Sports

A Preemptive Defense of NHL Team Analytics

The Florida Panthers, the Arizona Coyotes, and the Carolina Hurricanes focused on building through analytics this season, and all three have faltered—but don't blame the math.
March 14, 2017, 2:29pm
Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

What do the Florida Panthers, the Arizona Coyotes, and the Carolina Hurricanes have in common? Well, besides the fact that all three franchises passed on me at the 1995 entry draft despite my incredible street hockey season and won't allow me to serve as a public address announcer for a game while doing my ALF impression.

Barring a late push from the Panthers over their final 15 games, all three teams will miss the postseason. The Coyotes have been corpses bobbing in the water since December and the Hurricanes collapsed like a Jenga tower stacked in, well, a hurricane.

The other thing they have in common? Math.

Or analytics. Or however you want to describe the numbers-based methods that are rightly becoming commonplace in the NHL. It's 2017 and if you're not dissecting all the information available in order to gain an edge, you may as well be living in 1995. The different ways in which the Panthers, the Coyotes, and the Hurricanes have attacked this side of roster management, however, have not worked—or at least, that's going to be the narrative.

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Consider this space the warning zone. Think of me as Jon Snow going from house to house to warn people that the death zombies are coming, only these death zombies are going to use metaphorical knives to carve anyone that dare employ an analytics expert or a general manager who values analytics. The two places you're most likely to hear old people talk about the value of eye tests are at optometry conventions and NHL front offices.

But that's not what happened here. As much as that crotchety old person thinking up equation zingers for his Sunday column wants math to be the reason these teams failed, it just isn't so.

Cam Ward's performance this season has undermined all that good math. Photo by James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

It's the opposite of fancy stats thinking that was the culprit in Carolina, where the Hurricanes are tenth in score-adjusted Fenwick after finishing 13th last season. Arpon Basu of NHL.com wrote about the Hurricanes' dedication to analytics and their full-time analytics person Eric Tulsky in November 2016.

"Analytics are a big part of our game right now and we have one of the best in Eric Tulsky," Carolina coach Bill Peters said. "He asks me for ideas. But he's smart, and I coach hockey. I've got nothing for him. I read his stuff, I ask him questions to try and get more information out of it. It provides us, as coaches, information, it provides management with information. It's a definite tool that can make you better."

Tulsky was hired part-time before the 2014-15 season, and the Hurricanes improved from 20th in score-adjusted Fenwick in 2013-14 to 14th that year. The Hurricane have become consistent possession beasts since Tulsky arrived, and the team hired him as a full-time analyst last season.

It has not translated into a playoff spot.

And do you know why? It's not because Tulsky is acting like he's George Costanza with the New York Yankees and pulling players aside and teaching them the physics of the game. It's more because general manager Ron Francis has voluntarily paid real money to have Cam Ward serve as his No. 1 goaltender.

Here are Ward's save percentages since the lockout-shortened 2013 season: .908, .898, .910, .909, and .904 in 53 (53!) starts this season. Yes, we can discuss other factors like bad puck luck, a low shooting percentage, and the fact that Eddie Lack has somehow found a way to be worse than Ward this season, but at the end of the day, goaltending has crippled this team.

Unless Tulsky has required Ward to line his pads with calculators the past three seasons, you can't blame the Hurricanes' shortcomings on math.

Then there's Arizona, where 27-year-old John Chayka assumed the role of general manager this past off-season like he was straight out of central casting. Chayka looks like Benedict Cumberbatch were playing John Nash in A Beautiful Mind instead of Russell Crowe.

OK, so this one is a little harder to defend. The Coyotes are 30th in score-adjusted Fenwick and have regressed in almost every way imaginable under Chayka, a co-founder of Stathletes, a business that combines the words "stats" and "athletes," so you know he's legit. It's easy to be discouraged by all that's happened with this new front office.

But this has to be a tank, right? When the Coyotes tried to tank for Connor McDavid two years ago, they waited too long during the 2014-15 season to commit to it and wound up losing out on McDavid and Jack Eichel. Chayka took over a bad team and he had to realize it was easier to quietly tank and compile draft picks and a top prospect at this year's draft than it was to quickly build a playoff team out of one that had 78 points last year.

Matt Damon could have been cleaning the floors in the Coyotes front office, solving equations no one in the room could understand, and this team wasn't going anywhere anyway.

That said, we can revisit this if nothing gets better after Chayka's second season in Arizona (or first in Seattle if the team moves there).

Finally, there's the Panthers. Those stupid, stupid Panthers.

After a franchise-best 103 points last season, there was a coup de math in the front office. Dale Tallon was removed as GM. Tom Rowe was installed in his place. Those posters of Albert Einstein you see in college dorms were plastered on the walls. The Panthers logo was replaced by a percent sign. The team's pregame meal was torn-out pages of an algebra textbook.

It was ... add-archy.

Roberto Luongo has regressed this season. Photo by Robert Mayer-USA TODAY Sports

Even if the Panthers sneak into the playoffs, that step back will be seen by some as an indictment of stats. "Look at what the Panthers did last year and how they fell with this new regime and after they fired Gerard Gallant. What a mess!"

Again, the Panthers' struggles aren't linked to math.

They have played all but 15 games without Jonathan Huberdeau, their fourth-leading scorer from a year ago. Top-six center Nick Bjugstad missed 28 games. Roberto Luongo's save percentage has fallen by seven points from last season. Jussi Jokinen is going to fall from 60 points to about 30 points. The team's PDO has gone from 102.1 last year to 98.5.

If you did a blind taste test and showed these year-over-year changes without knowing the front office, you'd say injuries, a usually elite goaltender slipping a little at age 37, a key player (and there are others) dipping from last year, and a lot of bad shooting luck (6.22 percent at five-on-five) is why the Panthers are where they are.

You wouldn't blame analytics. No one would. You'd feel pretty good about this team bouncing back in 2017-18.

Maybe this preemptive strike against analytics haters is pointless. Maybe no one will connect these dots (and if they do because of this, I'm sorry). Maybe nobody will go out of their way to shout at that cloud shaped like the face of Jim Corsi.

But if they do, ignore it. It doesn't add up.

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