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Analytics, stats making way into draft process

by Adam Kimelman

This season the NHL took a deep dive into the world of advanced analytics, taking the "fancy stats" debate more into the mainstream.

That trend soon could reach the amateur hockey level.

More teams are using advanced analytics in their quest for any extra information they can find when judging prospects.

Players picked at the 2015 NHL Draft, which will be held June 26-27 at BB&T Center in Sunrise, Fla., certainly will be viewed through that spectrum.

The first round of the draft is Friday (7 p.m. ET; NBCSN, SN, TVA Sports); rounds 2-7 are Saturday (10 a.m. ET; NHLN, TVA Sports).

"I think the trickle down has started to seep into the majority of organizations," Florida Panthers director of scouting Scott Luce said. "I think all organizations are trying to fine-tune what and how they can take the data and how they can use it and better utilize it for decision-making when it comes to making a draft pick at the draft."

As they are at the NHL level, scouts and general managers are reluctant to talk about how they use advanced analytics at the amateur level, or on what information they place the most emphasis. However, most will admit to using analytics as part of their evaluation process.

"The truth of the matter is the people that are using it would rather not talk about it," Arizona Coyotes general manager Don Maloney said. "And we're one of those teams because we think we have something that's valuable to us. But what it is and how we use it, we'd rather keep it to ourselves."

The degree to which teams use advanced stats on the amateur side is muted somewhat by the lack of consistency of information. Data available from a game at the Ontario Hockey League is different from what's available from the Western Hockey League, a Minnesota high school league or a junior league in Russia or Sweden.

"As far as I know or have looked into it, it's even more scattered on the amateur level in how it's collected and recorded and how consistent it is," Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen said. "Until we get to the point where it is [more consistent], the eyeball part of the scouting is still going to be the most important one."

The consistency of data is something NHL teams, with their organized and uniform real-time scoring system and advanced video capabilities, don't necessarily have to worry about. But junior leagues have different concerns. Some are financial; some are related to finding physical space in smaller arenas for extra sets of eyes to track information.

And as one official from the Canadian Hockey League said, tracking time on ice is a touchy subject because of how junior leagues could use that information as a recruiting tool against each other. With time on ice a key factor in the gathering of advanced stats, not having that information curtails a lot of data collection.

Some NHL teams have taken it upon themselves to keep their own numbers, either by attending games or watching video.

"For us at our level, we kind of do it a little by ourselves at this point," Dallas Stars amateur scout Mark Leach said.

Though it may be difficult, some teams find it worthwhile to put in the extra work.

"That's up to us to try to collect the data that is meaningful," Washington Capitals assistant GM Ross Mahoney said. "Some leagues are maybe a little more advanced; maybe the major junior or the college level you probably have more access to the data than maybe a high school. That's up to us then to be able to go out and do our due diligence and be able to collect what we want."

The Toronto Maple Leafs have been very public about their use of advanced statistics at the NHL level. Those same analysts now are lending their knowledge to the Maple Leafs' amateur scouting staff.

"What our [research and development] team has tried to do is tried to take any sort of information we can from the players," Maple Leafs assistant GM Kyle Dubas said. "It is two-pronged. There is historical data and how it applies to current-day players and what that can do for us in terms of predicted value. We are also doing a deeper drill into some of the things we track in games that are proprietary. We hope that allows us to better predict how a player is going to fit with us."

Toronto director of player personnel Mark Hunter, who will oversee his first NHL draft this year, said having the analytics department participating has brought a fresh element to scouting meetings.

"It really gives you a different thought, a different angle," Hunter said. "Any part of the scouting process, if it can make you think more, it's a good thing. … We have a good staff. Our analytics department knows which leagues are good, which leagues are not, how to rate the leagues to make sure you get a fair number off these kids. I think it comes down to them doing their job; we're pretty happy with our people in place, our personnel. They're bringing names up to us, which we like. Make me think. That's what it's all about."

Another factor is the age of the players to consider. Most players who reach the NHL have reached their peak physical development. Junior-age players develop at different rates; one who isn't fast enough or strong enough in certain areas of the game at age 17 could enhance those abilities significantly by the time he turns 19, after he's been drafted and exposed to NHL-caliber weight training and nutrition.

"These are young hockey players who are still changing and evolving," Leach said. "I think for us at our level, our kids are so young we really look at how they play the game."

The use of advanced stats at the amateur level remains in its infancy, but within the next decade, a number of NHL scouts predict the availability and usage of those numbers will increase rapidly on the amateur side.

"I think it's something that's going to become more and more of a bigger part of the amateur scouting for sure," Mahoney said.


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