Moments after sending out a tweet last week welcoming the return of shiftchart.com, my phone beeped with a couple of texts. The two messages were similar. Good for hockey fans, for sure. But bad for the site’s creator?
His name is Sai Okabayashi. His website, the best for showing in-game head-to-head matchups in an easily sortable format, went dormant two years ago after the New Jersey Devils added him to their analytics staff. It was “highly recommended” by the Devils that the website become available only to the organization. Wise decision to agree.
In 2014, New Jersey recruited author, poker player, investor and hockey blogger Sunny Mehta to lead the NHL’s first full-time such department. He hired Okabayashi for some technical expertise.
Shiftchart’s rebirth means exactly what you think. Okabayashi is no longer with the Devils. His wife had a job opportunity on the West Coast, and, as a result, the family moved to Seattle.
“I suppose I could have stayed on doing the data work,” he said Monday, “but I wouldn’t have found it as fulfilling. The personal interaction, conversations with the executives and coaches, I loved it.”
The Devils might be getting a migraine reading this, but Okabayashi didn’t spill trade secrets. Asked specifically what information they asked for, he replied, “I shouldn’t answer that.”
“I don’t want to go into too much detail, but I don’t think you’d be surprised. Possession, scoring chances, zone entries and exits. What’s important is how (they) define those metrics. The score, the time in the game. That’s more the magic.”
However, unlike basketball, where breaking down how teams use or defend the pick-and-roll can tell you so much, “Hockey is not where we want it to be,” he said. “We’re still searching for the ‘silver bullet’ player-metric.”
That was certainly a disappointment for Okabayashi. Other analytical hires have left teams with another frustration, that there was an unwillingness to listen, with only lip-service paid to their ideas. He said that wasn’t the case in New Jersey as the Devils moved from Lou Lamoriello to Ray Shero.
“I saw myself similar to a hockey player with a depth role. What I learned is it wasn’t as if people in the industry had some special magical powers and I did not. You have to be careful about saying things that make someone fly off the handle. Being a little bit older, I was good with handling personalities—an important component.
“People (like pro scout Bob Hoffmeyer) were very receptive. Talk at the same level of hockey, then back up it with numbers or stats. If you come at them with percentages, you lose them.”
I was curious: What was the first important interaction with Lamoriello?
“Very early on, the team was struggling. He pulled Sunny and I into his office and said, ‘What are we doing wrong?’ We said the defence was getting the puck off the glass and out. There was no transition…. He said we were 100-percent right.
“I really like (Lamoriello) a lot,” Okabayashi added. “He had more of a ‘silo mentality.’ He did solicit our opinions, but wanted (the coaches) to be fairly independent (of us). I never really talked to Peter DeBoer.”
Shero’s hiring, and Lamoriello’s move to Toronto, led to “a massive change in approach in personnel both on-ice and in the front office. (Shero) is more proactive with empowering people to go approach and talk to each other. There was plenty of access to John Hynes (and his staff).”
Okabayashi graduated from Harvard, worked at Goldman Sachs and lectured at the University of Minnesota. But he called his time with the Devils a “dream opportunity,” and hopes to work in hockey once again.
“It is not purely a coincidence that we are here,” he says. “We had a choice of places to live on the West Coast and this was our top pick.”
So you want expansion to Seattle?
“I would love that.”
1. We’ll start with a couple more on New Jersey. One of the smaller storylines I’ve watched this season is Joseph Blandisi. Drafted by Colorado in 2012, he was not offered a contract and went back into the pool. No one took him, but an excellent overage season with OHL Barrie got him a contract with the Devils.
Last year (his first pro season), he was a point-per-game player with AHL Albany and had some strong moments for the Devils when he wasn’t an NHL target for diving. I thought he’d make the team this season, but the organization was not pleased with his exhibition performance. Blandisi is a bit of a polarizing player. When he was sent down, a few teams took longer looks at him in case there was a trade opportunity, but a few didn’t like what they saw.
I had a chance to see him up-close last weekend in Toronto. He certainly had an impact in a 3–1 win over the Marlies on Saturday. It sounds like he’s going to get another opportunity at some point with the Devils. I’m curious to see what kind of an impact he can have in the NHL.
