It’s been an incredible summer for hockey’s analytics community. A wave of high-profile hirings have granted the long-marginalized movement legitimacy and accelerated its acceptance by mainstream hockey fans. But the impact of those moves has been two-fold. On one hand, NHL teams have validated the work being done in the public sphere; on the other they’ve robbed it of some of its best and brightest voices.
On Tuesday news broke that the Toronto Maple Leafs had brought in ExtraSkater.com founder Darryl Metcalf and two others for its new analytics department. More than any of the other hirings this summer, the loss of Metcalf and his site underscored the drawbacks to the league’s embrace of the numbers. Extra Skater was a rarity in analytics circles: a website advanced enough to provide all the information that a hardcore stats nut could want but also user-friendly enough for a novice to navigate and learn from. Consequently it was a primary resource for both those with years of experience in wrangling insight out of analytics and for newcomers just getting their feet wet.
The loss of the site is a significant setback to the casual fan and an inconvenience for everyone else because nobody did a better job of collecting everything and presenting it in a usable fashion than Metcalf. But for those willing to do a little bit of legwork, the majority of the information compiled there is also available elsewhere.
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The lion's share of the information at Extra Skater is duplicated by its predecessor Behind the Net. Gabriel Desjardins’s brainchild was a revelation when it was first unveiled, and provides the same kinds of statistical breakdowns for players and teams. The user interface is clumsier but it doesn’t take too much practice to get the hang of it. What Behind the Net doesn’t do is allow users to look at detailed statistics for individual games. Five years ago, this kind of work was done using a site called Time on Ice, which was both incredibly powerful and extremely difficult to use. These days, Nice Time on Ice uses the same engine but makes searching for the results far, far easier.
- NHL.com, the old standby for traditional numbers
- Hockey-Reference.com, which makes creating a list of comparables for any given player a snap
- SomeKindofNinja.com, a site that generates both player-usage charts and shot- and/or goal-location maps for teams and players
- HockeyAnalysis.com, host of a range of fancy stats and the go-to source for seeing how a player did in combination with different linemates or against specific opponents
It takes a bit of work to learn the tricks to using some of those sites, but none are overly complicated and in aggregate they give analysts the kind of scope and power that wasn’t available even five years ago. And for those not interested in navigating through a series of websites, there is already talk of launching a new site that will provide the kind of one-stop shopping that Extra Skater did.
Let's build a new NHL stat site. http://t.co/fTpB4sYSBh
— RMNB (@russianmachine) August 19, 2014
In other words, while the loss of Extra Skater stings in the short-term, especially for fans still trying to get a handle on Corsi and zone starts and other advanced metrics, it’s not likely to have a major long-term impact on the stats conversation. Interest in underlying numbers has grown at an exponential rate, and as long as the demand for the information keeps increasing the resources will arise to service it.
The greater threat comes from the sudden willingness of NHL teams to sign and silence the best analysts contributing in the public space. People like former Sportsnet contributor Tyler Dellow and SBNation’s Eric Tulsky have been key innovators, moving the conversation beyond what has already been established and into new territory. Dellow’s site is now completely offline and Tulsky is likely to be significantly constrained in his ability to keep pushing the envelope.
And it only starts with the individuals already hired. Toronto already had a stats-savvy manager on-staff in Kyle Dubas, but the team decided it’s best course of action was to build an entire department, taking Metcalf and a pair of excellent analysts. If other teams follow suit, that opens up more positions, some of which are bound to go to the people producing groundbreaking work in the general domain.
We aren't likely to see the public state of hockey analysis taking any steps back, but it may become increasingly difficult for it to take major strides forward. The same won’t be true behind closed doors, as the finest minds are put to work full-time with the kinds of resources that NHL teams have at their disposal.