Tyler Dellow's hiring by the Oilers continues the trend of teams employing advanced stats experts. Will we look back and herald these decisions, or are teams jumping the gun on a young field of study?
First, Fenwick Close. Then, the world.
We saw it two weeks ago when the Toronto Maple Leafs named Kyle Dubas assistant GM. Last week, it was the New Jersey Devils' turn, as they hired Sunny Mehta. Statistician Eric Tulsky also works for a mystery NHL team. Today, as Bob McKenzie reported, Edmonton struck with Tyler Dellow.
A significant chunk of the hockey population likely said "Huh? Who's that?" upon hearing each of those news nuggets. A minority, albeit a growing minority, went the other way, with a full nerd-gasm.
Those friends who texted you things like "OMG DELLOW, F--- YES" are the advanced stat community, celebrating the fact four of their own have now penetrated the NHL.
Dubas is to front offices what Doogie Howser was to medicine, a 28-year-old prodigy (16 in teen doctor years) whose love of baseball statistics spilled over into his hockey analysis. Mehta is a former pro poker player with a strong online presence as an Oilers blogger.
Dellow, who has worked as a lawyer, is one of the strongest voices in the advanced statistic world. He's best known for using the team he cheered for, the Oilers, as the main subject of his studies. He was often scathing, but he was groundbreaking in his use of the new metrics like Corsi. His site, mc79hockey.com, has been shut down, at least for the time being.
All these hirings are, no doubt, massive wins for the new stat movement. The stranglehold good possession teams like Los Angeles, Chicago and Boston have on the Stanley Cup immediately validates the fancy stats, but taking the metrics seriously enough to employ experts in the field is a new leap. Sean Gentille summed it up perfectly: it doesn't fly anymore for a detractor to say, "If you're so smart, why don't don't you work for an NHL team?"
I'm making a point to poll GMs every time I talk speak with them to get a sense of how seriously they take advanced stats, and the message is clear.
"We’ve been doing that the last couple years," Predators GM David Poile told me last week. "It’s getting more widespread in terms of teams using media’s reporting on it. We’ve certainly used it in evaluating players, how we use our own players and player acquisitions.”
There's no question the hirings should be applauded. The numbers don't lie. That said, it'll be interesting to see how far the new trend goes. Statistics like Corsi and Fenwick do an excellent job identifying team play, as the pucks directed toward another team's net represent the sum of a multi-player unit's best efforts. They're plenty useful for individual players – see Bergeron, Patrice and his Selke Trophies – but even revered advanced stat trackers like Extra Skater admit the numbers are still just approximating players' possession of the puck. As Dubas told me last week, the NHL hasn't caught up to the NBA in terms of camera technology. We'll have a far better understanding of who does what with the puck for how long when the league gets there.
My point is – while possession stats are no doubt crucial indicators of teams' success, the body of work is still relatively small and we're just scratching the surface of our understanding of them. Dubas put it eloquently during our discussion:
"You say that you guys are at a pretty rudimentary level – I think everybody still is. Hockey is where baseball was more than two decades ago, where you had a few guys doing really good work and everyone trying to play catchup. In terms of which stats are most valuable – we’re still getting there. The team possession metrics have proven over the last number of years to pretty closely predict who the best teams are going to be in the long run. In the short run, you’re going to have aberrations. You’re going to have games where guys who you think are bad players are strong possession players. But we’re just getting rolling on this thing here. We’re a long way from the finish line."
We are. So it'll be interesting to look back on this wave of hirings five years from now. Maybe we'll view them as total game-changers. Or maybe we'll say "Great idea, but the team jumped the gun. We know so much more today."
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