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How three ‘fringe’ hockey departments operate, and what teams use them for

If you’re even a casual NHL fan, there’s likely a number of team operation departments you’ve become familiar with as being a standard. You don’t flinch when you hear the words “Player Development Staff” or “Analytics Department,” and have at least heard of “Sport Science,” but … are you sure you know what they do? In fairness, are we sure that teams themselves know what they do? (My guesses here are “probably not exactly” and “not always,” for the record.)

Below is an overview to better understand just what these groups do within an NHL club, how much power they hold over the tangible team decisions fans see each day, and how they can be used and misused.

We’ll start with what seems most necessary – I mean, of course you need to develop your prospects, right?

Player Development Staff

What they do in theory: They work with a team’s prospects to help them become all they can be. They give young players the best shot to fulfill their potential. They take a team’s fringe players and turn them into capital-P Players.

The issue: Everyone has one of these departments, which means by sheer math half the teams are doing a below average job with this admirable, but rather nebulous aspiration. (It’s worth noting that even those doing a below average job today are probably doing exponentially better than teams were 20 years ago, even 10.)

What they do in practice: This would look very different from organization to organization. Given this is one of the few areas a team with financial clout can wield their advantage, here’s where you’ll see certain teams triple the less-funded ones in staff and resources. My experience with the Toronto Maple Leafs organization saw no expense spared here, including the thing that makes my co-worker Brian Burke most annoyed: affording the AHL team a second bus just for the players so rookies don’t have to double up and can sleep better on the road after games.

I’ll try to keep this more general and concise, so: the development staff starts each summer at development camp with each prospect and gets to know every kid on the ice, in the gym, and gets a sense for what they need. They help sort these talents for the organization, and from there, they try to put them in positions to succeed with workout programs that lead up to the season.

The best teams stay in touch with these players all throughout the next season with regular check-ins (and more if the players want), which may include in-person visits. The department will try to go through each player’s video at different times and show them areas where they can improve. If they can get on the ice with them during the season, they will. The drafted hockey player – particularly those draftees of well-funded teams – have some safety nets undrafted players simply do not.

One key area of difference from org to org: how much development do your NHL “prospects” still require (and hey, what about the vets?), and are you willing to find time for that? In-season schedules can be jam-packed, so can you find opportunities to continue working on the skill of your team? Some coaches will say “we have to,” some will tell you it simply isn’t feasible.

The issues: Part of the problem with “player development” staffs is that few are exactly sure who’s good at it, what works (the growth of technology has muddied the waters further here), and how much success has really been had (aside from the department heads responsible for the whole operation). As prospects try-and-fail or try-and-succeed, so much can be chalked up to the attributes of those individual players. “Well, he was just a lazy kid” is just as easy as “Well, that guy was a god-given talent.”

That leads to obvious questions: How many more NHL players would a great player development staff churn out than a good one, or even a bad one? (One every few years?) How much better could a good prospect get with the right help? How much would they stagnate without it? And can anyone tell whether those involved made a tangible difference in either direction?

I worry that sort of vagueness lends itself to recently retired and well-liked players being handed vaguely defined “player development roles.” I think a ton of great teachers and mentors will obviously come from the NHL, more than anywhere else. Plus, when you know a player and like that player, when they retire, hey, maybe you’ve found the perfect fit for that role from within your organization.

But I’m willing to bet this changes as the years pass, where we’ll see how effective talented players from around the world who also have experience in teaching younger players — and don’t have millions of dollars in the bank – can be in these roles. To me, good player development is a “boots on the ground” job and I’m not sold every former NHL leader is 100 per cent willing to take that on to the extent necessary to achieve maximal gains. (Some are! Just saying the pool should be deeper here than the almost-exclusive hires of recently retired NHLers.)

That little footnote aside, there’s still just a lot of figuring out going on in these roles. How do you best support a developing player and personality? Some need more carrots than sticks, some need more emotional support, and others simply need to be pointed in the right direction. Catch-all methods don’t work, which begs flexibility of big organizations, which … is never the strength of big organizations.

You can make the case that the need for good player development at the pro level is currently at its peak given the salary cap structure (and it being flat for years to come), while the understanding of how to use all the tools available is still in its infancy.

The Analytics Department

What they do in theory: They present the team with the details your eyes and brain can’t process in real-time. Between periods and after every game, coaches are presented with numbers, from how successful D-men were at defending the blue line, to their success on turning retrievals into breakouts, to how each line fared in shot attempts (and against which opposing line), and on and on.

They prepare info packs on upcoming opponents, optimal lineup configurations, and present big picture information about their own teams. They answer obscure questions like “What are the combined shot attempts for and against when Travis Dermott is on the ice playing his off-side against playoff-level opponents?” or whatever the obscure question is that a coach may have for them.

