I come here not to bury statistics, but to praise them.
Management used to have to make team-altering decisions on short notice based upon the anecdotal remembrances of their scouts and a review of some written reports and limited statistics (goals, assists, PIMs). Now, there are a few products available that will tell you exactly in what situations Alex Ovechkin scored his 56 goals last season and at least one (which I assisted in developing) that could tell you where he was on the ice for each goal and who the opposing skaters were. The best system is a continuously searchable database (rather than static reports) that can be tweaked as new information comes to light.
With the latest video/stats analysis program, live pre-scouting is now as obsolete as wooden sticks. Coaches can now order up video of the opposing goalie’s last 20 goals given up, opposing scorer’s goals and misses over the past month and even where on the ice those players tend to shoot from most often. There is now more information available than any coaching staff (or player) could digest and utilize on the day of a game. Hence the advantage now lies not in who has the most information, but who manages it best (even though only about 10 teams are using the latest technology).
So how do you win? How can one keep up with the Joneses, or get ahead, in the exploding new world of hockey information? I spent a good part of the past 10 years in hockey observing the best managers and coaches in the game, questioning them on their approaches, tactics and experience. The surprising thing I found was that there was just one consistency through all of their approaches.
These men all approached the game and its elements in extremely varied ways. The consistency was they approached their jobs like Game Theory professors, albeit unknowingly. Game Theory is an esoteric academic discipline that emerged after World War II with the popularity of the military’s “war games” of the Cold War.
In Game Theory, players and their games are analyzed to predict behavior and produce the optimal moves. The simplest game to analyze would be tic-tac-toe. If your opponent’s first move is an “X” in the center square, what is your optimal move? When analyzing more complicated games, the amount of information available to each player and the predicted behavioral style of each player become the greatest tools in making the right decisions to win the game. If this is sounding familiar, it is what managers and coaches must do to be successful in the NHL. Hence, when preparing to trade a player as a manager or defeat an opposing power play as a coach, the key driver to success will not just be the information available to you, but having the judgment and foresight to analyze it properly and make the right decision.
When I was part of the prep for the Dwayne Roloson trade to Edmonton in 2006, Wild GM Doug Risebrough utilized a Game Theory approach to maximize his trade value. He had the staff gather a large variety of information about prospective trading targets, including such information as which teams had short-term and long-term goaltender needs and what assets the prospective trading partners had in terms of draft picks, prospects and young NHL players. The same information was also sought for other teams looking to move goaltenders. We also looked at the prior trading history of each team’s GM, the expectations of each team’s fans, media and ownership, and every goalie trade of the prior five years. This information was all put up on the wall for each team as the trade deadline approached, so we all could see what we knew and also what we needed to know. We even tried to measure the relative merits of an early second round pick compared to a late first round pick based on players’ performance from prior drafts, in order to compare the value of a pick to a prospect.
Each day the new information gathered was added to the analysis tree, so that a clear path of how things developed was illustrated. Doug managed the information and whittled the teams down from eight in the weeks leading up to the trade deadline to two on the final day – the Lightning and the Oilers. The Lightning were in need of a goalie after losing Nikolai Khabibulin the prior summer. The Oilers had a good team, but lacked goaltending. The Lightning offered a fourth round pick and were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs with poor goaltending. The Oilers got Roloson with a first round pick and came within a whisker of capturing the Stanley Cup, even defeating the mighty Red Wings in the first round with strong goaltending.
Why was Oilers GM Kevin Lowe willing to offer so much more than his sole competing bidder? Why did Risebrough refuse to trade Roloson unless he got a first round pick in the hour before the trade deadline (a potentially ruinous position if it failed)? Both men had analyzed their situations, those of their competitors and others’ behavior accurately and did what they had to do to maximize their position. The Wild’s analysis had found the team that would most value the top goaltender and the Oilers had recognized the best goalie available and the importance of goaltending in the playoffs.
A pure numbers analysis would have had the Wild accepting a third round pick in the last hour before the deadline, as it would have been better than the Lightning’s proffered fourth-rounder. But gut instincts and an exhaustive analysis of the Oilers made Risebrough comfortable in holding out for much more, producing a trade that was a winner for both teams.
Tom Lynn served for nine seasons as assistant GM of the Minnesota Wild and for six seasons as GM of the Houston Aeros. Prior to that he was an attorney in New York representing the NHL and other sports entities in a wide variety of legal matters and has taught Sports Law at St. Thomas Law School in Minnesota. Read more from Lynn HERE.