"Doug was a really accomplished player," said Snow. "He played for a while in the NHL, but he was also a guy that was a free-thinker and really looked outside the box. He had a need for someone in the front office to do a variety of work, but I also think he wanted to look at the position with growth in mind."
Having spent some time around the Red Sox, one of the more forward-thinking organizations in Major League Baseball, Snow was an intriguing option for the Wild.
"Because I worked around baseball and around the Red Sox, he just liked the idea of me transferring what I was observing and some of what I wanted to do into the hockey arena," said Snow.
On Thursday, we discussed the growing presence of statistical analysis in the hockey community with Gabriel Desjardins of Behind the Net and Puck Prospectus. Snow is very familiar with the work being done by fans and bloggers -- including that of Desjardins -- around the web to further understand the game of hockey. Below is my chat with him about how the Wild use statistics to evaluate players, how well this type of analysis is received around the NHL, and his place in the organization after the team brought in a new general manager, Chuck Fletcher, and head coach, Todd Richards.
I think they are. I wouldn't say we spend a significant amount of time on statistical analysis and reinventing the game as we do looking to gather as much information to inform both the decisions we're making in the front office, and how the coaches are coaching the game as it happens. I think both Chuck and Todd are smart guys who are curious people, and they want to know what we've been doing here and don't want to turn their backs to it because they recognize there are some benefits to it.
As we go along I think we'll be able to show them a bit of what we've done before, and maybe they'll have some ideas to improve how we've done things.
Do you know if there are many teams around the league using advanced metrics to help evaluate players? I mean, in baseball, we all know about Billy Beane with Oakland and Theo Epstein with Boston, but you never really hear much about hockey teams going in that direction.
I know of a few that have some interest in this area. I couldn't say that a third of the league or half of the league is all that involved, but here and there you hear about some specific teams that are curious about how they can do things differently. I still don't know, it's not an area that's been well reported. So, where as you can pick up a newspaper and hear that Oakland, and Boston, and Toronto, and Arizona, and San Diego are at the forefront of statistical analysis in baseball, there really wouldn't be a perception of certain teams in hockey.
Even as the interest grows in baseball, there's still always been some resistance and backlash from other teams, media, fans ... do you sense something similar in hockey?
I think that Moneyball did a disservice for people who merely want to add more information to the process. Whether Billy Beane reinvented the way they scouted and the way they made player decisions, I don't know. In the book, it was presented as a pretty radical transition. Whether a team subscribes all of what he's saying, or part of what he's saying, or what the book represented, all teams in probably all of the sports over the last few years have recognized the need for more information about players. I think there's a distinction between ascribing to a "Moneyball philosophy," that means you're making decisions by statistical analysis, and what might just be getting more information to form a more complete picture about a decision.
For someone like myself, I'm curious about statistics; but my background is more about reporting, and personal observation, and research, and then representing all of that information in a very concise way. So, I don't think the numerical aspect is what this is all about; it's about let's get more information about players. I just think it left a bad taste in a lot of people's mouths.
To that extent, I don't think it's as radical as it's portrayed to be in that book. What I want to do, what we want to do, what a lot of baseball teams have decided to do since then ... I don't think any of us who sit where I do want to entirely change the way we do things because it's hard to project players. It comes down to personality, it comes to performance in so-called "big games," it comes down to playing through injuries, it's doctors projecting whether a kid has finished growing. There are so many factors, and the statistical factor is one, but by no means is it overriding anything else.
OK, so when you guys, as a front office, are evaluating NHL players, where do the statistics enter into the process? Do you use them to help get an idea of what players you might want to look at, and then let the scouting, and all of the other factors you discussed, determine who is the best? Or is there something else to it?
Generally, I think we begin with a pool of available players. We would look at who are all the players available, read through our scouting reports on those players, and then meet to discuss them. Every team has a philosophy or identity. Certain teams, you could take Anaheim and Philadelphia over the last several years. Those teams clearly want to be physical, big teams that score goals in a north-south kind of manner. A team like that is going to look for a particular kind of player.
For us, the philosophy in the past has been we want players who can really skate, players with good hockey sense, players who are intelligent and make good decisions playing for a guy like Jacques Lemaire. The factors that drive your team are probably how you'll begin to sort your list.
