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'Analytics hasn't reached maturity in the NHL yet': Matt Pfeffer

Ken Campbell
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Shea Weber and P.K. Subban at the 2016 All-Star Skills Competition (Bruce Bennett/Getty Images) Author: The Hockey News

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'Analytics hasn't reached maturity in the NHL yet': Matt Pfeffer

Ken Campbell
By:

Former Montreal Canadiens analytics consultant Matt Pfeffer isn't convinced he lost his job over his opinion on the P.K. Subban-Shea Weber trade. He's thankful for his time in Montreal, but he believes analytics still have a way to go before they reach their "maturity" in the NHL.

Matt Pfeffer had made peace with the fact that the Montreal Canadiens were going to trade star defenseman P.K. Subban. But he didn’t think dealing Subban to the Nashville Predators for Shea Weber was a good idea and he made his feelings known to Canadiens management. But Pfeffer is not convinced that is why his contract as an analytics consultant with the Canadiens was not renewed.

“They didn’t tell me it was over that,” Pfeffer told thn.com. “But I guess everyone knows now where I stood on the Subban-Weber trade. There are times when there’s some possibility that there would be another side to the argument, but this was one of those things where it was so, so far outside what could be considered reasonable. I made a pretty strong case, but I made the case that the analytics made. This wasn’t a personal thing.”

So Pfeffer believes the Canadiens are ultimately going to get fleeced on this trade. He can’t speculate on why the Canadiens didn’t take his advice, but it tells us that when it comes to analytics and its place in decision making, the NHL establishment is still very much finding its way.

“The person I reported (director of legal affairs/capologist John Sedgwick) to liked my work and the methodology behind it and believed in it,” Pfeffer said, “and there were others inside the team that didn’t believe in it and maybe had their mind made up about advanced stats. I think there’s been a bit of pushback from people in the NHL recently about this kind of stuff.”

And that pushback, Pfeffer believes, is causing teams to still rely on the “eye test” over analytics. Which kind of makes you wonder why teams would even bother hiring analytics people in the first place. Are they simply paying lip service to analytics, then going with their gut when it comes down it? Perhaps. But when the numbers are as decisive as they were in the Subban-Weber trade and the team ignores them, it’s a pretty clear indication that teams are still hesitant to rely on them.

Let’s simply look at two of the recent blockbusters in the NHL – the Weber-Subban deal and the trade that sent Taylor Hall, whose analytics are off the charts, to the New Jersey Devils for Adam Larsson. Neither trade makes much sense from an analytics standpoint for the Canadiens and the Oilers. A Subban-for-Hall trade would have made much more sense for both teams, but it didn’t materialize. The Oilers would have received the kind of defenseman they’ve needed for years and the Canadiens would have bolstered their forward ranks with a player who goes to the net hard and can finish plays.

Pfeffer said there is a lot of white noise out there with private companies telling teams that their analytics are superior to what the they have. “Analytics hasn’t really reached maturity in the NHL yet,” Pfeffer said. “Teams get a lot of different solutions and offers from people and companies and they just don’t know what’s what and they tend to lean conservative in those instances. That’s why I don’t have any ill will with the Canadiens. They gave me a shot. I think I did a good job, but at the end of the day they were convinced of another solution. And I can accept that.”

When it came to Subban for Weber, Pfeffer allowed the numbers to do the talking. He acknowledges that he made his case emphatically, but it would be inaccurate to suggest that he got indignant about it. Part of the problem, Pfeffer believes, is that there’s a growing segment out that that thinks analytics is still measured in things such as a Corsi rating, when in reality, it goes much deeper than that. “In my model that evaluates Shea Weber, very, very little of it has to do with shot differential at this point in his career,” Pfeffer said. “With his experience, you really need to only look at goal differential to measure his impact. You only need Corsi if you don’t have a large enough sample size to evaluate goals. My analysis of Shea Weber had very little to do with Corsi. It’s easy to hate on Corsi, but (Weber) is not a good goal differential guy either. He’s not pushing the needle in terms of how many goals the Nashville Predators score and get scored on when he’s on the ice. He’s good, he’s serviceable, but he doesn’t really push the needle on either side.”

Weber’s 5-on-5 goal differential with the Predators is 0.18 percent, which means the Predators are basically as good when Weber is on the ice as when he’s off the ice. Subban’s goal differential is 3.14 percent. Few players have that effect on their teams, particularly considering that Subban’s defense partner with Montreal was Andrei Markov and Weber’s with the Predators was Roman Josi.

“There’s nothing wrong with being average in the NHL,” Pfeffer said. “An average NHLer is worth a heck of a lot and that’s what Shea Weber is."

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'Analytics hasn't reached maturity in the NHL yet': Matt Pfeffer