EDMONTON OILERS, ANALYTICS AND THEIR PLACE IN THE NHL | Oilersnetwork.com - Edmonton Oilers News and Rumours


With little action on the NHL trade front, arbitration cases being a week to two weeks away and a relative quiet around the league, this is the time of year when the media needs to find something to talk about. One topic gaining steam is that of analytics and its place in hockey.

Not more than a week ago, the Montreal Canadiens chose not to renew the contract of their analytics consultant Matt Pfeffer. The MSM (mainstream media) have decreed that Pfeffer lost his job because he believed the trade which sent P.K. Subban to Nashville for defenseman Shea Weber was a huge mistake by Montreal and will become an analytic nightmare. Apparently, Pfeffer made an impassioned plea to Canadiens management opposing the trade - which was ignored - and Montreal chose not to keep Pfeffer aboard as a result.

Just days ago, the Edmonton Oilers have declined the renewal of analytics consultant Tyler Dellow. Dellow was a large advocate of analytics before joining the Oilers under former coach Dallas Eakins. It's unclear as to the reasoning behind the termination of Dellow's contract and where the Oilers will go for their analytical data, but the NHL and its teams are heavily into this world of statistical data. So much so, analytics is a part of every hockey recap show, interview segment and scrum the NHL has to offer.

The Debate

But where and how do stats and analytics really play a role in hockey? The debate is an emotional one, with proponents firmly planted on both sides. You have the old-school, "saw-him-good" mentality that believes a players' success cannot be solely attributed to their statistics and that analytics tell a very skewed story. These advocates are typically former hockey players who contend that underlying numbers can't accurately measure heart, motivation and desire. These folks don't tend to like the "stats geeks" very much.

Then you have the analytics consultants or statistical data collectors who believe that everything can be measured. If the sample size is large enough, you can tell all you need to about a player and his team and that NHL franchises should be primarily built using these statistics. These folks believe the old-school club needs to adapt to the changing times.

Finally, you have those who hate talking about statistics in general. They'll be the first to write in or threaten to tune out of television and radio shows, begging for a return to talking about "actual hockey". Oilers Now and color commentator for the Oilers, Bob Stauffer, spent nearly two days discussing analytics on his radio show and the topic stirred up a ton of opinion.

The Reality

Somewhere in the middle, between only statistics and only "saw-him-good", lay the real value of analyzing hockey. I can't envision a day where both sides will ever fully agree that one way trumps another, but honestly, that's part of the fun. The debate itself may be more entertaining than the results each side produces.

Proponents will say they can use analytics to measure anything, but these advocates can also easily present statistics in a way that suit any argument, especially one in their favor. Leave out a few key numbers and the player looks completely different. Add in a few others and you can shape your image any way you want.

So too, analytics shouldn't be ignored. Stats like Corsi (shots attempts and shot suppression for and against while on the ice) tells us a lot about a players ability to move the play in a positive or negative direction. Relative Corsi tells us a lot about how this player fares in comparison to his teammates. These are a couple of the most commonly used and accepted stats in hockey and it does contain useful data.

The Oilers

Take Darnell Nurse from the Oilers for example. If you look at his Corsi numbers, it isn't pretty. Nurse gets chewed up on defense against the higher-end talent. Yet, if you went by only those numbers, would you trade him? For players who don't have the look, the feistiness, speed or raw talent Nurse does, analytic supporters may say yes and some will argue despite all his positives, Nurse isn't the prospect he was drafted to be based on these numbers. The Oilers don't agree, and most of the traditionalists will tell you Nurse projects to be something amazing, despite what his underlying numbers tell us.That his negative Corsi and poor stat lines are situational and not unexpected of a young player.

Overall, Peter Chiarelli won't publicly offer up the kind of data he's collecting on players, but he has admitted he and his management team have information on every player in the league. We can't prove it, but Andrej Sekera, Benoit Pouliot, Griffin Reinhart and Cam Talbot were all acquired in large part because they had positive underlying stats. The latter two, Reinhart and Talbot, were Chiarelli hires and in Reinhart's case, his stat line hasn't carried over to the NHL.

Adam Larrson can also be argued as an analytic find. As Chiarelli put it, Larsson isn't sexy, but he's an effective defenseman they expect in their top pair due to how he's projected and thanks to excellent numbers. Oilers management hope fans will see those numbers and be ok with the Taylor Hall trade.The reality is, only if the Oilers start winning games, does any of it matter.

Those who like Larsson probably haven't seen him play much, but they'll use his statistics to make their case for him. Those who don't will ignore his numbers. And those who hate analytics will say he's a big, strong, young defender who makes smart hockey plays and can eat minutes.

Who's right? Is analytics more important or is the eye for hockey players. How will this affect the NHL and its franchises moving forward and how will Las Vegas go about creating their team? We they use primarily analytic data to make their choices? It will be interesting to watch.

For now, I'll just keep my mouth shut until I feel like spilling my guts again.

Jim Parsons is a business owner, husband, father and sports fan. For more information about Oilersnetwork.com founder and Oil Spill articles author Jim Parsons, click here.

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