Thoughts on Hockey Analytics
It seems every time a new hockey person gets hired these days they will get asked “do you believe in hockey analytics?” It started with Trevor Linden in Vancouver. Then Brendan Shanahan in Toronto. And today Brad Treliving in Calgary. Nichols on hockey has a good rundown on both Treliving’s and Burke’s response to the question today so go give it a read.
As we all know, Brian Burke is an analytics skeptic to say the least. A popular Brian Burke quote is the following:
“Let’s get the record straight on that too. The first analytics systems I see that’ll help us win, I’ll buy it. I’ll pay cash so that no one else can use it. I’m not a dinosaur on that.”
What Burke gets wrong here is that analytics is not a “system” you can buy but rather it is a thought process and a way of doing business. Walmart is famous for using analytics to maximize the profits of their retail operation by knowing their customers buying habits, knowing what their customers will buy, how much they will buy and when they will buy it based on everything from the weather to the economy. Analytics is a huge part of their success. That said, there is no analytics “system” that another retailer can purchase off the shelf that will allow them to do the same. It isn’t a system that makes Walmart so successful it is the way they use analytics to operate their business that permeates the entire operation that makes them successful. Every retail operation has a different customer base. Every retail situation has a different set of products they sell. Every retail situation has a different cost structure. There is no single “system” that can be applied that will guarantee retail success. That doesn’t mean that every retail operation can’t benefit from analytics because analytics is a way of doing business. It is the mindset of wanting to know as much as you can and applying unbiased analyticical techniques to that knowledge to drive decision making. It is the mindset of wanting to know as much about your customers buying habits as you possibly can. It is the mindset of wanting to know what your customers will want to buy and when and why. It is a mindset of knowing how many employees you need on staff at a given time to maximize sales and profits. It is about wanting to know how long a line up customers will tolerate before the leave and make a purchase elsewhere. Analytics is a way of thinking that permeates throughout your organization, it is not a “system” that you can buy and apply.
I don’t know the extent that NHL teams are using hockey analytics but I get the feeling that there are very few that are doing so in a real serious way. Being a highly analytical person I may be biased but to me an NHL team that truly adopts hockey analytics would see the idea of analytics permeate throughout the organization. Analytics should be an important driver of coaching tactics and decisions. It should be an important driver of scouting and player evaluation. It should be an important driver of team building. It should be an important driver of maximizing salary cap commitments. It also should not be one-directional as I firmly believe hockey analytics can benefit significantly from the hockey knowledge of players, coaches, general managers and scouts to improve and test analytical techniques. I have my doubts that there are many NHL organizations that have truly adopted hockey analytics when defined in that way. Some may be dabbling, few are truly adopting.
Interestingly though, I suspect there isn’t one NHL organization that doesn’t use analytics in a significant way on the business side of the organization to do everything from setting ticket, beer and hot dog prices, to setting advertising rates to evaluating their sales staff effectiveness. I am certain analytics permeates through the business side of an NHL organization in a significant way so it is kind of surprising there is any resistance to it on the hockey side.