Futility the mother of the NHL's Fancy Stats explosion
To say it was an interesting summer to be a hockey blogger is an understatement.
Prominent bloggers found themselves going from writing advanced stats-driven posts to being hired by NHL teams that are looking to get an edge on their competition. The Maple Leafs snagged Cam Charron (Yahoo!, Grantland), Rob Pettapiece (Buzzing The Net) and Darryl Metcalf (ExtraSkater) to head up their new Hockey Research and Development department, while the Oilers added Tyler Dellow (mc79hockey) to their coaching staff. Eric Tulsky, who wrote for SBNation and Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight blog, is employed by an undisclosed NHL team.
For a long time, bloggers were criticized by the teams they were analyzing and dismissed by members of the mainstream media, their work viewed as simply amateur and their use of advanced statistics not within the normal hockey-viewing scope. The summer hires, however they were decried as utter blasphemy by some, have forced everyone to re-examine how they see the game.
“Tyler, Cam, and others are part of an elite group of thinkers,” said Steve Glynn, a prominent Maple Leafs blogger who goes by the handle of 'Steve Dangle.' “Lots of people do stats now, but these guys think the game in a new way. They ask questions, use context for everything. If teams wanted more of what they've already had, there's no end to the lineup of guys they could go to. The teams who made changes this summer—and in seasons prior—noticed a change in the game, as did Cam, Tyler, et all, and that's why they got scooped up.”
According to Glynn, the continued futility of clubs like the Oilers and Leafs is what led people to begin looking at new ways to fix their favorite teams’ situations.
“Clearly there was a restlessness among some smart, inquisitive people about the way hockey was covered and analyzed,” he said. “It certainly helped that many of the original ‘fancy stats’ people are Oilers fans, because hardship is the birthplace of innovation. With a team that bad, it makes sense that they would be looking at different strategies to win. Funny enough, it looks like they found it.”
The hires followed a number of offbeat additions to front offices around the league, including Toronto’s assistant GM Kyle Dubas, who devoted himself to advanced statistics, and the Devils’ new Director of Hockey Analytics (and former pro poker player) Sunny Mehta. The Panthers added U.S. Military Academy math professor Brian MacDonald to their payroll.
“You've got to wonder who was on whose radar, for how long, and whether or not other teams' hires prompted teams to hire stats guys quicker than anticipated,” Glynn said.
A recent hire by Sportsnet himself, Glynn walks an interesting line between the bloggers and the mainstream writers. He’s been critical of the relationship between the two sides that constantly rip each other over their differing viewpoints.
“At the end of the day, it's the people who give writers—blogging or mainstream—their credibility,” Glynn said. “You can only buy or piggyback credibility to a certain point before you're exposed as a phony. Whether you have 100 followers or 100,000, good content is what matters most. I'm friends with many bloggers and I'm friends with many 'mainstream guys.' At the end of the day, good content rules all.”
For a blogger like Dellow, his work was enough to impress the Oilers’ coaching staff, though his relationship with Edmonton-area sports writers could easily be characterized as antagonistic to the team. A sometimes-caustic persona, Dellow, a former laywer, was extremely critical of the Oilers, and used his stats to back up his assessment.
“I heard through the grapevine he was being highly critical of our team,” Oilers head coach Dallas Eakins told The Globe and Mail. “That didn’t bother me. I’m like, ‘How can he not be highly critical of our team? We’re in 28th place.’ So of course he was.”
Since getting their new jobs, bloggers like Dellow and Metcalf have removed much of their research from the internet as their new bosses don't want the work that made the advanced stats pundits so attractive to teams out there for everyone to use.
It remains to be seen how teams will interpret and use these new forms of analysis to do things like evaluate lineups, prospects and even free agents. And, as the video at the top shows, players are still trying to get their heads around advanced analytics and what they mean for them. But one thing is for certain: Teams are no longer settling for mediocrity and the same ol' way of doing things. Fresh perspectives, like the ones being offered in the blogosphere, are welcome changes to the norm.
“On a recent episode of my podcast I called hiring stats guys ‘sexy’ because it seems to be the trend,” Glynn said. “The Leafs are the richest team in hockey and I would hope that with all that money, they have some intelligence to complement it. This is a new ‘trend’ in the sport with a lot of heat and the sport's richest team should be at the forefront of innovation and change.”