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Panther’s PAWS Conference Highlights Application of Analytics

Over Valentine’s Day weekend (specifically on Saturday, February 13th), the Florida Panthers hosted the inaugural Panthers Analytics WorkShop (PAWS). Over the course of the day, 20 different panelists would provide thoughtful and engaging discussion on the state of analytics in hockey, each providing their own unique perspective to the topics at hand.

I arrived at the BB&T Center around 8:30, and eventually made my way to the conference room by 9:00. Refreshments were consumed, and eventually the event kicked off with a brief history of hockey analytics, provided by Rob Vollman. Vollman talked about innovations within the sport that had been done in the past by thinkers such as Allan Roth, Roger Nielson, and Ian Fyffe.

Next was the Analytics in Business Operations panel, which focused on the application of analytics to the business side of hockey. Here’s the list of panelists, from the workshop’s official webpage:

  • James Cifu, Business Analyst, Florida Panthers
  • Kaleb Ghilardi, CRM Analyst, Florida Panthers
  • Rob Mulhall, Director, Club Business and Analytics, NHL
  • Jim Willits, Executive Vice President of Sales, Florida Panthers

The panel was moderated by Bill Pulleyblank, the professor of Operations Research at West Point.

Most of the discussion focused on the application of analytics to the sales approach, as the Panthers rely heavily on ticket sales in order to generate revenue. Willits explained that almost 90% of the money generated from tickets goes directly to the team, while money generated from merchandise and other ventures may be split 50/50 with the other businesses involved.

Mulhall, who works for the NHL, explained how the league has used increasing amounts of data from websites such as StubHub to build a wealth of data that helps them set prices on their tickets, and sell more tickets overall. The league has also moved towards using Tableau to better visualize and present the data.

Interestingly enough, my biggest takeaway from the panel was that the data that the analysts work with is often messy and needs to be “cleaned up”. Cifu in particular said that one new innovation he wanted to see was a data set that works every time.

This type of analytics isn’t one that we see at the forefront of our hockey discussions, but one that still requires attention. Teams such as the Anaheim Ducks and Ottawa Senators clearly operate with internal caps, and one has to wonder what extra pieces those teams (particularly the Ducks) would have on their roster if they had extra funds to spend. For example, the Ducks are currently projected to finish the year 7.2 million dollars below the cap. That’s enough money to add another top line forward or top pairing defenseman, making an already skilled and potentially elite team (the Ducks are 4th in score adjusted Corsi For percentage) even better.

Next up was Hockey Analytics 101 by Michael Schuckers, which covered most of the basics such as Corsi, Fenwick, and zone starts. Schuckers also talked about what makes certain statistics worth paying attention to.

After a short break, the conference reconvened to listen to J.B Spisso, the  Executive Director of Leadership and Cultural Development for the Florida Panthers. Spisso’s talk focused on effective communication, and ways to grow a culture of character and leadership within an organization.

Spisso’s presentation was certainly interesting, and really gave life to the idea that “latent variables” and “intangibles” are simply “unmeasured characteristics”. That last term is something coined by Today’s Slapshot managing editor Carolyn Wilke, and though Spisso didn’t use it in his talk, Wilke really hits the nail on the head; these traits can be seen, and do have an impact on player performance. They’re incredibly difficult to quantify, and are therefore “unmeasured”, but it doesn’t mean that they don’t have an impact (even if that impact is occasionally overstated).

Following Spisso was the second panel of the day, the Analytics in Hockey Operations panel. The panelists:

  • Jack Birch, Scout, Winnipeg Jets
  • Mike Kelly, Assistant Coach, Florida Panthers
  • Tom Rowe, Associate GM, Florida Panthers
  • Mike Peterson, Statistical Analyst, Tampa Bay Lightning
  • J.B. Spisso, Executive Director, Leadership & Cultural Development, Florida Panthers

The panel was moderated by Steve Goldstein, the TV play-by-play announcer for the Florida Panthers.

A large part of the discussion focused on how coaches can apply the analytics to their work. Mike Kelly frequently talked about how difficult it can be to track NHL statistics, especially extra data such as scoring chances.

The panelists also discussed what questions that analytics need to answer (asking the “right” question), and how to relay information to the players.

Seeing as Today’s Slapshot writer and a former goalie, Catherine Silverman, was in attendance, the discussion eventually turned to goaltending.

Besides the goaltending discussion, several other interesting questions were brought up. One audience member asked how the panel treated players that modern statistics loved, but old-school coaches and executives disliked (such as Evander Kane and Alexander Semin). J.B Spisso provided an excellent answer, saying that in a group of 30, so long as the majority of the group has good emotional character, that two or three “bad apples” could be taken in without hurting the character of the entire group. Anymore, and the whole thing would be in danger of collapsing.

I would love to test Spisso’s theory, as this type of thing seems like it could really open avenues of qualitative analysis within the sport. Integrating qualitative data and quantitative data will provide a massive benefit to NHL teams, and this type of test could really push that integration forward.

It was after that question that the conference took a break for lunch, where the Panthers provided box lunch for all attendees (I opted for the chicken Caesar wrap, which ended up being as delicious as a boxed chicken Caesar can be).

