Decision-making in hockey


One of the more interesting things for me is the “business” side of hockey, and how NHL franchises operate. I say business side pretty loosely here, considering that professional leagues don’t exactly follow standard business rules and operate more as a cartel. Teams are obviously in competition with one another, but they’re all under the NHL banner and have to abide by a lot of rules and standards, both explicit and implicit. Really, they’re just 31 different business units or divisions within the same company.

I always find it amusing when professional hockey is referred to as a business and is made to sound like some cut-throat, high-stakes industry. Because when it comes time to make decisions and trying to find an edge over the competition, most club managers become so conservative and risk averse. I get maintaining relationships and playing nice with other managers, but it’d do the game a lot of good if teams would think outside the box and demonstrate a real drive to be winners. The prime example of this are offer sheets, which fall within the rules. But teams are so reluctant to exercise their full suite of options to improve their clubs.

There’s a good reason why general managers have such a short shelf life in the NHL. And there’s a good reason why the NHL is not a global, mainstream sport.

The on-ice product isn’t good enough – and I think it’s in large part to the management teams and their lack of creativity and competitiveness that’s failing the game. The league would be much better off if managers based their roster decisions on sound logic and reasoning to make smart, calculated moves. Unfortunately, we keep seeing teams continue to make bizarre decisions, year after year, even when there’s enough publically available evidence suggesting they do otherwise.

When the product isn’t good enough, and you see the same teams continue to flounder, it’s pretty obvious that there are real systemic issues at play. And it’s not going to be a new general manager or a new coach that’s going to magically turn things around for a team. What teams really need to do is start operating like a real business, with a clear organizational mandate and a strategy that the internal people, processes and tools align with. Conduct a SWOT analysis, assess your past work, uncover your flaws and look for new opportunities. In other words – start with the mere basics.

What NHL teams really need to do is follow what baseball and football teams have been doing in teams of organizational structure and decision making processes. Two books that I would highly recommend for anyone interested:

  • The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team from Worst to First (2011) – Jonah Keri
  • The Score Takes Care of Itself: My Philosophy of Leadership (2010) – Bill Walsh

What’s critical for any organization is establishing an underlying strategy and process, that encapsulates the values and approach that’s really geared towards building a winner. It’s in this stage teams have to identify what it takes to win games, and use as much information as possible to set up a structure for things to operate within. From there, you hire the right people, implement the right processes, and leverage whatever tools you have at your disposal. This is obviously easier said than done, and requires a lot of planning and resources to carry out. But if you’re an NHL owner that wants a competitive club, you have to consider taking a different approach than what’s been done.

In regards to decision-making processes, I thought what the new Hurricanes owner Tom Dundon said in March 2018 was interesting.

“I don’t know other owners, I’m assuming they have sign-off. But that’s how I look at this. Green and red you can prove, yellow is the things that are debatable. I have no interest in yellow. We have to create the structure so that we know the difference…I want to make as few decisions as possible, because we’ve created a structure that is clearer for everyone.” (Source: Sportsnet)

This makes a lot of sense if you have the right strategy and process in place. Teams should already have some basic fundamental practices and philosophies that are inherent throughout an organization. Things like how to approach free agency (i.e., don’t sign veteran players to huge contracts), how to handle the draft (i.e., pick the best player available) and how to best develop players (i.e., maximize your contracts and build a proper farm system). There has to be an acceptance that there’s a considerable amount of luck involved in hockey. And really the best you can do as a manager is stick to the process you’ve established and ice the best team possible.

As long as your strategy and process is fine, I think keeping general managers operating within a model that’s built on sound logic and reasoning reduces your chances of making a poor decision. The challenge is building that model and ensuring that there’s buy-in from all areas of the organization, especially from the coaching staff whose job is to optimize the roster the manager has built. And it’s critical that the model itself is measured and re-calibrated when more information becomes available.



CBC Edmonton News (TV): Previewing game five between Vegas and Washington and discussing the latest Oilers trade rumors

cbc edmonton logoI joined Adrienne Pan on the CBC Edmonton News to discuss the Stanley Cup finals and recent Oilers news. Clip is here and starts at the 16:55 mark: CBC Edmonton News (2018, June 7)

Topics we covered:

  • Re-cap of game four of the Stanley Cup Finals
  • Strengths and weaknesses of Vegas and Washington, and what to expect in game five.
  • Trade rumors involving the Oilers, including speculation about Oscar Klefbom and Milan Lucic

CBC Edmonton News (TV): Stanley Cup finals analysis, Chiarelli’s recent comments about Oilers off-season strategy

cbc edmonton logoI joined Adrienne Pan on the CBC Edmonton News to discuss the Stanley Cup finals and recent Oilers news. Clip is here and starts at the 17:45 mark: CBC Edmonton News (2018, June 1)

Topics we covered:

  • Re-cap of game two between Vegas and Washington, and what areas the Capitals improved on.
  • How the Golden Knights and Capitals have matched up statistically over the first two games, and a preview of what to expect in game three on Saturday night.
  • Peter Chiarelli’s recent comments about the Oilers off-season strategy, and why targeting a powerplay defencemen might not be very wise. We also touched on the importance of hanging on to that 10th overall pick.

