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Nolan Schaefer on How Evgeni Nabokov Changed His Life, Clear Sight Analytics

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Nolan Schaefer possesses perhaps the prettiest career stat line in modern NHL goaltending history.

No, really.

In 2005-06, Schaefer made his debut for the San Jose Sharks. In his one and only NHL campaign, Schaefer appeared in seven games, going 5-1-0 with a 1.88 Goals Against Average and a .920 Save Percentage.

Per Hockey Reference, this career .833 Winning Percentage is tied for highest since 1967-68 with still-active Igor Shesterkin (minimum, seven games played). That 1.88 GAA is the very best — the only sub-two career GAA on this 496-goalie list. And even his .920 Save % is 15th in modern league history.

These are just a few of the many fun facts about ex-Senator Peter Schaefer’s brother. Nolan Schaefer is also the first San Jose goalie to win his first five games, and on October 26, 2005, he became the first Sharks goalie to win in the shootout. Also — his last NHL appearance on December 2, 2005 was Joe Thornton’s first in a San Jose uniform.

The Night Joe Thornton Was Traded to San Jose: An Oral History

Suffice to say, the San Jose Sharks’ 2000 fifth-round pick packed a lot into a short but eventful NHL career. And he’s just as busy as ever now as Vice President of Product Development at Clear Sight Analytics.

Clear Sight Analytics is a third-party company that manually tracks each and every scoring chance — and the sequences that lead to these scoring chances, be it pass, rush, or faceoff — to analyze how goals are created or stopped. The 2018 Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals are among their clients.

Schaefer joined San Jose Hockey Now to share some delightful stories from his San Jose Sharks career, like what Evgeni Nabokov taught him about protecting his family jewels and how his Sharks teammates chipped in on his engagement ring. He also detailed how he got involved with Steve Valiquette’s Clear Sight, and dropped some proprietary stats about what San Jose can do to create a better environment for Martin Jones and Devan Dubnyk next year.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length. Special thanks to Kyle Demetrius, Erik Fowle, and JD Young for their contributions to this interview.

San Jose Hockey Now: Let’s dive right into it. You were with the Sharks all the way back in ’05-06. From there, your hockey career took you around North America and Europe. Now, you’re into analytics. Can you update us on what you’re doing now? What company are you working with?

Nolan Schaefer: I had signed a contract to go back [to SC Bern] for another two years [in 2015]. But my wife and I felt really strongly that it was too hard on our family to continue to do it — my second daughter being born in Bern.

I wasn’t sure what I was gonna do. But I sent the text anyway. And I talked to the team, I retired. They were reasonably good about it. But then, literally, I sat there for like an hour at my kitchen table, like oh my god, what did I just do? Like, what am I gonna do?

I didn’t have a job set up. I [had done] some interviews and I tried to get something in coaching, but they wanted people with experience.

Then Steve came over my house — I’d known him for six years prior — and he said, Schaef, I don’t know what you’re doing when you’re finished playing hockey, you should come coach goalies with me.

I said, well, that’s great. I just sent a text message [to SC Bern] an hour ago. I literally picked up my bag, and we went to work the next day together, just splitting goalie development stuff. Then at the same time, he explained to me what was at the time, just an idea [for Clear Sight]

Not just an idea, they had done some studies and they were showing me some things that they had done to try to gain insights on things that Steve could talk about for TV and for MSG.

It was incredible, and I saw it right away. Once you see it, what we’re talking about, you can’t unsee it. I agreed to come help coach or split the coaching thing if he would agree that I could come in on what is now Clear Sight Analytics. Steve had kind of started it before me with a gentleman named John Healy.

It’s funny that you call me an analytics guru or wizard. That’s absolutely not what I am.

My company title is VP of Future Product Development. So basically, what I do, I’m a glorified designer, guys. I make things look really nice. I come up with creative ideas. I obviously have a lot of hockey experience.

But I work in the realm of trying to make things user-friendly and trying to make some of these data points pop out and have an effect or immediate impact to the eye of what is happening.

And then just the word analytics itself, is not really the best way to describe what we do at Clear Sight. It’s right there in the title, but we should call our company hockey process or development insights. I think one of the NHL coaches that we did talk to even said that “analytics” is a term that won’t be favorable for you guys at this point, because it’s not really what we’re doing. What we’re doing is so much more relevant to the game of hockey than just the table of numbers.

