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New path to the NHL: Crunching numbers, not opponents

In a busy 2014 offseason during which the Maple Leafs hired Brendan Shanahan as club president in an overhauling of their front office, one of the team's biggest moves was among its most discreet. That eventful summer ended with Darryl Metcalf joining Toronto's advanced stats group.

The Maple Leafs discovered Metcalf through Extra Skater, the advanced statistics website he founded and updated during his time away from his job as a web consultant.

Metcalf's arrival made a considerable ripple in the online hockey community and set in motion a trend in which many NHL teams look to the Internet for number-crunching talent.

"I think Darryl's hiring made a big difference publicly because it was the Leafs; that really set off a lot of people to do it," said Andrew Thomas, the Wild's lead hockey researcher and a former college statistics professor. "Of all the people who have been out there doing site work, Darryl was one of the first to get attention."

With its founder no longer available to maintain his passion project, Extra Skater was shut down. It was a blow to the fans and hockey insiders who relied on the site for data not readily available on conventional hockey sites.

Enter Thomas, who at the time was a professor at Carnegie Mellon. Along with his Ph.D. student Sam Ventura, Thomas identified hockey analytics' online vacuum and started war-on-ice.com. Launched a few weeks after Metcalf joined the Maple Leafs, War on Ice featured many of the new metrics previously found on sites like Extra Skater.

War on Ice also introduced new tools, such as Hextally, a goaltending metric named after Ron Hextall, a former NHL goaltender and the current Flyers general manager.

"We got the idea that we wanted to be from the academic side," said Thomas, 35. "The idea that the public would want to consume it, I think that's where we saw that we had a better opportunity to make a dent."

With War on Ice gaining traction, Thomas and Ventura hired Alexandra Mandrycky, a recent Georgia Tech graduate working as an independent software consultant. Before long, the site commanded 40 to 50 hours of Mandrycky's free time in a given week.

But less than two years after it started, War on Ice is no more — because Ventura, Thomas and Mandrycky got jobs with NHL teams.

Ventura was hired as a consultant by his hometown Penguins in the summer of 2015. Thomas and Mandrycky joined the Wild seven months later, Mandrycky, 25, as a hockey operations analyst.

Again, others worked quickly to fill the void left by War on Ice. And why not? In light of recent hiring trends, there is now an expectation that such websites could eventually lead to NHL employment.

In October 2014, the Capitals added Tim Barnes as a consultant. Barnes ran his own hockey analytics site, timeonice.com, and was a blogger under the pseudonym Vic Ferrari. Around the same time, Tyler Dellow, a popular analytics blogger, was hired by the Oilers. Before becoming the Devils' director of analytics, Sunny Mehta, another analytics blogger, had been a professional poker player before jumping into equity options trading.

In June, the Panthers hired Richard Pollock, who practices family law in Winnipeg and founded the hockey news and analysis website illegalcurve.com. Among the early round of hires for the NHL's newest franchise, the Vegas Golden Knights, was Tom Poraszka, the founder of generalfanager.com.

While other websites became known for their analysis of in-game statistics, General Fanager charted NHL rosters in relation to the salary cap. Analytics sites relied mostly on tracking data made readily available by the NHL, but sites like General Fanager required investigative work and sources to confirm contract information, not to mention a working familiarity with the league's collective bargaining agreement.

"In the last couple of years, you've seen a lot of really smart people who started an Internet website getting hired by NHL teams," said Andrew Lugerner, the Golden Knights' director of hockey legal affairs, who hired Poraszka.

"He built that site on his own. It's impressive. You want people with a strong work ethic, and Tom is definitely one of those guys. He brings a very unique skill set. He builds tools that we use, he is well versed in analytics, he is knowledgeable about the CBA."

Like Ventura and Thomas, Poraszka started his site to help fill a need. Before General Fanager, capgeek.com was the go-to source on the NHL salary cap. That site was shuttered when its founder, former sports reporter Matthew Wuest, died of colon cancer in 2015.

"That's the beauty of what Matthew did; his site basically allows you to be a general manager without being a general manger," said Dominik Zrim, founder of capfriendly.com, a similar site that has gained attention since Poraszka was forced to shut down General Fanager. "I knew people out there loved Cap Geek. That's the whole reason I wanted to do the site."

For Zrim, who spends his days working as a systems analyst in Montreal, online ventures like Cap Friendly provide an opportunity to channel his enthusiasm for hockey into a tool appreciated by fans and media alike. But the emerging symbiotic relationship between the league and the analytics websites cannot help offering hope for that elusive dream job.

"All of us who work on Cap Friendly have day jobs," Zrim said. "All of us work on other things, other jobs that pay the bills. If something happens or news breaks, if I happen to be the guy looking at it, I might have to leave my cubicle for a second and go hide in the janitor's broom closet and update the stuff on Twitter.

"Maybe people don't see working on something 40 to 50 hours a week as a stress reliever, but we love it so much. It's definitely our second job, but if it was our choice, it would be our first."

This unlikely career path to the NHL has surely been noticed by the countless web-savvy hockey enthusiasts. And as more websites close when their creators move up, there is ample opportunity for those looking to present innovative work online.

"Do you think people are doing these sites to get hired? The answer has to be yes, just because it worked before," Thomas said. "People are finding really exciting things to do, different from what was done before. Probably because they realize there is a market for it."

New path to the NHL: Crunching numbers, not opponents 01/16/17 [Last modified: Monday, January 16, 2017 12:21am]
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