Ottawa 67′s embrace analytics, hiring sabermetrician Matt Pfeffer
Two years ago, the London Knights used the 91st overall pick in the OHL priority selection on forward Remi Elie, whom would become a high second-round pick of the NHL's Dallas Stars when they selected him No. 40 overall on June 30.
By coincidence, Elie's minor midget team, the Eastern Ontario Wild, serves a territory that also covers where 19-year-old Matt Pfeffer played most of his minor hockey before channeling his passion for sports into analytics. It's fun to think it's not entirely coincidental. Part of the reason the Ottawa 67's decided to tap into Pfeffer's powers of analysis was a study he published last season on TheScout.ca detailing which midget AAA programs are overrated and underrated at turning out future productive OHLers. One thing has led to another, namely that the 67's are joining the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds by having the Trent University economics student become their resident sabermetrician, providing the team with advanced stats.
The typical 19-year-old university student spends Labour Day weekend packing and moving for school and maybe cutting loose. Pfeffer spent his at 67's training camp doing a practice run for the regular season, where he will oversee the tracking such data points as zone exits, zone entries and ice time. That will complement what coach-GM Chris Byrne, associate coach-assistant GM Misha Donskov and their staff see with their eyes and ears. It's a great leap forward in an OHL context, seeing how the league does not even publish individual shots on goal or faceoff stats. (Cam Charron and Rob Pettapiece regularly contribute sophisticated stats-based analysis to Buzzing The Net.)
"The OHL was kind of uncharted territory," Pfeffer said earlier this week while getting moved into his home away from home in Peterborough. "Nobody had ever worked with advanced stats in the OHL. And the reason why is it's not obvious. It's a lot of work. They don't make it easy for you. It's not as easy as taking someone else's thought process and applying it.
"It gives the 67's a slight edge, a little more information that teams don't have," adds the Orléans, Ont., native. "That's just what I try to do, have information that other teams don't."
Truthfully, the only common denominator with most hockey analysts and how they came to try divine the game's hidden truth through studying data points is their enthusiasm. Pfeffer, who notes he got a hand up from being the son of a computer programmer, played AA-level rep hockey and also played hockey and soccer for St. Peter High School.
"I found whatever I played, I always wanted to be a GM," he says. "I started getting into advanced stats and trying to find out as much as you can about a player was just a natural thing."
Last fall, out on his own for the first time, he approached OHL teams about lending his expertise. He says the Peterborough Petes took a strong interest prior to an organizational shakeup where coach Mike Pelino was fired. At that point, Pfeffer considered himself a "free agent." After publishing his study on minor hockey teams, he heard back from the 67's. He came aboard with the 67's prior to last spring's priority selection draft, where they used the No. 1 overall pick to take Travis Konecny from the Elgin-Middlesex Chiefs, but also aimed to turn up an Elie-ish gem in a later round.
Donskov says just as the 67's try to help a teenager develop into a NHL player, it's the same with helping one who might want to work in a front office.
"First and foremost, Matt's extremely passionate about the game of hockey," Donskov says. "He's an exceptionally bright kid. This is something that he wants to do long term as a career, being involved with management and statistics at the pro level. He's provided a lot of examples to Chris and I over the last six months that we've found to be of value.
"I think that the more accurate information you have, you're better able to make decisions."
Donskov noted Byrne's professional background is in accounting. That facility with numbers might better explain the club's openness to analytics than the fact it was on the wrong side of the scoreboard 52 times last season.
"I'm really thankful to Chris Byrne and Misha Donskov," Pfeffer says. "They've been very curious about it, always trying to learn more ... I know not all front offices would have been as interested or have given me the opportunity."
Pfeffer's vision is to have other like-minded thinkers gathering data during 67's home games, with players who are out of the lineup doing the honours during road trips. It seems like this could be a promising way to supplement the working knowledge of coaches and scouts. For instance, analyzing the performance of minor midget teams could be a boon. Since the more mature 14- and 15-year-olds tend to be amassed on 'stacked' teams, scouts have to distinguish between the true talents and the coattail-riders.
"There's a lot of inefficiencies with the way Triple A is run," Pfeffer says. "You get a lot of scouts going to these tournaments and what you see is some smaller teams or non triple-A teams end up doing really well [at producing players].
"Finding players from places where other OHL teams aren't looking is important."
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet. Please address any questions, comments or concerns to firstname.lastname@example.org.