Advanced stats vs. old school scouting at the NHL Draft

If there’s one indelible scene in “Moneyball” – besides the “is losing fun?” dress-down of the A’s players – is when Billy Beane steps up to his veteran scouts with his “think differently” speech.

It’s the moment when the world changes for everyone around the conference table; when the hunches of the old school are challenged by the statistical analysis of the new breed.

The same thing is playing out in the NHL – hell, Glen Sather was asked if Alain Vigneault’s embracing of advanced stats was a factor in his hiring by the New York Rangers, and we’re pretty sure the last Apple product Glen Sather mastered was a Granny Smith.

Mirtle wondered two years ago why advanced stats weren’t more widely used, and found that only about five teams had adopted them. That number has no doubt grown – one NHL team, I’ve heard, is looking to add a prominent online advanced stats guru as a consultant soon – but Mirtle’s point still stands for most franchises:

“One of the more common theories is that NHL teams are very traditional organizations, with teams often run by large groups of former players and in much the same way they’ve been for decades.”

David Conte is the executive vice president of scouting for the New Jersey Devils, and the man behind their decades of draft success. Jason Gregor of the Edmonton Journal spoke with him recently, and the advanced stats question was asked:

Gregor: How much, if any, has advanced stats entered into your scouting reports?

Conte: We talk a lot about it, the Moneyball theory and everything else, and I don’t think that the hockey playing public is a big a sample as all of that. It is totally relevant, clearly it is relevant, and clearly there are some trends. If you’re going to invest your picks and your money into high-level young talent, there should be some substantiation via productivity and height and weights and various factors, but the real factor is watching them play. It comes down to “Do you want them on the team or you don’t want them on the team?”

Later, on that nebulous issue of “character,” Conte said:

“Players that play under pressure, players that elevate their games in the most important situations, players that work the clock and the score and they play for the team, I think those are things that are trademarks of players that have survived and prospered with the Devils.”

So not if they score but when they score. Which sounds like “clutch players,” which is one of the more fascinating debates among advanced stat-heads.

I plan on digging as deeply as possible on advanced stats’ influence at the 2013 NHL Draft next weekend. Meanwhile, check out Katie Baker’s piece on the MIT Sloan Sports conference.