Wednesday, July 23, 2014

If the Toronto Maple Leafs are doing it...

Advanced stats in hockey are a part of the game now, and almost anyone not trapped in their own 1970's idealism would probably agree with that thesis. There are still a few holdouts (hello there Steve Simmons), but the vast majority of hockey executives, players and fans all now at least acknowledge the role of advanced stats in the modern game. One of the more notable holdouts wasn't any one individual person, it was an organization: the Toronto Maple Leafs. But as Kyle Dubas moves from Sault St. Marie in the OHL to the Leafs front office, the most famous of knuckle-draggers may now be on the forefront of the cutting edge. And that's a great moment for all of hockey.

Following the Toronto Maple Leafs for the last couple of seasons have been an astonishing view into the advanced stats debate in the sport. The Leafs would get off to these fast starts only to fall off (last season spectacularly), and the advanced stats usually bore the warning signs that a demise was coming. Some denied it, but the Leafs amazing capitulation at the end of last season could well end up changing not only that organization but the rest of hockey for the better. Now out go some of Brian Burke's brain-trust, who were some of the true old school in hockey executives, and in comes a 28 year old who has made his name in turning a junior hockey club into one of the best in all of hockey for advanced analytics. Finally, the supposed $10 million analytics budget will now be spent instead of collecting dust in a Rogers utility closet. As amazing as it was that the NHL's glamor franchise was so adamantly against advanced stats as the team became the game's biggest case study, it's for the betterment of everyone that has finally changed.

Hockey is not near baseball in terms of widespread acceptance of advanced stats just yet, but as a sport hockey has come a long way. Fans are blessed with the advent of sites like Extra Skater and Boucher Scouting being greater among equals, and public figures who have already accepted them like James Mirtle, Tyler Dellow and others who have made advanced stats as mainstream as they can be. Turn to them if you want a numerical and analytical approach to what the Leafs hiring Dubas will really mean for hockey's biggest team, but in terms of a global perspective something has to move the needle, and this may well be the move that makes it. Not necessarily insofar as individual teams, since it's common knowledge that if most teams don't use Corsi and Fenwick they use their own numbers for analytic purposes, but maybe for the public that hasn't yet accepted the role of these stats. What stock you individually put in them is up to you, but as a piece of an overall analysis they have proven to be remarkable sturdy in predicting future outcomes and giving us a clue into a deeper performance by players and teams.

The Leafs being the battleground team was important to move the debate along, and now what the Leafs have just done is important for the widespread acceptance of analytics on a larger scale. Even among some hockey fans who have incorporated things like PDO into their basic analysis, the Leafs going in the direction of advanced stats will have more people turning to sites like Extra Skater, or even asking the basic question of "what is Fenwick anyway?" and hockey absolutely will be better for it.

In Toronto this is being analyzed, dissected and carved up in almost every measurable way, and for the "center of the hockey universe" to be having this discussion in the dead of summer about something that 2 years ago would have been regarded as almost witchcraft is a bit of a watershed moment. Soon we'll find out more about newer stats to tell us about true possession of the puck, or how a goaltender has really been performing, or maybe even what individual teams are using as their advanced stat of choice. The tip of the iceberg was found years ago, and now most of the hockey world is finding out how deep the iceberg goes, and as baseball found out with moneyball and the A's years ago, that's how the sport will move into the future and adapt with the times.

Maybe this will start the trend for casual fans talking about a players FF% in the same breath as they talk about his compete level and truculence soon enough. 

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