Looking into the Ducks penalty kill under Trent Yawney


After posting some very dreadful penalty kill numbers in 2017/18, it was pretty much guaranteed that the Edmonton Oilers were going to make some changes to the coaching staff. The club managed to make some tactical adjustments late in the season to improve their penalty kill but it was too late. They had allowed the fifth highest rate of goals against per hour, thanks in large part to the high number of quality chances they were regularly allowing.

Related: The Oilers penalty kill was finally addressedThe SuperFan (2018, April 2)

I mentioned this in the article posted above, but had the Oilers paid any attention to some of their underlying penalty kill numbers in previous seasons, they may have looked for a way to get Talbot more rest, and more importantly adjusted their tactics to cut down the rate of shots and scoring chances against.

Instead the Oilers continued to rely on goal-data, a poor predictor of future success and one that doesn’t give you an accurate assessment of whether the results are sustainable or not. That’s where we use shot metrics, which gives us a better sense of if the process and tactics a coaching staff implements are working.

What’s troubling is that to find a suitable replacement for Jim Johnson to run the penalty kill next season, it appears the Oilers may have been looking at goal-data again.

Now Trent Yawney, in my opinion, was targeted and hired by the Oilers for good reason. Along with having head coaching experience at the NHL and AHL level, and experience serving as an assistant to McLellan in San Jose, Yawney has had a lot of experience working with and developing the young defencemen in the Ducks system – many of which are turning into useful NHL players.

But what probably drew the Oilers attention the most about Yawney is his solid track record running the Ducks penalty kill. In short, it’s been outstanding based on the actual results (i.e., goals against). But digging into the Ducks underlying numbers, there may be some areas for concern.

Below are the Ducks numbers from the last four seasons, including the rate of goals against, the rate of expected goals against and the team save percentage. I’ve also included the Ducks league ranking in parentheses (Source: Corsica Hockey)

Season GA/60 xGA/60 Save%
2014/15 5.45 (3rd) 6.61 (19th) 88.92 (3rd)
2015/16 4.15 (1st) 5.79 (10th) 91.27 (1st)
2016/17 4.86 (2nd) 7.44 (28th) 90.80 (1st)
2017/18 5.48 (4th) 7.23 (18th) 90.35 (3rd)

Couple quick notes:

  • I regularly use the rate of goals against per hour (GA/60) rather than the standard penalty kill efficiency percentage to measure a teams success. I think it’s important to factor in the amount of time a team is killing penalties to know how truly efficient they are. Quite often, how a team ranks in terms of GA/60 is close to their penalty kill efficiency, but I think GA/60 is a more accurate measurement.
  • I’m using the rate of expected goals (xGA/60) which is a weighting placed on every unblocked shot based on the probability of the shot becoming a goal. This depends on the type of shot, location and uses historical shot and goals data to come up with the probability for each unblocked shot. This has been found to be a better predictor of future goals than Corsi and Fenwick. (Detailed explanation can be found at Corsica Hockey)
  • Comparing the actual rate of goals against with the expected rate of goals against also makes it easier to compare and interpret the two metrics. Rather than comparing say, the penalty kill efficiency as a percentage to the rate of shots or scoring chances against.

So what we see in the table above is that in the four seasons with Yawney running the penalty kill, the Ducks were outstanding ranking in the top five across the league when it came to the rate of goals against per hour.

However, the team was not so good limiting scoring chances, often ranking below average, and it’s reflected in the rate of expected goals against (xGA/60). The last two seasons had been especially bad. Based on the high quality chances they were allowing on the penalty kill, the Ducks number of expected goals against (based on historical probability) was 54 in 2017/18 and 58 the season prior – the highest numbers in the league. Instead, their penalty kill only allowed 41 goals in 2017/18 and 38 goals in 2016/17 – some of the lowest numbers in the league and well below the number of expected goals.

You can also see how bad things were on the Ducks penalty kill over the last two seasons using the shot location maps from HockeyViz. Notice the dark purple in front of the Ducks goal, which indicates that they were well above the league average.



Now compare those two maps above with the map from 2015/16 when the Ducks had one of the better rates of expected goals against on the penalty kill. You’ll notice a lot less purple around the goal.


I’d be curious to know what the Ducks did differently in 2015/16 when they not only got great results (lowest rate of goals against per hour), but they also did really well limiting shots and chances as reflected by the expected goals metric. I’d rather apply the tactics (and possibly player deployment) that Yawney used in 2015/16 than the ones that were in place in 2016/17 and 2017/18.

My main takeaway from the numbers and the maps is that the Ducks have been pretty blessed with some outstanding goaltending on the penalty kill over the last few seasons. More specifically, it’s been the play of netminder John Gibson that’s really driven the Ducks success.

A quick glance at the 63 goalies who have played at least 250 minutes at 4v5 over the last four seasons, and John Gibson ranks near the top across a number of metrics. This includes the best save percentage, the sixth best high-danger save percentage, and  also number one when it comes to goals saved above average (GSAA), the background of which you can find here.

