The book is called Big Data Baseball: Math, Miracles and the End of a 20-year Losing Streak. It’s one of my favourite recent reads.
Author Travis Sawchik tells the story of the 2013 Pittsburgh Pirates, who embraced defensive shifts (among other non-traditional strategies), ending two decades of futility. You have to be careful in drawing a straight line between analytic comparables in baseball and hockey. One is static, the other much more random. But, what the book does a great job of doing is discussing the attitudes involved, how everyone decided to buy in — even those who weren’t initially in favour.
The GM, Neal Huntington, was on-side. He wasn’t sure about manager Clint Hurdle.
“(Hurdle) was essentially being asked to hand over an aspect of in-game strategy to a man…who had never played the game,” Sawchik wrote. “Could he give up that control?”
The “man” in question was Dan Fox, the team’s director of baseball systems development. Hurdle, knowing he needed a total turn-around to save his job, decided to take the plunge. But a major factor was the two men spent the previous year getting to know each other. Not just as co-workers, but as people.
“The comfort level and acceptance level got better,” Fox said. “I think most of that is from developing relationships. They are going to trust you more, trust your information more, the more they trust you as a person.”
During Hurdle’s opening Spring Training speech, he introduced Fox and quantitative analyst Mike Fitzgerald to the players. He told them the two men were going to be in the clubhouse. They were going to be in meetings. They were there to answer all of your questions. It was okay to challenge them. But, they were to be “thought of as equals.”
All of this popped into mind Monday afternoon, processing the sudden implosion in Florida. For all of the anger, the accusations, the explanations and the shock — there is concern. During most of their history, the Panthers have been a Tylenol 3 migraine for the NHL. The organization finally seemed to be stable: strong ownership and front office, talented young players signed long-term, a playoff team with a chance to be a consistent contender.
Gerard Gallant’s firing ripped the band-aid off the scar. What is going on here?
There is nothing in hockey that makes my eyes glaze over more than the analytics debate. One side takes a shot at the other, Twitter goes bananas, insults fly. Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.
No matter your position, the fact is this: Florida is taking the most ambitious leap we’ve seen. Their drafting is based on a statistical prediction of success. One of the reasons the Panthers were willing to give such a large second contract to Aaron Ekblad is by comparing his scoring pace at such a young age to others who’ve done it in the past. A lot of their decision-making is based on this kind of modelling. I’m fascinated by it, curious to see if it will work.
Here’s the difference between the 2013 Pirates and 2016-17 Panthers: the Pirates were terrible. These Panthers weren’t. They came off the most successful regular-season in franchise history. Players understand change…when you are losing.
They won 47 games, made the playoffs. The summer brought core changes, firings in the scouting department, training/equipment staffs and rumours their coach was not safe. That proved to be true, much to their dismay.
On Monday’s conference call to explain the move, new coach Tom Rowe said he was scheduled to meet with the team’s leadership group later in the day. But, the rest of the club, on a mandatory CBA day off in Chicago, decided it wouldn’t get together until Tuesday. That’s not a good sign.
The shame is that this Panthers team has a chance to be consistently good. If the organization wants to re-discover that feeling, it must rebuild the trust with the players. Rowe is going to have to go in there — like Hurdle — with assistant GMs Eric Joyce and Steve Werier (who have a huge say in the process) saying, “We’re going to explain what we are doing here. We believe in it, here’s why.”
And they are going to need Dale Tallon. The former GM, winner of the 2016 Best Actor Oscar for his performance in the conference call, has been pushed to the side. But he’s the one the players trust.
In the beginning, the 2013 Pirates didn’t all buy in. Pitchers AJ Burnett and Mark Melancon were particularly vocal whenever a shift didn’t work. Seven months later, they were in the playoffs, something they only watched on television the previous 20 years.
There’s no reason the good ship Panther can’t be righted. As Rowe said Monday, “You’d be a fool if you don’t value other people’s opinions.” In this case, that must include the players.
