The case for analytics in hockey started on websites not unlike
this one. It was largely fan/layman driven, but it was done publicly
and every idea proposed was scrutinized. I think part of the hubris of the
analytics community comes from the fact that many of their basic principles
have been tested over and over. There’s a confidence that comes from testing
concepts and having them cut the mustard. Surely there’s also a confidence that
comes from spending your entire life in the highest levels of hockey (amateur and
professional). That’s why it’s always entertaining when the worlds of analytics
and traditional hockey collide.
While I will always lean towards ideas that have been
dissected publicly, it’s not as if all people in the analytics community are
right or all people in the traditional hockey world are wrong. No different
than in any other aspect of life, intelligent and idiotic people are scattered all
over. Nonetheless, even now there are people who believe those in positions of authority
got to there on merit alone, meaning their decisions should be
trusted all the time. If they aren’t infallible then they’re very close.
Someone in my position (dissenter) might hear: “Do you think
you know more about hockey than Patrick Roy?” or, “How many more years of
management do you have than Jim Benning?” whenever they dare to suggest either
is making a terrible call. That’s par for the course and while I temporarily
feel sorry for the state of critical thinking, I generally move on pretty
That takes us back to something Peter Chiarelli’s rival and
colleague, Jim Benning, said earlier this week. Benning traded for a rather
unimpressive number four defender this week when he traded Jared McCann, a second
round pick, and a fourth round pick for Erik Gudbranson and a fifth
round pick. The move is almost unanimously panned by vocal members of the
established analytics group. Meanwhile, the people we commonly label as the “traditional”
hockey voices thought the Canucks walked away winners.
I’ll be up front: I think Jim Benning got his lunch money
taken from him on this one and the guy walked away thinking he beat the bully.
That last bit is the most revealing part. Responding to the
immediate negative response the deal received from the staterati (made up word),
Benning doubled down on his position. On hockey analytics he said:
To be quite honest, I
don’t get it sometimes. There’s a place for analytics. We use analytics. But
you use analytics like vitamins — to help you out, not as your staple.
Decisions have to be
made by hockey people who know what winning teams look like and how to build
Hockey people who know
what winning teams look like. This is basically the “How many more years of
management do you have than Jim Benning?” argument said by Jim Benning HIMSELF.
Now, I’m sure Benning is a good guy. We are both from the north side of
Edmonton. In fact, we’re both from Delwood, so we could have a conversation
about a few things without ever having to mention hockey. My Grandfather
probably delivered his mail. We probably shopped at the same convenience store
(Bing’s, now One Minute Foods).
However, when it comes to hockey I would love to be on the
other side of the negotiating table with someone like Jim Benning. If analytics
are nothing more than vitamins (the thing my wife makes me take because I
forget they exist five days a week) then there’s a great chance that he’s not
using all the information available to him when he makes his decisions. Meanwhile,
the Panthers have been relatively quick to adopt newer voices into their circle
of decision makers.
The Canucks were willing to pay a premium for a player with
size and pedigree regardless of his measurable impact on-ice. The Panthers were
willing to let Benning pay that premium.
Gudbranson is a hulking 6’5” 220 pound former third
overall pick of the 2010 draft. He’s also a righty. But I can also tell you,
after spending no more than three minutes on publicly available databases, that
his offense was one of the worst on the Florida defense over the last several
years, his possession metrics were among the worst of that blueline, he was sixth
in terms of EV TOI/G on their blueline, and despite getting lots of PK time the
team gets pumped for shot attempts against when he’s out there.
Erik Gudbranson is, at best, a number four defender and on a
good team he’s a bottom pair player. The Canucks paid a lot for someone
whose impact on the game is so minimal. Obviously it’s still less than what the
Oilers paid for Griffin Reinhart, but let’s hope the lessons have been learned
from that fiasco.
Hockey men making hockey decisions “because they know what
it takes to win” is exactly the kind of environment that fostered the
development of analytics. There are good and bad hockey players out there
waiting to be discarded or picked up for profit to the teams willing to trust
measurable results more than they do their daily dose of Flintstones vitamins.
There’s still hope for the Oilers to move on from noted boat anchor Lauri Korpikoski, to get back some of the investment put into Griffin Reinhart and to find an actual top four defender because it’s still pretty clear that there are plenty of “hockey people who know what winning teams look like” that are a lot more focused on what players looks like compared to what actually happens when they step on the ice.
We know Jim Benning is one of those hockey men. There’s one number the Oilers GM can keep handy when he wants to unload some of those pieces.