Come to think of it, there’s probably some overlap in the camps, so while many backers of so-called “fancy stats” should know change isn’t coming overnight, there is some evidence of progressive thinking in the league.
A recent piece by Canadian Business highlights the overall reticence of NHL clubs to latch onto the type of new-wave statistical thinking that’s gripped other professional sports, most notably Major League Baseball.
The article cites Calgary Flames president of hockey operations Brian Burke’s declaration that, “Statistics are like a lamp post to a drunk-useful for support, but not for illumination.”
Burke’s brand of thinking may still represent the majority of the league, but there are signs of change. The Canadian Business article estimates that roughly 15 percent of the NHL’s clubs devote at least one employee to the study of advanced analytics. That may not be a significant number, but the fact one of those clubs is the Stanley Cup-champion Chicago Blackhawks makes things a bit more interesting. The Hawks also happen to be one of the teams that play without a devoted enforcer (speaking of causes close to Burke’s heart). Fighting remains a mainstay in the NHL, with numerous teams reserving a roster spot for what amounts to a full-time pugilist. Still, concussion issues and changing social standards over the years have resulted in an overall taming of the game.
As time goes on, expect that trend to take further hold.
Analytics use is likely to follow the same path. As awareness grows, it's going to be harder and harder for NHL teams to justify being completely dismissive.
At the very least, it should get to the point where owners are saying, "If the Cup champs have a numbers nerd, why don't we?"