I would say the we use the statistics to ask questions. So, if we have a guy who, over three to four years in a number of categories -- the usual ones, goals, assists, points, ice time -- we can look at those and say, oh, well this guy has actually declined over the last four years consistently. Maybe we didn't quite realize what that decline looked like. The statistics help us to ask questions, they help us to perhaps avoid mistakes at times, but they are not the initial starting metric.
When you're evaluating players, do you take into account who those players are playing with on a line? For example, if you're looking at two potential left wings for your top line, and one of them played alongside a center like a Joe Thornton or a Marc Savard, would you look at them, and their production, differently than a player who played next to a center that wasn't as good a passer as those two guys?
There's no doubt about it. Jacques had a great saying, it kind of referred to players who maybe produced a lot of points either with an elite player next to them, or perhaps just on a very poor team, where somebody had to get the ice time, Jacques would say 'somebody has to get the points.' And I think that's probably true. If you have a bad team, and a player is on the first line, that player is going to get points because he's getting the ice time, he's playing on the power play. You put a player next to Joe Thornton, who is one of the best passers in the game, he's going to get more points in that situation.
You always do need to consider that, and it's a bit of a science determining how that player is going to fit into your situation on your team. That's a great challenge in hockey because you can look at how many times Joe passed the puck to that player that scored, but you can't really define how that player would have done with a different center. It's more of an estimation.
When projecting amateur players in the draft, have you found anything that helps you determine which players will have the most success in the NHL? I know there's not a magical way to get a 100 percent success rate, but have you noticed a certain league or a certain program that produces the best players, or certain trends that help players make the transition to the pro game?
Some. I think that the best way I can put it, and I can only speak for myself, the best indicator for future performance is generally past performance. A component of that is how has the player produced, but also what kind of situations has the player been in? What's his personality? What has he been like off the ice? What kind of person is he? What kind of person will he be?
Hockey is a game that is highly competitive. It takes incredible will, and you're often looking at situations players have been in, and how they've dealt with that as an indicator of how they'll deal with competing for a spot here, how they'll deal with the grind of playing in the league. So, when I say that past performance is an indicator of future performance, I don't mean really the production, but that's also a big part of it.
If a guy didn't score much at a low level, or as a junior player, it's hard to think he's going to score a lot in the National Hockey League. In Europe, a lot of the players that are draft eligible, they might just be beginning to play on an elite team, so they'll be the youngest player on the team and they don't get many points. You might see a guy drafted 10th overall and they don't have any points. That's where the scouts have to understand the system in each country, the opportunity given to the players, and really project what that player will do.
Gabriel Desjardins pointed out how you guys are typically one of the better teams in the league at not giving up even-strength goals, despite the fact you're usually giving up a lot of shots. How much of that is because of Niklas Backstrom's ability as a goaltender, and how much of that is a result of a system that might not give up a lot of quality scoring chances?
It's both. If you watched our team play under Jacques, his philosophy was that he would basically give the ice outside of the dots. So, from face-off dot to face-off dot, then going up toward the point, there was kind of a box there. We didn't want a lot of teams to penetrate within that box. We'd gladly give up chances from the outside because they're low percentage chances. So we wouldn't overpursue, we wouldn't chase guys out to the boards because Jacques didn't want a breakdown in what would be a high-percentage scoring area. If you look at the number of shots teams give up, and where they give them up, you can kind of see how that team is coaching defensively. So that was a function of the way we were coached. And I would expect where we give up goals from will be different this year because we have a different coach.
I would imagine that makes your job even more difficult when it comes to evaluating a goalie. Niklas Backstrom is always near the top of the league with his numbers, but like you just pointed out, he's not facing the same quality shots that a guy like Tomas Vokoun, for example, might face in Florida.
I completely agree. We think Niklas is a tremendous goaltender, and we would not have paid him if we didn't believe that, but I agree with your point that it is difficult to compare a goaltender on our team, to a Vokoun as you mentioned. It's harder to compare those guys. You would have to really look at where the shots came from, and the quality of shots if you really wanted to rank the goalies accurately.