1. One of Florida’s biggest losses from last season was Willie Mitchell. Mitchell still lives in Florida, but bought the Marina West Motel in Tofino, BC with ex-teammate Dan Hamhuis and another partner. “I haven’t watched a lot because I’ve been across North America eight times in the last two months. I’ve gone more miles doing this than in my whole career,” he laughed. But, his phone was buzzing after Gallant’s firing — five text messages and a couple of phone calls. Mitchell said Jacques Lemaire was tremendous at getting players to believe in his message in Minnesota, and that’s what Florida ownership must emulate now. “Come forward and be honest. Say, ‘We want to do it our way.’ I get it. I have a new business. You want to bring in your people, create your culture and if anyone resists that, make changes. (Owner Vinny Viola) is involved in every step, has his hands in everything. He should explain analytics is what we made our money on, high-frequency trading, algorithms are what we do. Just say Gerard was a great human but he wasn’t a match moving forward.” Will the players accept this right away? “I think they’ll hear it, maybe not believe it, but accept it. As a player you still care. What I told them is this is not your first coach nor is it your last coach. It’s like having a teammate who is your friend who you think should still be on your team but is gone. You’ve got to worry about being the best player and teammate you can be. I know it’s super cliche and simple, but it’s the only thing you can really do.”
2. Mitchell took a break from renovating his property to talk. He had a great line about his new business. “I tell (Hamhuis), ‘Keep playing, we need more cash.”
3. One thing to remember about Florida’s plan: they traded David Bolland (and Lawson Crouse) for cap room, wanting the flexibility to add one major body. So, there is the possibility for two big acquisitions — that player and a healthy Jonathan Huberdeau.
4. As Jeff Marek pointed out, one of Florida’s first changes could be going to four forwards and one defenceman on the power play. (Gallant preferred two defenders.) Also, watch Seth Griffith’s usage. The Panthers claimed him off waivers from Toronto, then sent Jared McCann to the AHL to prevent him from being exposed once again. Curious to see if Rowe gives Griffith a longer look on a more offensive line.
5. Rowe said that an immediate change will be in the defensive zone. The league-average save percentage is .915. Roberto Luongo is at .925, James Reimer at .896. There might be a structural reason for this. John Madden, fired as assistant coach after last season, helped put together a defensive system that played to Luongo’s strengths. Apparently, he and goalie coach Rob Tallas did a lot of video work together, trying to figure out where to position the defence so shots against would come from spots Luongo had better success with. Like many teams, there were specific rules for defenders on when to challenge a particular player and when to stay home, guarding against a backdoor pass. Things were consistent. Reimer is different, so what works for Luongo may not work for him. Harder to fix that stuff in-season.
6. As one coach joked Monday, “We’re a little more nervous with Gerard available.” The question is how quickly he wants to work again. Obviously, he will be on Vegas’s list, but if someone really wants him, they could jump the queue.
7. As everything melted down in Montreal last season, I asked Max Pacioretty what was the toughest thing about being captain of the Canadiens during those times. He said, “The kinds of questions that get asked.” Things are (mostly) great now, but I thought of that answer when I saw him address the controversy of not taking a skate when named an in-arena “star” last Thursday against Carolina. He had that “I can’t believe I’m answering this” look. Sometimes I wonder if a fresh start would be better for him, somewhere quieter. The difference between him and PK Subban is his contract doesn’t have the same pressures, either on the salary cap or a no-trade deadline. This is me talking here, but if (and I stress if) the Canadiens ever wanted to do this, the difficulty is you are trading a 30-goal scorer with a $4.5M average salary. That is worth a ton in today’s NHL. What is equal value? Has to be a lot. I don’t know many teams that could pull it off.
8. Pacioretty started the season with Alex Galchenyuk and Brendan Gallagher. By game seven, he was with David Desharnais and Andrew Shaw. Then it was Gallagher and Tomas Plekanec. Then Shaw and Phillip Danault. Then back to Desharnais and Shaw, followed by a return to Plekanec/Gallagher. It’s just strange to see him and the coaches struggle to find a match.
9. San Jose broke a lot of its own rules in re-signing Brent Burns to an eight-year, $64M contract. Term longer than five years, signing bonuses all over the place and front-loading the money. Burns had a ton of leverage, and it’s very possible he left money on the table by not testing the market. But, don’t %&*$ with happy and the Sharks got to a point where next summer’s number-one free agent was thrilled to commit. The way I look at it is this: San Jose is built to be a legitimate, consistent Stanley Cup contender over the next four-five years. If you lose him, you can’t replace him. There is simply no one available that could have Burns’s impact on the ice and among the group. It would seriously damage the Sharks’ chances, so you take the plunge.
