logo

Long Read: Brad Holland Discusses His Path to Assistant GM, Analytics and More

alt
Jason Gregor
2 months ago
Brad Holland was six years old when his father, Ken, became a scout for the Detroit Red Wings. He watched his father go from scout to director of scouting to assistant general manager and finally to GM of the Detroit Red Wings over the course of a decade. Brad played hockey growing up and finished his career playing for Sacred Heart University in NCAA, but realized a pro playing career wasn’t going to happen. He opted to graduate from Fordham University of Law.
He got lucky and was hired by NHL.com as a writer while also doing video work in 2006, and then he started night school at Fordham University of Law. He got his degree while working for the NHL. He actually left his job with Hockey Operations and practiced law in 2013-2015, but hockey was his passion and he felt the constant pull to be involved in the game. Brendan Shanahan worked with him at the NHL, and convinced Holland to leave Goodmans LLP, and work for the Maple Leafs. He signed a two-year deal with Leafs, but after two years the role wasn’t what he wanted.
He returned to work for the NHL in hockey operations and did some scouting for central scouting, and after declining previous offers to work with his father, he accepted a job with the Oilers in 2019. I caught up with Brad to discuss his career path, working with his father, analytics and his new promotion to assistant general manager. Brad was offered an assistant GM job with another NHL team, and the Oilers opted to match that rather than let him leave.
Jason Gregor: The working relationship with your father, Ken — give me the breakdown of how that works.
Brad Holland: This is something that has evolved over a long period of time. When I started at NHL.com, I found out years later that it was not a hard rule that family members of club personnel were not to be hired, but there was an arm’s length between the league and the clubs. And it was always a concern there would be conflicts or challenges if you were to hire family members of club personnel.
So I didn’t realize this at the time, but there was a bit of a question about hiring me, and it got sorted out and I started with NHL.com and everything was fine for years. I went to the draft, I went to the Stanley Cup finals; Detroit went to two Stanley Cup finals. So now, I’m covering Ken’s team in the biggest spotlight in the NHL and that was really the first time that our respective positions kind of budded up against each other. I had to really manage my fandom at the time. I had been working for a while and I worked hard to look at all teams objectively and not favour any over any other, but now it’s my family in the Stanley Cup final. So that first time was a real challenge for me at least.
I don’t think it was a challenge for Ken, but I was still pretty new, so that was a learning experience for me. I remember my boss at the time, Bob Condor, the second year of Pittsburgh v. Detroit, and Detroit lost in game seven (2009) and he came up to me and said, ‘Go and be with your family, we don’t need you here.’
And I said ‘Bob, I don’t work for the Red Wings, I work for NHL.com. I’m here until we’re done.’ I remember I worked until 3 a.m. And I remember him saying, ‘I was was really impressed by that. I told him that’s what I’m here for. I’m not here to be Ken’s son. I needed to forge my own path.
So that happens and a couple of years go by. Bob Condor, again my boss with NHL.com, says he went up to hockey operations in Toronto and he told me, ‘Brad, you have to get up there. I’m really good at determining people’s career paths and this would be a good career path for you. So I’m going to send you up there for the playoffs, you’re going to cover them (hockey operations) for NHL.com, see what they do, see how they work and come back and write some articles, or do something about it. Or maybe just go up there so that we have a better relationship with them.’
So I went up, met them and had a great time. Learned a ton. I was doing some press releases for the league website on some of the playoff decisions they made, and then I think it was that summer, they lost somebody to be a video coach for the Chicago Blackhawks and then about two weeks before the season they asked If I’d come work for them. I said yes. I learned after the fact, that there was more concern that we (hockey operations) had a family member of a club personnel in the situation room. And so I could not rule on anything involving Detroit. I would recuse myself, like a judge with a conflict, I never weighed in, I was never included on emails, there was an ethical wall put up — if there was ever a suspension involving Detroit either for or against, and that’s how we managed it.
I was privy to a lot of information that I could not give to Ken, and probably vice versa, and we just kind of came to this unspoken agreement that everything is arm’s length. You don’t talk about yours, I don’t talk about mine. We just kind of did our own thing and we didn’t really talk about anything that could get us into trouble. We just didn’t do it because there was no upside, there was only downside. So that my evolution and then a few more years go by.
Ken had asked me to work with the Red Wings a couple of times, but it was never the right fit. Then he asked me to work for Edmonton and I said yes, 100%. Now we’re on the same team, and the arm’s length relationship that we had built we had to break down a little bit, which was strange. Now we’re working together, we’re sharing information, we’re in the same room, we’re on the same team and it’s a totally different relationship.
