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The Math Behind the Stanley Cup

September 13, 2019

During assembly on Friday, September 13, statistician Dave Otto spoke to students about the work he does for the St. Louis Blues. As Libby Hizar ’20 said in introducing Otto, he “has mastered the art of bringing stats, analysis and computer programming together to do great things. ... He [has] built a system to analyze hockey statistics [which] ... are used by TV and radio announcers to make their play-by-play more interesting and used by the coaches to identify the advantages that helped us win the Stanley Cup.”

Before joining the Blues about four years ago, Otto was the leader of the research analysis team at Edward Jones where he built and ran a system that the company used to trade billions of dollars in bonds every year. He is putting many of the same skills to work for the Blues.

During a season, Otto keeps track of every shift, every shot, every hit, every goal and every penalty. This year that was a lot of data – 1271 regular-season games and 87 playoff games for a total of 80,000 minutes of play, capturing the moves of 999 players and 40 referees – which revealed patterns and cues for coaches to consider as they developed game strategy.

Otto has written computer programs that analyze data every morning. For any given game, all plays are tabulated – this can be 300 to 400 per game. Otto reads the data, reviews the plays, looks for trends, and identifies what works and what doesn’t.

For instance,

  • Otto’s data has shown that seven out of 10 games are won by the team that makes the first goal. The message? Start hot.
  • During last season, referee Dan O’Halloran called 115 tripping penalties while the ref average was 87+. The message? Sticks down.
  • While his suggestions for the starting line-up in any game are often taken (75+ percent of the time), what really matters are the match-ups he recommends for each game – and on that, Otto’s record is very high.

“My job is to make other people’s jobs easier.” Otto believes he keeps his job by constantly learning the game, always asking for advice and listening to that advice. He added that he has always wanted to be the hardest worker.

In response to questions from the students, Otto added:

  • he retired from Edward Jones because he was ready to do something different
  • while he has been asked, he does not share or sell his analytics with other teams
  • his skills can be applied to other sports but they do not compare, in his experience, to hockey
  • his stats are not always in sync with conventional hockey wisdom – sweeping conventional wisdom works at 30K feet but not always in the throes of a game

Over the summer, Otto has organized the transportation of the Stanley Cup around the country. He didn’t bring the Cup with him today – it’s in Montreal being engraved!

Otto appeared in assembly as part of our 2019-2020 STEM Speaker Series.