2. One of my theories on the Devils is no one took them seriously last season. That has changed. Adam Henrique did not disagree.
“It was a big thing we talked about last season. People were picking us to finish 30th. It was a motivating factor, there was no respect for us, (others thought) we were easy to play against. We bought into everything, surprised others but not ourselves. The majority of the year we were there.”
“We are being taken more seriously. But we have to take the blame ourselves, too. We are not hard enough to play against. Only in spurts.”
That’s a big problem in the lethal Metropolitan Division, where, as Henrique says, “No one is losing.”
3. Henrique on Taylor Hall, who he played with in junior: “He has not changed at all. He’s the same. We went to dinner after he was traded, and I was having flashbacks. It was crazy. Great player, same guy.”
4. Got home from a shoot Tuesday night with enough time to watch the last half of Winnipeg/Vancouver. Have to say, the constant Willie Desjardins watch is ridiculous. To me, one loss here or there shouldn’t determine a coach’s future. It should be about the process, the direction you are going. So, when I read/hear “Desjardins needs a good result this week to keep his job,” two things pop into my head. First, merry Christmas! Second, it shouldn’t be about that.
I strongly suspect the Canucks are privately going through a detailed conversation of where they want to go with several important decisions. They are four points out of the playoffs, which is miles ahead of where many of us thought they’d be. Whatever their eventual decision, it shouldn’t be about one or two results. That’s crazy.
5. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman met with NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr on Monday. The Olympics and the proposed International Calendar were discussed, but there was no resolution—not that we were expecting one. We’ve got about five weeks to go. What’s most interesting is no one wants to explicitly call this a negotiation. It seems like more of a conversation to see if there will be a negotiation.
6. Weird things learned last week: There are two active Russian hockey players named Vladimir Tkachev. Edmonton fans will remember the younger one. After a strong 26-game North American debut with the QMJHL’s Moncton Wildcats, the Oilers signed him in Sept. 2014, only to have the contract voided as he was still eligible for the draft. He’s now in KHL Vladivostok, averaging almost a point per game near the North Korean border. It’s uncertain if he’ll ever give the NHL another try.
Anyway, this came up because there are reports in Russia the Maple Leafs are eyeing the other Vladimir Tkachev. This one, born in 1993, is two years older and plays for Ak-Bars Kazan. A few NHL teams have seen him, and there is a belief he’s got a shot in a depth role. Toronto has a nice piece in Nikita Zaitsev. We’ll see if there’s another worthwhile Russian import to follow.
7. The Predators didn’t put P.K. Subban on injured reserve and hope to have him back Thursday against Los Angeles. That’s great news considering there was a rumour going around that he had a herniated disc.
8. One of the theories around Sidney Crosby’s increased goal scoring is that he realized at the World Cup he doesn’t need to carry the puck all the time. That opened his eyes to the possibilities, what can occur if he still goes to the dangerous areas even without the puck. For evidence, just look at the 1–0 goal from Tuesday’s 7–2 win over the Rangers.
Without the puck, he’s freer to find the openings in the New York defence. He’s not on a line with Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand, but he is with players who know him and understand him. It’s one of the things that has kept Crosby at the pinnacle, a willingness to adjust and modify his skillset, making him a more difficult opponent.
9. The Holiday Trade Freeze is now in effect, and lasts until next Wednesday. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a trade market as paralyzed as this one. With so little cap room, so many teams chasing the playoffs and the expansion draft looming, the market is squeezed tighter than a theatre showing Rogue One.
“It’s so quiet out there,” was the common refrain. We can only hope—for excitement’s sake—they are lying through their teeth, but it doesn’t seem like it.
10. A year ago, teams asked about James van Riemsdyk and were told he was not available. Now they’re being told, “If you’re serious, ante up.” What it comes down to is this: van Riemsdyk is an unrestricted free agent after next season, and can be extended July 1. At some point, the Maple Leafs will decide if they are going to meet his price.
Van Riemsdyk is a scorer, he’s going to cash in somewhere. Toronto’s cap situation is pretty good for a couple of years, until the likes of Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander need their next contracts.
