Brian Burke excels at commanding a room. Especially when the Calgary Flames’ president of hockey operations is expounding on a topic of disagreement.
Burke is a traditionalist. Yet he also sits on the honorary executive board of the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference. Those two concepts capture Burke’s skepticism and his desire for clarity.
On Friday at the Hynes Convention Center, Burke made his uncertainty of hockey analytics quite clear. But Burke reiterated that if a numbers-based solution arises, he will write a substantial check to claim its ownership.
“If someone comes up with this analysis — which I haven’t seen yet — that makes us better predictors, we’ll buy it,” said Burke during a panel entitled “Hockey Analytics: Out of the Ice Age.” “And we’ll make sure no one else can buy it. We’re all looking for that edge. But it hasn’t materialized, in my mind, yet in hockey as an analytics tool.”
Other sports have embraced analytics. The Red Sox hired Bill James. Daryl Morey, general manager of the Houston Rockets, is a conference cochair. The Atlanta Falcons monitor the number of third-and-1 situations to help determine how often they practice those scenarios.
Hockey is behind. Only 10 NHL teams were represented at the conference. At least one NHL GM is unfamiliar with Corsi, the statistic that measures shot attempts and therefore puck possession. In comparison to other sports, hockey remains the mammoth stuck in the Ice Age.
“I think it’s still an eyeballs business,” Burke said. “We go watch players play. We watch for a lot of things in games that even video won’t show. How players respond when a coach yells at them. If they’re on the ice and they make a bad play and allow a goal to happen, their body English. How they rally their teammates. Things like that.”
As usual, Burke was at an extreme. At the other end was analyst Eric Tulsky. Tulsky majored in chemistry and physics at Harvard. He has a Ph.D. in chemistry from Cal-Berkeley. Tulsky has consulted for the Nashville Predators. Tulsky is a proponent of Corsi and a hater of plus/minus.
The Bruins fall somewhere in the middle. Assistant GM Don Sweeney participated in the panel, along with Capitals assistant GM Donald Fishman and Merrimack coach Mark Dennehy.
The Bruins employ Sydex Sports Software as their analytics consultant. Sydex’s primary responsibility is charting scoring chances and their respective categories — who created the chance, who the opposition was, where on the ice it took place, the quality of the chance. The overarching term Sydex uses is shot value.
But the Bruins do not interpret shot value as a stand-alone statistic. They combine shot value with video. For the hockey operations department, coaching staff, and players, the video component is more important than the numbers produced by such events. Through video, the bosses evaluate players. The coaches devise schemes. The players learn their tendencies as well as those of opponents.
“Most hockey coaches and players are visual learners,” Sweeney said. “Most of the time, they’re looking at a diagram to see a drill, to see what the forecheck is going to do, or how to attack that or break it down. So, if you just hand a coach statistical data, if you don’t blend that with some sort of video component, it’s going to get washed. You have to be able to say, ‘OK, this is how this player is going to react based on his numbers,’ then link it to a visual component.”
Like all teams, the Bruins consider character when making personnel decisions. This is a common theme around hockey, perhaps more so than other sports. Hockey people constantly talk about gritty players who work hard, play with emotion, and elevate their performance in difficult situations. Character is a challenging characteristic to quantify.
Burke told one of his favorite yarns regarding former Canuck Trevor Linden. When Burke was in Vancouver, Linden was scheduled to attend the club’s pre-draft testing in 1988. Linden, who was raised in Medicine Hat, Alberta, called Burke to say he couldn’t make it. Linden had to help his uncle conduct Branding Day, where they turn male cattle into steers.
“What’s your job?” Burke asked.
“When they come in the pen, I grab them by the neck and haul them down,” Linden said. “We brand them and cut their [testicles] off.”
“You can skip our test, kid,” Burke replied. The Canucks drafted Linden second overall. He played 1,382 games in the NHL.
Character is one hard-to-measure variable. Hockey’s game flow is another. Baseball is a series of static events. The pitcher throws. The batter hits. In football, each play starts and stops.
Hockey’s events repeatedly bleed into others. There is no industry standard on how to log events.
