The Maple Leafs’ hiring of Kyle Dubas as their new assistant GM Tuesday, and the ensuing debate and discussion about the advanced statistics revolution Dubas is a part of, has intriguing parallels to a similar hiring in Toronto 37 years ago. Back then, another young (although not quite as young as the 28-year-old Dubas) hockey mind with a different approach was brought into hockey’s biggest fishbowl to test out his theories.
That man was the late Roger Neilson, hired as Leafs head coach July 25, 1977. His name isn’t referenced nearly enough in the advanced stats debate, but Neilson must be considered, if not the granddaddy of the advanced stats movement, then one of its founding fathers. And THN’s archives provide ample evidence of how nimble and creative Neilson’s mind was when it came to seeing the game through a new prism – and the baseless backlash it triggered in the inflexible, conservative hockey establishment.
In 1978, THN columnist Frank Orr wrote about Neilson being viewed as “slightly bonkers” because of his “slightly unorthodox approach” and the “assorted gimmicks he employs”.
What type of gimmicks, you ask? Try video footage. As ridiculous as it sounds today, Orr wrote that Neilson “is laughed at” for studying video. Neilson had to push hard just to get more expansive video of games, as he explained when he was first hired by Toronto.
“The tapes I had to study of last year’s game (sic) were from television,” Neilson told THN at the time. “They contained too many close-ups of the action to be really useful. I wanted a full-ice view of the game because the fellow who causes a goal to be scored often is out of the TV picture.”
Neilson also was well ahead of his time in questioning the validity of widely accepted simple hockey stats. In 1982, he told THN correspondent Tony Gallagher how much he loathed the plus/minus stat, which at the time was valued so highly, the NHL gave out a plus/minus award from 1982-2003.
“It is like giving the left-fielder an error when the right-fielder drops the ball,” Neilson said, using a baseball analogy. “(T)o give a trophy for such a thing is ridiculous. If (the NHL is) looking for a new trophy, they should make a ‘team specialty trophy’ for power play and penalty killing. That way the team with the best combined record in those areas would get a trophy.”
In addition, Neilson believed the league could do a much more accurate job of calculating special teams stats.
“You can have one (man) advantage which is five seconds and one which is ten minutes on a penalty for deliberate intent to injure,” he said. “Now where is the justice in that when that happens? In one advantage of 10 minutes, you could give up five goals or get five goals. It’s ridiculous if you say you’re trying to keep any accurate statistics.”
The solution to the issue was simple for Neilson.
“All they have to do is add up the total time a team is short-handed or has the advantage at the end of a game and then count the goals,” he said. “The stats would be recorded by saying that it takes this one particular team 7.26 minutes with the advantage to score a power-play goal. Or a team gives up a power-play goal every eight minutes or whatever.
“By doing it this way, you get credit by scoring in 30 seconds on the power play and not taking the full two minutes. For if you kill 1:50 of a penalty, you still get some credit rather than simply giving up one goal on one disadvantage. It’s much more accurate and just as easy to keep track of for the stats guys.”
These are just a few of the ways Neilson was a hockey visionary. That many of his ideas are now common practice in the game should give advanced stats critics serious pause to reconsider their position.
Indeed, if the past is any indication, a guy like Dubas won’t be seen as “slightly bonkers” or “unorthodox” or someone who relied on “gimmicks” 37 years from now.
Instead, he’ll be regarded as the type of innovator and prophet Neilson surely was.