How anyone could hate on a team for having a department that provides answers to questions about situations where they previously flew blind is staggeringly dumb.

The issues: What percentage of total value should this input be given when paired up with eye test and informed intuition? How much weight do you give to individual stats when the answers lead to more questions? (In my above example, maybe you want to know how many of those games Dermott played with a specific partner, in which case sample sizes grow smaller and smaller, and the information gets harder to value.)

And then there’s paralysis by analysis. If at some point the numbers give you information that ties your opinions all in a knot, can you step out of the Zach Galifianakis GIF and get back to just making the decision you simply trust the most?

The super-unique issue: Do the final decision-makers listen to them at all? I’m not asking “are they heard,” every team will go through the motions there, but are they actually listened to? This has been a major issue in the early going with analytics departments and NHL teams. You can’t be a team that doesn’t have people running numbers. That would be embarrassing and a PR nightmare, for all information is just that – information — and you’re free to do with it what you will. So, you might as well have the information.

With that, some teams have hired analytics departments despite not believing in what they provide, and those voices are left internally unheard. They’re Milton in Office Space, left working in metaphorical Storage Room B, collecting a paycheck that’s an organizational rounding error which saves the team from being a troglodytic punchline.

This has also been a failing on the side of analytics hires, to a smaller extent. Effectively communicating your ideas and speaking the language of those you’re trying to convince is part of almost every job, and there hasn’t always been a smooth conductor between the two groups to say, “This is what this means for our team, practically.” By and large though, where analytics departments have been shut out, it’s been a failing of close-mindedness from those uncomfortable with new ideas.

Strides have been made, huge ones, over the past five years. But I’d say a quarter of NHL teams have people in positions of decision-making power who’d just rather not hear from the analytics department at all. (Also, pulling numbers like “a quarter” out of thin air is not how these departments work, I assure you.)

And finally,

Sport Science

What they do in theory: They focus on squeezing the most possible juice from the fruit, trying to maximize every player’s ability for their individual gain, and in turn, the team’s. They try to minimize injury and illness, since being in the lineup as many nights as possible is a value for the team.

What they do in practice: They provide information to the coaching staff about who needs what to get the most out of them using a variety of data points, conversation, and their education. I’ll speak generally about my time with the Marlies as examples, though there’s a big range on how teams treat this aspect of the game.

Every player on the Leafs/Marlies wore what looked like sport bras for practice, which monitored their heart rates and their physical outputs (this wasn’t for the coaches to see, luckily for lazy players). If those in that department noticed players working as hard as ever and getting way less out of each stride, something’s off, and they’d work on getting that player right. (Was it a groin issue? A rest issue?)

They had each player fill out a survey upon waking up every day about how they felt physically, about their mental health and more before they came to the rink. They operated as a go-between, advocating for the player while trying to get the most out them for the team. They worked with the strength and conditioning team, they encouraged different training (like yoga), and tried to provide what each unique player needed. (Hint: the answer almost always involves getting more sleep, or possibly more rest and more sleep, or maybe more sleep.)

The issue: If you’re on the sport science team, the worst thing that can happen is players getting hurt and being unavailable. You don’t want players to be dragging on the ice, and you don’t want players falling below expectations.

And so, the best thing to advocate for those players is rest, a la Kawhi Leonard. You’d want players to get more practice days off, to skip morning skates, and to not play unreasonable sums of ice time in games. Your job depends on presenting healthy players.

You can imagine how many NHL coaches would feel about being told Player X is unavailable yet again because the sport science team says they think they could use a little bit more rest. I mean it’s pro hockey, everyone’s tired, how will the rest of the team feel about this player sitting out yet again?

If you run an NHL team, part of the gig of being involved in a physical profession is being rugged and reliable. The NHL normally has an 82-game season followed by two months of rigorous hockey. Nobody wants a delicate sports car that can do great things in theory, but isn’t road ready day in, day out. It’s half the reason some hockey people love reliable steel-and-not-plastic, pickup-truck-style hockey players. Showing up is half the battle.

This is still an area of mild conflict, as of course coaches want healthy players who are able to be at their best. And if they knew giving them a day off here or there could aid that, of course they’d give it. But will it help? Will it help more than getting more reps in another area of the game, tired or not? Finding the line between protecting an asset and coddling players who’d of course rather not practice … it can be tough to find.

There is no shortage of information coming to those who have to make decisions on an NHL team each day. What changes from team to team is who values what and how much, and I’m not sure there’s ever going to be perfect answers to be found anywhere.

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