“We’re a fluid game. We’re a complicated game,” Fishman said. “That’s why we love our sport. That’s why our sport, I think, is better than other sports. We’re not just a series of isolated incidents. On the analytical side, let’s stop being obsessed with trying to capture the entire game and come up with some magic formula to capture the game. Because we can’t. It’s a beautiful piece of art with hundreds of colors. Let’s learn about discrete areas and focus on different areas of the game and nail it.”
THEY MEAN BUSINESS
Sabres have enough assets to build quickly
It’s no surprise that Buffalo truly initiated the trade season on Friday. The Sabres are the worst team in the league. They fired their coach and general manager in midseason. They handle the puck as if it were dipped in E. coli.
But if they complete their business with as much heat as they brought on Friday, their turnaround could be rapid.
GM Tim Murray acted boldly by shipping Ryan Miller and Steve Ott, his two biggest assets, to St. Louis for Jaroslav Halak, Chris Stewart, William Carrier, a 2015 first-round pick, and a 2016 third-rounder. Buffalo hired Murray from Ottawa for this level of aggressiveness.
The Sabres are in good shape. They have 19 picks over the next two drafts. There’s a good chance they could have the first two selections this June in Philadelphia — their own and the Islanders’ first-rounder, courtesy of the Thomas Vanek trade.
One condition of the Vanek trade is that the Islanders can choose whether the first-rounder is in 2014 or 2015. It’s a slam dunk they’ll cede their 2014 selection. No GM wants to give away the 2015 first-rounder that turns into a generational player such as Connor McDavid or Chelmsford whiz Jack Eichel.
Murray can add to his pick total in the next few days. Their top remaining UFAs-to-be are Matt Moulson and Henrik Tallinder. Murray would also like to address long-term anchors Ville Leino ($4.5 million annually through 2016-17) and Christian Ehrhoff ($4 million annually through 2020-21). Those two contracts will not be easy to unload.
But the Sabres need players more than picks. A mid-round player drafted in 2015 won’t help Murray until closer to 2020.
Twenty-four scouts attended Buffalo’s game against Carolina last Tuesday. One night later, 22 scouts were in the First Niagara Center press box for Buffalo-Boston. Murray started the rebuild on Friday. He’s not finished.
Big Olympic sheet caused big problems
These eyes were very pleased to see the NHL resume play on Tuesday, even if it was Carolina against Buffalo.
There were hits, scoring chances, and room through center ice. We saw few of any of those elements during the Olympics because of the international ice surface. The big sheet produced far too many snores for games featuring the world’s best players.
The issues with the Olympic sheet are the expansion of the neutral zone and the shrinking of the offensive zone. It should be the other way around.
In Sochi, there was a 58-foot dead zone between the blue lines. In the NHL, it’s only 50 feet between the blues. Because the neutral zone was bigger, teams could stack up their defenders in center ice. That discouraged opponents from gaining speed or making plays through the neutral zone.
The blue-to-blue ocean also affected the offensive zone because of the placement of the goal lines. In the NHL, the goal lines are 11 feet from the end boards. In Sochi, the goal lines were 13 feet from the walls. The 64 feet from goal line to blue line in the NHL, therefore, turned into only 58 feet in Sochi.
The area where the cramped offensive zone played the biggest part was offense from the point.
Shot-blocking forwards had no problem popping out to the point to man-up against defensemen with the puck. Shots rarely made it through the first layer of protection. Defensemen had to walk the blue line to open up lanes or look for other options.
The result for the Olympic champs: 17 goals in six games, ridiculously low for a fantasy team. Open the windows and let in some fresh air for 2018, please.
Thomas up for a return
On April 15, 2015, Tim Thomas will turn 41. Thomas would like to celebrate his birthday by being in an NHL uniform for a playoff team. Thomas will be unrestricted after this season. But Markus Lehto, Thomas’s agent, said his client would like to return for one more year. Through 38 games, Thomas had a 15-19-3 record with a 2.86 goals-against average and .908 save percentage. It’s possible the Panthers could re-sign Thomas to serve in tandem with youngster Jacob Markstrom. It’s also possible, however, that Florida could deal Thomas before Wednesday. As of Friday, the Panthers had not approached Thomas about waiving his no-movement clause.