So that will be the decision. If they decide to deploy their wealth elsewhere, it’s going to be on the blue line. Van Riemsdyk could get you that help. But his value drops if you’re trading him with free-agency looming. So that’s why I think it’s gone from “No,” to “What have you got for us?”
11. Another thing van Riemsdyk does very well: handle Toronto. The Maple Leafs do not allow live TV interviews with their rookies—unless the game is over and that player has made a significant impact (think Matthews on opening night). Therefore, the veterans get a heavier load, and it seems like JVR is on three times a night. He must hate it, but does a great job. In this market, that counts.
I’ve mentioned before his ties to autism, a cause that is close to me, too. He is matching donations to research charities through shirt sales at stateandliberty.com.
12. Toronto’s Zach Hyman had a great line about his goal last week against San Jose, the end result of a beautiful Auston Matthews/William Nylander passing play.
“I had a great view for that one,” he laughed.
Watching them on this play was like watching a junior varsity version of the Sedins. (Nylander had a huge smile on his face when he heard that.)
“When they are doing that, it’s my job to get low, be in front of the net, and take someone away from them, hopefully a defenceman,” Hyman said.
Did those two practise this?
“You can’t practise that,” Nylander answered. “It is two skilled players trying something.”
“We do a few things together at the end of practice,” Matthews said, “so we know a little about how the other thinks.”
What is one tendency about the other? Nylander: “When I am coming around the net, he will go to the net.”
Matthews: “When I come around the net and go up the boards, he will come down from high (in the offensive zone).”
Those guys aren’t just smart players. They’re smart explainers.
13. One team we haven’t heard much from is Pittsburgh, but I think that will change. The Penguins are a legit threat to repeat and, at some point, GM Jim Rutherford is going to try and add. Remember his history. He prefers not to wait until the deadline.
14. Most expectations are that he will try to add a defender. Kris Letang is out a couple of weeks, and hasn’t played a full season since 2010–11. He’s a great player for sure, but if the Penguins could change one thing about him it would be that he emulate the likes of Drew Doughty and Ryan Suter, who find ways to manage the wear and tear on their bodies in-game.
If you watch the two of them, there are moments (mostly score-dictated) where they know it’s not the time to take or give up a hit, because they do it plenty. Pittsburgh would like to see Letang do more of that. Purely a self-preservation tactic.
15. The obvious name is Marc-Andre Fleury. Rutherford and coach Mike Sullivan have admitted the challenge of having two No. 1 goalies, both saying it’s tougher than they expected.
Fleury, a fierce competitor, wants to play, and the organization respects that. There are a couple of things to address with him. First, the Penguins have to decide if they are better with him on the roster until the end of the season. He’s a tremendous insurance policy in case Matt Murray gets hurt. Winning a second straight Cup should take priority over expansion draft protection.
Second, even though there are 17 teams he can be traded to without permission (18 if you count Las Vegas), the sense is the Penguins will make sure they do right by him.
16. The perfect fit is Dallas. The Stars have an empty crease after next season, and Fleury is eligible for an extension on July 1, 2018. You always look for patterns, and don’t forget the Stars extended Jason Spezza not long after trading for him. I’m just not sure what the trade would be.
The other move flowing through my head was a Winnipeg deal involving Jacob Trouba. That one could really help both sides. But I think DeMarcus Cousins has a better chance of winning the Good Guy Award from the Sacramento media. So don’t go crazy with it.
17. In all of the reporting around Florida, the one question I wanted answered was: If Dale Tallon walked in and said, “I have a six-player trade we can do right now that will help us,” would it happen? Who makes the call? The answer: “It will be the owner’s call.”
You can argue that’s always the case, but there are some GMs—Doug Wilson (San Jose) and Steve Yzerman (Tampa Bay) among them—who have wider control over those decisions. Vinny Viola was the dominant voice in that organization, and Gerard Gallant’s firing proved it. Now that he’s nominated for Secretary of the Army, Doug Cifu moves into that position for the Panthers.
18. Speaking of GMs who’ve been quiet, a few of his peers believe Yzerman is getting restless, too.
19. There’s been a lot of talk about Arizona’s UFAs. Shane Doan is another.
“I’ve always thought that if I was going to go anywhere else,” he said last week, “it would have been when I had the choice a few years ago.”