When everyone had eaten their fill, the group returned to their seats for the HockEy Analytics in Research and Teaching (H.E.A.R.T) Panel. The speakers:

  • Jess Dixon, Associate Professor, University of Windsor
  • Tom Pasquali, Football Analyst, Miami Dolphins
  • Michael Schuckers, Professor, St. Lawrence University
  • Sam Ventura, Professor, Carnegie Mellon

The panel was moderated by Scott Cullen, a columnist for TSN.ca.

Much of the discussion here focused on how research is conducted in the academic field, though the panel initially began with a quick conversation on intangibles.

The panel was split on whether or not these needed to be measured at all, though I find myself agreeing with those who think they should be measured (making the “unmeasurable” characteristics from earlier measurable could prove valuable).

The academic panel talked about the peer review process, focusing on the pros and cons of the process. Getting a paper into an academic journal is a long process that can sometimes take years, which could render the data obtained slightly obsolete. At the same time, having the work reviewed by several highly intelligent professors ensures that whatever research is being done is of the highest quality, where as a blog post would certainly not have the same quality due to a weaker editing process.

Of course, the following panel was Hockey Analytics in Social Media, (renamed Generating Resources in Technology, or G.R.I.T, by Wilke). The panelists:

  • Jen Lute Costella, Co-founder, LCG Analytics
  • Shane O’Donnell, Hockey Prospectus, Today’s Slapshot (this is me)
  • Carolyn Wilke, Today’s Slapshot, Consultant for the National Women’s Hockey League

The panel was hosted by Doug Plagens, the radio play-by-play announcer for the Florida Panthers.

Seeing as this was the social media panel, and social media is often associated with the millennial generation, the panel began with a bit of “me, me, me” grandstanding, as each panelist presented a topic of their choosing.

Wilke brought up her methodology to creating data visualizations for social media (Twitter in particular), and talked about some of the best practices to emulate.

Costella discussed her rise through the ranks of the Hockey Twitter community, explaining how important social media had been in her discovery of modern hockey statistics, and subsequent transition from “lawyer” to “co-founder of a hockey analytics company”.

Some more of Costella’s thoughts on the matter can be found here.

I followed with a brief description of the Passing Stats Project, which is an attempt to classify meaningful events that lead to shot attempts. The Project has gotten some very encouraging results in its early stages, and I encourage anyone who’s interested to check it out, and maybe even contact the man spear heading the group’s efforts, Ryan Stimson.

After the presentations, the panel discussed some ways to make data understandable, and how social media can complement the way people watch hockey games. The group discussed how websites such as Domenic Galamini’s Own the Puck and Greg Sinclair’s HockeyStats.ca can help create graphics that portray advanced stats in an easy to understand manner, and how these sites could both deliver information to followers immediately, and make the data easy to understand.

Finally, the panel discussed how important social media can be when it comes to receiving instant feedback on ideas, especially if the right people are engaged in the discussion. This was a stark contrast from the academic panel; instead of feedback being of a guaranteed high-caliber and taking a considerable amount of time, feedback comes immediately, but may not be coming from experts.

Regardless, social media has played an important role in the promotion of the hockey analytics community, especially as a way for members to discuss topics of importance.

As a final note on the social media panel, Wilke has to be credited with the best slip up of the day. After discussing how to correct mistakes, and how you can’t be afraid of being wrong, she stated that “it took Einstein 1000 attempts before he finally invented the lightbulb.”

Close…but it was Edison that invented the lightbulb. In a practical application of her own presentation’s advice, Wilke owned up to the mistake immediately.

The final panel of the day was the Hockey Analytics in Media Panel. The panelists:

  • Scott Cullen, Columnist, TSN.ca
  • Randy Moller, VP of Broadcasting and Panthers Alumni, Florida Panthers
  • Cat Silverman, Today’s Slapshot, and Arizona Coyotes
  • Rob Vollman, Author, Hockey Abstract, ESPN.com, and NHL.com

The panel was moderated by Rob Vollman, as the original moderator (George Richards of the Miami Herald) had to miss the event due to an illness.

The panel opened with a discussion on goaltending, with Moller noting that the goalies in the league had never been better.

(Note: 5’10” and 160 pounds isn’t exactly a “fat” frame, but I think we get the point; goalies were nowhere near athletic as they are now.)

Silverman noted that goaltender analysis in today’s NHL was miles behind player analysis, and also discussed some other aspects of the net minder in today’s NHL.

After that, Moller discussed the use of analytics on the broadcast.

The panel wrapped up with a story from Moller about a goaltender who smoked cigarettes on the bench, and caught a bit of a stinger on the ice because of it.

As someone who attended the conference as both an ardent fan of modern hockey statistics, and as a panelist, I can say that it seemed to be a complete success. There was a lot of really good hockey discussion, and the members of the audience asked very insightful, open-ended questions that prompted thoughtful replies from the panelists. I hope that this event becomes an annual thing, because the hockey discussion and hockey people at the event can’t really be found anywhere else.

Extras

We took a selfie.

One conference attendee traveled all the way from the Czech Republic!

Jen LC revealed that her life goal is world domination.

 

 

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