Moulson would be perfect fit
Pittsburgh sent two scouts to First Niagara Center to monitor the Sabres. The Penguins’ primary target would be Matt Moulson. The winger would be an ideal replacement for Pascal Dupuis, who is out for the season because of a knee injury. Moulson has some of Dupuis’s qualities. He’s a left shot. He doesn’t hesitate to shoot. He’s slippery in tight areas. The Sabres have prospects on defense they could send the other way. Pittsburgh’s issue, however, is cap space. They’d need Buffalo to eat some of Moulson’s $3,133,333 salary. Or the Penguins would need to send money out the door via separate deals. The easiest solution would be to use the long-term injury exception on Kris Letang. There are injuries. Then there are strokes. The latter, which Letang suffered in January, belongs in the not-messing-around category. The Penguins should tell Letang to forget about hockey for the rest of the season and focus on getting healthy.
Hard line on Broadway
On Friday, Dan Girardi’s wait finally came to an end. Five days before the trade deadline, the free agent-to-be signed a six-year, $33 million extension with the Rangers. The right-shot strongman is earning $3.325 million per season on his current contract. There was no need, however, for the Rangers to wait so long. They could have followed the lead of the Blackhawks. Like Girardi, Niklas Hjalmarsson is a defense-first defenseman in the final year of his deal. Instead of negotiating into the season, Chicago GM Stan Bowman locked up Hjalmarsson to a five-year extension Sept. 4, before training camp even started. It gave Hjalmarsson peace of mind. In turn, that helped the Blackhawks shake off any Cup hangover concerns to start the season. That’s the security today’s players like. They don’t want to wait. But that’s the culture in New York with old-school GM Glen Sather. Derek Stepan had to wait until Sept. 26 to sign a two-year, $6.15 million extension. Henrik Lundqvist didn’t sign his seven-year, $59.5 million deal until Dec. 4. It doesn’t appear that waiting as long as they did worked out well for the Rangers. New York started the season 4-7-0.
Lightning not likely to deal captain
Martin St. Louis did not act like a captain if he asked out from Tampa Bay. St. Louis put himself above the team, which is the opposite of what captains are supposed to do. The Lightning are in a good spot. They could lock up a playoff spot if Steven Stamkos regains his touch in the final month of the regular season. There is little chance that granting St. Louis’s wish and dealing him before Wednesday would make the Lightning better. There are few combinations more dangerous offensively than St. Louis and Stamkos. It would be irresponsible for GM Steve Yzerman to make such a move. Even more irresponsible than the player making such a request.
Happy to see former Boston University goalie John Curry earning some NHL coin with Minnesota. Curry is the third goalie behind Darcy Kuemper and Niklas Backstrom as Josh Harding attempts to get healthy. Curry played for Houston (AHL) and Orlando (ECHL) this season. He hasn’t been in the NHL since 2009-10, when he was in the Pittsburgh organization . . . Carolina continues to carry three goalies: Cam Ward, Anton Khudobin, and Justin Peters. The Hurricanes would rather deal one of their goalies instead of possibly losing Peters on waivers by assigning him to Charlotte . . . According to sportsnet.ca, Dave Bolland is looking for a seven- or eight-year extension. The Toronto center will be unrestricted after this season. Bolland scored Chicago’s winning goal in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final but is a third-line pivot when healthy. Grinders don’t get long-term deals . . . Jamie Benn returned to NHL play with ferocity, scoring a goal and two assists in Dallas’s 4-1 win over the Hurricanes. Team Canada’s bosses considered Benn one of their most important players. Benn brought some speed to the Ryan Getzlaf-Corey Perry pairing. Earlier in the Olympics, Benn played with John Tavares and Patrice Bergeron on Canada’s best line. All this from a guy who wasn’t invited to Canada’s summer orientation camp . . . Good thing about the Olympic preliminary round: only two stoppages per period to shovel the ice, compared to the three TV timeouts in the NHL. They made the games fly by. Of course, if it were up to the networks, there would be a timeout every other minute . . . The Bruins will use the long-term injury exception with Dennis Seidenberg if they acquire help before the deadline. They could seek additional relief by also using the exception on Adam McQuaid. The latter scenario is unlikely because McQuaid is expected to play this season. They’d have to clear salary to fit McQuaid under the cap. It remains, however, an option . . . There are three Webers in the NHL: Shea Weber, Yannick Weber, and Mike Weber. All wear No. 6. Yes, that’s weird.
Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeFluto. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.