This past Wednesday, the Seattle Kraken announced that the organization had promoted Alexandra Mandrycky to the position of Assistant General Manager (AGM). Prior to being named to her new role, Mandrycky headed the team’s analytics department as the
director of hockey strategy and research.
Going even further back in her employment history, she also helped in creating the advanced statistics website War-on-Ice, one of the pioneering internet resources for the burgeoning analytics community. In recognition of the utility of her work, she was hired by the Minnesota Wild in 2015 and spent several seasons there before joining the expansion Kraken.
With the move, Mandrycky becomes the sixth woman to take on an AGM position in the NHL, joining Kate Madigan (New Jersey Devils), Meghan Hunter (Chicago Blackhawks), Hayley Wickenheiser (Toronto Maple Leafs), and Emilie Castonguay and Cammi Granato (Vancouver Canucks) among the current crop.
Mandrycky’s influence has become more readily apparent in recent months, with the Kraken’s 2022 offseason more in line with the type of moves praised by the analytical sect of NHL circles. With the shadow of Seattle’s limp offense looming over them (29th in goals per game last season), the team’s front office set out to address arguably their most significant weakness.
First was the free-agent signing of winger Andre Burakovsky (61 points last season) and trading for another winger in Oliver Bjorkstrand, formerly of the Columbus Blue Jackets. Both players grade out highly in their underlying metrics and represent moves that could deliver greater on-ice value than might otherwise be suggested by their name recognition.
The NHL Is Becoming More Analytics-Friendly
Of the major North American professional sports leagues, the NHL is arguably the most conservative and least innovative of the group. Although the MLB, NBA, and NFL all embraced and adopted various forms of analytics and like-minded hires, the battle for analytical parlance to enter mainstream hockey analysis remains a struggle to this day.
Yet, outside of increasing the diversity of those occupying leadership roles in an overly homogenous sport, Mandrycky’s appointment represents a growing trend in the NHL. The league is gradually becoming more welcoming of the analytical movement, as evidenced by the front office personnel employed around the league. More analytics-friendly staff are being hired and working their way into management roles from the ground floor, gradually earning the trust of their superiors.
Still, despite the increasing prevalence of analytics in all facets of the league, there remains a disconnect between how much influence each team’s department has in making decisions. In some organizations, the analytics department has little tangible input into roster moves, is woefully underfunded and understaffed, or is outright nonexistent. Within those organizational differences is the margin for success.
Even though analytics is becoming a more common tool, some teams rely on them more than others. When it comes to the NHL and sports in general, the opportunity cost of not being on the cutting edge is astronomical in terms of competitive success and all the brand recognition and marketability that comes with winning at all levels.
In the end, advanced analytics is just another tool in the toolbox for management and executives, and in no other industry would someone refuse the ability to gain more information and insight before making potentially multi-million-dollar decisions. Bias – via the eye test – is a powerful force, and executives should try and do everything they can to overcome its clutches.
The old guard is losing the battle, and a new paradigm is taking root in the NHL, further evidenced by the current makeup of front offices around the league. If nothing else, the Colorado Avalanche winning the Stanley Cup last season should be the nail in the coffin for the debate around analytics in the NHL.
2021-22 Avalanche Provide Example Of Analytics Used Successfully
When you look at the most recent Stanley Cup winner in the Avalanche, it’s easy to pinpoint where the analytics department made a difference. Fronted by Arik Parnass and Dawson Sprigings, Colorado’s analytics team is the benchmark for organizational synergy.
Look no further than their moves at the trade deadline and during this past offseason. Instead of swinging for the fences with a trade for the likes of Claude Giroux or J.T. Miller, the team opted to pick up two-way winger Artturi Lehkonen from the Montreal Canadiens. Although he has received wider recognition for his efforts from around the league, he represents the type of player whose impacts don’t necessarily show up in the boxscore. He scored both the Conference Final and Stanley Cup-winning goals last season, representing an absurd return on investment for the Avalanche.
Another Avalanche forward, Valeri Nichushkin, is arguably the most notorious example of analytics mining diamonds-in-the-rough. After a season in which he scored zero (0) goals for the Dallas Stars, the Avalanche signed him in free agency for just above the league minimum based on his underlying defensive impact. After a respectable season in 2020-21, Nichushkin scored at a near point-per-game pace in the 2021-22 regular season and was the breakout performer of the 2022 Playoffs.
In turn, the Avalanche re-signed the pair to sizeable multi-year deals, locking up to of their most coveted performers and the byproduct of cunning analytical groundwork. With superstar Nathan MacKinnon on the precipice of signing a contract that could eclipse the one belonging to Connor McDavid, using analytics to find bargains will become more imperative if the Avalanche hope to extend their blossoming dynasty.
Mandrycky’s Promotion A Small, But Crucial Step Forward
As the fanfare around her promotion suggests, the NHL still has a long way to go before such hires and promotions are no longer a cause for celebration but a commonplace occurrence. Continuing to hire from the same pool of candidates – primarily ex-NHLers and those with relatives in the industry – limits the sport’s professional mobility and can lead to stagnation in terms of discovering new ways to succeed in the NHL.
As the vast industry of professional sports continues to slowly (and often painfully) modernize and adapt, the NHL cannot afford to get left behind. When it comes to fostering diversity in key front-office roles, the Kraken look to continue acting as an industry leader, a trend which will hopefully lead to a Stanley Cup.