It’s a really cool, really interesting, insightful, and impactful thing that we’re doing and analytics doesn’t really embody it.

I believe the product that we have is the most relevant, the most accurate sort of hockey development enhancement product that’s available. You can never take coaches’ opinions or coaches’ insights out of it. But we can try to give them information that is enhancing the way that they see the game or they see accurately what’s happening on the ice.

SJHN: That makes a lot of sense. But there are on your website, at least the publicly available website, there are tables of statistics. How does Clear Sight acquire the data? Is it video tracking?

NS: The only true way you’re ever going to find out what is happening is to watch. There’s no computer system that is going to give you as accurate data as what the human eye [sees], especially with a game that is as dynamic as hockey. Speaking of screened shots, did that goalie see it or did he not see it, a lot of that information has to be calculated by the human eye. I can see if the goalie’s body posture is down and forward and it’s able to receive a puck.

It might take me three replays to figure out if he saw that puck, if that was a screen shot, or if that was deflected. Hockey’s lightning fast and lightning dynamic. So where we really take pride is in our expected goals model and the accuracy at which we track games. And absolutely we watch the games, and we’ve trained hockey people that come in.

I can’t speak too much to the process of everything that we’ve done. But we watch the games. And that’s the only way you’re going to get as accurate information. Even the NHL itself misses a lot of shots, it hits the side of the net.

We really pride ourselves on the accuracy of what we’re doing.

SJHN: Both you and Steve are goalies. Has Clear Sight changed the way that you look at the position?

NS: I’ve been completely changed. To be honest with you. I was not the best student of the game. I went out there and I put my head down and I went through the grind.

Now Steve, who was behind Henrik Lundqvist in New York, he had always been a good student of the game. He was paying attention to every single detail of what he was doing and taking mental or actual physical notes of it. So this for Steve has just been a developmental process of where he’s already at. For me, it’s been more of a transformative.

So when I go to develop a goaltender now, in my coaching, I have a basis of truth that I can give them on what’s happening in the NHL.

Now I can teach kids, and they can have a way of assessing themselves that’s outside of opinion. It’s not just me saying, oh, I think that’ll work for you. It’s an actual basis of where you should stand, for instance, depth-wise, because here’s where all the goalies on that shot type are standing in the NHL that are in the top-five of our statistics on that specific shot type. This is what’s working for them.

SJHN: If you could do your career over again, but with the knowledge that you’ve gained from Clear Sight, what would be different?

NS: The funny thing is, and this kind of sticks in my head, insight without the application is kind of dead, right? If somebody had come to me with this information at the level that I was at, in the maturity that I was at, when I played in the NHL, I probably would have said, Okay, that’s strange. I wouldn’t have understood it. I wouldn’t have dug into it. Just because of who I was as an old school kind of person.

I’ve completely changed as a human being. And the way that the generations are changing throughout hockey, you can see it. The kids, the goaltenders are better students, they’re learning more, there’s also more goalie coaches out there. And I think it’s more received.

I think I had the blinders on, to be honest with you.

SJHN: You mentioned part of your focus is to make the product more user-friendly. As somebody from more of an old-school perspective, then naturally, what would be user-friendly to you might also be more user-friendly to somebody who is more old school but curious about what you guys are doing?

NS: That’s exactly right. And I shouldn’t just say it’s just me. This is a team effort. And it’s an absolutely amazing thing, the group of people that we have put this together, and the product that we have now.

I’m a little bit more artistically inclined, I went to Providence College, I did art as one of my majors, and I turned it over into this computer design thing. And that’s kind of what I do now. So yes, I lean toward being the user-friendly type person and trying to make it insightful. But we’re hockey people, right?

So Steve and I and John, we can understand what’s going on. Steve and I played in the NHL, we understand what an NHL coach is gonna see and say [about our product] — well, that’s confusing. And this is not, or this is clear, what you’re trying to see here based on O-zone, D-zone, rush plays. We have to clarify that visually, so that people can actually use the insights. I think that’s one of the big advantages of our company.

SJHN: If you were presenting to the San Jose Sharks, where would you tell them their goalies are giving up the most goals?

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