Monday, November 28, 2016

Crunching the Numbers

Unless you're a big hockey fan, this news probably slipper under the radar during a big NFL Sunday. The Florida Panthers fired head coach Gerard Gallant after a 3-2 loss in Carolina, which dropped the team to 11-10-1 on the season. You're probably wondering, if you're not intimately familiar with the Florida Panthers, how good was he as a coach? He was very solid in his two+ seasons. 96-65-23 (.583) was his record, and he won only the second division title in franchise history last season and set the single season franchise record for points with 103.

Also this season, Gallant's team has had to deal with a litany of big injuries, such as to Jonathan Huberdeau, who hasn't played all year, Nick Bjugstad, who has only played three games, and slow stars for players like Aaron Ekblad, Aleksander Barkov, Keith Yandle, etc. The team hasn't set the world alight, but it's certainly not Islanders or Coyotes bad. So why then has there been such a divisive and stark reaction to this firing of all head coaching changes in the NHL?

The story in Florida goes far deeper than the head coach. Ownership instituted a massive front office re-shuffle after the playoff exit against the Islanders, which "bumped" Dale Tallon to President of Hockey Operations, Tom Rowe to GM (and he's now the head coach, but we'll get to that), Steve Werier and Eric Joyce to AGM's, and fired longtime team employees such as Scott Luce, Mike Dixon, Dave Zenobi, etc. It's no secret in the hockey world that the Panthers have taken more of an analytical approach to building a hockey team, owing to new owners Vinnie Viola and Doug Cifu's background in the Wall Street financial world. Analytics in the hockey world, especially in player personnel decision making is still a sore subject for some in the sport, and with what's been going on in Florida, the "wounds" are cutting even deeper.

Gerard Gallant's unceremonious turfing, and the pictures of him and assistant coach Mike Kelly needing to call a cab in Raleigh after getting the news, set the hockey world on fire. "Mainstream media" is not happy that Gallant, who was a finalist for the Jack Adams Award last year, was fired at all, especially when those in the world of analytics weren't quite as high on Gallant as many in hockey circles are. Combine this with the front office exodus of other "good hockey guys" from May, and the lingering resentment that still exists among some in the sport has now been re-opened.

Are these "hockey people" wrong to be angry at how these front office changes in Florida have gone down? Not necessarily, especially since many saw good friends fired after what was a historic season for the team. But its evident the firing came down in large part because of a fundamental disconnect between how Gallant wanted the team constructed and how the front office wanted it constructed. And while there's an analytic focus in the team's front office, a disconnect between the bench and management is nothing new in the world of hockey, and what this change comes down to is that disconnect became a bridge too far. But that's still not the end of this story.

Whenever there's a personnel move predicated on analytics, a divide emerges between those in the "mainstream media" and bloggers/analysts who are analytics driven in the analysis of the move. This happened with the Toronto Maple Leafs collapse in 2013-14, the Shea Weber trade to Montreal, and a number of other major flashpoints recently. But the divide seems even more stark with this move. Why?

Media members have plenty of friends in the world of hockey who are none too pleased with what the Panthers have been doing. These "hockey people" are not getting the jobs that Eric Joyce, Steve Werier, Matt Caldwell, etc. have been getting. These "army guys" are not well embraced by the "hockey world" because they're not from the "hockey world". The reaction from inside the sport, translated by the "mainstream media" is an extension of a fight or flight reaction to an internal battle in the sport as to whether to accept these "outsiders" in their tight-knit circle or not, and having one team buck custom and trends to such an extreme is a shock to a well established system. This does not mean the reaction is correct, or whether firing Gallant is the right move to get the Panthers on the track towards the team they ultimately want to be, but this is why the reaction has been so strong from one side of the ledger.

Hockey is still in the midst of an analytics revolution that took hold in baseball and basketball well before it, and those in the sport are still struggling to figure out how much of these numbers to use in decision making processes. Some teams don't use the numbers at all, others, like Florida, Toronto and Arizona have gone all-in, and others use them more subtly, like Carolina, Los Angeles and Chicago. Time will tell what path is the "right" one, but in a sport as insular as hockey has been, the introduction of another way is not a welcome introduction.

That's why the divide in reaction to the firing has been so stark. Combined with what else has gone down in Florida this year, the reaction to the move is not surprising. However, the current structure of the team from the front office down is now as ownership wants it, and whether it works remains to be seen.

If it fails, will some in the hockey world be happy? You bet. Whether that's right or not is up for you to decide. Whether it's right for the Panthers to be seen as the guinea pig for whether analytics work as a part of personnel decision making is also up for debate, but it's already beginning to happen.

Such is the situation with the Florida Panthers, and the divide in the hockey world it has widened, from the "hockey people" inside the sport to the media that often pushes their message.

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