Analytics give Blackhawks an edge

ESPN The Magazine ranked all 122 teams across the four major sports on the strengths and shortcomings of their analytic strategy. For the Blackhawks -- the only NHL team in the Top 10 -- that belief in data begins at the top. Stan Bowman dived into analytics shortly after taking over as Chicago's general manager in 2009 and continues to evolve how he implements advanced stats within the organization.

The proof of its effectiveness is on the ice. The Blackhawks have won two Stanley Cups under Bowman and are among the favorites to win another this season.

Bowman chatted with ESPN The Magazine senior writer Craig Custance about next-level metrics and how they've given Chicago a sharp edge.

Craig Custance: The Blackhawks were the only NHL team in the "All-In" tier among NHL teams in The Magazine's Analytics Rankings. Is that a fair way to categorize your use of analytics?

Bowman: Yeah. I look at it as a competitive thing. I think what we do is better than anyone else. That's just my opinion. I'm not going to prove it to you. It's not about me, it's about, How does it help us? I use it a lot, but I don't talk about it. If what I describe is actually helpful to someone else, then my advantage starts to decrease. Then others would start to look at it like that.

Custance: Does that approach give the Blackhawks a competitive advantage?

Bowman: Once anything is widely adopted, there's no advantage. Then you're all looking at all the same things the same way. Right now, I think we're looking at things slightly differently. I don't get into specifics. It's not to be coy; I'm not trying to get accolades.

Custance: So you really believe in it.

Bowman: Yeah, I do. I don't think you can ever just say analytics rules the day. There are some things it can't capture -- like intangibles or the character of a player. But there are a lot of things it does capture. You can't scout every game.

Custance: What are the biggest hurdles you face in using analytics in hockey?

Bowman: The questions I struggle with most are: What do you do with the information? What does that mean? How does that help me? That's where the value comes into the interpretation on things.

Custance: Have you used analytics to change the way the Blackhawks play?

Bowman: Joel [Quenneville] coaches the way he coaches. However, we've found over time -- we've been doing this for five years now -- that we know certain guys are going to thrive because their skill sets and strengths transfer well to what Joel is doing. A good player isn't universally a good player. Some players who are good in a vacuum might not be good players for us. Sometimes we find players whose skill sets and style of play mesh well with the players who are already here and our style of play. That's where I think the value of analytics comes in.

Custance: Is there an application for analytics beyond player acquisition?

Bowman: When you look at the numbers, sometimes you find instances where you can point out, Here's what you might not think or see as coaches, and this is actually what's going on. And you can make some subtle changes. I would never say our team is changing its style of play; maybe it's more matchup oriented, or in terms of line combinations. The coaches have a good gut instinct and it's right 90 percent of the time. Sometimes things that are intuitive are helped by the analytics.

Custance: What's an example of that?

Bowman: You have an impression of a certain player, that he doesn't perform well when he's matched up against other good players. He does well against third- or fourth-liners. You think you can't trust him to play against top players. You look at the statistics and how that player performs and you realize: "Huh, he did pretty well. I never would have predicted that that guy would have done that." Sometimes your impressions of things are different than what the numbers show. When that's the case, sometimes there's an explanation for it.

Custance: When did you first get serious about analytics?

Bowman: I had just gotten hired as a GM. We were approached by somebody who made a convincing argument about the value of analytics. We started using it back then. We sort of enhanced it and honed it. We're much better at coming up with the conclusions now. Back then it was more simple. There's always a beginning stage when you're just trying to learn, and I would say, "What are these metrics?" As you do it over time, you say: "That's what the numbers are, this is what they mean. This is how we interpret them."

Custance: Have you hired any employees from outside the company specifically to work on analytics?

Bowman: We do. We have people who work on it. We have people who do different things. They're not just tasked with analytics. They perform other functions as well. I don't want to get too specific or share the details of what we track or how we track it because I don't want people to copy what we do. I think it works for us. I do think it gives us an advantage. But I don't claim to have the answers. We have a formula that works for us. We're always trying to expand and add a new component each year.