Sabres looking for an edge through analytics - The Buffalo News
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Sabres looking for an edge through analytics

New Sabres hockey data analyst Jason Nightingale was going over a few of his findings with his brother. Jared Nightingale is in his ninth season in the American Hockey League, and he’s still eager for tips that might get him promoted from Rockford to the NHL.

“He’s a defenseman,” said Jason Nightingale. “I said, ‘You know, this is a good area to get a puck to the net.’ He scored a goal in their training camp, and he called me right after and said, ‘I was thinking about that.’ ”

The tangible result was a nice bonus for Nightingale, further proof that the data he crunches and theories he formulates can have an impact on hockey. The Sabres certainly hope so.

Buffalo hired the math whiz and former college hockey player in August to help them get an edge on the ice and in contract negotiations. Though it’s safe to assume every team dabbles in the growing field of sports analytics, only four clubs — Buffalo, Calgary, Chicago and Edmonton — list a specialist in their media guides.

“There’s a lot of interest in analytics and hockey right now, and in sports in general,” Nightingale said in First Niagara Center. “Teams are looking for answers. I feel fortunate and didn’t plan it this way, but my background is as someone who can maybe provide answers and solve problems.”

The 35-year-old from Michigan has found a way to combine his two passions, hockey and math. He played forward for Lake Superior State University from 1998 to 2002. The mechanical engineering graduate moved on to Notre Dame and earned a master’s of science in aerospace and mechanical engineering in 2007. Then he really got serious with his schoolwork, completing a joint doctorate in engineering and mathematics last year while serving as a volunteer assistant with the Fighting Irish.

It took about a month for his doctoral thesis to be read, so he used the downtime to refine the ideas he’d formed about hockey and how specialized analysis could make teams better.

“That was really the first time I sat down and thought, ‘What can I add to this conversation?’ ” he said. “I was excited about what came out of that month, and I’ve been toying with that.”

His initial task with the Sabres involved the salary cap and evaluating players’ worth for General Manager Darcy Regier. He’s moved on to identifying trends in the game for the coaching staff.

“Obviously, we’re looking for areas where we can gain a competitive advantage because the game is changing ever so slightly each year,” said Nightingale, whose workload is split between reading spreadsheets and watching game clips. “I have a programming background, so the numbers side I’ll write my programs to analyze things, and then I like to go back to watch to see if the two align.”

Nightingale’s wife, Alice, also has a doctorate in engineering, and he has found a kindred spirit in the Sabres’ Ron Rolston. The coach has links to Nightingale’s two schools by having worked at Lake Superior State with Notre Dame coach Jeff Jackson.

“The first time that Ron gave a talk, I left there saying he’s very analytical, can I take what he’s saying and how he breaks down the game and can I quantify that, can I make meaning of the numbers,” Nightingale said. “A lot of the analysis is how Ron views the game.

“We focus on visuals and just trying to get a player to catch up on a concept. How do you break that apart into something that players work on, that we can identify and will actually be a teachable moment for them? Those are the challenges, the actual application. I think it helps to have played, to have that line of communication with the coaching staff and players.

“It’s no different than the relationship between a coach and a player. As a coach, if I give a player something and they can see a result and see improvement, then I’m earning trust. The same thing is true in analytics. Some of that is on the analyst, that the information I’m providing is meaningful and they can see an impact.”

Though the field will continue to expand, there are analytics haters out there. Number crunching can work, but there are times when results defy logic.

“The role that luck plays in hockey is significant,” Nightingale said. “Your process can be good, but the outcome might not be what you want. A lot of times we measure outcomes, and when we see an outcome that’s not favorable, you need to understand is that because of a bad process or is it bad luck? I think that’s when you go back and the video will help.”

So far, the outcomes have not been favorable for the Sabres, individually or as a team. Nightingale will keep looking at trends and numbers to make sure the organization is doing the right things.

“I think that the holy grail is still out there in terms of finding what’s most important right now,” Nightingale said. “I think a lot of people are willing to put resources toward it.”

