The future of hockey's analytics movement
March, 18, 2014
By Craig Custance | ESPN Insider
Dave Sandford/NHLI/Getty ImagesDevils president and GM Lou Lamoriello has always been adept at finding an edge on his peers.There might be skepticism within the NHL on the role advanced stats and analytics should have in player evaluation, projections and roster construction. But there’s definitely no shortage of those willing to try to prove their value.
In January, the New Jersey Devils publicly posted a job opening for a position called director of hockey analytics that was fascinating for a number of reasons. For one, the Devils aren’t often seen as a franchise on the forefront of using advanced stats and hockey analytics. Secondly, if Lou Lamoriello was, in fact, joining the advanced stats movement in hockey, it was stunning that we’d find out about it publicly. Nobody runs a tighter ship than Lamoriello when it comes to containing information, and teams tend to keep their analytics use very private.
The result of the public posting, however, was a barrage of applicants.
“We’ve had... I don’t know how many applicants,” Lamoriello said when we chatted on the topic last week.
That number is quantifiable. What Lamoriello wants to find out is exactly what else is quantifiable in the world of hockey.
In some respects, Lamoriello is old-school. He’s old-school in the way he wants the game played. He’s old-school in that he’s reluctant to take anything out of the game that removes the physicality and passion that makes hockey unique. But when it comes to finding new ways to win? There’s nothing old-school about Lou Lamoriello.
“Never have I ever considered him old-school in his management,” said Kings GM Dean Lombardi, a Lamoriello disciple. “He gave [Ilya] Kovalchuk 15 years. Was that old-school when he got Scott Stevens in an arbitration hearing? That’s progressive thinking, the way he pulled that off. Go back and read that brief. And look at how aggressive he is in building that team in free agency.”
Ed Mulholland/USA TODAY SportsLou Lamoriello's 15-year deal with Ilya Kovalchuk represented progressive thinking in the minds of some observers.
Lombardi was just getting started.
“Lou has never been an old-school thinker. This is a guy who started his own conference. He starts Hockey East and look what it turned into. This guy ain’t progressive? Give me a break. He hired Rick Pitino out of nowhere,” Lombardi said. “When I saw that posting [for the analytics job], I wasn’t surprised. Actually, I’d go the other way and say, ‘What took so long?’”
It’s not cheap to start an analytics department, and it also takes support from ownership. When the Devils were sold in August, it was reported that they were losing about $25 million per season. That’s probably not the time to ask about adding new positions to hockey operations.
But that changed when Philadelphia 76ers owner Josh Harris bought the Devils. The new ownership pledged to build a highly successful management team and provide it with the resources necessary to win. That’s already starting.
At the recent Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, you couldn’t help but feel as if the NHL was light-years behind the NBA in gathering and using data to improve teams. Part of it is because the NBA has motion-tracking cameras in every arena, generating data on every single player in every single game. NBA owners have seen the benefit of having that data, and it’s safe to assume Harris and his group would like the Devils to be just as progressive in their data gathering. The challenge now is finding a way to make it happen.