Analytics Aren’t Going to Destroy the Locker Room

Jaromir Jagr, along with the rest of the Florida Panthers, has a new head coach to report to (Courtesy: Wikipedia)

I certainly didn’t expect to be writing my second straight post about the Florida Panthers, but after the firing of Gerard Gallant and the ensuing firestorm on Twitter, here we are. The prevailing notion across the internet from many established media members is that Florida is now run by the “Computer Boys” who know nothing about hockey. I’d first like to rebut this claim: Tom Rowe, the new coach of the Panthers, played 357 games in the NHL and has been a coach in the AHL, KHL and NHL for 14 seasons. Embedded in that resume is a period as the head coach of Yaroslavl Lokomotiv in its first season back after the terrible 2011 plane crash that killed most of the roster and coaching staff. There is a belief that the new head coach is someone who knows nothing about leading a professional hockey team, but the facts indicate otherwise.

Now, while I do believe that Florida’s management team has been treated unfairly in the media, that’s not what my focus is on. Rather, there seems to be this fear that analytics are going to have an adverse effect on players. Some people believe that the reliance on statistics-based evidence will disrupt a team’s locker room. I read an article last week by Craig Custance on ESPN (which is Insider protected, unfortunately) featuring two quotes by Keith Yandle and Roberto Luongo, respectively:

“I respect what they’re doing with it,” Yandle said. “But math, whatever it is, science whatever it is, that’s not my thing.”
“I don’t know how to or where to find [analytics]. I’m quite active on Twitter, I have seen the battles back and forth between old school and new school. I couldn’t tell you what’s better and what’s not,” Luongo said. “We prefer to keep it out of the locker room.”

Clearly, judging by the statements above, the players don’t care much for the analytical side of the game. And why should they? As players on the team, their responsibility is not to analyze mathematical data that indicates superior performance. Their responsibility is to work hard every day on the ice and in the weight room to physically contribute the most that they can to the team.

Let’s say Gerard Gallant was still the coach and he came to the rink today deciding that he wanted to switch to a power play with four forwards and one defenseman (which is a change that Custance, in his piece, believes Rowe might make). He would mention in the room or on the ice that he was making the change, perhaps give a few reasons why he believes it will be successful, and then the players accept it and get to work. With Rowe as the coach, nothing changes. The players don’t show up to the practice facility and see a computer screen that spits out a bunch of confusing numbers at them. The role of a coach, whether he uses analytics or not, is to make decisions and justify those decisions. The only difference in this case, one that I find to be a positive, is that if a player is curious as to why they are making this change, Rowe can use actual statistical evidence. His response may be something along the lines of “our research indicates that putting four forwards on the power play will lead to an increase in goals that outweighs any defensive lapses we might have.” That’s a simple, reasonable explanation with the hard numbers to back it up if any player was so inclined to dig that deep (Here’s a piece by Matt Cane which tackles the issue).

Keith Yandle has played for coaches with a wide variety of playing styles in his career. Dave Tippett, Alain Vigneault and Gerard Gallant are all coaches who use different strategies and styles of coaching to run their teams. Within all of those different systems, Yandle has remained one of the top offensive blueliners in the NHL. Adoption of analytics won’t change the way in which coaches deal with players, it will simply change the reasoning behind their tactical decisions. Tom Rowe won’t be wasting Yandle’s time by boring him with spreadsheets and charts. He’ll be spending time behind the scenes analyzing the data and then condensing it into a form that Yandle, and the other players on the team, can easily understand. Communication is, after all, one of the most critical skills a coach must master.

Whether you’re a proponent of analytics or don’t think they have a place in the game, you’ll likely be watching the Florida Panthers closely moving forward. They have publicly embraced this new-thinking mindset as much as any other team and have made some drastic changes in the process. If you couldn’t tell from any other part of this blog, I’m a pretty big believer in the value of analytics, but I think one of the biggest obstacles preventing them from taking a stronger hold in the hockey community is the lack of proper integration with traditional forms of coaching and sportswriting. The Panthers are a public experiment in whether or not the front office and new coaching staff can take the game-changing data they have and communicate it in a way that empowers the players rather than confuses them. If they are able to do that, there might soon be a new peak in Florida’s franchise history.

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