Corsi. Fenwick. To people who don’t follow hockey, they sound just like regular names. But to those who are invested in the game, they have come to symbolize a revolution in how hockey is thought of and played.
Dimitri Filipovic, an SFU alumni, is at the forefront of this as one of the leading minds of the analytics movement. Filipovic, and others like him, use numbers to give an objective and evidence-based take on the sport.
When talking to Filipovic, it is very clear that he looks at the game from a completely different viewpoint than the one you would get watching Coach’s Corner on Saturday night.
“I was in first year at SFU,” said Filipovic on how he got involved in the world of hockey analytics. “I was in my kinesiology undergrad and I liked what I was doing, but I wasn’t passionate about it as everyone else in my class seemed to be. The reason I went into kinesiology in the first place is I thought I wanted to be a physiotherapist coming out of high school. But that was 2010–2011 and that was the year the Canucks made the [Stanley] Cup Final.
“I would always meet up with my friends and watch the games and talk about these pet theories we had. And at one point me and my best friend were like, ‘Why don’t we just start a blog about this, and maybe some other people will be interested in what we’re saying?’”
Filipovic stressed that you don’t have to be a math whiz to get into the field.
“I had no math background, no stats background,” he said. “Which is why I always laugh when people say this stuff is super nerdy or way too intense. It’s all pretty relatable. I started from scratch, it’s not like I have a PhD or anything.”
After those humble beginnings, Filipovic starting writing for the popular blog Canucks Army — eventually becoming their managing editor. After that, he was hired by a NHL team as a part-time consultant. Although he wasn’t allowed to name the team he worked for, he was able to elaborate on the experience.
“I was brought in as an extra pair of eyes and maybe someone to kind of vet some of these ideas. And since I wasn’t working with them on a day-to-day basis, I could work on bigger projects,” said Filipovic on his role with the team. “If they had questions, such as, ‘We’re looking at these two players, what do the numbers say or should we be playing this guy ahead of this guy in the lineup?’ Stuff like that. Then I could provide my input on it and they would weigh it as a piece of the puzzle.
“It was a bit trying at times, because you’d spend hours and days working on something and you could kind of tell it was not really considered. I feel like the team I was working for kind of thought that by indulging me, they were appeasing this idea that you have to have someone on staff working on analytics.”
As Filipovic explained, some teams as of this moment are not interested in this new data available. It is still very much an old boys club in terms of who makes the decisions for NHL teams.
“I think most teams right now are reluctant to at least publicly say stuff like that, because they know they’re going to be raked over the coals by people,” he said. “You can sort of look at their actions, they speak louder than words. You can look at moves a team makes and if, over time, they’re making head-scratching moves, you can kind of tell what’s going on there.”
However, two teams that have made their intentions pretty clear on how they view analytics are the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Florida Panthers, for very different reasons.
“MLSE (Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment, the company that owns the Leafs as well as the Toronto Raptors and Toronto FC), has such deep pockets that they really should have been doing this the entire time, but they were run by guys such as Dave Nonis and Randy Carlyle who didn’t see the value in it,” said Filipovic on the Leafs. “Once Brendan Shanahan came in and he hired Kyle Dubas, he realized that we should be using some of these deep pockets to kind of work on some of this stuff.
“The Panthers are another. They’re more interesting because they sort of realized their limitations as a non-traditional hockey market. They couldn’t necessarily spend with teams such as New York or Boston. They realized we need to extract every single penny of value. If we’re signing a guy, we need to make sure we’re spending our money correctly. Or in the draft. We need to corner the draft market and draft as well as we can because we know the advantage of having these guys for three years under their entry-level contract and RFA rights, it’s just such a good advantage for a cash-strapped team.”
In the future, it wouldn’t surprise Filipovic if more teams started adopting what the Leafs and Panthers have done and hire a full-time analytics staff.
“I’d love to see that,” he said. “I understand the limitations that not every team can sign six full-time guys to supplement their scouts, assistant GM, and GM. But, I mean, that’s what you see in baseball. All these teams have six or seven guys who are working together, and that really is the key. [. . .] Having people who you can bounce ideas off of and who can tell you ‘I disagree for this reason’ and can actually have a logical argument why, that helps you grow as a hockey mind and as a person.”
Now in his role as a writer for Rogers Sportsnet, Filipovic uses advanced statistics to take deep dives into topics such as how we evaluate defencemen. He also does the same on his popular podcast, The Hockey PDOcast.
“I do think there is some appetite for some smarter dialogue in podcasts,” said Filipovic. “I’m actually doing my homework and I’m actually trying to provide a more thoughtful intelligent discussion. [. . .] But at the same time, I try to keep it pretty relatable. I’m not just pulling out a spreadsheet and reading off a series of numbers. No one wants to listen to that.”
In terms of how analytics are changing hockey, the effects can already be felt.
Very few teams employ enforcers anymore — players whose role it is to fight and police the game, electing to go with players who have more tangible skills that can be measured by these new statistics. Teams are going more with four forwards on the powerplay instead of the traditional three forwards and two defencemen setup, to try and extract as much as possible from the man advantage.
But despite all that, hockey still lags behind sports such as basketball and baseball in terms of the willingness of people within the game to use it and give it a chance.
“We’re still quibbling a lot about shot attempts,” he explained. “That’s the stuff that makes me laugh because I think every quote unquote “hockey person” would agree that shot attempts are important — and that it’s kind of a signal that you have the puck more often than not.”
“So everyone agrees, but as soon as you start throwing out terms such as Corsi and Fenwick, whatever names we’ve given them, you can instantly start to see people’s eyes glaze over. That’s why I try to say shot attempts whenever possible because I think everyone agrees that’s important. Once everyone gets on board with that, then we can start getting some more intense stuff.”
People like Dimitri Filipovic are trying to change that. Perhaps not next month, or next year — but eventually someone like Filipovic will have more say within NHL front offices as we see with the Maple Leafs and the Panthers. And perhaps one day, we could see someone like Filipovic calling the shots for an NHL team as a general manager.