Flyers move further into analytics

Philly.com

Boston - He has a seat on the Flyers' chartered plane. He attends every practice - even the two in Cape Cod last weekend - and usually sits alone.

He doesn't spend much time around the locker room. He is always sharply dressed, wearing a suit, and his strawberry blond hair is neatly coiffed.

He is not a coach. He is not part of the medical or public relations staff. He does not carry equipment bags or massage players' sore shoulders.

In fact, the only hint that he works for the team is that he carries a computer bag emblazoned with the Flyers logo.

His name is Ian Anderson. He is a 31-year-old California native who has never played hockey. His official title is "Manager of Hockey Analytics." He is also the Flyers' most mysterious employee, his work shrouded in secrecy in an increasingly paranoid and copycat sport.

The Flyers never publicized his hiring - one of Ron Hextall's first orders of business after taking over for Paul Holmgren as general manager on May 7.

The "Moneypuck" era of advanced statistics and metrics arrived in a big way in the NHL this summer, most notably when Brendan Shanahan hired 28-year-old guru Kyle Dubas to be the assistant GM of the Toronto Maple Leafs. Toronto's playoff hopes crumbled in the final 2 months of last season, as the team's play averaged out to where most of the puck-possession stats predicted it would.

Using data from the last 20 games of each regular season, a stat called "score adjusted Fenwick" has accurately predicted six of the last seven Stanley Cup winners - who all ranked either first or second in the category. The stat has only been tracked for 7 years.

The Kings, with whom Hextall worked and won a Stanley Cup, have ranked near the top in most categories the past few years.

Teams around the league followed suit and snapped up experts and pioneers in the stat world this summer. Edmonton hired frequent critic and Toronto lawyer Tyler Dellow. New Jersey brought on Sunny Mehta, a former professional poker player, at the urging of team owner Josh Harris, who had hired basketball analytical mind Sam Hinkie to run his NBA franchise in Philadelphia. Accomplished blogger Eric Tulsky, the son of a former Inquirer reporter, now works for an undisclosed team.

"Analytics is where we're going," Hextall said the day he was hired. "I'm very interested. I think it's very intriguing. Why do I have an analytical mind? I have no idea, but I do. You can't overvalue it, but in my mind, it's going to become more and more valuable.

"I wouldn't say it's a huge part, but it's going to get bigger and bigger."

The truth is, the Flyers were already at the cutting edge of analytical technology last season. They paid a hefty sum to be the exclusive user of Catapult Sports' proprietary "biomechanical analysis," by attaching a chip to their players in practice to track movement, acceleration, heart rate and intensity. The Buffalo Sabres have since adopted Catapult.

Even before that, years ago, the Flyers would post a sheet in the locker room the day after games that showed scoring chances for and against, broken down by each player. The stats were tracked by hand using video, under the instruction of coach Peter Laviolette.

Now, that information will be available in real time, even for use in adjustments between periods.

But who is Anderson and what will he bring to the table?

Will he have an impact on transactions and personnel?

Hextall declined comment for this story, saying he'd like to keep that information "internal." Anderson has been instructed to not speak to the media.

An Internet search reveals that Anderson received a master's degree in predictive analytics this year from Northwestern University. He spent the last 9 years working for the Capitals, first as a regional ticket sales manager and most recently as director of team services and travel.

Clearly, Anderson brings with him knowledge of the well-established advanced stats, which help depict puck possession by tracking shot attempts for and against. From what we can gather, Anderson will also add a geometrical aspect to that data, specifically where on the ice these events are taking place; that will help the coaching staff from a teaching standpoint with positioning.

So far, Anderson's impact has not been felt in the Flyers' locker room. Luke Schenn and Matt Read both said they didn't know much about the advanced stats. Schenn said he would be interested in learning more "within reason," saying "certain things may be able to help you."

"We've never really discussed much about it internally," Schenn said. "I'm not even sure which stats [the coaching staff] is looking at."

Coach Craig Berube said on Monday that "there are no tricks to winning hockey." He is constantly stressing to his players to "stop thinking and start playing." Yet, Berube - a hockey purist by most measures - is excited about the potential of the advanced stats.

"I think it's really good information that we get," Berube said, not going into specifics. "It's very helpful for your own team and preparing for other teams. It will be for the players, too, but we'll pick and choose what we share [with them]. You don't want the players overthinking too much. Stats are good for coaches."

Defenseman Andrew MacDonald, for instance, might not want to know that he ranks in the bottom tier of the league in terms of analytical stats.

"It's funny. Sometimes you want to know things, other times you don't," MacDonald said. "There's certain stats that weigh more than others. To be honest, I don't understand how a lot of it works. You just don't want to think too much, like, 'Oh, I need to get my Corsi up.' You can't be thinking about that on the ice.

"What got you here, for the most part, are your instincts and skills."

Compared to baseball, football and even basketball, hockey remains the toughest sport to analyze through data. There are few set plays, even fewer repetitive scenes. It is a random, fast, dynamic, free-flowing sport with a complicating physical element.

Anderson and the Flyers are on a mission to figure out what it all means before the other 29 teams.

"This sport is not rocket science," Berube said. "There is a fine line [with data overload]. Any time you've got a resource that can help your team, you've got to use it. But you've got to use it in the right way.”

 

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