For the Florida Panthers, 2015-16 was a resounding success.
The south Florida club posted a franchise-best 12-game winning streak, put up 103 points to win the Atlantic Division, and made the playoffs for the first time since 2012, though they did exit in the first round, courtesy of the New York Islanders.
Despite the accomplishments this year, the Panthers weren’t content to rest on their laurels – in fact they have had one of the busiest offseasons of any team so far, and the Stanley Cup Final is still on TV.
The changes started at the top, with the promotion of Dale Tallon from general manager to president of hockey operations, with Tom Rowe taking over the GM role. At nearly every level, promotions and new hirings took casual observers by surprise.
Even as the Panthers continued to reinvent themselves at a breakneck speed, Today’s Slapshot was able to talk with their two recently-promoted Assistant General Managers, Steve Werier and Eric Joyce.
Both men wear many hats — Werier also is the Panthers’ Vice President of Legal Affairs, while Joyce is the general manager of their AHL affiliate in Springfield, Mass.
Many people have been scratching their heads over the front office changes, but Joyce says it’s all about putting the right people in the right roles.
“We try to play players to their strengths, and with this restructuring, we’re trying to allow those in the front office to manage to their strengths as well. Overall, we are in the business of finding value at the margins, and it’s really hard work to do that.”
The Panthers’ expanded front office might seem unwieldy to some (most teams operate with just one AGM, and forego or combine the president of hockey operations role), but it’s all part of the big picture for Joyce.
“The more dedicated and smart people you put into a room to make those big decisions, the better those decisions are going to be.”
Part of what’s spurred much of the change in the hockey world is the increasing prevalence of what are known as “advanced stats”.
The Panthers have been quick to join this movement, with Dr. Brian MacDonald joining the staff in 2014 as their director of hockey analytics. Just this past season they brought on analysts Cam Lawrence and Josh Weissbock.
“I hate the term “advanced stats”,” says Joyce. “Everything is data, from a scout report, to what [Director of Player Development] Bryan McCabe tells us about our prospects, to the game logs, to what [Dr.] MacDonald does, and to what our prospect analysts, Cam and Josh do.”
“It’s hard to pin down what the word “analytics” means since it’s used by so many to mean so much. More than anything else, we as an organization strive to be inquisitive.
“And that begins at the top with a leader like Dale, who has been a hockey innovator since long before it was in vogue, incorporating disciplines like personality profiling into drafting and roster construction and achieving tremendous results. Part of that inquisitive approach is to seek out all potentially valuable sources of information, be it related to cap management, statistical studies, systems analyses, or whatever else might look interesting.
“We’ll look at both open source information and work we might commission from within. There’s a lot out there, and that’s why we increased our bandwidth as an organization a while back, and formalized some of the moves recently.”
While the Panthers clearly have a vested interest in the application of statistics, many pundits have waved it off as meaningless, like longtime broadcaster, Stan Fischler, who said this before the puck dropped on Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final:
So, what does Joyce look at when bringing a player on to the roster?
“When making a decision on any player, all we try to do is look at every angle to get a fuller picture. Nonetheless, I’ve gone on record to say this in the past: if the stats and the scouts are in a dead heat, and all else is equal, scouts always win the day. Always. Nothing can replace the feel of a good scout.”
He continues, “There are three major characteristics we look for in every player we try to acquire. They are: Skating, Hockey IQ and Compete. It doesn’t matter if you’re the most skilled player on our team, or a grinder, you have to be able to compete in the NHL, and competing in the NHL means having grit.”
Again, Werier echoes the sentiment.
“Our decision-making process is a holistic one, with everyone playing a crucial role. For instance, if we hear a player is available, the first call Eric or I will make is to our scouts.
“They are the gatekeepers here – we’ll ask them for everything they know, and if they say a player is worth pursuing, we’ll then pull in as much additional information as we can to help advocate their recommendations.”
But that’s not all. To get onto the Panthers’ roster, a single player has to make it through a virtual gauntlet of decision-makers.
“Bryan McCabe, our head of development, will be relied on tremendously both to tell us what he knows about the player and where our current prospects at the specific position are in their development,” Werier continues.
“We’ll work with our analysts to get their input and help answer any questions from others in the organization about things like a player’s versatility or recent performance. As this process plays out, we’ll bring everyone together for discussion and debate in the hopes of making incremental progress.
“Then, if we’re really lucky, we’ll have the privilege of sitting down with our organization’s greatest resources, Mr. Bill Torrey or our longtime scout Peter Mahovlich, and just listening to any lessons they can share from their incredible careers about how to improve a hockey team and how this transaction might impact our club.
“We’ll then put everything together and synthesize it in a deliverable that will go to our decision-makers – Dale and Tom – who in turn will provide their recommendation to ownership.”
And that’s on every level. Joyce does his best to bring in analytics to decision-making to their newly relocated team.
“At the AHL level, we’re working with the same scouts and analysts we work with to evaluate NHL players. While it’s a less robust dataset…there’s certainly useful information that our guys will use similarly to how it might be used at the NHL level.
“And to the extent we come across interesting information or studies on things like game strategy or player usage, we’ll certainly make sure both our NHL and AHL personnel have a chance to look at it and discuss together as one group.”
Soon, it will be time to replenish the AHL team, as the NHL Draft is coming up at the end of the month. With Joyce and Werier just heading home from the NHL Scouting Combine, it’s obviously top of mind right now.
Lawrence and Weissbock, the Panthers’ newest analysts, were well-known for developing a model to try to predict a prospect’s success. It will almost certainly be used as the Panthers make their selections on June 24, but no one will be making decisions on just one process.
“There is no magic formula. Everything depends on context,” says Joyce. “Who is available and when? What is our roster depth? Can we move up or down because we are targeting a particular player? What else is going on in terms of current roster players, future picks, etc.?
“There is a lot of stuff going on at the table, and you have to have a plan but stay flexible enough to strike when an opportunity presents itself. Stats help you prepare, but people recognize opportunity and act, and I think we have some of the best in the business sitting at that table with us.”
Werier and Joyce are quick to recognize that the numbers aren’t everything, even as integrated as they are into their processes. And as much faith as they have in MacDonald and his analytics team, no one predicted how quickly they would find success on the score sheet.
So, would they make any predictions on what the upcoming season could hold for the club?
“New uniforms,” joked Joyce. (The Panthers’ new jerseys were unveiled last Thursday.) “And hopefully, more 12-game winning streaks.”