The field of hockey analytics might still be in its infancy compared to its counterparts in other sports but there's no question about the major strides it has taken into the mainstream over the last few years. We're at the point where many teams have full-time stats gurus on their payrolls, GMs and other team personnel are common attendees of analytics conferences, coaches cite shot attempt differential during intermission interviews, and major television personalities bring up analytics in panel discussions.
Most of the work done regarding "advanced" statistics in hockey revolves around a stat that really shouldn't be considered advanced in the slightest. Despite its esoteric name, Corsi is simply the difference between even-strength shot attempts for and against, a measure that when adjusted for how often teams play with the lead tends to be one of the strongest predictors of future success available. Despite that, some teams remain skeptical of the numbers and others simply unaware.
And then there are the San Jose Sharks. Sharks scout Brian Gross let slip in an interview with an Edmonton radio station last night that the organization is so far ahead of the curve that they not only use shot metrics to guide their decisions at the NHL level but have people who manually track Corsi for the major junior leagues to supplement scouting, which is unheard of outside of the Soo Greyhounds' excellent work. You can listen to all three parts of the interview here, but I've transcribed the most relevant bits which include a fascinating and unprecedented look behind the curtain at the Sharks' scouting process as well as their interest in Mirco Mueller and the draft-day trade that allowed them to select him.
Guy Flaming: Anything stand out, big significant changes in how you do your job?
Brian Gross: Well there's no doubt about it that technology is playing a big role. We have a fairly consistent approach technically. We use RinkNet but RinkNet is a system that you can design to package for yourself, for your own team. So we have made a real big change in the last two years in how we identify players, how we grade them and we're moving even farther ahead of that. We have now the Corsi system we use and for people in the NHL, probably Corsi is used almost exclusively for NHL players. We're using Corsi for junior players.
GF: You as in the San Jose Sharks?
BG: The San Jose Sharks. Simply because we have access to almost every tape of every game. So once we highlight a player, our guys down in San Jose start doing that procedure right away. And we have four meetings a year and we start breaking things down really early. For example, the boy we drafted, Mirco Mueller, out of Everett. We knew about him a year before the draft. What we did is when we got him into the Western League, we really started to pick him apart and then we built a whole profile on him. And, at the time we drafted, he was one of maybe four guys we were very interested in. And the reason we moved up was because that small little package of guys were starting to go and so we had to move up to get after this guy.
GF: Even though it was only two spots. I mean, you identified the guy you want so you had to go up.
BG: Because we felt the team in front of us, the team we made the switch with, was probably interested in him.
GF: That was Detroit.
BG: That was Detroit because that's Detroit's kind of d-man. Mobile, skilled guy that plays good in all three zones. And they took a good guy behind us so they got what they wanted but that's how thin it can become and you utilize everything in your power to determine those players that you're isolating. So it might sound a little silly but when we do the draft we build it into blocks. So our blocks are, say, maybe first pick to ten. Then it's eleven to fifteen. Then it's fifteen to twenty and then it's twenty-one to twenty-five, twenty-five to thirty. So we build those blocks and we put players in those blocks and we highlight the guys within those blocks that we're really interested in. It's a lot of work and it's a lot of arguing. It's a lot of, you know, finger-pointing and things going on.
GF: You're an old school guy and you've been around a long time--a really long time--but the whole advanced stats stuff is fairly new. Is that something you're learning on the fly or do the San Jose Sharks have kind of a separate scouting staff, if you will, that kind of breaks down all those numbers and then bring those to your scouting meetings?
BG: Well for the people that are all excited about it, I'm excited when I get to see it and I don't have to develop it on a player. Our job is hard enough, just putting in reports of what we see as opposed to developing Corsi for each individual player that we're interested in. We have some very intelligent young guys in our organization in San Jose that can snap a tape off any system in a matter of minutes and they can isolate a player and they can define all the Corsi information they need on any player, whether it be a pro or a junior.
GF: Now do they do all of the--I don't even know all of the big words and big terms but the zone starts and the quality of competition stuff, all those things are available?
BG: We would evaluate our own players, number one, and number two, we would definitely evaluate players we are interested in on a trade or [who] may become unrestricted free agents.
GF: So if people want to send in some questions they can text us or tweet them in at me. SkinnyFish says, "That's all great about Corsi and stuff but how many Cups has that won the San Jose Sharks? I rest my case." So not a big believer in all the advanced stats stuff but what do you say to that?
BG: You know what, we have 23 cups in our dressing room and each player has one.
GF: And you said it's fairly new for San Jose. So they haven't won a Cup yet.
BG: Yes, this is fairly new. The whole process is fairly new. And exciting.
There's a lot to digest there, including Brian's artful response to the tongue-in-cheek comment about the Sharks' championship record but it's intriguing stuff on many levels. One because it's the first instance I can recall of a team official discussing these things so openly but mainly because the Sharks seem to believe they've identified a market inefficiency here in the way teams scout junior hockey players to the extent that they've gone to what sounds like the painstaking measure of hand-tracking the Corsi numbers of prospects they're considering. Reading between the lines, it sounds like Mueller was a guy who rated highly by these measures which makes sense given descriptions of his game.
Less surprising is the confirmation of what we've generally known for a while: the Sharks use analytics, specifically Corsi, to evaluate NHL players they're looking to acquire. Doug Wilson came close to saying as much in an interview with Jason Plank on this very website a few years ago and a good deal of the moves the Sharks have made, both in terms of acquiring and dumping players, have generally carried the Corsi seal of approval. From signing and trading for players like Manny Malhotra, Kyle Wellwood, Ian White, Daniel Winnik, Scott Gomez and Tyler Kennedy to trading away the likes of Douglas Murray, Michal Handzus, Jamie McGinn and Devin Setoguchi, there's always been a sense that the organization values players who can drive shot differential; the types of players who are generally undervalued by the market.
Granted, they've also made their share of moves at the margins that aren't necessarily compatible with analytics (signing Handzus in the first place, picking up Adam Burish, trading for Kent Huskins and Niclas Wallin) but Corsi alone isn't the be-all, end-all and the Sharks are understandably not treating it as such. But it's a valuable tool and it should be encouraging to Sharks fans that it's not only part of the team's toolkit but that they're apparently using it on a larger scale than any other club we're aware of.