I have long-suspected that Brian Burke is overrated and ill-suited to lead the Toronto Maple Leafs to a Stanley Cup. After reading his comments from the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, I am convinced that he is too stubborn and ignorant to run a major sports team in the modern era. He called Moneyball “horseshit“and said that nobody has ever won a championship with Moneyball. He said that “there has not been a statistical breakthrough that (he’s) seen that has been effective in hockey.” What?! First of all, that’s ridiculous. Secondly, what kind of statement is that? Find a breakthrough! They haven’t cured cancer yet; does that mean cancer research is useless, that there won’t be a significant breakthrough in the future, and that progress isn’t being made?
How did he decide that Mikhail Grabovski is worth $5.5million per season for 5 seasons? How will he decide which free agents to target this off season? Does he have a scout at every game breaking down every play? Does he know which offensive plays should turn into goals, and what percentage of the time, so that a player on a team in an extremely low-scoring environment isn’t judged based solely on outcomes, and instead is judged based on the number or high-level scoring opportunities he creates? NOT WITHOUT ADVANCED ANALYTICS!
Some points for Burke to consider:
1) Moneyball is making the most of what you’ve got considering the circumstances. It means finding value in areas that have been overlooked. In baseball, it meant understanding things like the fact that drawing a walk is more valuable than most people realized. In the NHL, maybe it means actively signing US college players and aggressively scouting European leagues because they’re largely untapped and there are a lot of cheap, hidden gems. That’s a Moneyball tactic!
2) The Boston Red Sox are a rich team that applied Moneyball tactics, and Theo Epstein is a Moneyball GM with no pro baseball experience of note. He’s a law student who went to Yale. Mark Cuban is a big spender, yes, but he’s also a massive proponent of advanced statistical and computer analysis of basketball, and after buying the Mavericks he immediately started to develop and implement proprietary systems to evaluate players and the game in general.
3) If anything, hockey could benefit from analytics more than any sport because of its lack of conventional statistics, not to mention its obsession with the status quo. Age-old sayings like “a shot on net is never a bad play” should DEFINITELY be challenged. Why not develop computer programs that track the non-linear relationship between shot location and its impact on scoring rates? This is possible. Technology like this was demonstrated at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, where Burke was a panel member for crying-out-loud! Willingly turning a blind eye to this type of innovation is outrageous, especially for a team that has had no recent success whatsoever, and has the money to invest in developing these systems/programs. In a sport with a hard, low salary cap, that could be a huge area of advantage for a big-market team like the Leafs.
I get that a lot of sports fans want to enjoy the sport for the sake of the sport. My late friend Arjun used to say to me all the time (I’m paraphrasing): I know stats help scouts and coaches, but as a fan I don’t want to be thinking ‘that shot should go in from there 83% of the time.’ I want to be thinking ‘I really hope that goes in' and when it does go in I want to cheer!
I completely understand that. But Brian Burke is a GM. His job is to make sure that the fans get to cheer as often as possible.
Burke’s unwillingness to acknowledge that analytics is an untapped resource that could help him bring Toronto a Stanley Cup demonstrates, in my opinion, a horseshit philosophy that will never win a championship.
 My buddy Nathan Rothwell pointed out to me today, the Leafs could’ve dealt Grabovski for a 1st round pick, and used the money towards signing Zach Parise in the offseason. I’m sure Parise will get $36million over 6 years or something like that, but isn’t Parise at least 10% better than Grabovski? Grabovski had 29G 29A in 81GP last season. He’s on basically the exact same pace this season. He’s defensively solid, but he isn’t exactly a shutdown guy. He’s a solid second-line centre. Parise, however, has established himself as a star in the league, and despite having his worst offensive season in 4 years is on pace for 34 goals and 71 points. He missed most of 2010-2011 with an injury, but has missed zero games this season and 3 in the 5 seasons prior to his first injury—he’s a stud.