Dallas Eakins on how an NHL coaching staff can use analytics

Jonathan Willis
August 09 2014 04:47PM

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We’re in the dog days of summer, and thanks to that even something as relatively small as the hiring of a statistical consultant by Edmonton had been debated to death.

Oilers head coach Dallas Eakins talked to Winnipeg’s TSN 1290 about the move, and he managed both to say some new things and give us some idea about what he’s expecting from new addition Tyler Dellow.

Eakins’ View

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One of the things Eakins was asked on the Hustler and Lawless show was what he was going to do with the numbers. While the coach declined to get into details he did sketch out his overall approach to analytics:

We’re taking a stab and trying to get ahead of the game, and I think there is value but I’m not going to get into detail on what we’re going to do with this. I will say that the one thing analytics does, is when your opinion and your gut and what you see matches up with the analytics, I think you’ve got the home run: We’re doing the right thing, that player is doing the right thing, we’re teaching this the right way, whatever it is.

There isn’t anything overly new in that quote; when eye and analytics agree it’s pretty easy to make a decision. The tricky part is how one navigates disagreement between the two.

When your gut tells you one thing, and the analytics are for or against it the other way, it starts the conversation. There’s different levels of the conversation, and you can go through it on a number of different levels on the questions you’re going to start asking. But for me it’s another tool to look at, it’s another consideration; it’s another question, certainly another conversation with your staff. It’s something that I think is comparative, it’s something that’s going to help us, and it’s something I believe in, and I’m not going to be quick to say, ‘that’s a bunch of crap, discard it, these guys don’t know what they’re doing’ and leave it. I’d much rather be the other way and go, ‘we’re going to move forward with this, we’ll see if it does help us’ and be considerate and open-minded to learning something new.

That open-mindedness is essential. Analytics are useless if the only time they’re used is to reinforce what somebody already knows. There must be conflict, there must be disagreement, and some of the time the picture painted by the analytics has to be right, even if it goes against the conventional view. If that isn’t the case, they have no value.

Eakins is often portrayed as arrogant in the media, but he makes comments like the one above with surprising frequency. Confidence in one’s own ability doesn’t mean tuning out dissent. If someone is truly confident they aren’t scared of information that might make their practices better; they seek it out and adapt accordingly.

Other Highlights

Roger Neilson

  • Eakins compared the work being done in analytics now to the work his mentor Roger Neilson did with video, noting that many felt it was a passing fad. “I’ve got a lot of time for the analytics,” he said. “I believe it’s something you have to consider; why you would not consider it in your decision process baffles me. Doesn’t mean you’re going to use it every time, but it’s certainly something that you have to look at.”
  • There has been a lot of speculation about how much Dellow and the Oilers talked last season. Eakins explained that Dellow had been invited to present at the team’s in-house coaching clinic prior to the season, and that they touched base a few times over the year but that there wasn’t a lot of dialogue.
  • Eakins was asked about a comment that John Paddock had made with regard to the need for coaches to get out of the office and coach the team rather than burying their heads in video. Eakins agreed, and mentioned something pretty interesting about his own staff: that it had grown and that there was a specific role for each guy. He didn’t say it exactly, but I suspect having a designated stats guy on staff helps take the load off the coach because that stats guy can do the grunt work and report to the boss with his findings. It’s the same idea as having an assistant coach breaking down systems and reporting in – it frees up the head coach for other tasks.

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Jonathan Willis is a freelance writer. He currently works for Oilers Nation, Sportsnet and Bleacher Report. He's co-written three books and worked for myriad websites, including the Edmonton Journal, Grantland, ESPN, The Score, and Hockey Prospectus. He was previously the founder and managing editor of Copper & Blue.