Toronto Maple Leafs partner with SAS analytics

The Toronto Maple Leafs have partnered with analytics firm SAS to improve how the team tracks stats and analyzes games in an effort to improve performance on the ice.

Could take game, player analysis to next level

Head coach Randy Carlyle will be able to use more in-depth statistics to guide the Toronto Maple Leafs as the team announces a new partnership with analytics firm SAS. ( Marianne Helm/Getty Images)

When Kyle Dubas began using advanced stats and analytics as general manager of the Ontario Hockey League's Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds, he and his staff had to track, import and compare everything manually.

Now, as assistant GM of the Toronto Maple Leafs, Dubas has just about all the information he could want at his fingertips. Over the past couple months, the Leafs have forged a partnership with analytics firm SAS and on opening night began using the technology they hope will eventually improve their on-ice results.

"We're able to collect the data and have it in real-time, be able to use it to give to our coaches in the game and to analyze for ourselves in decision-making," Dubas said. "To have those tools at your disposal on your phone or iPad, it's been great and a massive and welcome change."

The SAS technology captures stats from every NHL game and team. Dubas and Toronto's hockey research and development staff can then access that information, which means Leafs analytics specialists Cam Charron, Darryl Metcalf and Rob Pettapiece — all hired over the summer as part of Dubas and president Brendan Shanahan's shift to a more analytical approach — don't have to manually keep track of things like shot attempts, ice time or quality of competition.

SAS analytics lead Tim Trussell said the purpose is "to be validating assumptions or validating hypotheses in an unbiased way."

Hockey executives, coaches, players and fans can watch a game and have a good idea of who's playing well and who's not, but having the data to back it up adds another dimension to measuring hockey.

Dubas said when he was hired, Shanahan and general manager Dave Nonis were eager to learn as much about analytics and obtain as much information as possible. Over the previous couple of years, the Leafs were a punching bag for the advanced-stats converts, who criticized them for being a bad puck-possession team.

Analytics bring brighter future for Leafs

The SAS partnership, which is being announced Thursday morning, seems like the next step in the process for the Leafs.

"Over time it's not so much the technology that differentiates. It's how an organization uses it, how they incorporate it into their business process," said Cameron Dow, vice-president of marketing for SAS Canada. 

So far and through the very small sample size of four regular-season games, Dubas said, the most noticeable impact has been on analyzing upcoming opponents. The Leafs could begin to anticipate how the Pittsburgh Penguins were playing under new coach Mike Johnston or how new players were fitting in for the New York Rangers and Colorado Avalanche.

"You're trying to analyze, even though it's a small sample: How are those teams changing or how are they playing, what effects are different guys having with different players, and be able to apply that to our preparation for every game," Dubas said.

So far, only Dubas, Charron, Metcalf and Pettapiece have access to the raw data, though that could change over time. SAS also has the ability to add more depth to the information the Leafs can unearth and sift through.

"We see a lot of potential in the future to add and complement to what Kyle and the team are doing right now," Dow said. "I think they're just scratching the surface of what is possible."