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Flames GM Brad Treliving discusses how his team uses analytics

There’s no question the past decade brought an evolution of sorts to the way we think about and analyze NHL hockey. The rise of analytics and all the publicly available data has allowed anyone who wants to look at the game with a deeper understanding, beyond simple counting stats.

This has naturally grown on the teams as they try to find an edge. Some have taken analysts from the public sphere and hired them to privately provide information to the front office directly. And, to varying degrees, each team has invested in its own way to parse the overload of information and data that unfolds every night.

The Calgary Flames are one of the teams who have developed their own analytics to decipher player value and impact. Their GM, Brad Treliving, joined Elliotte Friedman on 31 Thoughts: The Podcast and got into how his team uses data.

There’s more of it available than you think.

“The simplistic way (assistant GM Chris Snow) broke it down, he says what’s available in the public sphere, it’d be like going to a game and turning the lights out for 50 seconds of every minute,” Treliving explained of the depth of information Calgary has. “So you’ve got basically an 8-to-10 second look at what happens in a game. A lot of the public information is anywhere between 300-500 events that take place in a game. We’re over 4,000. There’s just a whole lot more happening and you’re studying a whole lot more.

“Not to poo-poo what’s out there, but we invest significant money, time, personnel, people to come up with the data we come up with and that’s just not what’s out there publicly.”

Treliving said his team tracks all sorts of information every game to measure a player’s impact. There are people whose jobs it is in the Flames organization to look into the most minute details and extract what it means on the whole, so Treliving isn’t necessarily pouring over spreadsheets to get to his own conclusion.

But the first stats he checks after every game aren’t your traditional ones either. Rather, he explained that after each game the Flames attach a number to each player that boils down all of their contributions — big and small — into a neat measure of overall impact. That’s the first stat Treliving says he looks at after a game and it helps him get a fuller understanding of what happened on the ice.

Treliving said he usually will re-watch a Flames game the morning after and that when he is able to do that armed with this “overall contribution number,” it helps remove some of the subjectivity you get watching live.

“You think Joe Smith had a great game or vice-versa, a lot of times you watch it the next day and he wasn’t quite as poor or wasn’t quite as good as you thought,” Treliving told Friedman. “When you know what the score was and the emotion’s removed from it you look at things in a completely different manner. As long as you’ve been in the game you try to be objective when you watch, but it’s hard.”

Treliving says the highest contribution number they’ve tracked is a 101, though he couldn’t recall a specific instance or player who achieved that. He did say the lowest number he’s ever seen was an eight and that he does remember who got it, though he added: “they will remain nameless.”

When asked which player looks better when measured with this overall impact number, Treliving said Derek Ryan was an example of someone who stood out. Though he’s having a pretty good season with 25 points in 50 games, Ryan has never hit 40 points in a season and his on-ice style doesn’t always demand your attention.

“He’s a guy who on the surface may not overwhelm, but he touches a lot of parts of the game,” Treliving said. “When you look back… he measures a lot of successful plays with the puck. And a successful play with the puck isn’t necessarily an assist or a goal or what you see on the highlights, but a simple bump in to contest a puck, a simple winning of a contested puck, a 50-50 battle won, maintaining possession in a certain area. A lot of things we look at is what do you do when you have the puck, who has it after you have the puck. He’s a guy that jumps out to me right away as someone who maybe doesn’t overwhelm you with his counting stats, or when you watch the game, but when you break down the impact and helping you win, he has a significant impact.”

As far as the analytics movement has come in hockey, and as much great information is publicly available, it’s interviews like this that remind you how much more information is out there, in use by the teams.

During this past weekend’s all-star festivities, Sportsnet offered a glimpse into the next era of puck and player tracking, which included an alternate feed of Saturday’s 3-on-3 tournament that was used to show off some of the data available. The NHL plans on having all of those systems active in the 16 playoff arenas this spring, and for all the rest to be ready by the time the puck drops on the 2020-21 season next October.

When all that data becomes available to broadcasters and is capable of being tracked, the analytics movement could accelerate again towards giving fans an even fuller picture than what we’re able to assemble today.