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Analytics vs. Old School, Round 856

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Phil brings the Cup to Toronto, and a look at the fallout of analytics vs. old school, Round 856

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With his hand still wrapped up from a recent surgery, Phil Kessel brought the Stanley Cup to a children's hospital in Toronto today.

No public events were planned with the Cup in Toronto, but nice to see him make some time for a nice cause.

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Most of the hockey world is buzzing, well as much as the hockey world can buzz in the middle of July anyways, about comments a former employee of the Montreal Canadiens made. Matt Pfeffer was an analytics consultant with Les Habs, and like most he felt the recent P.K. Subban for Shea Weber trade was not a good idea for the Canadiens on many fronts.

This article with Ken Campbell though ends on a curious note with some of Pfeffer's words, and the tone that was captured.

Weber’s 5-on-5 goal differential with the Predators is 0.18 percent, which means the Predators are basically as good when Weber is on the ice as when he’s off the ice. Subban’s goal differential is 3.14 percent. Few players have that effect on their teams, particularly considering that Subban’s defense partner with Montreal was Andrei Markov and Weber’s with the Predators was Roman Josi.

"There’s nothing wrong with being average in the NHL," Pfeffer said. "An average NHLer is worth a heck of a lot and that’s what Shea Weber is."

Learning how to communicate information correctly can be a major issue for some in the analytics community. Calling Shea Weber average is likely going to instantly make a decision maker like a general manager tune out and dismiss all further details that person is talking about. Shea Weber is a lot of things, and average is not one. He's a big, strong, tough, first pairing defenseman who racks up a ton of goals and points on the power play. He has a ton of value as a team leader and captain. He's got a great shot, is physical, right-handed and has tons of skills and attributes that make him far more valuable than the "average" player. He might get average results on 5v5 goal differential, but making a sweeping and controversial declaration isn't going to help the cause.

Weber's worth as a player, of course, is not nearly as high as Subban's. P.K. Subban is one of the best defensemen in the game and 4 years younger to boot. Montreal making that trade is a step back on the ice right now, and will only get exponentially worse as Weber ages and regresses. It's a terrible use of Subban's value in the short and long term.

The challenge for the "stat guys" working for NHL teams is how to present their data in a way that offers useful information and valuable insight. If Pfeffer tried to argue that Weber was "average" based on his 5v5 goal differential, it's no wonder that the Canadiens weren't interested in keeping him employed and did not chose to listen to him when making that trade.

Even if one gets the right conclusion (trading Subban for Weber is a bad idea), it still has to be framed in the correct manner when getting run up the line to superiors. The same is probably true in just about any field. As Pfeffer admitted, he realized Montreal was going to trade Subban and he couldn't stop that, so to an extent he was fighting a losing battle no matter what they decided. It's not his fault this trade was made. It may be his fault for the tone of his comments or the way he framed his argument.

Regardless, it's interesting to watch the league and game evolve. 5-10 years ago, few NHL executives had even heard about anything analytical. Now, some (if not most) employ at least a consultant to provide further statistical information. But, as we just saw in Montreal, their word isn't always taken over the so-called traditional "hockey guys". Smart teams would do well to acquire all the information and seek an advantage wherever possible. Smart employees would use that information to craft a viewpoint that everyone in the organization can understand. It doesn't sound like either happened in Montreal.