(Image Wikipedia Commons)
Recently, the statistical analyst of an NHL team was let go in the aftermath of an underwhelming regular season and a puzzling decision involving one of the team’s most productive and iconic players. Rights and wrongs aside, the episode illustrated an uncomfortable fact: the analyst’s job is perhaps the most fragile one of all.
Imagine the tightrope walker, balancing him/herself atop a fine metal wire between two buildings. The job is a difficult one on the best of days, requiring a lifetime of practice and undivided focus. Randomness is not the tightrope walker’s friend. A gust of wind, a slight mis-step or even a meeting with an errand low-flying pigeon could yield deadly consequences.
While the physical stakes are different, an analyst’s career prospects (and personal well-being) are similarly affected by things out of his or her control. While job security in any field is dependent on market conditions, things are especially dire for the technical worker responsible for uncovering Truths, but ranked too low in the corporate hierarchy to effect real change.
If the analyst is wrong, he will be fired. (And deservedly so)
If the analyst is right, but bad results occur due to randomness at the player level (slumps, injuries), he will be fired.
If the analyst is right, but bad results occur due to randomness at the front-office level (lack of trust, inability to negotiate profitably), he will be fired.
Conversely, a correct analyst whose team achieves good results may receive a modest bonus and a one-year contract extension. The risk asymmetry is jarring.
There are a few ways for the analyst to mitigate those risk. The easiest is to go work (part-time) for a team which can’t possibly pay him/her a living wage. The best, to buy an NHL team and run it the way s/he sees fit.
Some very smart people who work in the game have written me to say that the same dynamic applies in all facets of hockey, whether you’re a player, coach or a manager. That is 100% true. However, being a player or a coach versus an analyst or a manager is the difference between being a dentist and being a stock broker.
When you play or coach or fix teeth, people can readily see whether you have good or bad process. If you can’t skate backwards, or run a practice, or drill a cavity, you will be found out immediately, whereas the process of an analyst or a manager is a lot more opaque and subject to “how much other people like and trust me” rather than real results.
Jack Han is the Video & Analytics Coordinator for the McGill Martlet Hockey team (not his full-time job). 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.