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Oilers hopeful analytics could provide a competitive edge

by Chris Wescott / Edmonton Oilers
Photo by Jeff Nash / Oilers TV

The Edmonton Oilers are searching for any competitive edge they can get their hands on, and they are not alone in that quest.

Every team in the National Hockey League is battling for the coveted Stanley Cup, and any assistance they can get along the way is welcomed. That is the thought process behind the Oilers hiring of analytics guru Tyler Dellow to consult with hockey operations.

Dellow, better known as mc79hockey in the online community, ran a popular blog described as “an Edmonton Oilers fan site focusing on statistical analysis of players, team and management.”

He made a name for himself providing advanced stats breakdowns to the public while being critical of the Oilers. It’s something the organization knew full well going into this hiring process.

“I know he has been highly critical of our team and I am fine with that. His passion for the Oilers and for us to get better is awesome,” Oilers Head Coach Dallas Eakins said.

Eakins met Dellow last year at the Oilers internal coaching clinic. But in actuality, their relationship goes back further to Eakins’ time with the Toronto Marlies in the American Hockey League. Eakins followed Dellow’s work as he set out on a path to learn more about analytics. It wasn’t until meeting him at the coaching clinic that Eakins realized he had been reading Dellow’s work for quite some time.

Photo by Getty Images.

“His website was a bit of an education for me. That’s where I went. I started reading up and trying to understand it and I got a fairly good understanding.”

The debate on analytics rages on. Some believe it is the final word when it comes to the sport while others are skeptical to its full application. It’s newly publicized and unfamiliar. But the underlying theme of analytics for the Oilers is, why not give the unknown a try, because you might just strike it rich?

“As we went through the process this summer of trying to make sure we’ve got everything checked off we really asked why wouldn’t we do this? Why wouldn’t we see if this is going to help us? Maybe it’s going to help us 2% and maybe that extra 2% is going to get us in the playoffs. Maybe it’s going to help us 10% or maybe it’s going to help us way more than that. We don’t know,” Eakins said.

Like Eakins said, no one knows for certain how much analytics will help the Oilers when it comes to on-ice performance, but it’s still a tool the organization wants to give a chance. That’s what it is: just another tool in the mix and just one more piece of information to add to the conversation.

“I don’t understand anyone who just says it’s garbage and you don’t need it. I’ve never understood anyone who just dismisses things. Why wouldn’t you at least just use it as a tool or a consideration? Because you have an analytics person working for your organization doesn’t mean you are going to use analytics for each and every thing.”

Analytics will be a tool the Oilers will use to confirm what their own eyes see, or as a tool to spark debate and adjustments.

“If the analytics makes sense to what your eyes are seeing then you’re probably on the right track. If it doesn’t, that’s where it leads to the conversation. Sometimes there are things going on that maybe your eye doesn’t see. Sometimes it reaffirms it and sometimes it allows you to ask big questions. Why you would never try and use this right through your organization as a tool, I don’t know. You look at so many things when you’re looking at a player or you look at so many things when you’re laying down a system. There are so many pieces that go into every little bit of it.”

The Oilers aren’t alone in thinking advanced stats are something to consider. New Jersey has added professional poker player Sunny Mehta as their director of analytics. Toronto hired Kyle Dubas, who has an analytical background, to be their assistant general manager. Several other teams have acknowledged advanced stats and analytics, including Florida, who hired a math professor to be their leading man in that department. Dallas Stars GM Jim Nill has said his organization uses numbers and are trying to figure out how they fit into the big picture.

“Why not? This league is so close on a nightly basis. It is so close and you’ve got 30 teams fighting for very few playoff spots and you need the edge. Are analytics going to be that extra edge? I don’t know. Maybe it won’t be but maybe it will be. If we just say no and throw it out the window then we will never know if that was the edge,” Eakins said.

Whether or not there is noticeable improvement directly linked to analytics, only time will tell. But Eakins and the Oilers feel they’ve done a good job of checking off the right boxes.

“Have we got all of the bases covered? I think we do have them all covered. Now we’ve got to lay down the proper plan for our players; we need our players to accept the coaching and execute it and we can start moving in the right direction.”

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