I think that that the biggest challenge early with the Oilers was kind of managing that now we do share information, we do have to help each other out. It didn’t take very long but it did take a little while of an evolution, a growing period and once we broke down that, then the really good part of our relationship began where he trusted my process, and he understood what I was doing.
He allows everyone to be vocal. In every meeting that we’re in I’ve never seen a leader empower like Ken Holland does. And he gave me the same respect and treatment that he gave his employees. It was no different. I was tasked with finding the general manager players. That was my job: to find, to raise players up to Archie Henderson, to help Archie to find players for Ken and it wasn’t any different I think than any other manager-pro-scout relationship.
We didn’t talk on our own, I went through channels, and it was a very hierarchical military relationship. I went up to Archie, Archie brought it up to Ken if he through that it was a good idea. I would never go around or do anything that wasn’t sanctioned by Archie Henderson. And that really fit in well. I think that we have now stepped into the next evolution where people will be passing on information to me and I will be passing it along to him. And like we did with the first three iterations with our relationship, we will have to come to a new one.
Gregor: What are your new responsibilities, or expanded responsibilities in your new role as assistant GM, professional scouting?
Holland: Well it’s funny, for my whole career, I was always trying — and this is not a good thing, I say this with a lot of humility and a little bit of regret — I was always kind of looking for the next job and I think that hurt me in my career. So when I got this pro scouting job, I thought you know what, I’m going to be the best pro-scout that I can be. I’m going to refine my process to the point I’m comfortable I’m doing everything I can with all of the tools available to me in making recommendations to Archie Henderson, to Ken Holland to make the Edmonton Oilers better.
And I refined that process continuously over three years and I loved it. It was an awesome job, it was an exciting job and it was a hard job being away from your family and your home, as I have little kids. It’s tough and sometimes you don’t want to go on a three game trip through St Louis, Nashville, Chicago, but that’s where the players are, so you do it. I rebuilt and built my game sheet four or five times over those three years. I’m still building it now, but my job was always narrowly focussed. It was to go and find players.
A lot of people think that the job we have as pro scouts is to go to games. It’s not. It’s to find players for the Edmonton oilers and how you do that is your own plan. Everybody has their own process, everybody has their own way of going about that and using their own tools. I built out a process that I was happy with and still involved to this day, but I’m at a point where I think I’m utilizing everything in my power to find the best answers. But like I said, it was a narrowly focused job.
Now, I’m responsible for a group. Responsible for a team of people where it’s not just go be a lone wolf, go to the games, find players, bring them to your supervisor, go home in the summer. I spent more time working in the last two months than I ever have in the summer. I was working my entire vacation. It’s a funny thing, I remember growing up, my dad constantly on the phone on vacations and I getting upset that he wasn’t in the pool with us or whatever. And now it’s me. And my kids are asking me to go fishing and go swimming and I couldn’t do it. My wife was taking the kids down to the lake. And I thought this is what this job is and the previous job was not. There are responsibilities outside of simply going to find players. It’s about a building processes and powering your team, and fighting for them, coming up with tools that they can use. Supporting them, listening to them; this is managing people rather than managing a process or your own job. That is the thing that has changed. In the end, player evaluation is the job for any pro scout, any director or pro, but when you’re leading a group a lot more responsibilities come up and you’re responsible for the lives and careers of people and I really don’t take that lightly. I think that is the biggest change in the most important part of my new role.
Gregor: Since you’ve been working for the Oilers, was there a focus on analytics? Was there more of an emphasis on it than people on the outside who were critical of it, or was it an accurate and fair criticism that Edmonton didn’t use analytics enough?
Holland: No, I don’t think that it was an accurate and fair criticism, there was a lot more going on than anyone realized. And that’s a smart thing for any club to do. I think Edmonton was close to the first adopter of sports analytics in hockey. If they were not the first, they were one of the first. I think that the modern analytics community in hockey, the Moneyball moment, I believe originated in Edmonton. I’ve heard enough anecdotal evidence, I wasn’t here, I didn’t know, but there were a few people doing it here kind of, as their side job, they were blogging and maybe some other people from other areas were contributing. But the nexus, I think that’s why our fan base is so passionate about this, because they have been reading about this for a long time. I think that as other teams embraced it and it was very public, for some of the teams, Edmonton just kind of quietly did its own thing.
