NHL and Analytics: Not as clear cut as we think

Updated: January 11, 2018 at 2:13 am by Jason Gregor

Math

Is the NHL opposed to analytics?

Not at all, but teams will not quantify their value equally all the time, just like pro and amateur scouts grade out players differently when they watch them.

The simple truth is analytics in hockey are not as clear cut as some want to believe.

This shouldn’t surprise anyone who follows hockey, whether you are a staunch believer in analytics or not. Check out twitter any day and you will see analytic people disagreeing with the value of a certain stat. The funny part for me is watching some stats guys rip on the NHL for being steeped in “old school thinking,” yet often those same people are the ones who steadfastly believe analytics are the best way to get an accurate evaluation of a player. 

Matt Pfeffer was an analytics consultant for the Montreal Canadiens.

In an interview with Ken Campbell of the Hockey News, he stated Shea Weber was an average player.

“In
my model that evaluates Shea Weber, very, very little of it has to do
with shot differential at this point in his career,” Pfeffer said. “With
his experience, you really need to only look at goal differential to
measure his impact. You only need Corsi if you don’t have a large enough
sample size to evaluate goals. My analysis of Shea Weber had
very little to do with Corsi. It’s easy to hate on Corsi, but (Weber)
is not a good goal differential guy either. He’s not pushing the needle
in terms of how many goals the Nashville Predators score and get scored
on when he’s on the ice. He’s good, he’s serviceable, but he doesn’t
really push the needle on either side.”

Pfeffer then added.

“There’s nothing wrong with being average in the NHL,” Pfeffer said. “An average NHLer is worth a heck of a lot and that’s what Shea Weber is.”

If Pfeffer believes Weber is an average player, then that might be the reason the Predators chose not to extend his contract. Pfeffer, like most people, believes the Habs lost the trade with the Predators for P.K Subban. I agree with him on that, but the suggestion Weber is average is absurd in my eyes.

Pfeffer was on record as saying he shared his views on Subban with management. Management went in their own direction, and some believe this differing of opinion cost Pfeffer his job. That might be the case, but it is just as likely Marc Bergevin and management simply didn’t agree with many of Pfeffer’s evaluations. We will truly never know, but I don’t buy the theory the NHL is backing away from analytics because one stats guy got fired.

TrumpFired

If analytics people want to be part of the NHL then they will need to understand how the business works. Coaches get fired. GMs get fired. Players get traded. Scouts get fired. Trainers get fired, and even analytics people will be let go.

Teams have made errors firing coaches and management, as well as making bad trades, and they’ve also made smart decisions in letting some people go. It is part of the business, and, if anything, Pfeffer’s firing shows me the NHL is actually taking analytics more seriously than they have before.

Maybe the Habs were wrong in their evaluation of Pfeffer’s work. We won’t know because we haven’t been privy to everything he compiled for them, or maybe Pfeffer’s analysis wasn’t what they wanted.

Very few scouts see players the same way, and I’ve spoken to many analytics people over the years and they too have differing opinions on stats and which ones are better or worse.

Pfeffer isn’t the first analytics guy to be let go and he won’t be the last. It happens in the business world. People are let go for various reasons. Maybe his passionate plea regarding Subban was the reason, or maybe there were a combination of factors.

Either way, it shouldn’t deter those who study analytics from thinking the NHL doesn’t value them, because that simply isn’t the case. Hard core stats people don’t agree on every statistic, so why should we expect every team to automatically agree with the presentation of their analytics team?

Ask a pro or amateur scout how often management has disagreed with them. It happens often.

Pfeffer is only 21 years old. He’ll likely have many other opportunities ahead of him, but I see his firing more in the context that the NHL is taking analytics more seriously, and now they will start questioning those who produce the numbers.

It is how pro sports works.

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