Fancy stats guiding NHL coaching hires

Research showed how Bob Hartley's teams continually improved and could hold an early lead. Dale Zanine/US Presswire

When Calgary Flames GM Jay Feaster narrowed his head coaching candidate list to its finalists, he made a request to Chris Snow.

"Come back to me with whatever information you think is worth reviewing about these candidates," he told Snow.

Snow is Calgary's Director of Video and Statistical Analysis and immediately set out to find statistics that would clearly identify which of the candidates was the best fit for the Flames. More teams, including the Flames, use statistical analysis to help shape player personnel decisions. Snow was now charged with finding the right stats that would project the perfect fit behind the bench.

And the Flames aren't alone in using these methods. The Washington Capitals are searching for a head coach, and GM George McPhee said his hunt goes well beyond typical interviews, but that's as far as he'd go in revealing Washington's process.

"I wouldn't disclose that kind of stuff," he said.

If they're smart, the Edmonton Oilers are doing the same thing.

With his job done now, Snow can disclose his method in providing Feaster with the kind of evidence that makes a front office ultra confident it made the right decision when stepping to the podium to announce a coaching hire.

First, Snow went back and looked at all the teams the finalists coached at any level, not just the NHL. Major junior, USHL, NHL, AHL anything that would indicate attributes and tendencies that their teams consistently revealed.

A former sportswriter, Snow used those reporting skills to also develop a biographical timeline on each coach.

"It was to give [Feaster] as much understanding of where the person came from and take Jay through that individual's background, personal details," Snow said. "Just equip him with as much information as possible. Try to fill in whatever gaps we had."

The big challenge was the search for data. Snow looked for trends in the way the team played 5-on-5. He analyzed special teams numbers before and after the coach arrived.

"It's not that easy, to be honest. There isn't as much data beyond the last eight years. A number of these teams, if they're not in the NHL, there isn't great data," Snow said. When he couldn't find exact numbers, he turned to old newspaper clippings to help complete the picture.

The more he gathered on Bob Hartley, the more Snow wondered why he wasn't already coaching in the NHL.

"His teams consistently performed in the top third in the the league in every team category. When he was in Atlanta, those teams improved every season," he said. "Improving is such a big thing we looked for when we looked for a coach. Was something building there?"

With Hartley, something was always building.

"He went to Laval and won more games the second year -- [he] won a championship. He went to the American League -- the third year, [he] won the most games and won a championship. Colorado kept pushing in the right direction," he said.

The other consistent characteristic of a Hartley-coached team Snow discovered was that, if they jumped out to an early lead, they usually won. His teams were particularly strong at protecting leads.

"That's the sign of a well-coached team," Snow said. "When they're ahead, they stay ahead. They find a way to win."

Hartley and Feaster are close friends, and this hiring seemed like a foregone conclusion before the search was conducted. It was anything but. Snow's analysis was thorough, and then Hartley was grilled on systems and strategy by John Weisbrod and Craig Conroy. It was an entire process that really helped the front office examine where they are as a franchise and in which direction they should proceed.

"We had a chance as a group to study how teams play, how coaches think about preparing the teams," Snow said. "It's a good step-back exercise."


• We shouldn't be surprised to see the resiliency of the New Jersey Devils with a strong effort in Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Final. This is a team that plays well when desperate. They showed a lot about their resolve with a 3-1 win with the Stanley Cup in the house at Staples Center.

"It's nice," said Ilya Kovalchuk, who scored his eighth goal of the playoffs with an empty-netter. "Nobody [is] ready to go on vacation. We got another week to play. We'll see what's going to happen."

It was an opportunistic win for the Devils, but their best game of the series remains Game 2. That's the kind of effort they're going to have to duplicate as the series shifts back to Newark.

"We've got to win a home game," said Devils coach Pete DeBoer. "We're a good home team in front of our home crowd. I'm confident that we'll be ready to play and we'll get the job done."

• After the Flyers were eliminated from the playoffs, Jaromir Jagr sounded like a guy ready to continue his career elsewhere. But according to CSNPhilly.com's Tim Panaccio, Jagr and the Flyers are working on a new contract that would bring him back for another season.

"We hope to get something done before the draft," Jagr's agent Petr Svoboda told Panaccio. Jagr was a great fit with Claude Giroux but slowed as the season continued.

The most interesting potential UFA in Philadelphia is defenseman Matt Carle. GM Paul Holmgren expressed optimism after the season ended that he'd be able to get a deal done with Carle, but if he hits free agency he may be a solid Plan B for teams that miss out on Ryan Suter. A team like Detroit would certainly be interested if Carle hits free agency and the Red Wings can't lure Suter north.

• Smart move by the Florida Panthers to extend the contract of GM Dale Tallon who has completely changed the culture in South Florida to one in which players actually want to play. Tallon was wildly aggressive in free agency last year and now has a couple of his own players to take care of.

When we spoke recently, he remained optimistic that he'll get a deal done with defenseman Jason Garrison. On Thursday, he told the Miami Herald that he made contract offers to Kris Versteeg and backup goalie Scott Clemmensen. He also said he's interested in bringing back Mikael Samuelsson. The wildcard to Tallon's offseason is Roberto Luongo. Tallon has shown in the past he's not afraid to be aggressive in acquiring big contracts and Luongo would presumably welcome a return to Florida. Even with the talented Jacob Markstrom on the way, it could make a lot of sense to acquire Luongo if the price is right.