Eric Tulsky, Andrew Thomas, Tyler Dellow, Brian Macdonald, and Tim Barnes are not as well known as their on-ice colleagues, who include, respectively by organization, Justin Faulk (Carolina), Zach Parise (Minnesota), Connor McDavid (Edmonton), Aleksander Barkov (Florida), and Alex Ovechkin (Washington).
That both parties draw paychecks by the same employer, some with more zeros than others, indicates how seriously NHL teams are taking analytics, the category inhabited by the former. It has become common for clubs to hire at least one person to oversee numbers, with reinforcements from fellow employees or consultants.
The trick now is for teams to apply the expertise their nontraditional employees (statisticians, lawyers, professors) in hockey operations have brought to the sport. As much as hockey has acknowledged the importance of analytics, disagreements exist as to how to maximize the richness tucked inside the numbers.
MIT's annual Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, March 11-12 at the Boston Convention Center, served as the industry's clearinghouse of ideas — more private than public in the featured panels. For good reason. Although attendees paid $575, teams in every sport consider their analytics departments to be working with proprietary information. Competition is open for scrutiny via live viewings and video, but the good stuff is locked up.
So while the conference is not meant for sharing or learning analytics practices, it's a good launchpad for deeper thinking about hockey. Some examples:
■ Nobody knows on-ice play better than NHL coaches and their assistants. The pixels get a little grainier when it comes to player compensation: what they’re worth, when they deserve raises, and who is better off being dismissed. “I’m more about pricing,” said Barnes, the Capitals’ director of hockey analytics. “Where do we buy, where do we sell with a player contract.” The Capitals, for example, said goodbye last summer to Joel Ward, who was coming off a 19-15—34 season. Ward signed a three-year deal worth $3.25 million annually with San Jose. The Capitals invested the same annual amount in Justin Williams (18-23—41 with Los Angeles last season), except for one year less. Ward is 35. Williams is 34. It’s a good bet that some kind of statistical research allowed them to green-light Williams while cutting ties with Ward.
■ It’s hard for hockey operations departments to determine how much one player affects a team’s performance. The Bruins went 5-0-2 in their first seven games after acquiring Lee Stempniak and John-Michael Liles. But it’s difficult to quantify how much they contributed to this run and the roles they’ll play the rest of the season, and whether the price the Bruins paid (four draft picks plus Anthony Camara) will be worth it. The challenge of determining a rental’s worth may be one reason only 19 trades happened before this year’s deadline. Teams didn’t pay high prices for short-term assets. In future seasons, an analytics department may be able to crack the code on applying a percentage to one player’s contribution. “The business side is in your ear: ‘You’ve got to do something,’ ” said Frank Provenzano, former assistant GM in Washington and Dallas, describing the hysteria of the trade deadline. “The owner’s texting you, ‘Are we doing anything? Boston just did something.’ It’s good now to have that contrarian, dispassionate voice in the room that is looking at it from an asset standpoint and trying to filter out that noise that can impact you at times like the deadline or the draft. They’re very dangerous times. The deadline is so dangerous. You’re better off doing nothing.”
■ The NHL is begging for better data from lower leagues. From a manpower perspective, it’s impossible to compile accurate player information from in-person viewings. It’s comparing the one-off approach of a rifle versus a shotgun’s scatter. For whatever reason, a good player can have a bad performance on a night when a specific scout is in the rink. When the scout writes up his viewing, it could be an inaccurate snapshot. That’s why supplemental information via video and statistics is critical to improving the evaluation process. In the NHL, video quality is excellent and the real-time data is good enough. The standards fall off dramatically at lower levels. This dilutes the accuracy of projections. If a vendor can deliver reliable NCAA data, for example — player speed, positioning tracking, shot locations — NHL teams looking for an edge will pay and pay well. Most teams’ preferred area of improvement is at the draft. Richer information will lead to more accurate projections and a higher number of hits.
■ Analytics should help teams understand what players can do. In contrast, coaches, GMs, and scouts are very good at identifying what players can’t do. During a discussion featuring “Moneyball” author Michael Lewis, stat whiz Bill James, and former Oakland Athletics assistant GM Paul DePodesta, the panelists used the example of making cuts in spring training. When trimming their roster, the A’s were dead on about the players’ deficiencies. Successful teams in any sport practice a thinking inversion — emphasizing player assets as much as shortcomings. Where the eye is good at determining areas that require improvement, numbers are effective at spotting strengths. In hockey, examples are a player’s puck possession, pass completion percentage, and plays that lead to successful offensive-zone entries. The defenseman who looks like a stay-at-homer to the eye may be good, by the numbers, at getting the puck going the other way.
