The Great Debate: Tim Murray Reads Us And Offers Some Thoughts On Hockey Analytics

Bruce Bennett

Tim Murray was on Buffalo radio yesterday and mentioned that he reads us and follows the debate in analytics closely. He kept his thoughts short but there were still some interesting nuggets that give insight into the larger debate about the role that analytics can play.

Yesterday Buffalo Sabres' GM Tim Murray was on the Howard Simon show Schopp and the Bulldog with Mike Schopp on WGR550 to discuss the Ted Nolan extension, the Sabres, and then things became interesting!

Interviewer: The most interesting thing in hockey for me is Toronto. I can't get enough of it. I'm glued to their radio shows, it's just amazing. This battle between the analytics crowd and the Leafs, who the analytics people think were lying to themselves about the quality of their team. What are you seeing?

Murray: I don't know much about analytics, but do you mean like Pension Plan Puppets and all those guys?

I: [laugh] That's one.

M: [laugh] I don't want to say I follow analytics a lot!

I: You've heard the argument, you've heard the conversation

M: I don't want to ruin my reputation! [laughter] I think it's great, I think it's interesting, I don't want to comment on the other team, but it's, uh...

I: Is there a lesson in it being learned, maybe around hockey? Here's an "I told you so, Toronto," and all places, Toronto - the capital, so to speak.

M: Oh I know. It's strange. Who knows next year, when they bring someone in, and they say well he doesn't have a good corsi or fenwick close, and maybe he plays well, so, are Leafs management allowed to say "I told you so?" I don't know. 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.

There's actually a lot of interesting things just in the first part and moreso in Murray's long answer to finish this particular segment. Before the season began, there was a lot of discussion about what this upcoming season could mean towards the mainstream acceptance of the principals of analytics in hockey. Dellow was excited when Bovada released their betting lines on point totals (quickly pulled once betting started) and Cam Charron correctly predicted the ebb and flow of the reactions to the Leafs' fortunes:

It's all a big experiment, and there's likely been no higher profile test subject in the application of hockey analytics. I'm as interested as ever in what the Leafs do or don't accomplish this season and a good batch of people's acceptance of new hockey analysis is probably going to depend on whether the Leafs compete for the Atlantic Division crown or not. It's going to be divisive, entertaining, and every small winning or losing streak is likely to be accomplished by a thousand "i told you so"s in unison.

It was such a compelling storyline that some ESPN guy even managed to piece together an excellent piece that looked at the terms of engagement and set the stage for the season:

Here's something on which both sides can agree: If you're even vaguely interested in the ongoing debate over the future of hockey metrics, the 2013-14 Toronto Maple Leafs are the test case you've been waiting for. They are the canary in the advanced-stats mine shaft. And that makes them this season's most fascinating team.

The reality of course is that there has been a behind the scenes spread of analytics for a while now. What has been really cool is that this season has indeed provided the highest profile application. Sure, San Jose has been using Corsi to evaluate their prospects for years but now you have the richest team in hockey saying on a daily basis "your concepts in no way apply to our team because we have found the secret to success in the NHL and we don't care that we have no idea what you're talking about" while a cadre of the leading lights in the public analytic sphere and their acolytes are just as loudly saying "you guys have no fucking clue". It's obviously caught the attention of the media who have aligned themselves accordingly. It's no surprise that the battle lines have split almost exactly alike: the old guard that depends on the status quo and are always careful not to upset those in power lest they lose their anonymous sources and the handsome youth that dare to stand in front of the fawning crowd and say "The Emperor isn't wearing any clothes!" Ok, I got a bit excited there.

Anyway, you can see that the attention brought to bear on the topic has grown and the concepts - though not necessarily the names - have started to bleed into hockey's biggest platforms. Hockey Night In Canada has shown offensive zone time of possession which we've seen from draglikepull and JP Nikota's great posts in which they sat down with stop watches lines up as one would expect after reading Vic Ferrari's seminal piece which outlines why we use proxies like Corsi and Fenwick. The other night TSN had a graphic during the Rangers and Oilers game that highlighted the gap in the two teams by showing their total missed shots, blocked shots, and shots on net. In other words, they were demonstrating the Rangers dominance by showing the two teams' Corsi totals. Not sure how they managed to broadcast the game without actually watching it but some mysteries are best left unsolved.

You only need to tune into sports radio in this town - WARNING: may be hazardous to your health - to see that this is a daily topic. You have ex-jocks like Jeff O'Neill making the usual insults before turning heel and conceding defeat! or guys like Damien Cox who exists only to serve as the mouthpiece of whichever powerful executive it best suits him to service. On the other side, you have the intellectually curious that may not be evangelical about the topic but want to understand the argument better. In other words, the discussion is pervasive and because Toronto is the straw that stirs the drink critical mass is being reach for the debate to spread far beyond Hogtown's borders.

