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The edge of hockey's new frontier

The edge of hockey's new frontier

How one fan’s passion for analytics turned his hobby into a top job with the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Darryl Metcalf
Photograph by Finn O'Hara

The goal wasn’t to land a hockey job. Rather, Darryl Metcalf was driven by the need to satisfy his own curiosity.

By day he worked for a Toronto-based marketing and technology firm. But his spare time was devoted to the website he created to fill a void – ExtraSkater.com, an online hobby horse that explored the use of advanced statistics in the assessment of National Hockey League players.

“The primary audience was really just myself,” Metcalf says. “I was building something that I had wanted to see.”

So, how did that curiosity turn into a top hockey job?

“[The journey is] definitely remarkable if I were to step back and look at it from a broader perspective,” he says. “I can’t say that I saw any of this coming.”

Which is what makes it such a wonderful story.

Metcalf’s unprecedented road to the Leafs’ front office began in Toronto, where he grew up playing hockey and baseball. He adored the Leafs, admiring the heroics of Gary Roberts and Mats Sundin in the ’90s and early 2000s. But, perhaps hinting at his tendency to delve deeper, he also appreciated the contributions of lesser players such as Dmitri Yushkevich and Jason Smith.

At Queen’s University, intrigued by math and science classes, he pursued a degree in chemical engineering. Graduating in 2009, he was hired on at Yfactor Inc.

Continuing to follow sports closely, Metcalf noticed the “data evolution” in baseball. The Moneyball approach, detailed by the book and movie of the same name, had thrust analytics into the mainstream.

“That helped me to think about hockey in a different way,” says Metcalf, “and wonder if there were things we could learn about hockey and how it’s played from the data, like people were doing in baseball.”

Were there better ways to measure performance? Were there underlying indicators beyond point totals and plus-minus ratings? Other sharp-pencilled keeners were on the same path, tracking variables such as shots taken, puck possession, and zone time.

Using statistics from the NHL, he was determined to develop his own analytics, and out of that fascination came ExtraSkater.com, which was launched in 2013. Early days saw the website averaging one view per day. Soon, though, daily traffic grew to 10,000. He began to receive positive feedback, first from like-minded fans, then from player agents and hockey writers – and soon from NHL clubs.

Emboldened in the lead-up to the 2014–15 season, he decided to expand the website and include analysis of junior players across Canada. That summer he batted around a few ideas with Victor Carneiro, scout for the Ontario Hockey League’s Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds.

Carneiro brought Metcalf’s plans to the attention of Kyle Dubas, the Greyhounds’ general manager, who had a productive exchange with Metcalf about the upside of underlying metrics and their rightful place in hockey performance measurement. The timing was fortuitous. Just a couple of weeks later, the Leafs hired Dubas as their assistant general manager, and shortly after, Dubas asked Metcalf, then 26, to come aboard as part of their new analytics department.

“It was a big decision because, obviously, I hadn’t had any realistic [thoughts] of working within hockey – it was just something I was doing for fun,” says Metcalf. 

Shaking the shock, he shuttered the website and joined the Leafs in 2014. Dubas is now general manager of the team and Metcalf is officially the special assistant to the general manager. On the team’s website is a list of its brass – tellingly, only four names are above Metcalf’s.

The wave of interest in the emerging field of advanced statistics was significant. The hockey world had been somewhat divided, with the old guard relying on observation to make decisions and these analytics upstarts brandishing their newfangled metrics. Now, you won’t find an NHL team that doesn’t depend on its own stats crunchers.

Metcalf is an integral part of that new frontier. In 2016, Metcalf was promoted to director of hockey research and development. He currently oversees an advanced stats department of eight full-time employees. Their handiwork influences all branches of the Leafs’ hockey operation – scouts, coaches, managers.

“My job is to help us improve our decision-making across the organization,” says Metcalf, 33. “The best part of my job – and probably the best part of any job – is being able to work with a team of people who you like and appreciate to make a real impact."

graphic of cover of Queen's Alumni Review, issue 1, 2021