10. The critique was term, but remember San Jose has 37-year-old Joe Thornton still competing at a very high level. No team knows Burns better than the Sharks do. I think they looked at Thornton, saw Burns’ dedication to his craft and said, “We think he can follow that path.”
11. With Burns signed, the top free-agent defencemen are probably Washington’s Karl Alzner and Kevin Shattenkirk of St. Louis. Blues GM Doug Armstrong proved with David Backes that if he thinks his team is good enough, he’ll go for it. And we know Washington is all-in. The market for defenders is high, because it’s so hard to find them. Good ones will get what they want. Nick Kypreos reported last weekend Alzner is asking between $5.5M-$6M from the Capitals. I do think they value Alzner — a lot — but don’t see how they could get there without a major corresponding move. Could see Western Canada’s teams throwing themselves at him.
12. As for Shattenkirk, in all of last summer’s rumours, I didn’t realize until last week that some teams were actually allowed to talk to him. As usual, the particular clubs and agent Jordan Neumann weren’t talking, but Arizona and Edmonton had their shot. Don’t think Shattenkirk was too interested in Northern Alberta, but the Coyotes apparently did make some headway. A few teams believe the Connecticut-born defender eyes the New York Rangers, but that will take some salary-cap dancing.
13. In writing about Chicago’s potential interest in a forward, one source pointed out the Blackhawks did eye Columbus’ Sam Gagner last summer. The Blue Jackets are having a strong year and Gagner’s been a very nice fit, so there may be no possibility this happens. Something to file away. (Go easy, Blue Jacket bloggers. It’s just an idea.)
15. Depending on what the Islanders decide to do with their goalies, does anyone else see Thomas Greiss being a playoff backup for Martin Jones? History there.
16. Vancouver GM Jim Benning took some heat for admitting he wanted to extend Bo Horvat long-term, but I think that’s unfair. First of all, any decent agent is going to have a good idea of what a team will want to do. If you’re the Canucks, you’d obviously want to lock him in now. He’s trending up. If you’re his agency (Newport), you’re not taking anything more than a bridge unless the number is bigly. Horvat’s points-per-game average over the entry-level contract is lower than Victor Rask (who just signed for six years, $24M) and Rickard Rakell (six years, $23.1M). But, if you take just this season, his PPG is higher than both. Horvat’s offensive game is evolving at a rapid pace, and Newport’s history is to wait. There is a clear-cut path to Horvat becoming Vancouver’s number one centre and he’ll be no worse than number two. He wants to be there, which means a deal gets done. But, which deal?
17. I’m not sure what it all means, but Buffalo’s been watching a lot of AHL Utica. (One game was against the Sabres’ own club, Rochester.) I’m assuming that’s Jake Virtanen.
18. Taylor Hall is back skating for New Jersey. The Devils estimate his loss cost them three or four scoring chances per game. What’s helped is the en fuego return of Mike Cammalleri. They get great goaltending and are so disciplined but Cammalleri/Hall drive the offensive engine.
19. Cory Schneider’s success is no secret, but backup Keith Kinkaid’s giving New Jersey another gear behind him. I think the Devils challenged him to try to reach a new level. Apparently, assistant coach Alain Nasreddine went with a strength coach to visit Damon Severson during the summer, in an effort to help the defenceman back on track after a disappointing year. Severson’s career high is 21 points. He’s already got 12 in 21 games.
20. One exec on Edmonton’s Matt Benning: “We all watched him (in college) and thought there were so many better players in the NCAA. What this shows is if you can make quick, smart plays, you have a chance. The NHL game is so fast.”
21. Three years ago, there was a notable Washington/Toronto game at Air Canada Centre where Randy Carlyle put a man on Alexander Ovechkin during a Capitals’ power play, essentially turning a five-on-four to a four-on-three — daring anyone other than Ovechkin to beat him. It wasn’t as noticeable last Saturday, but Mike Babcock changed the Maple Leafs’ kill, especially for the Capitals. Generally, he prefers to play aggressively shorthanded, but this time Toronto sat back, lined up at the blue line and looked for Ovechkin once Washington entered. Quite simply, Babcock made the adjustment so Nicklas Backstrom would not have the puck when the Capitals entered the zone.