Another aspect that I think makes this topic intriguing is the fact that the Leafs' brain trust have been, to be frank, insanely arrogant with the media, fans, and anyone that deigns to suggest that they aren't the smartest guys in the room. Sure, that attitude might make sense when they're sitting in the executive stall playing Maple Leafs' Excuses 2048 (they use it for ideas and don't get the joke) but it doesn't when the majority of their statements and beliefs about hockey can be debunked with a couple of minutes of fact-checking. Everyone in the hockey world already hates Toronto and they're just making it that much easier. But it's the conclusion that offers insight into Murray's mind and is an approach that I think guys like Eric Tulsky and Tyler Dellow would encourage among fans and executives alike:

M: Oh I know. It's strange. Who knows next year, when they bring someone in, and they say well he doesn't have a good corsi or fenwick close, and maybe he plays well, so, are Leafs management allowed to say "I told you so?" I don't know. 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 emphasis is mine and that's really the bottom line of developing and applying analytics to players and teams. If the numbers don't line up with what your lying eyes tell you then what do you do? Do you trust your gut and experience and disregard the numbers as outliers or the entire concept as bunk? Or do you wonder if there's something deeper that you are missing and try to dig deeper into the numbers to see what that might be? Dellow was curious about why Taylor Hall's Corsi had taken a nosedive in spite of him having a pretty productive season. You can see him dig deeper into it over four posts (one two three four). There are plenty of examples of what the Leafs could be doing as well if they just used the analytics budget that they have in place rather than pretend that there is no value to be found:

  1. The Maple Leafs and Defensive Faceoff Losses - What is happening with the Leafs' defensive zone faceoffs that results in the team having below average results? Why is Jake Gardiner so much better than Dion Phaneuf at getting out of the zone and generating shots?
  2. A Brief Defence of Dion Phaneuf - What can we glean about his evolution by certain metrics? Why have some of his numbers cratered under Carlyle?
  3. In Defence of David Clarkson - Signing Clarkson was always a mistake but what are some possible reasons for it being such a disaster?

MLSE is a billion dollar company that has an 80 year old brand that is being run by the hockey equivalent of Stephen Colbert. They loudly shout that their gut has more nerve endings that their brain and that's why they trust it much more than numbers that are generated by Excel spreadsheets.

As for the book-end comments, absolutely there are players that one will let their personal biases get in the way of evaluating players. It happens because at the end of the day everyone is human. That's the immeasurable factor that impacts every aspect of sports and it can become maddening because people try to measure "heart" and "grit" and "leadership" when no one that tosses these concepts around is privy to every pertinent moment or is able to predict it's impact. It's used as a post hoc justification. Look at how Dion Phaneuf has moved from "leader!" to "strip the C!" just based on the team's results. There are things that affect the day-to-day that media and fans just can never know and having a handle on those are how a good GM can bring his expertise to bear.

And can Leafs management say "I told you so" if a player that is perceived to be poor has some success like say, Tyler Bozak? I've been out of school for a while but do students still prance around cheering about getting 20% on their final exams? Sure, crow your hearts out. I come back to my comments on anonymity and credibility for TSM this past weekend and they are true of everyone that writes about hockey whether hobbyist or 'professional':

My credibility doesn't come from decades of covering sports when there were massive barriers to entry or from my exalted status as a former athlete that may or may not know what they are talking about. My credibility and that of all bloggers comes from the track record of what they write. When we criticize or support a move by the Leafs, we do so on the record and that record can be checked. That's how we build credibility and that's how everyone should be judged.

At the end of the day, this debate is philosophical but it's also about credibility and accountability. When a team is making mistakes that hobbyists can predict with available information then what value can we assign to the reams of experience and resources that the professionals possess? How can one think that the management team that has had a hand in two in-season collapses which were predicted by analytics possibly be deemed credible? How can you trust a group of individuals that are unable to tie the lessons of the Game 7 collapse to their larger philosophy be expected to help this team improve? How can Tim Leiweke expect the Toronto Maple Leafs to deliver on his promise of a glorious parade down Yonge Street if they are willing to leave stones unturned and questions unanswered because they don't fit their pre-existing narrative? They're tough questions and based on this snippet of an interview it will be interesting to see how Tim Murray approaches his tenure as GM of the Buffalo Sabres. He has also has a rich owner that wants nothing more than to win a title. How much will he exploit those resources? And what will Leiweke learn this summer?

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