So while it’s easy to give the coach credit for the success a team has had on the penalty kill, it’s worth splitting out the areas where the coach has actual control over the outputs. In this case, Yawney’s performance should be evaluated using the shot metrics to know if his group is actually good at keeping shots outside and out of danger areas. From the looks of it, the tactics he’s used over the last two seasons on the penalty kill haven’t been working, and he regularly relied on Gibson to bail the team out. Unfortunately, Yawney won’t have that luxury in Edmonton, as Talbot’s penalty kill numbers, while respectable, aren’t close to Gibson’s.

Data: Corsica Hockey, HockeyViz


CBC Edmonton News (TV): Discussing the Oilers’ changes behind the bench and the Vegas-Washington final

cbc edmonton logoI joined Min Dhariwal on the CBC Edmonton News to discuss the playoffs and the upcoming changes behind the Oilers bench. Clip is here and starts at the 14:10 mark: CBC Edmonton News (2018, May 24)

Topics we covered:

  • The upcoming addition of Glen Gulutzan and Trent Yawney to the coaching staff and where we can expect them to contribute. We also touched on the coaching history of Manny Viveiros, who is also expected to join. (Source)
  • The performance of goalie prospect Stuart Skinner at the Memorial Cup.
  • The Capitals game-seven win against the Lightning.
  • The final series between Washington and Vegas.

CBC Edmonton News (TV): Discussing the Jets and previewing game seven between Winnipeg and Nashville

cbc edmonton logoI joined Alicia Asquith on the CBC Edmonton News to discuss the playoffs and preview game seven between Winnipeg and Nashville. Clip is here and starts at the 17:30 mark: CBC Edmonton News (2018, May 10)

Topics we covered:

  • The Jets draft/development history, an area of the game that the Oilers still struggle with.
  • Head to head match-up between the Jets and the Predators, and what the numbers have been like over the first six games of the series.
  • The Vegas Golden Knights and what’s made them successful this post-season.

Losing the long-term perspective


Peter Chiarelli is in a position of weakness this off-season.

Having missed the playoffs, there’s going to be a lot of pressure for the Oilers to make the necessary adjustments to ensure that what happened last season doesn’t happen again in 2018/2019. Pressure will be felt from the fans and sponsors, but also the league which would desperately want Connor McDavid, one of the league’s premier players, playing meaningful games in the spring.

After finishing 23rd in the league, posting a -29 goal differential, and ranking near the bottom when it comes to the powerplay and penalty kill – there’s just so many issues that can’t be ignored. And every other team knows it.

This is also going to be an important year for Chiarelli and his career as a general manager. If for whatever reasons the team misses the playoffs again, Chiarelli would most likely be out as general manager of the Oilers, and I think would have a tougher time finding another GM position elsewhere. As much as hockey men get recycled in this league, there are only 31 general manager positions. And it would be hard for an owner or executive group to justify bringing in an individual who could only make the playoffs once in four seasons, with Connor McDavid on an entry-level contract, and bled considerable talent along the way.

It’s for these reasons that I think the Oilers are going to force themselves to make changes to their roster – and in doing so will not keep a long-term perspective in mind.

The team was obviously bad last season, but it’s important to keep in mind that Klefbom was playing hurt, Larsson missed time and Sekera missed training camp and wasn’t 100% healthy when he returned. Those were the Oilers top three defencemen the previous season but neither played more than 66 games. Keeping this in mind, I don’t think the team should feel pressured to overhaul the defence core. If anything, the club could potentially look for a cheaper, specialist-type option that could quarterback the powerplay. But to move out, say, the 10th overall pick and roster players for a bigger ticket defencemen would be short-sighted and negatively impact the long-term goal of winning championships.

This is where I hope someone above the general manager has a long-term strategy or plan that requires any decisions made by the general manager to align with it. We’ve seen the role and aura of general managers gradually decline with nearly every team having a level of executive(s) above it. But it’ll be interesting to see how things will shake out: will they make decisions for short-term gain, or will they be smart enough to keep the long-term objectives in mind?

In my opinion, you can let Chiarelli have a plan to build a roster, negotiate contracts and develop prospects. But a higher-level plan or strategy would cover a wider spectrum of hockey operations, including the fundamental values of the organization, the shared mission/vision and a proper structure that includes the supporting departments around the general manager. In my mind, this would include the scouting department, player development, information analysis/innovation group, and a research and development team. [Should note, this is just based on my own experience working in the corporate world and from the research I did in school.] You win games by finding good players and keeping good players – so have the people, process and tools in your organization to do this.

Without a long-term, overarching plan or model for a general manager to make decisions within, you can expect more of the same short-sighted decisions that the Oilers have already made to continue. And that’s with or without Chiarelli in the general manager’s chair.

It’s about time the Oilers start to operate like a real business, one that has a well defined  long-term strategy, and a structure that supports strong decision-making and execution. The Oilers sit in a position of weakness at a time when they should be chasing championships. And it’s disturbing that at such a critical point in their franchise’s history, they lack the structure and mentality to become a real contender in the league.