NHLN Notebook: Florida’s coaching change, and the rivalry between analytics and traditionalists

Updated: January 11, 2018 at 1:19 am by Cam Lewis


The Florida Panthers caused some drama Sunday night by firing head coach and “good hockey man” Gerard Gallant following a 3-2 loss to the Carolina Hurricanes. The fallout gave us a pretty long list of things to talk about. I’ll try to break all of it down. 

On the Florida Panthers moving on from Gerrard Gallant and fully embracing their vision:

On the surface, it seems surprising that Gallant was the first coach to be released from their duties this season. The Panthers have a respectable 11-10-1 record despite a wealth of injuries, decent underlying numbers, and Gallant was just handed a contract extension back in July after helping the team to its most successful season in franchise history last season. 

But based on what’s going on inside the Panthers’ front office in Sunrise, it really isn’t. 

As we all know, the Panthers have fully embraced an organizational shift towards the use of advanced analytics. Their front office went through a major shake up this past summer, and the writing was on the walls for Gallant. Since you can’t really fire somebody immediately after the success they had in 2015-16, the organization ultimately gave him a quarter of the season to execute their philosophy. It didn’t work out, and as a result, Tom Rowe, the team’s general manager and one of the leaders behind this entire philosophical change, will take over behind the bench.

This is basically the point of conflict in Moneyball. The book walks through the situation in much, much greater (and factually correct) detail, but I’m guessing more people have seen the movie, so I’ll use it as the point of reference. 

Billy Beane, the general manager of the Oakland Athletics hires Peter Brand (a fictional composite of Beane’s actual assistants in real life) to be the his special assistant in leading the organization through a sabremetric renaissance. Beane and Brand execute a handful of statistically-driven roster decisions to construct a team within the team’s tiny budget, but manager Art Howe, a traditional baseball guy, rejects the decisions and refuses to construct the lineup to match the front office’s overarching vision. 

Eventually, Beane, who traditionally doesn’t like to get involved with his players, takes a hands on role with the team. He trades away star rookie Carlos Pena so that the undervalued Scott Hatteberg can play more, and increase the team’s on base percentage, and, ultimately, their ability to score runs. He also begins to work one-on-one with players on the roster, urging them to see pitches, take walks, not swing for power, and not steal bases, despite the fact these are traditional things that are seen as key to success. 

What’s the moral of the story here? Why am I explaining what happens in a movie about baseball that you’ve probably already seen? Because the analytics movement is a top-to-bottom phenomenon. It isn’t just about scouting and roster composition, it also plays a major role in in-game tactics and system-execution. If this kind of sweeping change to an NHL team’s philosophy is going to be executed, everybody has to be on board, pulling in the same direction. 

Earlier this summer, a Flamesnation reader had a chance to talk with former general manager Doug MacLean about his career in professional hockey as an executive. In the interview, MacLean said that the role of the GM has evolved, and it’s gone beyond simply scouting, making contracts, and putting together a team. The job now consists of running the team day-to-day, which includes working with the coach. MacLean went on to say that the GM wouldn’t push so hard that they told the coach who to play with who or what their systems were going to look like. 

That takes us to what Rowe said in regards to why the Panthers decided to move on from Gallant.

I’m not going to doubt that Gallant is a good coach. He’s been revered as a player’s coach and a good hockey person, which, as much as we like to tease, aren’t just meaningless buzzwords. Surely Gallant’s style of coaching is excellent for young players adjusting to the league or veterans who like to be given their personal space, and as we saw last season, the team was successful. And like I said earlier, the team’s underlying numbers are solid and their record is adequate considering the struggles they’ve had with injuries. 

This isn’t about that, though. This decision goes beyond the team’s current record, their performance, or Gallant’s general ability to coach hockey. This boils down to vertical integration of the organization’s philosophy right now and in the long-term. Nobody wins when a front office and a coach don’t see eye to eye. There’s an overarching vision, the roster is created as such, and the team needs to be deployed in a certain way. 

Say what you want about the Panthers and what they’re doing. We won’t know if becoming a fancy stats team was the right thing to do for quite some time, but if there’s a team in the league who should be trying something like this, it’s them. 

This is a franchise who’s seen virtually zero success in its history. They’ve been around for over two decades, they’ve made the playoffs five times, and their only successful run was a Cinderella sprint to the finals more than 20 years ago. This lack of success in the standings coupled with them being located in a non-traditional hockey market has resulted in the Panthers having a hell of a time building a fanbase. 