And so I think that it was just kind of assumed that we weren’t doing it. But we have two people, Justin and Shaun Mahe who’ve been here a long time, they have been working with this, doing the numbers, advancing this internally. Craig MacTavish and Kevin Lowe embraced it. There is a documentary, I think that it was on the discovery channel, a couple of years back about some of the analytics they were using even in that regime.
So no, when I got here, it was a part of the conversation already. What we’ve done I think internally, at least since I’ve been here, is our leadership group has embraced it and that has allowed people in our organization… like our coach (Jay Woodcroft) loves it, and our previous coach (Dave Tippett) loved it. He tracked scoring chances and put numbers to subjective analysis. It was always a part of the conversation.
What we are trying to do now, and I’m not entirely sure if the language doesn’t work. But I sort of use instead of analytics, I use the word data. To me it encompasses analytics, but it also encompasses anecdotal evidence, hearsay; I’m a lawyer so I like to use lawyer words, eye test, anything you can use, I think is under the umbrella of data. You know, we have to find answers to very difficult questions.
My dad has frequently said in interviews on the amateur scouting side at least, ‘We’re trying to gauge the future of 18 year old kids. I couldn’t tell you what my kids were going to do when they were 18 and I raised them.’ So these are very difficult and subjective questions. There is a lot of uncertainty and risk involved and what we are trying to do and what we have done with Edmonton and this comes from our leadership group. It’s Bob Nicholson, Ken Holland, Bill Scott, Keith Gretzky, they all to a certain degree have really pushed this and wanted to do this, and wanted to try to grow and learn. And that’s what we wanted to do, to eliminate the risk and uncertainty of our decision making process and to use every single tool that we have available to make that happen.
Gregor: Speaking of analytics, last year I got an inside peek with a company who works with NHL teams with some of the data and it was vastly different than the public data. Is one the of the issues with the public data is that it’s not as in-depth as what teams use, so people will see the public data and they will assume that’s what the teams are using. How different is it from what you see publicly to what you use personally?
Holland: Well it’s very different. There are a number of partners in this space, companies in this space that saw a need and moved in to fill that need. The NHL does a great job, you’ll have to double check this, but I think Dave Baker still runs the off-ice officials for the NHL, he was there when I was there with hockey operations. I was a part of the group that would early on would double check if a player thought that he had the second assist and he wasn’t given it on the ice, we would go back and review. Bakes was always a part of it. He runs the off-ice officials. They are continually educating his people on what is a giveaway, what is a take away, to try and make it uniform across the league in every building.
Today, I think there are six off-ice officials at every game who are tracking things that the statistics, like the game sheet does not. So there isn’t a little, there is a lot of data available publicly, but these companies have now come in and have invested in infrastructure, money, time, effort, to build out more robust data sets that is available publicly. That comes at a cost. And these companies aren’t doing it for warm and fuzzies. They are doing it to be profitable. They are competing with one another, they are trying to come up with better and better ways of quantifying what happens on the ice, and I think most, if not all NHL clubs, use some version, or some number of these partners.
Some use a lot, some use a little and some use to varying degrees. There are tiering systems with these companies that you can add, you can subtract, kind of customize their programs for what your use will be. We have at our disposal, a certain amount of information that is not available publicly, and to what degree you will use that information, or trust that information or are willing to understand there is a certain amount of accuracy to some of these things. Many companies will come in with a lot of promises and then you start asking how accurate is it, and they say well very accurate. And how accurate is it and they will assign a number. And that’s not as accurate as I thought, and if it’s 75% accurate it’s almost 0% accurate. There are companies who do this exceptionally well that we have partnered with. And we work with them on a daily basis to refine the information we are getting, so that we are making those risky and uncertain decisions, less risky and uncertain.
Gregor: Having looked at numbers, is there one or two you like better?
Holland: Totally. I can’t tell you everything (laughs). Absolutely there are. In fact, I can say that I have evolved from my first year, where I was sure that shot share was the game. That was the answer. With what you do on the ice, with what you contribute to your linemates, your teammates, are you winning the shot share, are you consistently outshooting your opponents?
I’ll say that that is where I started three years ago and I bet you I have re-evaluated that number, the one that I kind of gravitate to, at least five to six times to where I think now there is, and you know what, what I think now probably won’t be what I think in a couple of years because these companies are growing at such a fast rate, and the available technologies are getting so much better, so much cheaper. Think about how much a TVs price has come down in 10 years. The barriers for entry on these things is getting smaller and smaller. It’s allowing better and smarter and more efficient companies to get into this space, and everybody is constantly trying to come up with a secret sauce that is going to give the teams this ultimate edge.
