Justin Williams. (Getty Images)
Analytics are here to stay, especially with the NHL officially listing "Enhanced Stats" on its website. How does that affect free agent negotiations?
It started like any contract negotiation. Agent Allan Walsh, who represents Jonathan Drouin, David Perron and Antoine Vermette, among many others, sat across from an NHL GM and assistant GM. The group was hammering out a deal for one of Walsh’s clients. They spent 45 minutes discussing staple statistics like points per game, goals, assists and ice time. Walsh, though, wasn’t satisfied. He told the executives they were omitting a crucial criterion.
It just so happened, Walsh explained to them, the player in question was tops on the team in almost every major possession metric, including Corsi and Fenwick. Walsh had his own advanced stat booklet prepared. He fished out two copies.
“I saw them open the first page, and I saw the GM and the assistant GM lock eyes with each other,” Walsh said. “And the look on their faces was, ‘Oh s---, he knows.’ ”
That moment occurred last summer, right on the precipice of mainstream hockey’s paradigm shift toward analytics. When the Maple Leafs, Oilers, Panthers and Devils hired young thinkers with advanced stats bents to their front offices, it seemed the league was finally heeding the advice trumpeted by countless bloggers and forward-thinking journalists on social media. The Blackhawks and Kings, two dominant possession teams, legitimized fancy stats by piling up Stanley Cups. And, as Walsh points out, teams really started listening when the stat mavens correctly predicted the Toronto Maple Leafs’ demise in 2013-14. It went beyond Toronto hiring Kyle Dubas as assistant GM and the Oilers bringing on Tyler Dellow as an advisor. Advanced stats didn’t just permeate front office decisions; they had begun to affect free agency. Possession numbers could now influence a player’s worth.
Walsh has been a major advanced stats proponent for several years. He said he used the numbers in every restricted and unrestricted free agent negotiation last year, though many GMs told him at the time he was one of the first people doing it. This year, he expects advanced stats to be far more ubiquitous in talks.
“It’s not the magic bullet in a negotiation,” he said. “It is another tool in your toolbox that helps you construct arguments in support of a player’s value to a team.”
Take Justin Williams, one of this summer's hottest UFAs. Teams at this stage will still base their contract talks primarily on traditional information. They know Williams can play a top-six scoring role on the right wing, that his offense tends to spike in the playoffs and that he’s a big-game veteran with a Conn Smythe Trophy and three Stanley Cup rings. But now they also must factor in his strong advanced stats ranking. It’s one more weapon an agent can use to strengthen the case for more money and term.
“The new age of advanced stats is just starting to be seen,” said Thane Campbell, Williams’ agent. “Certainly if advanced stats are in a player’s favor, an agent ought to be on top of this and use them, just as the team will use information favorable to them in any negotiation.
“With Justin, he has been a strong performer based on stats and awards as well as advanced stats, so all will be useful for negotiations. I’m of the opinion the NHL recognizing and providing advanced statistics makes it more interesting for everyone, from the fans to the players and their agents.”
Possession metrics can augment the contract of an already-good player like Williams. They can also elevate a player whose traditional numbers don’t wow but who proves his defensive worth with a strong influence on shot attempts for and against. Consequently, weaker advanced stats could hurt a player, though Campbell suggests that’s only the case in the eyes of teams who put significant value on analytics.
We haven’t yet reached the age in which teams hold fancy numbers in equal regard to good old-fashioned goals and assists, since the new movement remains in its infancy. Dubas told THN in a summer 2014 interview the best hockey metrics hadn’t even been born yet, as the sport is about 20 years behind baseball.
“Have we reached the apex?” Walsh said. “The difference between baseball and hockey is there are still elements of the player that you can’t quantify. How to do you quantify heart, character or passion? You can control for linemates and quality of competition to an extent, but until somebody’s able to measure a guy’s heart and find a way to put that into an equation… and there’s the fact that you’re always dependent on who you’re playing with. For example, Jonathan Drouin on the fourth line is going to look a lot different statistically than Jonathan Drouin on the first line.
“In baseball, most of the analytics focus on a pitcher and a batter, and it’s a 1-on-1, and you’re really not impacted by four or five other people. You’re not impacted by a goaltender. Four or five years from now, we might be discussing completely different analytics based on the data coming off chips on jerseys.”
So there’s a limit on how influential analytics can be at this point. That doesn’t mean their influence hasn’t grown, however. The collective bargaining agreement says any statistics that appear officially on NHL.com are admissible, not just in standard RFA and UFA talks, but also in arbitration hearings. And guess what the NHL added to its website this year? “Enhanced Stats,” with shot attempts and unblocked shot attempts standing in for Corsi and Fenwick. The NHL’s versions of the numbers aren’t as accurate or detailed as those of sites like puckalytics.com, but the league stats are close enough to be used “officially” in contract talks.
How, then, do team executives apply analytics to their side of the negotiations? It’s a complicated question since no GM likes to share secrets.
“Try to get a GM or someone in NHL management with a team to talk about how extensively they use analytics, and for what purpose," Walsh said. "You’ll never get people to shut up faster.”
Multiple GMs politely rebuffed my requests to discuss their approach to analytics in contract negotiations for this story. And those who have discussed their philosophy on possession stats in the past are consistently vague.
“We keep our own, I guess, advanced stats if you want to call them that,” said Lightning GM Steve Yzerman before the playoffs. “To be really honest with you, we’re at a stage where we’re trying to take all that information and figure out what’s important and what’s not.”
In other words, this conversation is over. We may never know how many GMs let the fancy stats affect their contract talks and how long they’ve used the numbers in team development. What we do know is the numbers aren’t going anywhere.
Matt Larkin is an associate editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin