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James Mirtle photographed in Toronto in February 2010. (Fernando Morales/Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)
James Mirtle photographed in Toronto in February 2010. (Fernando Morales/Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)

Oilers hiring move deepens league’s interest in analytics Add to ...

It could well be the most controversial personnel move made by an NHL team this off-season. And what’s remarkable is that it wasn’t the addition of a new coach, general manager or even a player.

Instead, it was the Edmonton Oilers reaching into their own fan base last week and hiring Tyler Dellow, a Toronto-based lawyer turned amateur statistician who had become the organization’s biggest critic over its eight consecutive playoff-less seasons.

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After a unique courtship that involved the team flying him out for a demonstration of what he could do with data a year ago, the Oilers were finally pushed to commit last week when other NHL teams came to Dellow with job offers.

Even though he was hotly pursued in what’s been dubbed hockey’s “summer of analytics,” the hiring was then heavily criticized, primarily by members of the Edmonton media whom Dellow had ripped for years on both social media and his website, mc79hockey.com.

Smart, caustic and sometimes over the top, Dellow had made some enemies.

Few, however, were in the Oilers front office.

“I heard through the grapevine [during the year] he was being highly critical of our team,” Oilers head coach Dallas Eakins said on Tuesday.

“That didn’t bother me. I’m like, ‘How can he not be highly critical of our team? We’re in 28th place.’ So of course he was.”

“I think the criticism of Tyler has been his ability to challenge people forcefully in a conversation and defend what he believes in,” Eakins added. “But I’ve got no problem with that. I like that he’s got a goddamn opinion. That’s what you need when you’re in these meetings.”

In any other summer, a lower-level hockey operations hire – even one as curious as Dellow – would have been more under the radar. But the Oilers were following a trend that has more organizations trying to add number-crunchers.

In June, the New Jersey Devils added a professional poker player named Sunny Mehta as their director of analytics, after publicly posting the job and conducting a lengthy search.

In July, the Toronto Maple Leafs – a club noted for its lack of investment in this area – made 28-year-old Kyle Dubas their assistant general manager, at least in part due to his analytical approach as a GM in the Ontario Hockey League.

Then this past weekend, the Florida Panthers hired Brian MacDonald, a math professor at the U.S. Military Academy, as their director of analytics.

According to those in the field, those four hirings by four non-playoff teams have been part of a greater openness to analytics in the NHL over the past few months.

“There’s really been a tipping point this off-season,” said Marc Appleby, president of PowerScout Hockey, an Ottawa-based company that provides optical tracking technology and analytics, and is expected to add several NHL teams as clients this coming season.

“I just thought it was time to get on with it,” Eakins said of bringing in Dellow, whose work marries possession-based stats like Corsi and micro-data with video analysis. “I really believe that, over the next year or two, you’re going to see 30 teams with somebody doing analytics.”

In Edmonton, this isn’t a brand new path. The team had already been working with a local firm, Darkhorse Analytics, to provide some data over the past few seasons. And the front office, led by new GM Craig MacTavish, has an increasingly progressive reputation around the NHL.

What they obviously haven’t had is results to show for it, albeit after only one season with MacTavish in the GM role and Eakins as coach. But the hope is that Dellow – who hasn’t been permitted to speak with the media since his hire – will help the process of turning things around.

MacTavish and vice-president of hockey operations Scott Howson want analytics to be a significant factor in decision-making, and the team’s two big free-agent signings this summer – Benoît Pouliot and Mark Fayne – were both Corsi darlings.

Whether or not the Dellow hire works will be one of the more intriguing behind-the-scenes storylines in the Western Conference next season. “Tyler just seemed like the perfect match for me,” Eakins said. “He’s sharp. He’s more than the one-trick Corsi wonder. He understands everything fully. We think there’s going to be a great opportunity to look at our team in a number of different ways that Tyler can help us.

“A coach’s job is not to sit there and say, ‘I already know it all. I don’t need anybody else’s opinion.’ I want to hear everybody’s opinion. Then it’s my job to make that final decision. I’ll listen to [new assistant coaches] Craig Ramsay and Keith Acton and Rocky Thompson and Craig MacTavish. And we’re going to listen to Tyler Dellow, too. He’s going to have a voice in our room on certain matters.

“We’ll see where this goes. I’m excited by the hire.”

Follow on Twitter: @mirtle

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