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Stats gurus infiltrating NHL management

8/5/2014

Over the years, the NHL has earned a reputation as the type of fraternity that fortifies its rank with men of a like-minded ilk -- old-school, battle-tested and often resistant to change.

This summer, however, we have seen that infused with new faces, diverse backgrounds and fresh ideas.

Nowhere is that more apparent than the league's movement toward embracing analytics.

Whereas champions of advanced stats have previously been the subject of scorn and derision from the mainstream hockey world -- labeled as nerds or contrarians and mocked for never having played the game at the professional level -- their insight is now being courted. Many of these bloggers and statisticians have made huge leaps in collecting and interpreting data, primarily possession statistics, as predictive for a team's success.

Teams are starting to recognize that as a valuable asset.

On Tuesday morning, TSN's Bob McKenzie broke the news that Tyler Dellow, one of the people at the forefront of the advanced stats movement and followed by many via his Twitter handle @mc79hockey, has been hired by the Edmonton Oilers.

Dellow's hiring, which a source confirmed to ESPN.com, is just the latest in this trend toward more innovative additions to a club's traditional front office or hockey operations staff.

Before Dellow, professional poker player Sunny Mehta was hired Friday by the New Jersey Devils to head the team's new analytics department (a move that was recommended by new owners Josh Harris and David Blitzer) and FiveThirtyEight analytics writer Eric Tulsky has worked for teams, including the Nashville Predators. Even the Toronto Maple Leafs, a consistent target of those in the advanced stats community for the club's atrocious possession numbers, seem to realize the need for a new perspective.

In November, months before the Leafs' epic collapse, GM Dave Nonis said he felt that many advanced stats being employed were "not accurate" or relevant. Apparently, others within the organization now feel differently. The Leafs hired youngster Kyle Dubas as an assistant general manager after the 28-year-old proved himself at the junior hockey level in large part because of his strength in employing analytics.

This is still new territory. These jobs signal a paradigmatic shift in the making, but by no means have traditional types been given the heave-ho.

What will be perhaps the most fascinating part of this phenomenon is how these two groups co-exist. How much of a club's resources will be devoted to analytics and how much will the findings dictate the club's hockey-making decisions? Will these new hires be given a sense of autonomy by the organizations, or will they have to fight against a healthy dose of skepticism from front-office vets who aren't yet on board with using Fenwick and Corsi stats as meaningful methods of evaluation?

The landscape is changing, and teams are keen on gaining any type of competitive advantage. If those forward-thinking clubs start to reap the benefits, you can imagine there will be many more teams scouring the bowels of the Internet for the type of statistical wunderkind who might give them a leg up too.