When Jonathan Wall joined the Vancouver Canucks organization 18 years and many management hats ago, one of his jobs was to mark videotape recorded during the games to identify scoring chances and other key plays.
That involved loading tapes into a rack of VHS machines and then diligently watching them play back.
“I’m going to date myself here,” Wall said, laughing. “We’d have to go up to the satellite room and program the satellite and go down to the VHS room and put all of the tapes in and I remember how excited I was when we got DVD burners because we could actually burn onto a DVD and not have to carry stacks of, literally, a room full of VHS tapes.”
Today, technology advances mean the director of hockey operations and analytics and his colleagues have any play from any game, played anywhere, at their fingertips.
“Technology on that side has just grown so far that trying to do what we do today back then would have been virtually impossible,” he said.
Wall, 42, works with the Canucks management team on hockey analytics, salary cap management and planning, contract analysis, immigration, entry draft, free agency, college scouting and special projects for the general manager.
“As the years have gone on it’s become a lot more complicated, and the amount of data that we have to work with has increased and the technology we have at our disposal has increased,” he said.
There is more data available than there is time to analyze it.
There are stats for unblocked shot attempts, not to be confused for the stats for shots on goal or missed shots. There’s numbers for an alphabet soup of acronyms like the TOI, the GA20, the SF20, the IPP, the IGP and the IAP.
Add to that the salary cap, at $73 million this season, and it means managing a modern-day NHL team is equal parts analytics, accounting and pure intuition.
As a healthy-market franchise – No. 6 on Forbes’ most recent list of the most valuable teams in the league – the Canucks spend close to the cap ceiling. They have a little more than $2 million leeway to keep their 23-man roster under the league-imposed cap.
“It is a daily thing, managing our roster, our roster numbers, our injury list, our LTI [long-term injury] list and our salary cap,” he said.
Players are traded. Bonuses kick in. Players get hurt. Injuries are the most challenging wildcard in the mix, Wall said.
“They’re so unpredictable. We meet with our medical staff every morning, pretty much, as well as after every game and we’re trying to stay on top of things but hockey’s such a dynamic sport that a player can get hurt at any moment and that’s where you have to have that preparation, plan and scenario in place that if a player does get hurt here’s how we’re going to rectify that situation,” he said.
“Things can happen very, very quickly. We had a situation last year where we were in Denver and we ended up losing Alex Edler and Brandon Sutter to injury the same night. We played the following night in Arizona and had a home game on the weekend and we had to make roster changes and sort out our LTI situation and a lot of other things that sometimes doesn’t get captured in the daily transactions but it’s stuff we have to do the right way to give us the flexibility to make the right moves down the road. And those are things where we need to understand the ramifications of everything we do.”
While the final decision rests with Canucks general manager Jim Benning, Wall said it’s a collaborative effort that requires anticipating potential scenarios before they happen.
“I don’t want to be overly simplistic but it’s like balancing any chequebook or any accounting. You know what your budget is and how much you can spend and you have a daily track of how much you are spending,” he said. “And then you’re trying to take into account potential situations and see how those impact your daily spending and your season spending.”
The search for efficiency and speed in the data arena is constant. Information, like milk, spoils quickly, he said.
“If we played a game last night, for example, and our coaches need information this morning and we present it to them at the end of the day, the opportunity to use that information has already passed, maybe. You have to keep working on efficiencies to keep the data moving quickly.”
After earning his degree in sports management at the University of British Columbia, Wall worked for what was then Orca Bay Sports’ Voodoo roller hockey team as assistant equipment manager. He went on to internships within the Canucks organization and began his career as the scouting information co-ordinator.
“It involved a lot of spreadsheets and data analysis and research projects of that nature and really sort of created a niche for myself.”
That niche – analytics – is transforming professional sports across the board.
Perhaps the best-known example is the transformation of the Oakland Athletics major league baseball team, chronicled in the 2003 book Moneyball by Michael Lewis and later the film starring Brad Pitt.
A’s general manager Billy Beane’s “sabermetrics” system relied on analyzing on-base and slugging percentages to fill his low-cost roster. The team, one of the poorest in major league baseball, went on to the 2002 and 2003 playoffs.
Analytics have since transformed other leagues. In the National Basketball Association, arguably the most data-driven of all pro leagues, teams have as many as a half-dozen cameras on the court for “player tracking.” Everything from a player’s speed to the number of times he touched the ball are tracked and analyzed.
Popular websites such as FiveThirtyEight.com have sprung up in droves, crunching numbers to predict every manner of match, series and playoff showdown.
But for Wall, “analytics” are old hat.
“It’s a fancy term that’s really got a lot of press and it’s become a very sexy term recently but we’ll talk to people in our hockey department who will say, ‘That’s really neat but when Roger Nielsen coached me in the ’80s he was doing similar stuff,’” he said.
“And really, ultimately, analytics is trying to use data to make the best decisions possible. And while the ability to track data and understand it maybe has changed, really that’s how I see it – trying to find new and innovative ways to improve the decision-making process.”