I don’t think that is ever going to happen. I think we are all going to get better, and get better data and it’s going to come down to how the teams choose to use it, to what percent they give it in their decision making process. And so I have evolved, I think as the available data has evolved, and I will continue to do so because we are trying to ice the best team and we are trying to compete against very smart people on other teams with a lot of resources. So we have to use everything in our power to compete. This is sports, this is competition, this is why we are in this game, this is why we love this. This is why it is so important to be a part of the Edmonton Oilers because we are trying to beat other people at the same game.
Gregor: I like how you talk about evolving, because the game and the data is always evolving and changing. Looking at shot share, which you loved a few years ago, what are the deficiencies in shot share that you uncovered?
Holland: Not every shot is created equal. And not every opportunity is created equal and not every player is created equal. What a player can do with a shot, is very different from player to player. I will tell this story, and I love this story because I was so surprised by it. A friend of mine is Chris Osgood. He was the goalie of the Red Wings dynasties way back in the day. The Red Wings acquired Brendan Shannahan in 1997. And a couple of months later I was talking to Ozzy and I asked what is it like with Shanny shooting on you. He says, ‘Oh my gawd, he’s so smart about how he tries to score.’ What do you mean, he just shoots it really hard?  He replied, ‘No, he’s always asking me after he takes a one-timer in practise or after he takes a shot from a certain position, he asks how he could have made that a more dangerous shot?’
And Chris was really surprised. No one had ever asked him that before. Shanny asked, ‘If I go back against the grain from this position or if I go higher on the short side, or is it harder for you if I go low blocker?’
He wanted to make sure that every shot he took had the best percentage of going in. Which if you know Shanny now, he’s embraced analytics. Not surprising to me, he was doing probabilities back when he was a player. So I think that’s where I started to think you know shot share sounds nice, and it is a good metric, something that we do look at, but when you start to think that not every shot is created equal and every player is different and they are going to do different things, and they are in different positions on the ice, a couple of different ways they can shoot, they can delay, they can go low, they can go high or they can put it back across the grain. There are a lot decisions they have to make when they make that shot, so not every shot in another position on the ice is going to be created equal and that’s when I started to learn that this wasn’t the only game in town.
Gregor: You mentioned moving forward and the evolution of analytics, and earlier we talked about 18 year olds. Do you think analytics will truly help in amateur drafting or is there always going to be a crap shoot, because of the uncertainty of the maturity process and some players peak at 18 years of age? Some things just won’t be trackable?
Holland: The inherent risk of drafting 18-year-old players will never be eliminated. Period. No matter what you do, how many different tools you have, no matter how many times you sit down with their coach, no matter how many times you sit down with them as a player, as a person, there are things that you will never be able to predict, track or quantify. A lot of it is educated guesses.
I think there are some things that you can do that you look to other sports. Baseball has decided — and this is nothing new — that high school pitchers are too risky and you are better off with similarly skilled players going with a college pitcher. I love looking at different sports. Look at basketball: Some teams would draft high school players and that was the risk that some teams were willing to take, and others weren’t. Now in football they have determined some metrics that breakout rate, the age at which you breakout, and I think that it is designed most for receivers, but the age at which you breakout as a receiver is predictive of how successful you will be at the NFL level. I know there are some soccer clubs who believe that there are magic numbers in how high you can jump and at what age and it will determine your probability of injury based on those metrics and they have sport science departments who run through millions of dollars to try to answer these questions. Everyone is trying to eliminate the risk in the decision making process, but nobody will ever be able to completely eliminate it.

#NATIONVACATION TO LAS VEGAS

  • When: On Thursday, January 12th, we’re jumping on a flight at the Edmonton International Airport and making our way to Vegas. On Sunday evening, we’ll fly back from Vegas to Edmonton. So the dates that you need to block off for this trip are January 12th to 15th.
  • Where we’re staying: After landing in LV, we’ll jump on the free shuttle and make our way to the Park MGM before settling in for a good night’s sleep. 😉
  • What you get: Your roundtrip flight, hotel, shuttle, viewing party (Friday night), game entry — we got seats this time (Saturday night), and exclusive entry into our pre-trip ‘get to know everyone’ event.
  • How Much: The total cost for the trip, flight, hotel, and entry to the game is $1499 per person (based on double occupancy) 
  • Tickets: Ready to dive in? Click this link.

Recently by Jason Gregor:  

Check out these posts...