That was the summer of 2012, when Vancouver and the Rangers made huge pitches for his services.
“I’ve learned that you never know what is going to happen, but when we decided to stay, the plan was to stay for good. That is still the plan.”
20. By the way, Doan (and several of his teammates) were really selling Mike Smith during the team’s trip to Toronto.
“Please talk about what a great year he’s having,” one said. “It’s like we’re wasting a tremendous performance.”
21. Jakob Chychrun, on what he’s learning about playing defence in the NHL: “The biggest adjustment is time. How much less time you have to make plays. (Associate coach Jim Playfair) is on me to get the puck, take three strides and while doing that, decide what play to make.”
As the draft unfolded, the knock on Chychrun was hockey sense. What the Coyotes see is a player who tried to process the game when the puck got to him. He’d get it, think and try something when stationary. You can’t do that at this level. They don’t think hockey sense is an issue. They just want him to change his habits. It’s a good lesson.
22. I mentioned to Chychrun a story about Ivan Provorov, Philly’s tremendous rookie who was so excited he didn’t bite on a Crosby fake. He smiled and understood, but said he prefers a different approach.
“I’m trying not to get excited about individual plays. I want to think, ‘I should make good plays because I belong here.’”
I’m always interested in the way elite athletes/coaches/executives think. You’ve got two talented young guys here, and it’s different. Can’t fit everyone in a box.
23. The poster boy for defencemen who have come a long way is Anaheim’s Cam Fowler. He’s gone from Captain Trade Rumour to an indispensable piece of the Duck machine. The only way he’s getting dealt now is if they think they can’t sign him before he hits free agency (after next season). Word is Fowler’s improvement is best seen at both blue lines. On the offensive end, he used to gain the zone and stop.
“That’s true,” he said this week. “I am trying to be more aggressive. Take it right to the net.”
On the defensive end, he used to allow opponents to gain the blue line too easily.
“I don’t know about that,” he replied. “I always try to use my speed to keep a tight gap.”
I re-phrased and said the critique was he allowed people to get to the net. He agreed with that.
“It’s hard to play defence in this league,” he laughed. “There is so much to learn. But yes, it’s something I’ve worked on.”
The other thing Fowler says he’s much better with: focus.
“There were times in shifts where I would relax and something bad would happen. You can’t lose focus for a second.”
24. Ryan Kesler’s had a great season for Anaheim. Does he smile at all?
“Yes. California’s been good to him,” one Duck replied with a laugh.
25. Heading into last Saturday’s game against Montreal, Alex Ovechkin was down to just under two unblocked shots per game on the power play. That is rarefied air for him and the Capitals, a major reason his production is down. A few weeks ago, Toronto changed its kill structure to prevent Nicklas Backstrom from entering the zone with the puck. Now, teams admit they are “shading” more towards Ovechkin. Could we see Washington make changes to their structure? It’s worked so well for years.
26. Calgary’s come a long way back to jump into the playoff picture. Chad Johnson saved the season until the rest of the horses thundered along with him. Then Glen Gulutzan rewarded his group with two days off after a 6–2 win over Winnipeg on Dec. 10. Next game: a 6–3 loss to Tampa. Don’t think the Flames will be getting any more two-day breaks without it being mandatory.
27. One Western GM on Columbus coach John Tortorella abolishing morning skates: “We’d love to do it, too, but then we’d never practise.” A widely held opinion out of the Eastern Time Zone.
28. Gentlemen’s bet: The next time Michel Therrien removes Carey Price, it will be during an intermission.
29. Anaheim’s goaltending coach is Sudarshan Maharaj, aka Sudsy. He told a great story the other day about his childhood, and the time his father got tickets for a game at Maple Leaf Gardens—the first opportunity he ever had to go see the NHL live and in colour. That day, one of the Maple Leafs threw a puck to him in the crowd at warmup. Maharaj never forgot that, and every day he tosses one puck into the crowd as a sort of karmic payback.
The player? Bruce Boudreau, who worked with Maharaj the last few years with the Ducks. Funny how things come around. But, at this time of year, I thought it was especially important to remember how something we think is nothing can be a very big something to someone else.
30. Merry Christmas to the Cunninghams. No one deserves it more. What a group of fighters.