No games, eh?

Even when the Sabres seemingly do something right lately, it doesn’t quite work out. For instance, they appeared to have a slam-dunk winner last week when they achieved their oft-stated goal of getting on Canadian television. It turns out a certain group isn’t happy about it.


The Sabres struck a deal to have 50 games broadcast by a satellite provider, Bell TV. The move crushed the viewing habits of the people, bars and restaurants who subscribe to cable. Because Southern Ontario is now a home television market for the Sabres, their games are blacked out on NHL Center Ice and the NHL GameCenter online application.

Longtime Sabres fans with cable who bought the packages are out of luck and fighting mad.

It explains why the Sabres are engaging in a yearlong marketing initiative aimed at helping Bell increase its viewership and subscriber numbers.

Flight to remember

Dan Dunleavy, another new Sabres employee, has already become an organizational fixture. The future play-by-play man is a daily visitor to practice and the dressing room, asking questions of players and coaches while appearing on television and the team website.

His presence serves as a reminder that the clock is ticking toward Rick Jeanneret’s retirement. Countless stories will be told during the next three years about the legendary announcer. My first will always be my favorite.

News reporters used to fly on the team charter, and my debut road trip in 2002 was to Raleigh. The crosswinds were ridiculous as we prepared for landing, with the plane’s tale swinging left, right, left, right. I could tell by the armrest-clutching of those around me this wasn’t common.

RJ’s voice suddenly boomed from the row behind me.

“Hold on to your hats,” he shrieked in full broadcast voice. “We’re coming in hot!”

The nerves were gone. I was about to crash to the play-by-play of Rick Jeanneret. How cool is this, I excitedly thought. Thankfully, the landing went fine and there are more memories to share of the Hall of Famer.

On the fly

• It’s not known if Edmonton is on Ryan Miller’s list of eight teams to which he won’t accept a trade, but the Oilers desperately need a goaltender. Starter Devan Dubnyk allowed 10 goals on his first 59 shots, and it’s not because of the new equipment rules. “My pads are an inch shorter,” Dubnyk said. “I’ve gone through all 10 goals I’ve given up, and it has nothing to do with my pads, believe me.”

• Former Predators defenseman Ryan Suter was booed lustily during his return to Nashville, partly because coach Barry Trotz urged the fans to jeer. “I do like Ryan,” Trotz said. “I just know Section 303’s not going to let him off the hook, so I’ve just played along with it.”

• Meanwhile, Section 317 and its neighbors in Buffalo have long been vocal. There’s usually one, deep-voiced guy who shouts, “Fire Regier.” For the first time Thursday, nearly everyone else joined in for a sustained chant. The fans’ obvious disdain is what got Wilson axed in Toronto, and it’ll be interesting to see if the pressure intensifies in Sabreland.

A new inside

As you may have noticed, there’s a new picture and byline attached to this column. I’m proud and excited to become the next name in its history.

Like many, I read Jim Kelley. I also had the privilege of editing his column, a fun yet arduous task fitting 3,000 well-written wordsinto a space for 1,800. Trimming it was painful because you knew the readers would relish it all.

I’ve worked alongside Bucky Gleason on the Sabres beat for 12 years, a journey that’s included early morning practices and late nights at taverns. I’ve seen him shake hundreds of hands and rack up huge phone bills while tracking and telling stories. He had a blast carrying on traditions set by his mentor.

With that said, this is probably the last time you’ll see our names together in regards to the column. I’m not Jim, a Hall of Famer who helped define hockey writing. I’m not Bucky, who can wake up with an opinion on which side of the bed is the right one for exiting.

I just like to tell stories that inform and entertain. I’ve been told to “make this column mine,” which is what I aim to do while remembering its history. Some new features may become mainstays. Others will make fewer appearances than Mika Noronen.

It remains to be seen exactly what we’ll all like, but I figure we’ll have fun finding out.


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