Inside the NHL
Early during last week’s NHL Seattle public forum on hockey analytics, the evening’s moderator jokingly asked assistant general manager Ricky Olczyk, a vegan, what he snacks on while partaking in his grueling hobby of extreme trail running.
To which general manager Ron Francis, seated to Olczyk’s right, promptly quipped: “Not much.’’
Besides generating laughs from about 250 onlookers at the third installment of NHL Seattle’s “Science of Sports and Entertainment’’ series at Seattle Center, the retort unintentionally highlighted a primary goal of using sports analytics: Getting a lot out of a little.
For the next hour, accompanied by NHL Seattle analytics specialist Alexandra Mandrycky, the executive trio discussed hockey data-crunching and how their franchise will use it. And it quickly became clear their “a lot from a little’’ mantra will extend well beyond analytics as they prepare for the June 2021 expansion draft.
Francis told the crowd he has been green-lighted to spend as close to the league’s salary cap as he’s comfortable doing. But pinpointing his monetary comfort zone can’t happen yet, he added, because NHL Seattle lags other teams on information needed to value players.
“They have this data, advance scouting reports going back multiple years,’’ Francis told the crowd. “So … really, we’re going into this with nothing at this point. So, we have to build that.’’
And only once that baseline dataset gets built can the team “start to have fun with our data’’ and more advanced analytics.
NHL Seattle will also have to be efficient in building that dataset because the team won’t launch for two years, meaning the bulk of hockey-operations staffers aren’t here yet. Hence, the hiring of five professional scouts just hours before last week’s analytics forum, one of which, Ulf Samuelsson, was dispatched from his San Diego home that very night to attend an exhibition game in Anaheim, Calif.
The rest – Cammi Granato, Stu Barnes, Dave Hunter and John Goodwin – were to similarly begin working in short order ahead of Wednesday’s start of the NHL regular season.
Hours before the public forum, Francis, Olczyk and Mandrycky discussed with The Seattle Times how obtaining the basic scouting data is critical to their 2021 draft planning. As part of the team’s efficiency plan, the scouts chosen all live in or adjacent to NHL cities, giving them easier access to a plethora of teams and players to more quickly build up that baseline databank with firsthand observations.
Then, once enough up-to-date data is gathered, Mandrycky and any additional analytics staffers eventually hired can derive more advanced metrics from it.
Francis, Olczyk and Mandrycky will also supplement pro player information by attending various domestic and international amateur tournaments. Only with that base knowledge secured can NHL Seattle start identifying potential expansion-draft targets.
Francis later summarized it thusly for the public audience: “I think we all understand that what we’re looking at now and what’s going to be available in the summer of ’21 is going to be dramatically different.
“So, more of what we’re doing is getting a handle on players and evaluating who may or may not be available. We’re walking through the exercise so that as we get closer and things get more specific, we’ll be prepared.’’
Mandrycky’s analytics will eventually be used to see whether the team’s preliminary draft targets can be empirically validated. She illustrated the complexities of her job for the audience by showing them a chart measuring the percentage of shots that become goals depending where on the ice they’re taken from — typically getting better when closer to the net.
“But what’s interesting is, when you talk to coaches there are a lot of factors,” she added. “Such as … if you’re coming in on a 2-on-1 break, that’s going to increase the likelihood of that shot becoming a goal.”
Further contextualizing analytics that way is part of her job. As will be wading through reams of new player-and-puck-tracking data this season to find useful nuggets.
Mandrycky cautioned that teams often use proprietary data more advanced than publicly offered on analytics websites. Still, that likely won’t stop what Francis referred to tongue-in-cheek as “experts in the social realm’’ from offering him advice.
Judging by the forum’s turnout, plenty of local fans will be focused on analytics as much as the game action. Many in the crowd appeared under age 35 and asked insightful questions, ranging from how the team accounts for metrics gathered from overseas games on larger European ice surfaces, to whether it’s possible to quantify a player’s character, or big-game impact.
Francis replied that teams always contextualize hockey data – whether dealing with European ice, or analytics from junior games less intense than NHL affairs. That falls to his judgment, just like the “character’’ question which analytics can’t yet answer.
“I think for me, it’s just another layer of security when you try to make your decisions,’’ Francis said. “When you make any decision, you try to get as much background information and dig as deep as you can. And ultimately, you have to make your decision based on the process.”
In other words, Francis was hired because of a personal process that happens to lean on analytics to backstop decisions. But he’ll only stay employed by getting more things right than wrong, regardless of whether decisions came mostly from analytics, scouting, or simple gut-feel.
That part of pro sports hasn’t changed, even if the way of publicly evaluating those who run teams has grown ever more sophisticated.