Analytics and Coaching Instincts Are Both Essential for Success

Analytics and Coaching Instincts Are Both Essential for Success

Being the youngest General Manager in pro sports history, besting the Toronto Maple Leaf former GM Gord Stellick by over four years, is what made the headlines around the hockey world. The Hockey Writers own Neal McHale wrote about how his hiring has opened the door to the old-boys network of NHL management. You can read his great piece here – ‘Chayka Hiring Opening the Secluded Door‘. What caught my attention was the path Chayka took on his way into the top spot of a NHL front office – the new path of advanced analytics.

Before he was hired by Arizona last season as Assistant General Manager/Analytics, he was Director of Hockey Operations for Stathletes Inc., a company that he co-founded, that touts itself as “Professional hockey’s deepest performance data & analytics”. The Coyotes official announcement described the company this way:

Many teams have strongly embraced the analytics movement in hockey, hiring former statisticians and mathematicians for key management level positions. News even broke on Sunday of front office changes with the Florida Panthers that involves a promotion for their own number cruncher, Eric Joyce, to Assistant GM. Chayka, though, represents the first ‘Corsi Guy’ to reach the corner office. His hiring proves that the use of advanced statistics and data driven decisions are now firmly embedded in the NHL culture, and it’s upper-level management.

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Let me be clear right from the start. When advanced analytics started making its way into the lexicon of hockey news and opiniosn I wasn’t a fan. I was one of the old guys railing against these young pups, with their numbers and charts, who thought they could break down a player’s performance in any given situation with a bunch of numbers. My knee-jerk reaction was to dismiss the data as mumbo-jumbo, and the analysts as the nerds I knew in high school who spent their time in front of the Commodore 64 instead of out on the ice playing.

I grew up in a world of hockey long before the Corsi and Fenwick scores of today. The most advanced stats we ever had were goals, assists and penalty minutes, and goalies that let in fewer goals than the other guy. The most in-depth analysis of a player was whether he hustled on the ice, handled the puck well, could give and take a solid body-check and was a team player. Back then the coaches and general managers had all the basic numbers to evaluate a player’s performance, but after that it was much more personal. It was what they saw, heard, felt and sensed from the player and the team. It came from years of experience and knowledge, and many times came down to instinct or a ‘gut-feeling’.

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In other words, for decades, I was this guy when it came to advanced stats in hockey:

Then, earlier this year, I started writing about hockey and the Carolina Hurricanes. Although, I still held the opinions of my Russian friend, my articles and editorials needed to include ALL the information about the teams and players I was writing about. I couldn’t have current and relevant pieces about the ‘Canes without using the information and stats that the readers wanted. So I sucked it up, got on Twitter, and started searching for the best sources of this new-fangled stuff. That’s when I started running into this:

I couldn’t figure all it out. I had to have three windows open on my laptop so I could read a stat, flip over to the page that described the stat I was reading, flip back to my article to try and write about the stat I just read, flip back to the stat description to make sure I used it correctly, flip back…you get the idea. The ‘old-guy brain’ that hadn’t dealt with advanced math since my senior year was on tilt. I was ready to throw up my hands and join the fight against the ‘Corsi Mafia’ like my friend Slava. Then I had a minor epiphany.

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One day I was doing some of the usual reading and research on the Hurricanes’ website when I came across a post-practice video of Head Coach Bill Peters.

 



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