Near the end of his formal introduction as general manager, long after the Wild’s new dog Breezer tried to upstage him, Bill Guerin was asked the all-important question about analytics and their use in hockey.
“I’m all in with it. … It’s another way to look at what’s going on,” Guerin said, adding that he’s not a number-cruncher himself but he appreciates the data he receives. “The more information you can have, the better. We were extremely big on it in Pittsburgh.”
This will certainly please a certain subset of Wild fans, particularly those who believed former general manager Paul Fenton wasn’t of the same mind. But I should also caution that talk is cheap and that Fenton offered an answer 15 months ago at his introduction that was fundamentally different than Guerin’s but also similar in some ways.
“I don’t believe that any decisions are going to primarily be made by analytics, but it will support everything we do with our eyes,” Fenton said when he was introduced in May 2018. “That’s the most important thing. I will use every resource that we have.”
A growing number of sports fans, I think, have come to equate analytics with “good” or at least “smart” in recent years.
But “analytics” can be a catch-all word that gives people with a vague understanding but leaves them short on specifics or concrete examples.
Recognizing that there is a healthy debate to be had about how to best use data — and how useful it is — in a free-flowing sport like hockey, let’s nonetheless take a crack at trying to identify how analytics might be used to view one very specific and interesting player: Wild forward Jason Zucker.
Zucker was a player who clearly fell out of favor with Fenton, to the point that the former GM nearly traded him twice. The second of those near-trades was with Pittsburgh – where Guerin was assistant GM before taking the Wild job.
What might make an organization like the Penguins, where analytics were “extremely big” as Guerin said, value Zucker more than the Wild — which didn’t appear, at least, to value data as much under Fenton? Here are some possibilities:
*The Penguins might have looked at Zucker’s 2018-19 season, when he dropped from 33 goals the previous year to 21, and saw quite a bit of bad luck, pressing or both.
Zucker’s puck possession metrics actually improved last year from the previous year. He also attempted 60 more shots last year (398 vs. 338) than the year before, but a whopping 184 were either blocked or missed the net. Of the shots that reached the net, Zucker scored on just 9.8% of them compared to 14.9% the year before and his career average going into last season was 12.8%.
Perhaps the Penguins concluded that Zucker is more likely to settle in as a 30-goal scorer than a 20-goal scorer based on that and other data (courtesy of Hockey Reference).
*The Penguins might have also looked at a study that suggests forwards play at or near their peak performance between the ages of 24 and 32, then experience a decline.
Zucker is 27 and has four years left on his contract (at $5.5 million per year), which should be during his peak years.
The primary forward the Wild was set to get in return — Phil Kessel, who vetoed the trade — has three years left on his contract (at $6.8 million per year) and turns 32 in October. Kessel has scored at least 20 goals each of the last 11 seasons and has averaged 30 in that span. But he might be due for a decline.
Data never tells the whole story, of course, which is something upon which Fenton, Guerin and even the most die-hard believer in analytics would agree.
But it will be interesting to see how and if it is incorporated during Guerin’s time as he tries to undo some of the damage from the last 15 months.