TORONTO – The money has been allocated in the Toronto Maple Leafs budget. The will to spend it is clearly there.
All Dave Nonis is waiting for is having someone walk into his office and show him a system of advanced statistics that can change the way he looks at talent evaluation. The Leafs general manager has listened to 15 such pitches over the last couple years, seriously considering two, and he’s willing to look at everything else that comes his way.
“I believe there is something out there that can help us make decisions,” Nonis said Monday during a panel discussion at the PrimeTime Sports Management Conference. “To date, I haven’t seen it. … We’re going to continue to pursue it.”
Given how much scrutiny the stats community has directed at Toronto, which is 11-6-0 this season despite being heavily outshot, Nonis was an interesting choice to take part in a discussion titled “Athlete Evaluation and the Role of Analytics.” He was joined on the stage by Winnipeg Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff, NHL agent Pat Morris, Raptors analytics consultant Alex Rucker and New York Giants assistant GM Kevin Abrams.
It was clear that Nonis has taken time to explore the most popular hockey stats of the moment, such as Corsi and Fenwick, but isn’t convinced of their usefulness. His main complaint was that they’re based on metrics which are “polluted” because of differences in the way shots and blocked shots are calculated from building to building.
That is a common concern in the industry. Even Minnesota Wild GM Chuck Fletcher, who is a proponent of advanced stats, raised the issue on the red carpet at the Hockey Hall of Fame’s induction ceremony.
“There are a lot of inconsistencies,” said Fletcher. “For example, in Detroit you’re going to get 10 more shots on goal in a given night than you will in Minnesota. If a puck (barely) misses the net in Minnesota, it’s not a shot on goal.
“In Detroit, they might give you two.”
Nonis also looks back on a time when the Leafs had a better Corsi rating than they do today – and were losing a lot more games. Back in 2009-10, Toronto generated a lot of shots on net but was let down by its own goaltenders.
That period seemed to create skepticism for the Leafs GM about stats that he believes have grown so much in popularity because of fans and media.
“We were outshooting teams on a nightly basis and losing every night,” Nonis recalled. “Our so-called Corsi stat was probably pretty good and right now our Corsi stat sucks. But we’re winning hockey games.”
The search continues for a measurement that can give the Leafs a leg up. When it was pointed out to Nonis that his appearance on Monday’s panel would probably increase the number of pitches that come his way, he replied “good.”
Toronto might not be nearly as progressive as its opponents, but it is hardly stuck in the dark ages.
“We’re constantly trying to find solid uses for it,” said Nonis. “For the last six or seven years, we’ve had significant dollar amount in our budget for analytics and most of those years we didn’t use it because we couldn’t find a system or a grouping that we felt we could rely on to make any reasonable decisions.”
For the time being, they’ll continue to conduct business the old-fashioned way.
“The biggest thing we use is going to watch a player play,” said Nonis. “I haven’t seen anything that’s going to stop that from being the primary source of our decisions.”