If proponents of advanced stats in hockey want to push forward their agenda, they would do well to not condescend to those who will listen.
This past Saturday, Boston Globe writer Fluto Shinzawa penned an article on the emergence of “hockey intelligence” in the NHL amongst its owners and general mangers. He cited the various signings and appointments made this off-season of analytics-based individuals in different team roles: Tyler Dellow in Edmonton, Sunny Mehta in New Jersey and Eric Tulsky to name some.
The highest appointment in that regard is Kyle Dubas becoming the assistant general manager in Toronto for the Leafs, which Shinzawa covered here.
The use of advanced stats is perhaps the next great change in how people all around the sport think about hockey. But of concern is the face washing being done by the stats community and its supporters towards their traditionally-minded peers.
“Some tweaks (in thinking) will require courage. They run counter to generations of hockey tradition. But people with lots of letters after their names will tell you that data doesn’t lie.”
By implying both that smarter people should be of influence in the NHL and that data represents a greater truth than instinct is the kind of heavy-handed, offensive trap that will slow the eventual understanding and co-existence between people on opposite sides of this spectrum.
Not every new evolutionary way of thinking has to be a shot across the bow of the old way but this tendency to do just that is perhaps indicative of the essential difference in sports fans: those who embrace the chaos of sport – particularly one like hockey that has few isolated events like baseball – and those who seek to explain sport, to find hard evidence of some fundamental truth about the game.
“Analytics is about sealing every crack,” writes Shinzawa and that seems to point to a flaw in that way of thinking. No sports team is a vessel without a single crack in its ship. Not that I’m accusing Shinzawa or anyone else of suggesting that stats achieve perfection but it is that movement to at least approach perfection that compels many. When analytics cannot seal every crack, a grasp of the intangibles is a necessity and that is why it is worth bridging the gap between schools of thought rather than burning that bridge.
As with the advent of a new technology, such as the internet, it is never a foregone conclusion that more options and access to knowledge will produce smarter or more critical citizens. Half the games will be won and half of them will be lost. It is in how teams use or don’t use this new way of thinking that will determine their success and that ‘how’ will remain a very human element.
In all debates on this topic, a distinction should be made between how teams use advanced analytics and how the media and those writing the narratives rely too much on data as ‘capital T’ Truth. It’s perfectly understandable why an NHL team would do everything to seal every crack. But why would a fan – save fantasy hockey managers or gamblers – want to hear what will likely happen in sports? Fans watch hoping the best for their teams but the thrive on the unpredictable drama that is the theatre of hockey.
Shinzawa does well near the end of his piece to provide a voice of reason and a touch of balance.
“Player tracking and the information it provides won’t be the magic bullet. Teams will need smart hockey people to eliminate the statistical noise…”
However, some points in his piece are a bit misleading. He lauds the recent efforts of the Chicago Blackhawks and the Los Angeles Kings and their attention to analytical detail but then cites the Rob Scuderi contract with the Pittsburgh Penguins as an example of backward thinking. Scuderi’s current deal with the Pens is four years at $3.375 million annually. His previous contract was with the aforementioned Kings for four years at $3.4 million annually.
Shinzawa’s example of Dallas Stars GM Jim Nill using his numbers department to sign an unwanted player like Ales Hemsky has its own cracks. Suggesting that, should Hemsky play alongside Jamie Benn and Jason Spezza, his output will drastically improve, should not take more than a casual knowledge of the sport to figure out. And holding up the virtues of Wall Street as an example of prudent, data-driven strategizing is poorly timed, given the post-2008 economic fallout.
Again, Shinzawa attempts to find common ground with old-timey hockey folk but simultaneously reiterates the underlying problem.
“There will be something similar in hockey that marries good players, good coaching, and good analysis. The dinosaurs that miss this intersection will become extinct. The organisms that evolve and connect will thrive.”
That is how the stats community – however intelligent and good-natured they may be and are – will shoot themselves in the foot. They talk about “intersections” but then they create divides by implying others are evolutionary holdouts with not enough letters after their names.
I’m all for progress, intelligence and evolution. Ellen Etchingham once wondered aloud about what might be the next great fissure on hockey that would produce a new way of thinking about the sport and I embrace the potential for that discovery. What I can’t get behind is smart people flaunting their talents in front of a hockey culture that has not always required an academic approach in order to be successful and entertaining.
Shinzawa finishes off with this thought:
“Perhaps above all else, analytics gets people thinking.”
Wasting that opportunity would indeed be a shame.
@JoePack on Twitter