Home/Editorials

New York Islanders Proving Modern Analytics Worthless

By Bryan Lotto
NEW YORK, NY - AUGUST 30: Overview of the HP 30th Anniversary edition of the 12c Calculator at the HP 30th Anniversary celebration of the 12c Calculator at Harry's Cafe & Steak on August 30, 2011 in New York City. (Photo by Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images for HP)
NEW YORK, NY - AUGUST 30: Overview of the HP 30th Anniversary edition of the 12c Calculator at the HP 30th Anniversary celebration of the 12c Calculator at Harry's Cafe & Steak on August 30, 2011 in New York City. (Photo by Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images for HP) /
facebooktwitterreddit

The New York Islanders finished 26th in Corsi For (CF), 22nd in XGF (expected Goals for) and 23rd in Fenwick percentage in the regular season. What does that tell us? Apparently, not very much.

When the Toronto Maple Leafs hired Brendan Shanahan in 2014 one of his first moves was to recruit 28-year-old statistical whiz kid, Kyle Dubas. The Shanaplan saw Dubas as a future GM who could benefit from some ‘old-school’ tutelage under current New York Islanders GM Lou Lamoriello.

The Leafs roster indicates Dubas didn’t learn all that much.

Dubas has never played or even coached at any hockey level. Never before had an NHL GM been hired primarily based on his application of statistical analysis. But, Dubas’ charisma and confidence have swayed the most hardened hockey traditionalists.

When Lou was sent packing it signaled a real paradigm shift. Throughout the NHL, analytics would be emphasized as never before.

But it doesn’t work.

And Lou knew it.  Lamoriello gave the league this warning.

Warning

Most NHLers have stronger feelings towards analytics. Including a New York Islanders player who is having a pretty good playoff so far.

"“I think Corsi is garbage. It’s kind of a waste of time,”-Jordan Eberle"

The Isles did finish first in one advanced metric, PDO.

Remember PDO?

That was the statistic critics used all year to tell us that the Isles would crash and burn. An above average measurement (shooting percentage+save percentage) was considered nothing more than a measure of temporary puck luck. And no team could sustain the regular season luck the Isles were having.

The Islanders confirmed that a team could create their own luck with structure and teamwork. Moving forward, analysts may now have to consider PDO as a more reliable stat.

Increasingly, NHL teams are hoping their analytic departments will provide an edge. That reliance partially explains why the Isles beat everyone in the regular season. It also explains why Kuhnackl, Filppula, Martin*, and Komarov were available in free agency. (Yes, Martin was traded for.)

Additionally, it explains why Lou took so much criticism for signing those bottom six forwards.

Lou’s process values character more than Fenwick. His requires the extra effort of getting to know the player both on and off the ice. For Lou, the conversation itself provides insight into one’s strengths and potential. This complements Barry Trotz everyman philosophy as Coach effectively rolls four first lines for the Isles nightly.

This Islander team is sometimes branded as a young, inexperienced group.

The reality is that Lou’s roster represents five cup winners; Filpulla 2008 Wings, Leddy 2013 Hawks, Boychuk 2011 Bruins, Kuhnackl in 2016 and 2017 with the Pens. Rookie defensemen Devon Toews went to two national championships with Quinnipiac.

The NHL playoffs create new heroes every year. When the pressure ramps up, elite stars rarely provide their regular season, PPG pace. We need look no further than Sidney Crosby’s Round One performance for confirmation. That’s why hard workers like Nystrom, Bourne, Kallur have as much playoff worth to Islander fans as do, Bossy, Trottier, and Gillies.

Contrastly, Dubas’ model created a team with three first lines and one second. Even when the Leafs realized they needed a veteran, they chose 38-year-old Patrick Marleau, a great player, but one who’s criticism is lack of grit and intensity.

Dubas statistical values gave little importance to the roles a Matt Martin or Leo Komarov provide.

The Leafs GM is not to blame.

And he’s not alone in his process.

The Islanders have proven the experts wrong. And they are disproving the method many teams are using to build their rosters. Everyone other than Lou seems to have underestimated the power of belief.

Hockey has changed significantly in a relatively short timeframe. It’s more disciplined. It’s faster. Players have more time and space to show their skills. The most popular advanced measurements highlight individuals who can best possess the puck.

However, determination and will are immeasurable.

Player commitment is immeasurable.

Coaching and leadership are immeasurable.

Analytics will continue to have a place in the game. But the primary flaw is the data cannot measure emotion in a game that demands it. The intensity, speed, and physicality of hockey are unique. These differences from other sports increase the need for intangible qualities in a player.

As a result, advanced stats in hockey are better served to validate rather than predict outcomes.

In baseball, measurable tendencies can create a real strategy. In hockey, advanced stats rarely give the desired edge that the eye test alone provides.

Promotionally, analytics have provided the NHL a fan base they may not have reached otherwise.  Many of today’s top hockey writers have developed within that fan base. But those writers shouldn’t hide behind algorithms. They should strive to share their knowledge as hockey experts, not Corsi experts.

The NHL is a copycat league. The Shanaplan uses analytics as a determinant of personnel decisions.

Should the Islanders approach prevail,  could it start a return to traditional team building?

Let’s hope it takes a few years for the rest of the league to catch up to the Islanders winning formula.

For naysayers within the professional hockey community, I think this sums it up fairly well from Brett Cyrgalis.

"Now, it’s time to stop waiting for the other shoe to fall. Now, it’s time to stop treating the Islanders like a surprise and start treating them like what they are — a terrific team."

Next. Top 5 Goalies in Isles History

Over the course of this season, obscure statistics drove much of the pessimism.

Now, it’s time to put down the calculator and watch this exceptional Islander team play.

facebooktwitterreddit