The Edmonton Oilers’ recent hiring of hockey analytics blogger Tyler Dellow as a consultant gave cheer to proponents of advanced stats, which in recent months have made serious inroads in the NHL community.
Dellow isn’t the only stats wonk employed by an NHL club. Ealier this summer the Toronto Maple Leafs hired former Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds general manager Kyle Dubas as assistant GM this summer. While not an analytics blogger, Dubas is a big supporter of statistical analysis.
The New Jersey Devils hired former stats blogger Sunny Mehta as their director of hockey analytics, while blogger Eric Tulsky was reportedly hired as a part-time consultant with an unnamed NHL club. It’s been reported other NHL clubs have quietly used advanced stats for years.
Dellow’s hiring, however, won’t sit well with some traditionalists around the league and in the hockey media. His abrasive, sometimes combative manner earned Dellow his fair share of critics, including the Toronto Sun’s Steve Simmons and Sportsnet’s Mark Spector. Simmons recently got into a shouting match with Dellow on a radio show, while Spector apparently wrote a critical column of Dellow’s hiring which was quickly yanked from Sportsnet’s website.
If the Oilers’ flounder this season, Dellow’s critics will swiftly pounce, and if the club improves they’ll downplay his contributions. Since Dellow took down his blog immediately following his hiring, the only arena he’ll have to address his critics will be via Twitter. Provided, of course, the Oilers allow him to do so.
But as Robin Brownlee suggested, Dellow’s work should stand on its own merits and shouldn’t be judged by the author’s personality. The same goes for other so-called stats nerds. They’re not the stereotypical blogger working in their pyjamas out of their parents’ basement. While they might not be hockey people in the traditional sense, their contributions are worth serious examination.
I’ve often found it amusing when so-called traditionalists slam proponents of Corsi ratings by telling them to leave hockey analysis to the “experts”. They overlook the fact that rating system was created by former long-time Buffalo Sabres and current St. Louis Blues goalie coach Jim Corsi. As the Toronto Star’s Kevin McGran recently reported, Corsi originated the system but it was several well-educated bloggers who used it as the foundation for what hockey analytics has become today.
Like most communities, the NHL’s is slow to accept change. Anything new and different is often viewed with suspicion and sometimes outright hostility. Such is the way hockey analytics was, until recently, viewed around the NHL. As with most things, however, over time attitudes change. Statisical analysis is proving to be an effective tool for measuring individual and team performance.
I’m not as big a stats wonk as others in the blogging and mainstream media, nor do I pretend to be. Like most fans and pundits, I was initially skeptical. After further study, however, I eventually came around.
Some opponents of hockey analytics seem to fear the sport being taken over by number-crunching nerds who only pay attention to numbers and not the games or the players. They fear such geeky analysis will overlook skill, speed and competitive spirit.
That reminds me of the scorn once heaped upon Hockey Hall of Fame coach Roger Nielsen when he began using video in the 1970s to review his teams’ games as a means to evaluate their performance. He was derisively nicknamed “Captain Video”, referring to a character in an old 1950s science fiction television show. Today, no one considers it foolishness.
Hockey analytics isn’t perfect. No system is. As I’ve repeatedly said, it’s not the end-all and be-all, but rather part of the tools at a team’s disposal to evaluate player and team performance.
The only constant in the universe is change. The NHL may be slow to embrace change but eventually it does. The game, and the league, has evolved and grown over the past century. Hockey analytics is merely part of that ongoing change. Its critics, instead of fighting it, should learn to embrace it.