It’s a Numbers Game

By Anthony M.

The Toronto Maple Leafs finally took a step toward the ‘culture change’ everyone has been talking about for the last three and a half months. The organization has recognized old school ways of thinking are not the be-all, end-all of building a successful franchise. Advanced analytics are highly effective statistics that have changed the way people in sports evaluate players/team performance through scouting, trading and free agent signings. Simply put, they can provide a competitive advantage if utilized correctly. The Oakland Athletics had Paul DePodesta, the Maple Leafs have Kyle Dubas.

Who is Kyle Dubas? 

As many of you undoubtedly know, Dubas was named assistant general manager of the Leafs on Tuesday, July 22nd. Formerly, the 28 year old was the general manager of the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds of the Ontario Hockey League. With the help of advanced analytics, Dubas took the Soo Greyhounds from last place in their division to first place within three seasons. Dubas brings a modern approach to the Leafs organization it’s desperately needed for years.

The transition, or at least hybridization of old school to new school thinking in sports has always been met with skepticism and resistance. Short of utilizing these tools to improve talent acquisition, it seems the hiring of Dubas is the final step the Maple Leafs will make towards retooling their managerial landscape. The next step: allowing advanced analytics to do its part in building a stronger franchise from the top down. That’s not to say the Leafs are done adding to the front office, but this is without a doubt the biggest step towards a ‘culture change’ that I’ve seen from the organization.

Why Advanced Analytics?

Two of the more popular and basic hockey statistics are Corsi and Fenwick. While the formulas only slightly differ, they both serve as a proxy for estimating puck possession. Many, including myself would argue that the team which controls the puck for most of the game is most likely to win. That being said, the Maple Leafs 2013-14 season probably left many hockey analysts with very little hair. Here’s a brief explanation of the two stats.

Corsi: The +/- amount of shots directed at the net during even strength play. Shots directed at the net include goals, shots on net, shots that miss the net, blocked shots and tipped shots. A positive Corsi means the player has more shots directed to the opponents net while he/she is on the ice, than shots directed to his/her own net.

Fenwick: Similar to the Corsi, however it excludes blocked shots. The Fenwick is used over larger sample sizes because it’s better at determining puck possession over the course of a season. Corsi on the other hand can be more accurate in smaller sample sizes, such as on a nightly or weekly basis.

Advanced analytics go well beyond these two concepts, however considering how the Leafs finished last season with the worst shots against average in the league (35.9 per game), they are particularly relevant and would be useful in helping to determining the root cause of Toronto’s poor shot differential.

The hiring of Kyle Dubas is a big step forward for this organization. Many teams still don’t recognize the effectiveness of advanced analytics, arguing the old schools of thought (eye balling a player and evaluating his worth on skill and talent and character) are superior. I personally don’t see why any team would not take advantage of the tools that can be at their disposal. Any competitive advantage that you can have over your opponent is a good one.

During the Leafs press conference earlier this week Brendan Shanahan said the following regarding Dubas’ expertise:

“Information is power, and Kyle is great at gathering information. It’s not just one specific job for him; I think he’s somebody that wants to be involved in a lot of things.”

Despite being a guy who’s not particularly math savvy it’s still encouraging to see the Leafs moving forward with analytics, something all teams should, but aren’t doing. Eliminating even a fraction of uncertainty in the game is good enough for any team to invest in an analytical department. Two of the teams that do subscribe to the concept are the Chicago Blackhawks and the LA Kings. If the Leafs want to be in the conversation with those teams in the coming years at playoff time, Dubas’ hiring is certainly a step in the right direction.

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