Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Sabres coach Ted Nolan throws some cold water on analytics

Reprinted with permission from

Ted Nolan reminds me of my father.

As a student in college my father and I would often get into philosophical battles over current events and politics. I'd throw a salvo his way replete with "scholarly" theoretic and he'd counter with a simple, down-to-earth retort that would smack me down.

Although I never gave up, oft-times his life experience would trump my book knowledge.

I'm not sure who asked Nolan about analytics, but the Sabres' old-school bench boss was probably the last one to ask about that subject. Corsi and Fenwick might as well be a millennial-generation comedy team in Nolan's eyes.

Nolan kept it simple when broached with the subject, “If you have a Crosby on your team, they’re going to have a little bit more zone time. If you have a Kopitar on your team, they’re going to have a little bit more zone time," he said yesterday. "You look at all the teams that make the playoffs, they make it for a reason, they’re better teams. What we want to do is become a better team and you do that you get better players and it hasn’t changed since the 50’s and 60’s, you get better players, you have a better chance of winning.”

Nolan is the head coach. He's on the bench, in the locker room and in contact with everyone of his players on a daily basis. He has nothing in common with this new wave of hockey scholars using gigabytes, spreadsheets, a screen and a keypad. “The information I’ve used is with my eyes and my soul and my heart," he continued. "If I see someone who’s competing and I know he’s competing, that’s good enough for me. I don’t need a machine to tell me how hard he worked.

"In modern day hockey there's a lot of emphasis put on analytics and how much possession time, but you can never underestimate the human aspect of the game. I can see it for myself. There’s some of that data that you can use for how many calories they burn, but my number one analytic is you score one more goal than the opposition, you win.

"Hockey's not all that difficult, there's a science to it, but it's not rocket science."

Why couldn't the Sabres score last year? They didn't have the talent.

Why did they finish dead last? They didn't have the talent to score one more goal than the opposition.

Despite what some might think, unless Sabres' GM Tim Murray's throwing up a smoke screen, he's very similar to Nolan when it comes to analytics. When asked by the afternoon guys at WGR about analytics back in February, Murray was quoted as saying, "I don't know much about analytics.

"To me, you go by what you see, you ask the guys upstairs if the numbers correlate, and if they do, then you think you're on the right track, and if they don't, then you have to make a decision: Are the numbers right, which most times they are, or are your eyes right? And that's the tough decision. Because there are players out there you like that don't necessarily have great numbers, and I don't want to get into all my philosophy on all that, but you can get fooled some times, for sure."

The Stanley Cup Champion Los Angeles Kings are often times trumpeted as a champion of the analytics movement. Kings GM Dean Lombardi was said to have used the numbers extensively while building and refining a team that's won two of the last three Cups. Jon Rosen authored a piece entitled Lombardi cautious towards analytics overreliance for the LA Kings website's, LA Insider, and drew back the curtain, somewhat, on Lombardi's use of advanced stats.

In the article Lombardi admitted to talking analytics with former Boston Red Sox General Manager and current Chicago Cubs Director of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein, but what they talked about and how Lombardi uses numbers remain a "secret." He asks rhetorically, “Like if you have a secret formula, why would you tell the world about it?"

He eventually gets to the heart of the matter, though. "There’s a perception out here that we have the Holy Grail – some magic formula – that that’s why we’re winning, and 'Lombardi’s got this blah blah blah.' So, yeah, maybe we have been [using analytics]. But don’t forget, too, like I’ve always said. There’s a big difference between data and knowledge, and how you use it. Be careful. And the other thing, too, is that you’ll never convince me that emotion isn’t a huge part of this game, more than any other game.”

Lombardi and Nolan are both 56 years old and were born in the Original Six era of hockey. The NHL expanded in 1967 when they were nine years old. Since then the league has gone through tremendous changes from the sheer number of teams added to the influx and influence of European hockey players to big changes in the way the game is played. Now there's yet another "change," the analytics movement and although both look at it a differently, their core belief is that the human element is the defining factor in the game.

No matter what one might think of Ted Nolan as a coach, and although he may come off as some dinosaur in a new world, there's validity to his approach. When Nolan says, "you can never underestimate the human aspect of the game," it's a different wording of the same message Lombardi uses.

It's a simple message that you don't need a computer to figure out.

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