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Can the Maple Leafs find an advantage through their new analytics department?

Rory Boylen
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Maple Leafs fans outside the Air Canada Centre. (David Cooper/Toronto Star via Getty Images) Author: The Hockey News

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Can the Maple Leafs find an advantage through their new analytics department?

Rory Boylen
By:

On Tuesday, the Maple Leafs made a couple of hires for a newly created analytics department. And while they aren't the first team to use these metrics, they have the resources to get ahead. But will their CEO stay around to see it through?

The Summer of Advanced Stats continued Tuesday and again it was the Toronto Maple Leafs - a team that had long poo-pooed their importance - jumping in head-first.

As was first reported by Puck Daddy's Greg Wyshynski, the Maple Leafs are the reason everyone's favorite hockey analytics site has gone offline. Darryl Metcalf, the founder of ExtraSkater.com, was hired by the team. But they didn't stop there. The Maple Leafs also hired blogger Cam Charron, most recently of Yahoo Sports, and Rob Pettapiece, who worked with the junior hockey blog Buzzing the Net.

The hires come weeks after the Maple Leafs hired 28-year-old Kyle Dubas as their assistant GM. He was formerly the GM for the OHL's Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds and is an advocate for the usage of these advanced metrics. In all, the Leafs have created a new analytics department in the organization, which Wyshynski suggested would report to Dubas.

The Leafs weren't the only ones who dove into the analytics pool this summer, of course. The Edmonton Oilers hired Tyler Dellow, most recently of Sportsnet, in early August and the New Jersey Devils hired Sunny Mehta, a former professional poker player as their Director of Analytics. And these were just the publicized hires around the league.

The usage of analytics aren't brand new in the NHL and some teams - like the Leafs - are playing catchup now. The Los Angeles Kings and Chicago Blackhawks, the two biggest contenders for the Stanley Cup in the past few years, have already been using these stats as a tool. Teams aren't building their rosters by looking at spreadsheets, but these numbers are now undeniably part of the thought process.

The value of advanced stats, in any sport, is to find inefficiencies in the marketplace that aren't immediately noticeable. When Billy Beane brought the idea to the front office of Major League Baseball's Oakland A's, he was trying to find an advantage for his small-market, small-budget team. For instance, one of the main focuses became on-base percentage instead of the traditional batting average, since OBP takes walks into account and more accurately calculated how often a player got on base. If you're on base, you're more likely to score. This, of course, was the Moneyball movement.

But other teams began to catch on. The big-market Boston Red Sox tried to hire Beane away from the A's, but he decided to stay put. So Boston went and hired Bill James, the sabermetrics guru whose ideas are what inspired Beane in the first place. Over the past decade-plus, the use of these metrics in baseball front offices have evolved, to the point where now we hear about things such as WAR (wins above replacement), WHIP (walks plus hits per innings pitched) and BABIP (batting average on balls in play) that take a deeper look into the traditional stats.

In hockey, we can expect a similar type of evolution as front offices deep dive into the numbers. Most people are now fully aware of what corsi and corsi relative is. In a way, they're hockey's equivalent to OBP - you're more likely to score if you're controlling the puck and directing most of the shots on net. Eventually, and it's already happening, everyone will be well aware of these specific stats and the inefficiency will vanish.

This, of course, doesn't mean the analytics departments will vanish with them - they'll adapt. They'll start looking closer at things such as shooting percentages and who is maintaining unusually high marks in that stat. Corsi can be a very broad stat that can help predict outcomes on a large scale - so they'll look at a micro-level on where to put the puck to have the best odds of controlling it and scoring. Quality of competition and zone entries and exits will also be a focus. And the usage of video to tie all these things together will be key.

In that sense, the Toronto Maple Leafs could be the Boston Red Sox here. They're not the first ones in this game, but they have the money to do the most with it. For years under the cap, we've talked about how in the absence of being able to spend limitless amounts of cash to acquire players, the Leafs could spend big in areas like scouting to give them an edge. Now we're seeing them very publicly use their resources on an analytics department which, in the long term, should start to give them a leg up.

A lot of credit for this movement should go to Brendan Shanahan, who has aggressively been making over the hockey department since taking over as team president. But the talk of culture change began when Tim Leiweke was named CEO of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment. He's the one who hired Shanahan and set the team down a new path. But it doesn't seem likely that he'll see this one all the way through.

Also on Tuesday came a report from Elliotte Friedman that Leiweke would "soon" leave the company. Shortly after, the CEO swiftly denied he was on his way out.

He said to the Toronto Star: “I’m committed. I’m looking forward to the end of the season with TFC, and the upcoming season with the Raptors and defending our (Atlantic Division) title, and getting the Leafs back in the playoffs. Anyone who thinks that at the end of the day I’m not going to be here through the duration of those seasons, they’re wrong.”

So, it sounds as though the CEO will be here for one more winter at least. But he certainly left the door open for a departure after the NBA and NHL seasons are finished - and maybe that's what we should expect here. He's talked in the past about how difficult him and his family found the winter to be and there have been suggestions of friction between Leiweke and the MLSE board. He also came in promising the world and planned a Stanley Cup parade, but the hockey team is still a work in progress. Despite the Maple Leafs' promising front office hires this summer and their subtly smart signings, they'll still be a playoff bubble team.

But even if the Leafs do miss the playoffs this season and Leiweke leaves, his short tenure should still be considered a success. He arranged the conditions for the team to step into the light and do better business.

Because now the Leafs aren't just in the advanced stats game, they're going to push to be the leaders who take this idea to the next level and find the new market inefficiencies.

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Can the Maple Leafs find an advantage through their new analytics department?