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The Conquests And Casualties Of The NHL’s Analytics Boom

The National Hockey League dropped the opening puck on its 98th season Wednesday night, beginning the first campaign in which hockey’s flourishing metrics movement can truly be described as having moved from the game’s fringe to its center. As Sean McIndoe, my colleague at Grantland, wrote:

In what became known as hockey’s summer of analytics, several of the community’s top minds were snapped up by NHL teams. Fan forums and Twitter lit up with those wanting to learn about these newfangled numbers. Talk radio was debating the merits of Corsi and Fenwick, and even old-school media began incorporating the newer stats into their work. Suddenly, analytics is everywhere.

New Toronto Maple Leafs assistant general manager Kyle Dubas headlined the group of stat-savvy thinkers suddenly occupying high-profile spots within the league, a club that also includes Tyler Dellow, Sunny Mehta, Darryl Metcalf, Cam Charron and FiveThirtyEight alumnus Eric Tulsky (congrats, Eric!). In just a few years, hockey’s “fancy stats” crusade has come a long way from its humble origins on the outskirts of the blogosphere.

While reading the many mainstream-media articles about what the summer of analytics means for hockey, I thought back to the similar growth — and big-league assimilation — experienced by basketball’s analytics movement over the preceding decade.

The first major think piece I can remember was a Chris Ballard article in Sports Illustrated’s 2005-06 NBA preview issue highlighting the groundbreaking work of Dean Oliver and Dan Rosenbaum, both of whom had recently been hired by NBA teams. Hockey’s analytics movement is probably at a comparable stage of its development, at least in terms of acceptance within the larger world of scouting and decision-making within the sport itself.

Hockey analytics will enjoy more watershed moments in the future, like basketball geeks had when a bona fide number-cruncher — 82games.com founder Roland Beech — sat on the Dallas Mavericks’ bench during their NBA championship run in 2011. It will have its own version of Daryl Morey. And it probably won’t be long before a Fenwick superstar gets the Shane Battier treatment from Michael Lewis.

But this season, hockey’s metricians will also experience the problem Slate’s Jason Schwartz once described as afflicting the NBA’s public statistical discourse:

As soon as each statistician joined an NBA squad, sharing in public became off-limits—and so, gradually, the think tank closed shop. What were the teams paying for, after all, if their new stat gurus were just posting their ideas online for the other 29 franchises to read? This has had a paradoxical result: Because NBA teams embraced advanced stats so quickly, progress on basketball analytics has actually slowed down. The top minds are now all working in silos, not only unable to collaborate but actually competing against each other. …

And though many of those teams are now collecting the kind of data that outsiders can only dream of, they lack the manpower to fully harness it. Certainly there have been advances: Teams’ internal stats generally blow away what’s available publicly. But they haven’t come as fast as they otherwise might have. And we, as fans, don’t understand the game as well as we could.

(Full disclosure: I did not write publicly about basketball between June 2013 and August 2014 as part of a consulting contract with the Atlanta Hawks.)

There have already been similar repercussions in hockey. The NHL blogosphere is a gloomier place without a steady stream of analysis from writers like Tulsky and Dellow. And Metcalf’s old site, ExtraSkater.com, which had been an indispensable source of advanced metrics over the past few seasons, went dark after his hiring by the Maple Leafs. (At least hoops wonks were lucky that sites such as 82games and Basketball-Reference.com stayed operational despite their founders’ NBA gigs, satisfying the public’s statistical appetite even as superlative writers like John Hollinger moved on to prominent roles behind closed team doors.)

Complicating matters, the NHL made life even more difficult for researchers not tied to teams when it tweaked its terms of service over the summer, posing the threat of legal action against those who would scrape the data necessary to compute some of hockey’s most essential stats. Several sites suspended operations after the announcement, and while the cupboard isn’t totally bare, you can expect more lamentations about the seeming paradox (and general short-sightedness) of less data being available to the public after the great analytics explosion of 2014 (to say nothing about what will become of the league’s forthcoming player-tracking data).

Every revolution comes with a price, and on the whole, the summer of analytics was a major victory for proponents of hockey’s advanced statistics. But it wasn’t an unqualified one. In addition to the front-office fates of its former members, one of the most interesting storylines of the 2014-15 NHL season will be how hockey’s statistical community grapples with the summer’s brain drain.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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