22. After 730 NHL games, Matt Carle retired last week at age 32, falling out of the defensive rotation in Nashville. Did anyone talk him out of it? “My agent did a bit, he wanted to make sure I was sure. My wife (Clancey), she’s my closest confidant, she wanted to make sure I had no regrets or hesitations. Once a day, she asks, ‘Do you still think you did the right thing?’” Carle has two daughters. Sophie is two, Audrey six months. That’s a major reason he wasn’t sold on going overseas. “I was joking with my wife that my standards are pretty high, with the luxuries of playing in the NHL. I think it was time. I’m still young, still enjoy the game. But the last two years were pretty tough and that factored into decision. It’s funny, when I leave home, Sophie says, ‘Daddy, is going to hockey practice, daddy is going to a game.’ It’s more exciting than going to the grocery store or running an errand.”
23. Three years ago, Carle played all 82 games for Tampa Bay in 2013-14. During their 2015 run to the Stanley Cup Final, he appeared in 25 post-season games. He’s searched for a reason why things went sideways and “I don’t have an explanation. I had surgery (for torn adductor muscles in January 2015) and missed 20-25 games. I’d been on a run of (347) consecutive games. Came back in March, had a full playoff, but I could just never get caught up. I never really got my groove back and it carried over. It’s hard how quickly it happened. Two years ago if you told me I would be retired now I’d have laughed in your face.” The key though is Carle leaves with no animosity. “As tough as the last couple of years were, I am not mad at the game. I am walking away with my health, made a good living to take care of family. Great memories, couple of NCAA championships, World Junior gold. I’m grateful for everything.”
24. Well, almost everything: “I’ll never look fondly at the Chicago Blackhawks organization. I lost two Stanley Cup Finals to them.”
25. This gave me one last time to ask Matt about his brother David. Days after New York Rangers prospect Alexei Cherepanov died from a heart ailment, David Carle granted us an interview. He had to quit playing, because he had the same condition. He is now an assistant coach at the University of Denver with a strong future in the profession. “I don’t know about coaching…how committed these guys are at the NHL level, they only have their heads out of laptops for a practice or a game. At the rink 10 times longer than players are. But my brother enjoys it. Maybe when he gets a head job somewhere, I’ll ride his coattails.”
26. Board of Governors late next week in Florida. We await a formal NHLPA response to the NHL’s Olympic proposal. If the players were willing to propose a limit to signing bonuses on contracts, would the league consider an escrow cap? Just wondering. (I’d bet they’d love shorter contracts too, maybe five or six years, but I’m not sure how possible that is.)
27. In last week’s notes, there was a conversation about the 19-year-old draft proposal. One of the questions was whether or not the NCAA would allow those who’ve played in the CHL (but not signed a pro contract) to participate in their leagues at the conclusion of their Canadian junior eligibility. The Kelowna Courier’s Larry Fisher pointed out (through some of Greg Drinnan’s work) that Brayden Gelsinger is at Lake Superior State, despite playing 14 games for the WHL’s Kamloops Blazers. I wonder if that meant a thaw in relations, maybe a window into where we are going, but that appears premature. Somehow, Gelsinger’s CHL games were missed by the NCAA. It determined he did not mislead them, so he wasn’t penalized.
28. At the Vegas Golden Knights launch party last week, there was some discussion about where the team will put its AHL affiliate. There are a lot of moving parts and potential outcomes, but one possibility is Chicago — with the Blues going to Kansas City. Like I said, though, there are a few possibilities here.
29. Good, analytical sites are harder to come by now that teams have hired their operators. Here are two: Hockeyviz, run by Micah McCurdy, who is @IneffectiveMath on Twitter. (No more emergency database repairs, Micah. I’m looking for stuff.) The second is Natural Stat Trick, created by @Sammich_BLT.
30. As some of you have noticed, I wear an autism pin during broadcasts. Toronto’s James van Riemsdyk has a connection, with two cousins and a friend from middle school on the spectrum. He wanted to do something that could raise funds for research, and combined with a hockey-playing friend, Lee Moffie, on a plan. Moffie played at Michigan and retired in September 2015 after what he called “one of the most fun years of my life” with the ECHL South Carolina Stingrays. (The two shared an agent, Alec Schall.) He stepped away to grow a business, the State and Liberty Clothing Company. He is donating a portion of sales to autism research, and van Riemsdyk is matching that number. No pressure, but it’s an important cause to both of us, so I wanted to plug.