“Brains over brawn/that might work for you/But what’s a Canadian farmboy to do?” — Warren Zevon, “Hit Somebody (The Hockey Song)”
The NHL was the last great American pro sport to be disrupted by statistical analysis. The stat-obsessives have long ruled baseball, fantasy football has essentially turned NFL players into identity-less line items, and ESPN and MIT have been holding entire conferences about NBA stats since 2001. But it was only recently that NHL teams made public shifts to “detailed analytics” by hiring bloggers, tech gurus, and other assorted stat geeks.
At the same time, they’re trimming their rosters of pugilists and intimidators–figures that will always have an outsized place in fans’ hearts. With the 2014-2015 season barely begun, the question becomes: Is the NHL simply rushing to catch up to its pro sports brethren, or is the toughest game on ice facing an identity crisis?
“It is an all-too-easy narrative which is not true,” counters Toronto Maple Leafs Assistant General Manager Kyle Dubas, a 28-year-old wunderkind who became something of the poster boy for the stats movement when he was hired by the Leafs this summer. “All forms of business change. This is just life running its normal course. Sports, especially, go through many different eras and new developments.”
Dubas has been ahead of the curve for awhile: He began working for his hometown Ontario Hockey League team (the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds) at the age of 14, and became the youngest NHL Player’s Association-certified player agent when he was still fresh from high school graduation. He served three years as the Greyhounds’ GM prior to joining the Leafs–is seen as a new breed of hockey thinker, a guy who cherishes Corsi ratings (tracking how much a team attempts to shoot vs. how many attempts they give up and how long they possess the puck) and Fenwick ratings (which is similar to Corsi, but does not count blocked shots).
Dubas’s hiring came on the heels of the Edmonton Oilers hiring a hockey blogger named Tyler Dellow–who was one of the loudest pro-analytics voices in the hockey blogosphere through his site mc79hockey.com (since shut down)–as a consultant as they explore more detailed stats analysis. Are we seeing the Moneyball-ing of the NHL?
“It is and it isn’t,” offers Greg Wyshynski, the lead editor of Yahoo’s “Puck Daddy” blog and a co-host of the Marek vs. Wyshynski podcast. “Essentially Moneyball for me has always been the idea that you’re going on the cheap and you’re trying to compete with the big boys. With hockey it’s not necessarily that. Overall, I think the big difference is that baseball analytics are inherently individual, and in hockey there’s an argument to be made that team analytics are where it’s at.”
The league itself is still in transition: If you check out the stat pages at NBA.com, NFL.com, and especially MLB.com, you can quickly go down a rabbit hole of specialized stats. NHL.com, meanwhile still serves up the numbers you’d expect to find on the back of a trading card.
But the revolution is firmly underway. “This summer saw the conversation become more public,” says Dubas. “It has been happening for years just outside the mainstream. I think teams must have just started to see the potential value in having some dedicated people on staff to produce information and study trends in the game exclusively.” The stat issue has become so public in fact, that even the players–like Minnesota Wild star Zach Parise–have been using advanced metrics to argue for a change in strategy.
Wyshynski credits one very practical reason bringing stats into the mainstream: Teams with good Corsi ratings began winning Stanley Cups, such as statistical darlings the Los Angeles Kings (champions twice in the past three years).
In that light, hiring up is as much a PR move as a strategic one. “There was definitely a PR aspect to hiring prominent bloggers and bringing their know-how into your operation at a time when your team is struggling,” says Wyshynski. “Not to undermine the abilities of the people they’re hiring, but there is a correlation to be drawn between the fact that the Oilers and Leafs are at the bottom of the league in puck possession and their sudden very public dedication to analytics.”
Wyshynski sees a connection between the rise of the stathead and the fall of the hypertough enforcer that hockey fans love. “Goons are players that are typically described in obtuse terms like ‘heart’ and ‘grit,’” he says. “The old cliché is you can’t measure heart. Well, you can’t measure heart but you sure as hell can measure puck possession. So when you get these fourth liners who are there simply because they can throw their fists, it’s hard to justify their continued employment when there are stats that say their teams suffer greatly when they’re on the ice.”
Dubas’s Leafs, it should be noted, happened to part ways with two players this off-season–Colton Orr and Frazer McLaren–known more for their fists than their points.
It’s hard to overstate how central the idea of toughness is to hockey fans, and the process still butts heads with old school coaches as GMs. NBC hockey analyst Pierre Maguire recently raised eyebrows when he was quoted saying “Any coach that uses analytics to show a player what he did right or wrong should be terminated on the spot.” Toughness in sports is one of those topics that quickly morphs into a conversation about values–as the startling changes in Americans attitudes about football show.
NHL executives want to avoid the conversation that the NFL is stuck in. “I think what you’re seeing is [statistical analysis experts] getting more involved now in scouting and evaluating and for trades, free agent signings. I think it’s kind of spilling into that.” New Jersey Devils’ head coach Peter DeBoer recently said–before contradicting himself a second later. “I don’t see a lot of information coming to me that is making a big difference compared to what we’ve already been using.”
The hockey’s geek makeover will continue to happen largely behind the scenes, out of sight of those fans who still come for the fights, and those Canadian farmboys hoping to punch their way into the bigs.