Tortorella on analytics 'I want to learn more about it'

Thomas Drance
August 21 2013 09:20PM


Image via wikimedia commons

New Vancouver Canucks coach John Tortorella is on his way to Vancouver, slowly winding his way across the continent in a converted van with his wife and four dogs. But he took a break from his remote Wisconsin getaway to chat with Vancouver media on Wednesday evening, and wouldn't you know it, he said something indirectly referring to analytics that caught our eye. Per shooting percentage enthusiast Jason Botchford:

(Tortorella's) open to a more scientific, analytical approach to managing his team, something Canucks GM Mike Gillis presented to him early in their courtship.

“I think I’m going to learn from him because he’s into the science of the game and that’s something where I’m a bit of a Neanderthal,” Tortorella said. “I want to learn more about it.

“People should know, (Gillis) is leaving no stone unturned trying to find an edge.”

Let's unpack this comment after the jump.

That Mike Gillis is "leaving no stone unturned trying to find an edge" and using analytics and other research to do it isn't really news or noteworthy at this point. The only thing stunning about Vancouver's use of analytics is how open Mike Gillis and the Canucks have been about things like power-play shot rate, fatigue and passing percentage, and the impact of zone matching in the past. The contrast between teams like the Canucks and the San Jose Sharks and more secretive organizations like the Minnesota Wild is pretty stark.

More interesting from our perspective is Tortorella's comment that he's "a bit of a Neanderthal" when it comes to analytics or as he calls it "the science of the game." What's interesting about this comment is that for all of Tortorella's genuine modesty on the subject of analytics, observable stuff like his deployment patterns have generally been ahead of the curve.

Take zone-starts for example, something the Alain Vigneault-era Canucks exploited at length for a competitive edge that lasted for a couple of President's Trophy winning seasons. Well as early as 2011-12, before increasingly specialized forward deployments were in vogue league wide, John Tortorella's New York Rangers were one of the most Adam Smith-friendly clubs when it came to forward deployment. The next season Tortorella's zone-matching schemes became even more pronounced.

There's a couple of things that this suggests. Firstly, perhaps Tortorella is wiser to this stuff than he lets on (this isn't something I find particularly compelling). Secondarily, it might suggest that if you're clever you don't really need to know how to use the mplayershots script at timeonice.com to figure out that starting your best offensive players more often in the offensive end is simply an efficient allocation of resources...

That's really all I'd read into Tortorella's "science of the game" comments for now. It's good to know that Tortorella is at least open to these concepts, and we'll look forward to seeing if his education informs his coaching style or alternatively becomes a source of friction between the old-school headcoach and Vancouver's new age management team. Should be interesting either way.

Until we have more evidence one way or the other, I'd suggest to you that it might not even matter all that much.  As Tortorella's zone-matching suggests, it's possible to reach the same conclusions using numbers and data as one would wielding experience and native wit.

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Thomas Drance lives in Toronto, eats spicy food and writes about hockey. He is an NHL News Editor at theScore, the ex-managing editor of CanucksArmy.com and an opinionated blowhard to boot. You can follow him on twitter @thomasdrance.
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#1 DubiousRhino
August 21 2013, 09:31PM
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I definitely agree with your assumption that he's being earnest when Torts says he's a neanderthal when it comes to advanced statistics.

It seems like a lot of people think you have to choose either analytics or experience, when in fact a blend of the two is what breeds success. It'll be interesting to see how Torts adapts to Gillis' system.

It's pretty obvious that Torts can see how players match up, where the good match ups are, and how his players thrive or falter in each situation. I'm honestly a little excited to see if he can thrive by mixing his experience with some advanced statistics.

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#2 NM00
August 21 2013, 09:39PM
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Taking advantage of zone starts in hockey is like using defensive shifts in baseball.

As much as anything, it's a derivative of basic logic.

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#3 Yes
August 22 2013, 04:33PM
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Great article, as usual. I totally missed this statement from him,

From the get go, I've been whining about what an old school old man Torts is. I was aware of his zone matching, but also aware he hasn't produced strong puck possesion teams. Given what we know about top puck possesion teams and the SCF - well, I was concerned.

I'm hoping Gillis layed out a lot of literature for him re: puck possesion. Also, how shot blocking means you are a s#$% puck possesion team. Lol. He has a lot to learn IMO.

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