Practical Concerns: “The Blind Side”, Intangibles and My Off-Season Plan At McGill

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(Photo credit: Derek Drummond)

At VANHAC, I was asked by a few people about how we use analytics in our program. Every season is different, and to gain a full appreciation of my intentions this summer, it’s worth digging into the central thesis of a football book.

What Really Drives Results?

“[Quarterback Joe Montana, wide receiver Jerry Rice and running back Roger Craig] are stars. They accumulated the important statistics: yards, touchdowns, receptions, completions. [Left tackle Steve] Wallace is not considered a producer. He has no statistics.” – The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game (Michael Lewis, 2006)

While Michael Lewis’ Moneyball did much to improve the popular understanding of analytics in sports, I happen to think that The Blind Side can help bridge the gap between traditionalist and numbers-driven analysts just as much as Moneyball did.

If you peel away the diverse storylines in The Blind Side, this is the central question behind Lewis’ book: What does a good left tackle do for his quarter-back (and by extension, their team)? And how much is that worth?

Very valuable, as it turned out. Unless an NFL team wanted your multi-million dollar quarterback seriously maimed by an opposing pass-rusher, it had better hire a left tackle with the size, speed and sense to keep up. The problem is, if this player does his job well, nothing happens that can directly be attributed to him – he has no statistics.

But conceptually, his impact on the game is not all that hard to identify. A good left tackle provides a safe, productive (and dare I say, fun) work environment for his teammates. By paying attention to the process of football, you can probably come up with a few good ways to account for that.

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(credit: Derek Drummond)

Building A Bridge

When you arrive to this conclusion about football players, it becomes a lot easier to see why the idea of “being a good teammate” and “having intangibles” matters to people working in hockey. I’ve alluded to this elsewhere, but there are really two aspects to creating that good working environment for other people – one can’t be expressed in numbers conveniently, but I reckon the other already can be. Both matter a great deal to the end result, and to how people feel in the process to getting there.

I didn’t have time to really dig into this during my talk at VANHAC, but this is probably the most important realization I’ve had in two years working for the McGill Martlets hockey program.

Graduation Day

Every year, our team gathers in the alumni lounge of McConnell Arena to hand out team awards and pay homage to our graduating players. It is also, unofficially, the point in time when I start planning for the following season.

While our coach Peter Smith is giving a speech about how hard our players worked and how much they have grown over the course of the season, I’m thinking about how to replace goal differentials.

After the 2014-15 season, I calculated that, with the players we were graduating, we would be losing about 32% of our offensive output (sticktap to Ryan Stimson‘s Passing Project for being an inspiration). The rest of the off-season, the coaching staff and I spent examining stats and looking at game tape (ours and other teams’) in order to identify opportunities to overcome that loss.

We ended up going from 2nd in the nation in Goals For Per Game in 2014-15 (4.25) to 8th (2.60), for a 39% loss in offensive production. But we (mostly) made up for that by improving from 13th in Goals Against Per Game (2.09) to 4th (1.54).

In the end, we were able to punch above our weight for much of the year because of good preparation, which started with correctly identifying who we were and what we needed months ahead of the first puck drop of the season.

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Looking Ahead

We’re in the midst of repeating the same exercise as last year, quantifying the impact of our past and present players and stealing some good ideas from a few Stanley Cup contenders (I’ll be watching the Pittsburgh Penguins very closely in the coming weeks).

So what’s in stores for the Martlets for the 2016-17 season?

Imagine the Montreal Canadiens losing their top three right-handed defensemen. Imagine the Anaheim Ducks going without their top penalty kill unit. Imagine the Tampa Bay Lightning completely overhauling their goaltending situation. Lots of skilled players gone, to be sure, but also a lot of players who are adept at putting their teammates in good positions, whether it is with a possession-driving play, with a strong defensive play or with a kind word on the bench.

Spreadsheets have helped us form a very, very vague idea of who we can be and what we need to work out, but now comes the real hard part – to be present, be enthused, and work hard toward another National Championship.

Jack Han is the Video & Analytics Coordinator for the McGill Martlet Hockey team. He also writes occasionally about the NHL for Habs Eyes on the Prize. You can find him on Twitter or on the ice at McConnell Arena.

 

 

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