■ Teams will get a better understanding of in-season rest and how it affects player performance. Some coaches are already getting wise to gassing the dreadful morning skate. It is a relic. But some vendors, such as Catapult, are using wearable technology to determine how much a player’s workload is contributing to injuries and reducing his reliability. Once coaches are better educated about repetitive stress, it’s possible they may do radical things, such as resting players for games at a time. This is strictly a no-no in hockey until the final week of the season, when stars get breathers before the playoffs. It’s possible, however, that rest earlier in the year is more beneficial during the postseason.
Goalie Enroth in tough spot
Last year, Jhonas Enroth extinguished enough bonfires for the under-siege Sabres for ex-coach Lindy Ruff to welcome his services in Dallas via a Feb. 11, 2015, trade. Enroth went 5-5-0 with a 2.38 GAA and .906 save percentage in 13 games for the Stars. It wasn't good enough for Dallas to make the playoffs. But Enroth thought the 13-game snapshot, combined with his previous body of work in Dallas, would serve as a résumé to earn a good deal on the free market.
He was wrong.
"Last year, I felt pretty good playing in 50 games," Enroth said. "When I didn't get a bigger role during the summer from any teams, I was very disappointed."
Such is the reality for backup goalies such as Enroth, who signed a one-year, $1.25 million contract on July 1 to serve as Jonathan Quick's backup in Los Angeles. On Thursday, as his teammates scattered following a brief morning skate at Toyota Sports Center and post-practice meetings, Enroth was still grinding on the ice, preparing himself for the call that rarely comes. While Quick made his 57th appearance against the Rangers on Thursday, Enroth had seen the ice just 14 times.
"I ended up here and I knew it was going to be a lot fewer games here," Enroth said. "I wasn't ready for this situation. I'm just trying to get better and see what happens."
Now Enroth is in a tough situation. The market has defined the 27-year-old as a No. 2 NHL goalie. It's not a comfortable designation. It is the realm of one-year, low-money deals. There are so many goalies in Enroth's camp (Jonas Gustavsson, Chad Johnson, Jeff Zatkoff, Carter Hutton, Anders Lindback) that playing time is less of a concern than job security. The former, however, regularly dictates the latter, and Enroth's reduced workload this season has not given prospective employers enough data to sink term and money into his next deal.
This is the state of goaltending. GMs have determined that if an ace such as Quick is earning big dough, it does not make sound financial sense to invest in an expensive No. 2.
"Pretty much every team has three or four really good goalies," Enroth said. "It's tough. You just have to make the most of every opportunity you get. At the same time, try to stay pretty relaxed and not try to put too much pressure on yourself."
Through 14 games, Enroth was 6-5-1 with a 2.01 GAA and a .930 save percentage. The Kings' puck-possession approach and sturdy defensive system have been welcome changes for Enroth, who did not enjoy such reliability playing behind the Stars and Sabres last season. He is low on the Kings' list of concerns this year.
Such performance would usually command a raise and an extension. But GM Dean Lombardi has other priorities, including re-signing Milan Lucic. In 2016-17, it will be cheaper to give the backup job to veteran Peter Budaj, who was re-upped on March 2 for one year at $600,000, according to www.generalfanager.com.
So on Thursday, following the morning skate, Enroth inquired about the health of Malcolm Subban, the Bruins prospect who suffered a fractured larynx and is out for the season. No goalie wants to see a fellow puck-stopper go down with a serious injury. But now, goalies such as Enroth have to scout the job market.
Quite a find on the blue line
Shayne Gostisbehere did something remarkable against the Red Wings on Tuesday. The defenseman scored his 16th goal to give the Flyers a 4-2 lead. It was the first time one of his goals did not tie the game or give the Flyers a one-goal lead.
In that way, the 22-year-old has been the team's most valuable player and the primary reason the Flyers are in the playoff conversation. Philadelphia sputtered to a 5-8-3 start with Gostisbehere apprenticing at Lehigh Valley. They might be even higher in the standings had Gostisbehere started the season with the varsity.
