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The NHL’s aversion to public data looks sillier than ever

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Photo credit:Jim Rassol-USA TODAY Sports
Arun Srinivasan
1 month ago
The discourse around analytics being viewed as taboo or even as a necessary function of modern sports is well past its expiry date. Every professional team has an analytics department — the differentiation point is perhaps how they’re viewed internally within their own organizations — and the Washington Capitals were wise to purchase CapFriendly, a public resource with real-time graphs and charts of player and team salary data.
CapFriendly has become a necessary public resource for reporters and informed fans alike, a clear and easy reference guide when discussing contracts, the salary cap and evaluations of any team’s long-term outlook. It’s a clever move by the Capitals to make the data their own proprietary offering and from the outset of the analytics revolution, teams have been looking to hire economists, data scientists and writers who can build mathematical modelling that provides an advantage, when the rest of the competition is relying on publicly available information.
Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman reported that a handful of teams — yes, including the Toronto Maple Leafs — have a backup of league data in the event that CapFriendly and other similar resources go down. Kyle Dubas was famously a proponent of analytics but a decade after he was billed as the math-inclined wunderkind, the now-Pittsburgh Penguins general manager’s advantage in the space has dwindled considerably.

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It’s the ensuing portion of Friedman’s reporting that should force the NHL to take a look in the proverbial mirror:
“The NHL frowns on the existence of sites like this one, even though they should be doing it themselves,” Friedman said on 32 Thoughts: The Podcast. “They consider it propriety information, so the Capitals couldn’t keep it open if they wanted to… the league would say you cannot be partner to this and have it be public, and also, you couldn’t make any money from it on any ads. So once the Capitals purchased it, it was coming down.”
It would be disingenuous to feign surprise. I’ve written extensively at Yahoo Sports about the NHL’s failure to enact a real, tangible anti-racism strategy and how it routinely fails people of colour. It habitually lags behind the other professional sports leagues culturally and now, it appears as if it doesn’t understand how to appeal to the majority of its fan base. The two ideas aren’t aligned, only to state that under Gary Bettman’s supervision, the NHL routinely fails to understand the modern fan’s evolving demands.
“All these teams in sports, they’re building all this stuff,” Friedman said of the Capitals’ acquistion of CapFriendly on Wednesday’s edition of Leafs Morning Take. “They’re building their own secret models. They’re building their own ways of figuring out the kind of stuff CapFriendly figures out. It’s expensive. It’s labor-intensive and it’s expensive. And I think what Washington did was look at what CapFriendly does, and I think like a lot of teams, they had deals to use CapFriendly’s tools.
“There were a whole bunch of NHL teams that paid to use CapFriendly’s infrastructure to help them figure out things. And the Capitals, I think, are a really smart organization. (Capitals CEO Ted) Leonsis is a really smart guy. They’ve got a lot of analytically-inclined people who work behind them and they want to grow (their analytics team). They just figured that the smarter move was buying what already existed and the people who run it.”
If you’re still frightened by analytics, there’s not much one can do to reconcile this fear. It’s merely more information and that’s precisely what fans want. It’s not the most interesting prism to discuss hockey to be sure and I’ve balked at the idea that contract discussions should be the focal point of a superstar’s individual season (in this case, William Nylander) but fans should have access to robust, accurate salary cap information. There’s no purpose in withholding any information that doesn’t violate a players’ reasonable right to privacy, so it’s baffling to see the league viewing CapFriendly as an existential threat.
Samantha Chang of The Broadscast argued this point more eloquently than I ever could. CapFriendly largely exists to serve fan interests and the owners of the site ought to be rewarded for their public contributions to the sport — our loss is indeed the Washington Capitals’ gain. Perhaps most frustrating is that the NHL’s best teams aren’t particularly concerned about salary cap transparency nor do they view it as a form of siphoning revenue from the league.
The timing of the Capitals’ purchase of CapFriendly and the NHL’s ensuing revulsion towards public data is inopportune at best and hilariously obtuse, at worst. Just take a look at the Stanley Cup entrants: Florida and Edmonton both ranked within the top-five in Corsi For and expected goals percentage at 5-on-5. Florida is the best shot-suppression team in the NHL, while Edmonton has arguably functioned as the league’s best offense under Kris Knoblauch. These teams aren’t daunted by cap data or analytics or information, they thrive with it! Framing public information as an existential and advertorial threat to the NHL when the Panthers and the Oilers — especially the Panthers — are embracing data with both arms, just makes the league’s aversion appear sillier than ever.
Under Gary Bettman’s supervision, the NHL will never be a bastion of progress, both on and off the ice. If the league’s contention that all salary cap data ought to be proprietary, it’s incumbent upon them to hire the right mathematicians and improve the league’s publicly available data. It would benefit both fans and teams, but for now, it’s an outright goofy contention from the NHL.

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