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Photo Credit: © Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

Revenge Of The (Hockey) Nerds

“He’s a hockey nerd and it’s not a derogatory term. He’s hockey focused, that’s probably the best way to put it,” mused Jets head coach Paul Maurice on defenseman Josh Morrissey. It’s not the first time that a Jet has been described as such. Looking back to 2016, Mark Scheifele’s self-confessed hockey nerdery was a talking point as he stepped up his game to another level. Even Paul Maurice, with his concise vocabulary and thoughtful, measured approach to questions, might be considered a bit of a hockey nerd himself.

As much as hockey is a sport of physical ability, there’s an edge you can gain if you’re willing to hit the books as well as the gym.

Morrissey and Scheifele must be on to something, because if you were to ask just about any Jets fan which players are essential cornerstones to the team’s present and future, these two names are going to come up a heck of a lot. Mark Scheifele has established himself as an elite top line centre who does everything from sniping goals, to special teams, to playing exceptional defence. Josh Morrissey is now an established top pairing guy, capable of holding his own in the face of the league’s most dynamic and talented lines, along with a healthy dose of offensive upside and leadership. Both players have grown by leaps and bounds in recent seasons, and part of the credit for that growth comes with the commitment to continuous learning.

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Everything from biometrics, nutrition, recovery, sleep cycles, and stick curve have all been studied meticulously by experts, and the information is available for those minds curious enough to seek it out. Players also seem more open to discussing what they’re doing as it becomes more common.

“There’s nobody that invests in themselves more than Mark Scheifele in the NHL,” Wheeler had said last winter. “There’s not an outlet that he hasn’t reached out to. There’s not a trick he hasn’t tried,” and that drive seems to set the tone in the locker room. Several teammates have cited Scheifele’s commitment to hockey science as a motivator for their own self-improvement, including Wheeler himself who works with his centre in the summer, on top of working together closely during regular season.

When asked about sharing what he’s learned with teammates, Scheifele has said “I’m not going to go chasing guys, but guys here and there will ask me about certain things, nutrition things or certain training things. I’m an open book with them so whenever a teammate or someone in the organization has a question I’m always open to helping them”.

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Perhaps the rise of the hockey nerd was most easily identified when specialists like Adam Oates and Gary Roberts started working with individual players, helping them hone their skills and develop outside of the normal framework of coaches and trainers available to a team. Adam Oates has worked with several players in the Jets organization, including Wheeler, Scheifele, Morrissey, and Copp, something that not every NHL general manager or coach would have supported initially, but something that seems to be more common, and more accepted, every year.

The Jets organization in general has been pretty supportive of the players’ relationships with personal coaches or trainers, and has even brought some specialists on board on their own. Dr. Craig Slaunwhite has been working with the team for a few years on recovery and biometrics as the Jets Director of Fitness. His focus also includes less tangible things like emotional/mental recovery, proving that the Jets are looking at their players in a more complete way, and not just as bodies. While a lot of teams keep their process confidential to hold an edge on competition, it’s clear that there’s science driving fitness in many aspects of sport.

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On the analytics side of things, you can see the progress toward a nerdier approach as well. Stats like +/- are now mostly ignored in favour of more complex metrics like Corsi, Fenwick, PDO, zone starts, and WAR that try to give you data points with context, rather than just numbers with no story behind them. While analytics in sports is not exactly a new development, its progression towards a more complex snapshot with greater data collection is certainly interesting. There’s still a place for a more qualitative approach, and no one will ever be able to completely walk away from the eye test in favour of pure data analysis, but the numbers that the hockey community uses to supplement that eye test are better quality and give a more complete picture all the time. In addition, the analysis itself is more and more accessible via analysts and media professionals on social media, so the average fan can get a better understanding of them.

Beyond the fact that computers are able to record more and more points of information, there is also better processing power to run those numbers through programs to look for patterns and identify trends. Teams are hiring analytics experts to help sift through all the data and distill the most useful pieces for use by coaches and management in guiding the team, bringing more math into the sport all the time.

Winnipeg’s 7-1 victory on Sunday afternoon over the Flyers will certainly be analyzed by new GM Chuck Fletcher, who is a big supporter of analytics as a tool. The former Philadelphia GM, Ron Hextall, had two men dedicated to the numbers, and it seems likely that Fletcher will want to grow that department. While Fletcher was with Minnesota, he was committed to expanding analytics, and relied on them more every season. He’s certain to want to continue to have that kind of resource available as he moves forward in his new role.

It seems evident that these new processes and techniques are here to stay, in one form or another, and the players and hockey professionals who embrace them are likely going to have a significant edge over those who remain skeptical. The Jets seem poised to capitalize on this trend, with team leadership and senior management investing into new tactics to gain an edge.

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The future of hockey is changing, and it might just belong to the nerds.