The San Jose Sharks’ newest scout came from Twitter.
In 2010, Christopher Boucher began putting his hand-tracked micro-stats out to the world, on Twitter and Montreal Canadiens blog Eyes on the Prize, among other places. These were stats that few were tracking — in large part because of the time involved with manual tracking — events like passes into the slot and controlled zone exits, to name a few.
“I thought my only reader was gonna be my brother,” Boucher told San Jose Hockey Now, laughing. “It’s not something my wife would read.”
Five years later, SPORTLOGiQ hired Boucher, who combined his pioneering micro-stats research with the company’s AI tracking. Five years after that, in October 2020, the San Jose Sharks hired Boucher as a full-time scout, in part because of his ability to blend analytics-based and traditional scouting.
In his first interview as a Sharks scout, Boucher shared his unlikely hockey origin story, his favorite micro-stats, and his thoughts on the future of micro-stats in the sport.
“What’s driven me forever is this maybe unnatural need to know as much as possible, or on the competitive side, more than anybody about the game,” Boucher offered.
The journey started between the Ken Dryden and Patrick Roy eras of Habs hockey — when, as a boy, Boucher would calculate Rick Wamsley’s save percentage in real time. Back then, you weren’t getting anything more advanced than goals against average on the back of a hockey card.
This thirst to learn more about the sport would lead Boucher to buy a VCR with his student loan money, to record and track the 1991 Canada Cup. It would take him five hours to fast forward and pause through an entire game to note events like puck battles — for one side. Then he’d start the game over and track the other team.
“It just started with trying to figure out puck battles,” Boucher recounted. “Puck battles were something that people discussed a lot. I had this theory, which I still hold, puck battles don’t really exist.
“It’s a loss of possession and acquiring possession, that’s what a puck battle is. There’s a loose puck recovery and then there’s a successful play afterwards.”
Boucher would track each of those plays. This was pretty heady stuff for 1991 — but if the Dawson College student was doing anything that was blazing trails, it sure didn’t feel like it.
“I was doing this on my own — nobody really knew about it — honestly, I was really embarrassed about it,” he remembered. “It seemed like such a weird thing for someone to be doing, sitting there, pausing a hockey game, every one or two seconds.”
That didn’t deter him though. Through Dawson College and McGill University, a stint in the Royal Canadian Navy, starting a family, working as a courier driver, managing courier drivers, and writing stories for Hockey’s Future, Boucher kept hand-tracking games on the side.
Twitter would become the platform where most people — including yours truly — first encountered Boucher’s micro-stats.
“I got a little bit of feedback and a little bit of feedback and it kind of fed the beast,” he recalled. “You’re fed by, I have three more readers and I have four more readers. It just keeps you going, right? Especially when you’re doing stuff like that, it was time-consuming.
“Eventually, the Tri-City Storm reached out. Then another junior team. And then an NHL team, which was a a big day.
“And it was all because of Twitter. As much as Twitter can be a difficult place to be, it’s a huge part of how I got to where I am.
“It’s all kind of a weird kind of flow of five years between 2010 to 2015 where I went from not being even proud of the work I was doing to getting a new job where I was dealing directly with NHL teams.”
That would be at SPORTLOGiQ in 2015, where Boucher provided a complement — and contrast — over the next five years in the analytics movement that swept hockey. When everybody was saying Corsi, Boucher was singing a different tune.
“When we’re dealing with analytics, there’s kind of two main things, right? There’s results-based metrics [like Corsi] and there’s performance-based or process-based metrics [like SPORTLOGiQ’s]. Those are the two ways that I look at it,” Boucher shared.
“Results-based metrics are great and good and I’ll never diminish them. But on top of that, you want to be looking at how it gets to that point, right? And that’s where the data comes from for the micro-stats. It’s just a way to show how you’re getting to a certain point. What I found is, it allows you to get a little bit deeper into individual player performances. Rather than looking at a team level.
“It’s in the name, right? You learn about the process of creating that scoring chance, that shot, that entry, that exit, that dump-in.
“We’re able to get away from the noise and players were given credit for the things that they’re actually doing on the ice. I found that it was a way of knowing more about the game.”
Here’s an example of what SPORTLOGiQ tracks — Boucher created every SPORTLOGiQ metric:
These aren’t even Boucher’s favorite micro-stats: He also created offense-generating plays and possession-driving plays, and they remain his babies.