So if you’re the Panthers’ ownership group, what do you have to lose? This is a team that so desperately needed to mix things up it isn’t even funny. They need somehow, someway, to find any kind of edge in the competition. And very few teams have embraced the use of analytics in major decision making. So right there is a realm in which a team without much history of success of financial clout can go ahead and separate themselves from everyone else. 

For better or worse, they’re totally going for it, and they aren’t just going half in, half out. I think for that they should be commended. 

On the rivalry between traditionalists and analytics that won’t die:

And that brings me to the final point of this entire situation: 

There isn’t a rivalry more heated right now in hockey than the one better those who have accepted the use of analytics and those who favour a more traditional way of viewing the game. 

It was noticeable this summer when the Montreal Canadiens dealt P.K. Subban to Nashville for Shea Weber. Analytics people argued Weber’s game had gone down hill with age, traditionalists argued that his presence in the dressing room would more than make up for the difference in each player’s production. 

It’s noticeable right now in Edmonton with Kris Russell. Analytics people say he’s overrated because of his poor shot attempt percentages, traditionalists say that his grit and physicality don’t show up in the numbers. This has ultimately led to the fanbase being divided on the relevance of possession numbers, as the Oilers have won a bunch of games when they’re outshot, and they manage to lose games when they aren’t. 

It popped up last night when Gallant was let go and will more than likely be a point of discussion and argument all week. 

Why the conflict? Well…

The analytics crowd featuring bloggers who wrote on hockey based on their interpretation of data would traditionally challenge the mainstream media’s misconceptions and perceived biases in player and team analysis. The mainstream media would reply and question the validity of the statistics being used and whether the analytics people had any experience playing or watching the game. Beneath that level, fans embraced one side or the other, and joined the argument. From there, it goes in circles. You’re dumb. You’re a nerd. You aren’t objective. You didn’t play the game. 

Maybe one day there can be peace and understanding, but right now, these two sides simply can’t co-exist. 

Why? Because they represent two fundamentally different epistemological considerations towards the understanding of the acquisition of knowledge. On one hand, you have the belief that knowledge is something experienced. From an individual’s experience playing the game or watching it as a fan for many years, they notice things that simply can’t be quantified that will ultimately lead to success. On the other, you have the belief that humans are not objective. Our reality is something created socially, and thus, our experiences completely shape the way in which we perceive virtually everything. As a result, in order to be objective, we must acquire knowledge through the rigorous collection and analysis of hard data, which forces us to understand reality beyond our own experience. 

It’s essentially the conundrum between qualitative and quantitative research, but put in an environment with individuals who don’t even view the overarching phenomenon as research in the first place. From there, it’s projected to the general public by members of the media who, again, put a spin on it, to be consumed by the general public who all have different reasons behind how and why they choose to consume the product. So what you have here is a debate that’s very commonly seen in the academic realm embedded in another debate which asks whether academia even has a place in sports. 

But really, on the surface, what it comes down to is a new way of thinking and an old way of thinking, featuring a wealth of massive personalities clashing largely on a medium known for a lack of understanding an empathy, wrapped within the context of something that ultimately bares virtually zero consequence in our lives and serves as a form of escapism and entertainment.  

Can statistically-driven minds who favour quantitative research accept other fans who want to drink a beer and enjoy the game without thinking about a bunch of math? Yeah, probably. Can traditionally-focused minds who favour a qualitative approach accept other fans who find genuine enjoyment in reading into the data behind sport and using it for the purposes of fanalyzing? Yeah, probably. When it comes down to it, can a fan accept another fan’s desired way of consuming sports? Yeah, probably. 

But then, the team you care about and invest time and effort into cheering for and following makes a decision from the school of thought you fundamentally disagree with, the media spins it as such, and it all starts again. You’re dumb. You’re a nerd. You aren’t objective. You didn’t play the game. 

That’s where the point of analytics vs traditionalists as a rivalry ties this all together. For-profit sports media strives to generate interest in the game so they can generate revenue. Rivalries have always made the game more interesting. Analytics vs traditionalists are a touchy subject, because at the core, it features a very personal view towards the understanding of knowledge. As a result, we have a situation in which buttons will continually be pressed because it makes for a damn good story and it gives all of us something to talk about beyond just last night’s score. 

This debate isn’t going anywhere. It’s going to be at the forefront of damn near every single narrative for quite some time. Why? Because it’s interesting. It goes beyond just my team vs your team, this player vs that player, this is an argument based on a difference in ideologies and frame of mind. This is something that makes people care about sports in a way that we haven’t before because it really is so deeply personal.