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Mike Smith’s Blog: Analytics provide extra layer of info…to those who want it

Mike Smith now works with analytics in his life after serving as an NHL GM. (Getty Images)

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Mike Smith now works with analytics in his life after serving as an NHL GM. (Getty Images)

I have been asked a lot this past year, “Are you still doing the statistics thing?” My answer is, “analytics, not statistics.” This usually leads to the question: “What are analytics?” That answer is not so simple.

In the fall of 2005 I helped a business consultant, Richard Coleman, put together a company, Coleman Analytics, which provides hockey analytics to NHL GMs and coaches. It’s pretty much hush-hush. We limit the number of franchises because we believe the information is too valuable to let every team have it.

The clients that use it keep that fact confidential and we do as well. This is easier than you would assume since most GMs have little interest in our data. Every coach who has seen it has wanted it, but unfortunately some of their GMs weren’t so keen on the idea. It’s called teamwork – or is it the lack thereof?

But let’s start at the end. This season, 2008-09, we have five clients. All five made the playoffs. Last season, we had six clients; five made the playoffs. (That is 10 of 11, if you’re counting). The first two seasons, 2005-06 and ’06-07, we had a total of nine clients and seven made the playoffs. (That is 17 of 20, if you’re counting).

Analytics are computer-processed data. We take massive amounts of information and, through the software we have developed, create a new level of information. Essentially, we break the game into several distinct games. We then track player and team performance during each of these “new games.” 

What makes up these different games? One is when a game is on the line. Another is when the game is out of reach, i.e., a team has a three goal lead or greater. Two others are shorthanded and power play situations. Yes, you can probably think of others: How about power play situations when the game is on the line, or when it is out of reach?

We are able to show how each player performs during each of these “new games.” How does the player rank league-wide in scoring when the game is on the line? How is his plus-minus? What are his linemates’ numbers like? Does his performance increase or decrease as game situations become more critical? And so on.

There is one player, who shall remain nameless, who has never been above the bottom third in scoring when the game is on the line and his scoring rate decreases as the game situations become tougher - and he has never made less than $5 million. No, it’s not Alex Ovechkin, nor Teemu Selanne nor Sidney Crosby.

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Another example: How do you rate the best goalie? Is it save percentage? How about save percentage on close shots? Or maybe save percentage in the third period when the game is on the line or save percentage in shorthanded situations on close shots when the game is on the line…You get the point. More likely, it is a combination of several analytics.

We have two products. The GM Product provides in-depth analytics on every player in the league. The Coach Product gives the coaching staff a pre-game report 36 hours in advance of every game for his team, as well as his opponent’s performance in their most recent games. Interesting, no team that has bought the Coach Product has missed the playoffs. That’s right, not one.

Several media types have asked, “Why wouldn’t every GM and coach want this information when they know it is available?” Good question. I don’t have the answer. I do know when we first started I called 27 GMs on Dec. 23, 2005. Twenty-three had returned the call by Dec. 26 and we had our first client by Dec. 28. A few never returned the call, a few said they did not want to see the presentation and several were not interested or did not grasp or recognize its value. Clearly, there is a large majority of GMs with little interest.

Hey, maybe there is no need for the GM to know that the player he just traded for, who makes more than $5 million, scores in the 27th percentile when the game is on the line. Really, why would a GM want to know this? His owner might. But then, maybe it is valuable for the GM to know that the defenseman he can get for a fourth round pick at the trade deadline, who makes less than $1.25 million and has another year on his contract, is in the 81st percentile for plus-minus in the third period when the game is tied.

Mike Smith is a former GM with the Blackhawks and Jets and associate GM with the Maple Leafs. He also served as GM for Team USA at the '81, '94 and '95 IIHF World Championship. His Insider Blog will appear regularly only on THN.com.

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