Moneyball it is not.
But the Toronto Maple Leafs have been listening to statistically minded folks make pitches for years, with GM Dave Nonis willing to open his door to more than a dozen groups that thought they had hit on the next big thing.
So far, however, he hasn’t been compelled to play out his inner Billy Beane and build the Leafs using any of the data they’ve looked at.
In fact, Nonis explained that often the organization isn’t even spending any of its allocated analytics budget because they don’t see a need to.
“We’re constantly trying to find solid uses for it,” Nonis said on Monday as he took part in a sports analytics panel at the PrimeTime Sports Management Conference. “The last six, seven years, we’ve had a significant dollar amount in our budget for analytics and most of those years we didn’t use it.
“We couldn’t find a system or a group we felt we could rely on to help us make reasonable decisions.”
Nonis was joined on the panel by an interesting cross section of executives from various sports – New York Giant assistant GM Kevin Abrams, Winnipeg Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff, NHL agent Pat Morris and Raptors analytics consultant Alex Rucker – but it was clear from the beginning of the hour-long conversation that the Leafs GM was the least stat-inclined of the group.
While Rucker espoused the use of SportVU cameras to measure what occurs in basketball games and Morris talked excitedly about new NHL stats like Corsi, Fenwick and quality of competition, Nonis maintained a decidedly old-school view.
He explained, for example, that many statistics rely on data that is “polluted” by poor record keeping by the various arenas, that “hard stats” like ice time and points are more useful and reliable, and that many advanced statistics being used are “not accurate” or “relevant.”
All of those factors, he added, conspire against the wealthiest team in hockey using analytics in any substantial way.
“The biggest thing we use is going to watch a player play,” Nonis said. “I haven’t see anything that’s going to stop that from being the primary source of our decisions.”
That the Leafs are not heavily invested in the sport’s budding analytics movement is not a surprise.
Many of the moves they have made over the past few years have been questioned by the growing number of analysts out there, and Toronto has consistently posted some of the league’s worst puck possession numbers (which often rely on shot-attempt based measures such as Corsi and Fenwick) since Nonis was promoted to the top hockey job in January.
That the Leafs have continued to win games (including an 11-6-0 start this year) in spite of that has made their front office a focal point all year and done little to persuade Nonis and Co. that their methodology needs a rethink.
So while other teams like the Minnesota Wild have made enormous strides towards improving their even strength play at least partly because of their use of analytics and a buy-in from coach Mike Yeo, Toronto isn’t close to attempting a similar, data-driven shift in ideology any time soon.
Nonis, however, remains hopeful that at some point there will be a numbers-based approach that the Leafs front office can get behind and use that isn’t currently available.
“People run with these stats like they’re something we should pay attention to and make decisions on, and as of right now, very few of them are worth anything to us,” he said at one point during the panel, blaming media and fans for overhyping the analytics currently available.
“That will change. I predict this [SportVU type of] technology is going to help us. There will be a stat that will help us make some decisions; I think that is coming.”
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