Whether or not last summer deserves to be known as the Summer of Analytics, there was discussion over the direction of several NHL front offices during an otherwise calm time of the year for hockey news.
The Toronto Maple Leafs created an analytics department following the hiring of Kyle Dubas as assistant general manager. Dubas, a former agent who previously served as the GM of the OHL’s Soo Greyhounds, is among the most recognizable proponents of the continued rise and acceptance of advanced stats, many of which detail players’ and teams’ ability to possess the puck and work in the attacking zone. Other digital proprietors of statistical information and analytics experts were hired by NHL teams, continuing the discussion over how teams should rely on available numbers that can gauge a player and team’s direction over longer periods of time, and to what degree.
It’s a different environment from when Darryl Sutter first cut his teeth as an assistant coach some 20-plus years ago.
“I’ll tell you how much the game’s changed,” Sutter said. “My first job as an assistant coach was to be like Radar and carry the big box with the phone in it. That was my job. Make sure you got your keys to the room and you got the right seat on the airplane and carry the new phone that was out. That’s what it was. So it’s changed.”
There have always been uses for analytics in the modern game, and Sutter referenced arbitration as an area in which teams have traditionally relied the available numbers – whether they be zone starts, the quality of competition, possession metrics, et cetera.
“Do you not think that there’s an in depth study done on each player because of arbitration that would include more than what a coach thought? It would have to include all of that,” he said.
The Kings have been an excellent possession team under Dean Lombardi and in the coaching tenures of Sutter and Terry Murray. Since the 2009-10 season – the first season Los Angeles returned to the playoffs since 2001-02 – they rank second amongst all NHL clubs in cumulative Corsi-for percentage, the percentage of all attempted shots directed towards the attacking net. They trail only the Chicago Blackhawks in the metric, while the Boston Bruins rank fourth.
In other words, the only teams to have won Stanley Cups over the last five season rank first, second, and fourth in cumulative possession rankings over that span.
But the Kings aren’t a team to give away any particular advanced metrics that they value over others. In an interview with Lombardi at Hockey Fest, the Kings’ general manager joked that “You can get my book when I’m done.”
Like Lombardi, Sutter cautioned against the overreliance on analytics as a be-all or end-all in player or team evaluation.
“Well, we use it as we see fit,” Sutter said. “We’ve used it for the last two years a lot. We have specific things we don’t care to publicly talk about that we think are really important in those analytics, and they prove true over a period of time, over the graph of it. It doesn’t necessarily mean tonight it’s going to have an impact or anything, but after so many games against that team, or after so many home games, or after so many road games, or after a road trip or a home stand, it does. There is a correlation between how the coaches individually rate players to the analytics that we use. You use it to your benefit, and you use it as you see fit, not as ‘the answer.’”