Per SPORTLOGiQ, offense-generating plays “are made up of all plays that lead to scoring chances. In other words, they’re plays that move the puck into high danger areas or situations, recovering pucks for your team, and putting high quality shot attempts on net.” Possession-driving plays are defined as “transitioning the puck up the ice under control, meaning not tossing it up the boards and hoping to win it back.”
These weren’t things that were tracked before Boucher, and intuitively, they’re key elements to winning hockey.
They’re also areas where Erik Karlsson still excels, by the way, which might speak to the San Jose Sharks’ continued optimism with their by-and-large disappointing and expensive defenseman:
But back to 2015. While micro-stats weren’t as readily available as results-based analytics — remember that you could find Corsi on even NHL.com then — NHL teams were paying attention. In Boucher’s tenure at SPORTLOGiQ, from 2015 to 2020, their NHL clients grew from zero to virtually the entire league.
“Where it got coaches excited is, you can dig in a little bit deeper into how you’re playing, and then how you’re performing at that level,” Boucher said.
“There’s a misconception that coaches are not interested in this. Coaches have been doing this forever. Scotty Bowman was doing this, he was just doing it at a different level and only for his own team and they were focusing on different things.
“There’s still coaches that will track their own scoring chances, because they feel more confident and comfortable in that. Where I found the a-ha moment was realizing that the process-based stats are really just a function of systems.
“It’s really just a function of what coaches want to know.”
I can personally attest to this — there were numerous times over the course of the 2020-21 season when San Jose head coach Bob Boughner cited stats directly off the same SPORTLOGiQ report that I had in my hands.
So micro-stats are here to stay, and that’s in large part because of Boucher and that fateful VCR purchase in 1991. Thank you, student loans!
But what brings him now to the San Jose Sharks? This wasn’t his first shot at an NHL job over the course of his five years at SPORTLOGiQ.
Boucher cited his relationship with Doug Wilson Jr., his desire to test himself, and his trust with everybody who’s part of Sharks hockey operations: “I felt like I was going to have a voice and that I was going to be appreciated and not just stuck in a silo and working and being a nerd. I never wanted to just be the analytics guy. There’s nothing wrong with that, I just didn’t want to be that guy.”
That’s reflected in Boucher’s title with San Jose — he’s a pro scout, along with Dirk Graham, Ryan Hamilton, and Ned Colletti. It’s worth noting, just two of these scouts — Graham and Hamilton — have pro hockey playing experience, which speaks to the San Jose Sharks pushing the boundaries of how they evaluate talent. Colletti, of course, is more famously the former GM of the Los Angeles Dodgers.
So now we know why Boucher is with the San Jose Sharks — what’s he doing for them? He wasn’t at liberty to share much, but a peek at his thoughts about the future of micro-stats paint a picture of how the Sharks might evaluate players in the future.
Improvements in player and puck tracking have Boucher excited about two currently problematic areas in particular.
“Workload information is really intriguing and really exciting,” he pointed out.
An example of this is not just seeing how fast a player skates, but learning how many strides it takes for him to hit top speed. Or how much is a goalie moving — is he moving slower in a back-to-back contest?
Along with workload information, Boucher is looking forward to micro-stats possibly solving an area that’s bedeviled result-based analytics from the beginning.
“That’s the hardest thing to quantify — the defensive side of the game at the individual player level,” he observed. “It’s all about positioning and positioning relative to your teammates and how quickly you get to your spot. A lot of that stuff is gonna come from the player tracking stuff.”
The end game for Boucher, besides winning a Stanley Cup?
“You’re clearing up the blind spots, you’re getting that defensive side, you’re doing a lot of the physical stuff in terms of workload. After that, it’s almost like a circular thing where everything comes back to the beginning. And now you’ve created one kind of way of evaluating players and teams.”
Boucher described workload information and quantifying the defensive side of the game as B and C. The offensive side could be considered A. So A + B + C?
“That’s the next step that hasn’t happened yet for anybody, anywhere. I think the first team that can get that done, is going to have an advantage, at least for a few years,” he mused. “It’s a one-stop shop for the player and team evaluation where it’s not just one number. It’s one place where you can combine all of this information together and be able to give you a nice, solid understanding of a player.”
This information could potentially, if you have it before everybody else, give you the leg up for acquiring undervalued players.
Will the San Jose Sharks be the first to acquire this Rosetta Stone? Boucher seems like the right man to help lead the search.
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