Gostisbehere has been dynamite as the power-play quarterback. In 51 games, he had seven goals and 13 assists in man-up situations.
But he hasn't just been a power-play specialist. Among defensemen with 50 or more appearances, Gostisbehere is fourth in the league in points per five-on-five 60 minutes of play (1.29), trailing only Erik Karlsson (1.55), TJ Brodie (1.38), and Brent Burns (1.37). Gostisbehere totaled five goals and 17 assists during his draft year at Union College. His size (160 pounds after his freshman season) scared teams off. The Flyers are making their opponents pay for their fear.
Scrivens wise to play it cool
Ben Scrivens is a Cornell graduate, which means he's a sharp guy. There was no better example of Scrivens's smarts than on Wednesday, when a dust-up took place in front of Buffalo's net between the Sabres and Canadiens. Robin Lehner got into the action by trying to claw off Tomas Plekanec's turtleneck, then trading jabs with Michael McCarron. Scrivens left his crease, but he looked like he was afraid of an electric shock had he crossed his own blue line. Sharp lad. Lehner (6 feet 5 inches, 240 pounds) is a little bit cuckoo as well as large. Scrivens (6-2, 192 pounds) would not have fared well had the goalies thrown down. Maybe if he had his diploma tucked in his pants, Scrivens could have hit Lehner over the head with it.
Greiss in line for playoff action
Thomas Greiss is having a good season for the Islanders. The career backup (he's on his fourth team in the last four seasons) has teamed with Jaroslav Halak to form one of the rare goaltending rotations in the league. Through 32 games, Greiss had a 19-7-4 record with a 2.25 GAA and .928 save percentage. It's the best output of his career. According to www.war-on-ice.com, Greiss's high-danger save percentage was .874, indicating he's been better at snuffing out quality scoring chances than Cory Schneider (.868), Henrik Lundqvist (.861), and Petr Mrazek (.861). But the stat that concerns the Islanders is 41: the number of career playoff minutes Greiss has played. Unless Halak makes a miraculous recovery from a lower-body injury sustained March 8, Greiss will surpass his career threshold in Game 1 of the playoffs.
Making a splash with Ducks
Brandon Pirri made the most of his Anaheim debut Wednesday against the Rangers. Pirri, swiped from the Panthers at the deadline for a 2016 sixth-rounder, skated on the first line with Ryan Getzlaf and David Perron. In 15:30, Pirri attempted a game-high eight shots, with two landing on net. Shooting has never been an issue for Pirri. Last season, the winger scored 22 goals in 49 games with the Panthers. This season, Pirri fell out of coach Gerard Gallant's favor, despite scoring 11 goals in 52 games. Pirri belongs to the category of offensive-minded forward who doesn't do enough away from the puck when it's not going in the net. He will be an interesting case this summer, when he will be restricted and eligible for arbitration. Pirri's numbers will hold up well in an arbitration hearing, so the Ducks will have to make a decision before then.
As the NHL considers its next expansion, one of its priorities is to address the imbalance between the East (16 teams) and West (14). If it considers realignment, neither Detroit nor Columbus will be moved back to the West. In 2013-14, both were shifted to the East, which is where they'll stay, according to commissioner Gary Bettman . . . Mike Eaves's former charges included Ryan McDonagh, Jake Gardiner, Brendan Smith, and Justin Schultz, who played at Wisconsin together in 2009-10. But an impressive list of alumni wasn't good enough for Eaves, who was let go on Friday after 14 years in Madison. Wisconsin went 8-19-8 this season, which ended with a loss to Penn State. This will be one of the hottest openings in college hockey . . . The NHL always cites goalie safety when considering equipment size. One piece of gear that is unrelated to safety is the stick. Shrinking it or even making goalies play with a skater's stick should be the first consideration . . . The Leafs are racing toward the worst record in the league. Yet Mike Babcock's hair looks like that of a 25-year-old. Millions, including me, want in on Babcock's secret.
On Dec. 23, Anaheim went into a brief holiday break with a record of 12-15-6. The Ducks returned post-Christmas and played their next 33 games in sparkling fashion, going 25-5-3 to shoot to the top of the Pacific Division and plant themselves in the playoff picture. Here are five players who statistically made the biggest differences:
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.