Analytics hires are quick fixes to PR nightmares

David Clarkson was traded to the Columbus Blue Jackets for Nathan Horton. (Claus Andersen/Getty)

The Stanley Cup will be raised by a team that uses advanced analytics.

Draft-lottery teams will likewise retain staffers dedicated to advanced analytics.

This is to say that most NHL teams will have someone on staff who will be charged with tracking Corsi numbers and the like. Eventually all will. Any GM inclined to hold out and go exclusively on the subjective and intuitive will have to win an awful lot of Stanley Cups to stay gainfully employed.

What this says about advanced analytics I’m not so sure. I look around the league, mostly in vain, for college men in GM (or equivalent) positions. With his hiring of a deep analytics staff for the Maple Leafs this week, I’m sure Brendan Shanahan is showing a newfound interest in math—A’s in the sciences he pulled down in high school <<< skipped classes.

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That’s not a slam at Shanahan. Not a shot. Not an indictment. In different circumstances he would have been a college guy and probably a pretty sharp one, but some of the logarithm spinning out of the advanced-stats community might as well be Sanskrit to a C student in Grade 12. Same for Steve Yzerman and Cam Neely and umpteen others. They had to do remedial math work and informal business-administration training, first to manage their career earnings and then again when they had a payroll cap dropped on their plate.

Have these guys and others who went from major junior and high school directly to the NHL seen the error of their ways? We’ll get back to you on that. But never in recent memory have so many dumb organizations become so smart so quickly. It’s Flowers for Algernon at a management level.

The Leafs were supposedly the NHL’s Flat Earth Society, as the narrative goes. Then they hired a young OHL GM in Kyle Dubas with an interest in analytics and soon thereafter a three-way brain trust of analytics bloggers, Darryl Metcalf, Cam Charron and Rob Pettapiece. Over the course of a few weeks, without the benefit (or risk) of playing a game, the Leafs’ management has repainted itself as a progressive outfit.

The Oilers have been ridiculed for umpteen bad management decisions. Then they hired Tyler Dellow, an analytics guy on track to be the first of his kind in the Hockey Hall of Fame. The turn-around forever promised is now considered imminent by those who bookmarked Dellow.

Why have these outfits and others rethought their positions?

You might suppose that those sticks-in-the-mud saw that they were losing ground to organizations that use analytics. The thinking: To do his job well a GM must get with the program adopted by others. I would concede that this sort of peer pressure might even be compelling factor.

One thing is for certain, though: To do his job at all requires a GM to keep the confidence of ownership. If you win the Cup, an owner asks no questions except “What’s your ring size?” If you lose (and 29 do), an owner wants to know why, and if you aren’t trying everything you’re not trying enough. And an owner is more likely to have a grounding in math and business administration than the GM he’s quizzing. In fact, an owner is pretty likely to have analytics as a component of the core business he built that landed him the gelt to buy the franchise.

Thus analytics might have utility in talent or game management, but they’ll be indisputably effective managing up.

Will we ever know the impact that these hirings have on their franchises? To say that it will be borne out in wins and losses—in whole, in large part, in some minute way—no one can say. Science will come up with a way of unscrambling eggs sooner than it can absolutely ascertain how a single decision impacts the whole. It’s about probabilities not certainties.

Don’t count on any teams letting us in on the process.

In the past eight months or so I’ve spoken to three execs about doing a story on the analytics departments. These weren’t recent hires in the front office but long-standing hockey men, one of them owns a Stanley Cup, another should, another has been painfully close.

I told them that I wouldn’t name the organizations. I assured them that I wouldn’t divulge names of players in the piece. The piece would not be about how they have evaluated known players, but rather the process. Nothing comprehensive, not the full battery of measurements. I told them I would just like to open the window and duck my head in for an hour, just to get a peak into a world unknown to the general hockey fan. Or, in fact, a world unknown to even a hockey fan who embraces advanced analytics, because no one has a clue what weight any organization gives to any specific data.

The sound of crickets followed each request. Then each politely begged off, saying words to the effect that the sun will never shine on their analytics department.
It’s not just that these execs looked upon their information as a proprietary interest. Or even viewed it as a classified for-Control’s-eyes-only files.

No, these execs didn’t want their analytics people or services named. As John le Carre would describe it, they wanted their analytics people to work out in the cold.

Into all this you can read what you want. Here are two plausible scenarios:

1. The stuff coming out of the analytics department is integral, vital and indispensable to the plotting of the franchise’s direction.

2. It’s on file and available if anyone is inclined to look at it.

Those who view analytics as the be all and end all will almost certainly go with No. 1. Those who don’t believe that analytics provides an unerring reading of the game might lean towards No. 2.

Those who inhabit the lightly populated middle ground… well, if there are any of you out there I will be pleased to make your acquaintance.

I was a fan of Bill James back in the day when he had Jesse Barfield and Lloyd Moseby as the worst outfielders in baseball. Back then he was probably working out his stats models on a TRS-80. I always got Sabermetics. I think baseball and hockey are so fundamentally different that Sabermetrics approaches can’t possibly run in lockstep. James’s readings of every aspect of the game are gospel in the game.

Advanced analytics aren’t the conventional wisdom in the NHL. They might never be and almost certainly won’t be like Sabermetrics. At this point they are received wisdom. Even those embracing it will have a learning curve. Others sign on just to get along. And still others will pay it lip service just to keep an owner at bay.

I don’t imagine that Corsi or anything deeper than that will ever have a utility in evaluating draft-eligible prospects, which is my own interest. I don’t know an amateur scout who can really see it that way. Talent is the game’s most precious resource and ranking it at maturity is hard, but a cakewalk compared to evaluating it as it’s emerging. You have to weigh a kid playing high-school hockey in a crap league versus a kid in the Frozen Four versus a kid in Swedish Div-2 versus a kid in the KHL. And then you have to weigh a kid’s chances of growing two inches or more and his attention span or the effects of an injury. I don’t think analytics will provide a unified theory that will neatly sort out a prospect’s chance at the next level. Values in development are just too fluid.

I can, however, see analytics giving some guidance on a team’s second most precious resource, money. There are a lot of bad draft picks, but in the NHL bad contracts are a far worse thing. Credit where due: The analytics people were out in front on the David Clarkson debacle in Toronto—although now three of them will have to be rooting for him to prove them wrong, I suppose. It seems inevitable that the numbers coming out of analytics departments will become a component of contract negotiations and arbitration hearings in the not-too-distant future. (Sabermetrics have been a point of discussion in MLB’s arb hearings for more than two decades, probably now to the exclusion of a lot of the traditional measurements.)

And a footnote: The three organizations that I approached about their analytics departments had mixed results last spring. None made a conference final. If an owner gave any of the GMs grief, at least he could say that he’s exploring all avenues to make his team better.

Even if he’s scratching his head. Even if he’s skeptical.

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