Blog Entry

Chris Snow talks statistical analysis in hockey

Posted on: July 15, 2011 9:16 pm
Edited on: July 15, 2011 9:46 pm
By: Adam Gretz

In any of the other three major North American sports we have a strong idea as to which teams utilize some form of advanced statistical analysis in their front office operations. In baseball we know it's the Boston Red Sox, Oakland A's and Cleveland Indians. In basketball we know it's the Dallas Mavericks. In the NFL we know it's the New England Patriots.

In hockey, it's still a bit of mystery. Perhaps because it's a subject that hasn't really been reported on enough (or at all), or simply because it's an area that teams haven't fully started to develop. It's not necessarily a matter of reinventing the wheel, as much as it is finding a way to add to the process of building a team and constructing a roster.

One person that has had a direct involvement in the still developing analytical community within the NHL is Chris Snow, a former sports writer that covered the Boston Red Sox for the Boston Globe. After spending a number of years in the Minnesota Wild front office as Director of Hockey Operations, Snow caught on with the Calgary Flames this summer as their Director of Video and Statistical Analysis. According to the team's official website, his job description includes the "implementation and oversight of the club’s video and statistical data mining programs including designing, developing and implementing a proprietary data base of hockey information for use by the club. In addition, he will integrate the data-based video system PUCKS into the team’s coaching, player preparation, scouting and planning processes."

I had a chance to speak with him on Friday afternoon to figure out what all of that means and how it compares to his previous role with the Wild.

"I would say it's much more defined," Snow told me. "With the Wild I went there with the expectation that I would be doing some work of this nature. Part of the appeal for [former Wild general manager] Doug Risebrough when he hired me was that I had been an observer to what the Boston Red Sox were doing, and what some pretty progressive baseball teams were doing. At the same time, he wanted someone who could assist the assistant general manager in the day-to-day operations."

Snow said this could have involved any number of responsibilities, including preparations for contract negotiations, arbitration hearings, planning for summer camps and simply being in a position to be around players and coaches on a day-to-day basis.

And anything that involved any sort of analysis.

"Without a doubt when we did things that were analytical in nature, and developed it for that matter, I was the person in charge of doing that," said Snow. "I would say it amounted to maybe 20-25 percent of my time, where now it will be the predominate part of the job."

As for the video analysis portion, Snow said the Flames already have a full-time employee -- Jamie Pringle -- committed to the video needs of their coaching staff and players, and his job will be to make sure they have all of the resources they need, and to complement the process.

"if I think the program they're using can be used to a greater capacity," said Snow. "I can maybe make recommendations to them. If there is, let's say a development component -- maybe they want the system to do more for them -- I might be somebody that kind of takes a week or two and works on that and then gives them a recommendation. I think I'll be a resource for them as opposed to someone on a day-to-day basis that is participating in their process. We haven't been yet been able to get into that day-to-day feel quite yet, but once the season gets close and we go through training camp it will become apparent as to how that will all work together."

I had an opportunity to have a similar discussion with Snow back in August of 2009 when he was still working with the Wild. During that interview I asked him if he knew of any other teams across the league that were involved in the type of analysis he was helping to develop. He couldn't give a definite answer because, as stated above, it hasn't been a subject that's been widely reported on (or accepted) across the league.

Has there been any sort of definitive progress in the two years since?

"I still get asked that question a lot," he said. "And I still don't know the answer."

"I think for teams that show curiosity or interest, and a lot of that honestly came in the past year as I was looking for a team that might be a fit to work for, certain teams demonstrated more curiosity about data and video information than others. But I would say even those teams that showed interest, I think they were probing more than I was able to probe, if that makes sense. They were looking for either what I might be able to offer, or what they should be doing without necessarily entertaining having me work for them. It's difficult unless you work for the team to know how a certain team is operating."

As to why it's so difficult to pinpoint which hockey teams are utilizing these new systems or resources, Snow pointed to two primary reasons.

For one, there hasn't been a team that's had a great deal of success building a winner with this method in the NHL (at least not that we know of). In baseball, it was easy for other small market teams to look at the Oakland A's winning the American League West on a shoestring budget every year and attempting to follow their path.

This hasn't yet happened in the NHL.

In the past, I've asked a number of general managers what, if any, statistical analysis they use and received a variety of answers, ranging from "we use everything," to others saying they're not quite sure what they're supposed to be looking at.

"Anyone needs to see some sort of evidence," Snow said. "For those that are experimenting and telling you they're not quite sure yet, they're being pretty honest with you. I suspect with each of these sports there was an event, a level of success with an organization that was identified, and that compelled an owner or other general managers to say hey, we need to follow that route. In baseball it probably started with with A's, and the Cleveland Indians, and San Diego Padres and Boston Red Sox."

The other reason: there seems to be a bit more fluidity to baseball front offices. People moving from one organization to another, producing a sort of general manager tree, which allows the ideas and practices to be spread throughout the league. Snow pointed to the John Hart Cleveland Indians as one example, having produced people like Chris Antonetti and Josh Byrnes. The Billy Beane A's, of course, would be another good one, having had Paul Depodesta and J.P. Ricciardi move on to take general manager jobs of their own.

"I don't see those types of trees that sprout in the NHL yet," said Snow. "And again, there also hasn't been one person or team that's had a great deal of success with analytics and required the league to pay attention to it."

At this point, we know of at least one team that's currently moving -- at least in some small part -- in this direction in the NHL and it should be interesting to see if the Flames can be the team others in the NHL can point to and eventually follow.

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Since: Apr 23, 2010
Posted on: July 16, 2011 1:00 am

Chris Snow talks statistical analysis in hockey

Four things wrong with this article. First, the picture. Weird.

Second, there are a few things wrong in this quote.

For one, there hasn't been a team that's had a great deal of success building a winner with this method in the NHL (at least not that we know of). In baseball, it was easy for other small market teams to look at the Oakland A's winning the American League West on a shoestring budget every year and attempting to follow their path. 
For starters, the A's are a bad model to use as an example, they suck. Also, while there isn't the same type of development approaches as other sports, most hockey clubs do well with minor league affiliates. Many franchises take their development systems seriously, investing heavily in their AHL franchises, scouting, trainers and conditioning coaches. The Red Wings and Kings, for example. If the Canadiens didn't have Scott Gomez on the payroll (and let's face it, they don't need him), they would be a "shoestring budget" team who consistently has strong seasons. Also, compared to the other sports (especially baseball), NHL payrolls are TINY, so if you want to speak comparatively, many do work off shoestring budgets and always have.

Third, I'm not sure how pouring over tapes and analyzing them in-depth is drastically different from what this Snow fellow does, but there have been a number of coaches known for using film analysis to change their techniques. Roger Neilson is the first that comes to mind.

Fourth, statistical analysis, though important, has never been a critical part of the game. Namely because unlike baseball and football, hockey is very free-flowing and is largely based on response positioning and exertion (output of energy), two attributes that are very difficult to categorize and record into vector or raw statistics. I like to illustrate the pinnacle of what characterizes hockey in the play of Nicklas Lidstrom and Mario Lemieux. Though both legends, neither ever had the hardest shot, never were the fastest skaters etc. They excelled because they were always in the right place, positioning themselves perfectly in response to the play. They exerted the right amount of energy at the right time to steal the puck and create plays. Sorry to Lids for placing him in the past tense, I realize he's still active.

While statistics like shot accuracy are important in illustrating the game without visuals, anyone who knows hockey well will tell you that other statistics, such as plus/minus (+/-), are largely useless and often unfair representations.

My two cents. 

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