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Analytics on the Rise in NHL Talent Evaluation

Friday, 06.27.2014 / 3:47 PM
By Jess Isner - BostonBruins.com / Bruins Blog
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Analytics on the Rise in NHL Talent Evaluation

BostonBruins.com — When the use of sabermetrics first cropped up in Major League Baseball, there were plenty of skeptics. Now, that sort of analysis is universally accepted in baseball a critical component of any team’s talent evaluation process.

While other sports have been a bit slower to adopt the same practices in their own evaluation processes, Bruins General Manager Peter Chiarelli said that the use of advanced statistical analysis is slowly but surely growing, particularly in his front office.

“You can derive a lot of stuff from your scouting software, and I know a lot of teams do that,” he said prior to Friday’s NHL Draft in Philadelphia. “I think it’s more in the forefront. You’ve got people talking about it more. I think a lot of teams have been doing it and using it. It’s always been a piece that we’ll look at in conjunction with everything else. It seems to be trending.”

On Friday, the Bruins announced a series of personnel changes within their management office, one of which was the promotion of Ryan Nadeau to Director of Hockey Operations and Analytics. Chiarelli said that the promotion was necessary at least in part due to the increasingly large role analytics have played in the Bruins’ talent evaluation process.

“It’s not a new thing — we’ve always done it,” Chiarelli said of using analytics. “But we wanted to augment the department a little bit. He’ll be in charge of doing that. It’s always a supplemental piece to our decision-making. We just wanted to make sure we’re growing it and doing it properly, and Ryan has been with the organization for quite a while.

“He’s a point guy on that anyways, so he generates a lot of lists and metrics that we see when we’re making our decisions and I just wanted to give him that promotion and let him grow the department.”

Nadeau has spent 11 seasons with the Bruins organization, eight of them in the team’s hockey operations department. Previously, he served as Director of Hockey Administration and was also tasked with scouting college prospects in the Eastern U.S. as well as Canada.

“It’s exciting,” Nadeau said of the promotion. “It’ll be a great new challenge, something that I have been interested in for a little while. To be able to get this opportunity is huge. You know, there will be some challenges, but I am excited about it and it should be fun.”

Nadeau said that the ongoing rise of analytics has been a fascinating evolution to witness.

“That part is a challenge because there is a lot going on,” he said. “It is constantly changing and evolving, but that’s a good thing. I think for us, we are in a position to, you know, just continue to make sure that we are using every tool possible to evaluate and help us in our decision-making process. It’s just another tool to help us.”

Chiarelli added that it is important to avoid letting analytics take over the entire process. They comprise just a piece of the puzzle, he said, not the entire thing.

“You just can’t get caught up in it too much,” he said. “It promotes discussion, and through that, you end up back on the talent evaluation. So I think it’s a real instructional piece, and we just don’t publicize it. We just thought that Ryan’s been doing this for a while and we wanted to make sure he got some credit for it. “

Nadeau said that one of the most interesting aspects of the growth of analytics has been the way it has opened doors for new — or different — kinds of minds in the sports industry.

“Lots of blogs and websites and stuff – people are doing some pretty impressive stuff and just posting it,” he said. “So as that happens, more and more people are seeing it and using it. So the growth has been quick, but I think part of it is just because of the technology these days, it’s easier to get the word out there. Some people have done an extremely good job of detailed work and we’re going to use some tools to continue to do that on our end.”

Nadeau said that analytics don’t necessarily change the team’s outlook on a prospect; instead, they allow that player to be seen in a different way. Analytics might show him something that traditional statistics — such as plus/minus, points and goals — may not reveal.

“Most things are centered around possession and shots and things like that,” he said. “Some of them obviously are proprietary, and I can't really get into details on it, but we’re just going to continue to evaluate players in a different way as another tool to kind of let us look back on and help us make those decisions.”

There have even been times in the past where advanced analytics have contradicted popular opinion about players. Nadeau was hesitant to offer up a concrete example, but he said that the numbers don’t lie. In fact, sometimes, perception does.

“I think kind of the funny thing with watching players — especially if you're watching for a while — your eyeballs can trick you a little bit on certain things,” he said. “So having the data and the factual things to back it up, I think once you look at that, often times it supports what you're thinking.

“But yes, there are examples every now and then where you’re like, huh that’s interesting. And then you go back and look at it and say, you know, what, I can see where I was kind of misled.”

As Chiarelli, Nadeau and the Bruins approach the 2014 Draft, which will take place on Friday and Saturday at the Wells Fargo Center, analytics will factor into their decision-making process, to an extent. In the end, though, they are simply another piece of the larger complex puzzle otherwise known as talent evaluation.

“It’s another resource that, when you're going to make a decision, it’s there in front of you and it helps shape what you're doing,” Nadeau said. “I don’t know if you can put a certain percentage on it and how you're doing it, but obviously, it’s supplementing what eyeballs are doing. Like, we’re going to obviously continue to scout and scout heavily.

“This, again, is just one more resource that if we didn’t go down that road, we would kind of be losing a good piece of evaluating players.”

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