Method to the Madhouse: Future success at Blackhawks’ fingertips with new internal app


CHICAGO — The question lingered in the air for a moment. The braintrust of the Chicago Blackhawks, Kyle Davidson and Jeff Greenberg, looked at each other with eyebrows raised.

Do you have a name for your system?

“Umm…” Greenberg replied.

“We can give it out,” Davidson relented.

The Blackhawks are building something, brick by brick, and it’s more than just the next iteration of a roster led by a generational centerpiece in Conor Bedard.

They’re overhauling an Original Six franchise from the inside-out. And they’re starting with an app.

Someday in the not too distant future, with a quick flip of his thumbs, the Blackhawks’ 34-year-old general manager Davidson will be able to open an app on his phone, punch in a player’s name and Chicago’s inner-most thoughts and insights will spill onto the screen.

Every shift that player has skated going back to junior hockey will be at his fingertips. All of his stats and analytics, of course, will be integrated with every morsel from every scouting report and rating filed by a Blackhawks staffer, along with information from his Draft year interview at the Combine, up to and including his personality traits, hobbies and family information – all right there. And that’s just the basics.

“Right now, it’s a lot of scouting information, statistical information – nothing too in-depth in terms of proprietary stuff,” Davidson said. “Yet.”

If that idea of an all-encompassing central nervous system for a sports franchise sounds familiar, that’s because it’s been done before in the Blackhawks’ own town. On the North Side, the Chicago Cubs launched their own internal operating system, called “Ivy,” more than a decade ago under Theo Epstein. That technology was one part of what propelled the Cubs to win their first World Series title in 108 years.

Greenberg was at the vanguard of Ivy. He was there as an intern in 2011 for the developmental stages, witnessed the three-year buildout, and utilized the power of it as Cubs assistant GM. After he finished as a runner-up to Davidson in Chicago’s GM search last year, the Hawks convinced Greenberg to leave the Cubs to pursue his first love – hockey – as associate GM in part help build from scratch a similar information system.

The name? That was easy. They’re calling it Madhouse.

The Blackhawks want the Madhouse on Madison roaring again, as it was during a 535-game sellout streak at United Center from 2008 to 2021 that enveloped three Stanley Cups. It’s a long road as Davidson and Co. build out not just a winner but a model franchise that fans can like again after an independent investigation revealed that the Blackhawks covered up the sexual assault of a player at the hands of a video coach in 2010.

“It’s exciting not because it’s different, but it’s the way I think we can optimize the front office,” Davidson said. “This is the way I think it would be best to operate – and not to run counter to anything that anyone else is doing, but because this is natural to my belief system.”

That’s the thing: Davidson’s belief system, collectively with Greenberg and the more traditional hockey background of associate GM Norm Maciver, is ultimately what is going to steer the Blackhawks on a path to success again. Madhouse is just a tool.

There is a Method to the Madhouse, because they know Madhouse will only be worth as much as what they provide for inputs. The Blackhawks are embarking on a journey into hockey’s unknown and attempting to solve for problems that may never have answers. And even if their coders and quants are able to mold Madhouse into a Hockey AI savant that spits out some of the answers, what the Blackhawks are really after is honing their decision science to differentiate themselves.

Seeking Hockey Solutions from Baseball Lessons

Greenberg was but a few weeks on the job last June when he noticed the first stark difference between processes in baseball and hockey while attending the NHL Draft in Montreal.

He’d watched many drafts before as a hockey fan, but said it was still surreal to experience one firsthand on the floor – particularly how all 32 franchises are seated a mere feet apart from each other.

“You can’t even make a phone call without everyone knowing what you’re up to or who you’re talking to,” Greenberg said.

That’s part of the reason why the Blackhawks devised a plan last year to nail down a deal for Alex DeBrincat before leaving their team hotel ahead of Round 1.

“I didn’t want to take anything to the floor,” Davidson said. “If we were going to get it done, we were going to get it done. What was another two hours going to do? For some of these teams, we’d talked for three months. “

Before trading DeBrincat to the Ottawa Senators in exchange for the No. 7 overall pick, which they turned into defenseman Kevin Korchinski later that night, plus second and third-round picks, the Hawks had already completed a deal with the Montréal Canadiens to get another first-round pick for center Kirby Dach.

That the Blackhawks had been engaged in trade talks dating back months for DeBrincat helps highlight the risk-averse nature of hockey, particularly compared to baseball and other professional sports.

It often takes a deadline to induce deals in hockey. Some frustrated GMs wonder if there was no regular season trade deadline just how many deals would get done at all. Proof is in the history; despite the fact that the lead up to the Draft is one of only two trading periods in the calendar, heading into Thursday no trade has been completed since June 9 – and just two deals have gone down this month.

“There’s different levels of risk aversion. In baseball, they’re so much more calculated because they can better quantify it,” Greenberg surmised. “Teams feel comfortable putting specific valuations on everything they do in a way that doesn’t exist in hockey. That just leads to conversations that become more grinding than they are in baseball.”

Davidson said: “There’s just a much better fundamental understanding of what you’re giving up and getting in baseball. In hockey, it’s much harder to measure. NHL player for NHL player is much easier … but all of these prospects and stuff, it’s much harder to measure what you’re getting versus what you’re giving up.”

Part of that is due to the information gulf that exists between baseball and hockey. It’s closed over the last decade, but hockey is still only in its infancy in having more quality information that lends to comfort in making decisions.

“They’re very different sports,” Greenberg said. “Not that baseball is a math equation, but the nature of the game is easier to quantify. You can stack individual players one-on-one on top of each other, those lead to runs, runs lead to wins. We just don’t have it [in hockey]. It’s 5-on-5, it’s more dynamic, it’s shift-based, it’s different guys on the ice at different times.”

To Greenberg, that means there is no shortage of opportunity to quantify different things and extract information and expand upon it.

“There are lessons we can probably learn from baseball,” Greenberg said. “Maybe not specific to the sport, but in terms of systems and process and how we leverage those things.”

The Rise of AI in Hockey?

Artificial Intelligence is taking over the world. Or, at least that is the fear on social media – that many jobs will be rendered obsolete. And some of that fear runs deep in the hockey scouting world, where as a result of the pandemic and technology available, travel budgets are being slashed and more teams are opting to evaluate over video than ever before.

As one NHL executive sees it, AI will dominate the entire player evaluation process over the next handful of years.

With the right descriptive instruction, teams will be able to teach computers what to see and mine from video – not just at the current NHL level, but all levels across hockey. It will help in NHL decision-making, but also in scouting and drafting and then development. 

Think about it. A cutting-edge NHL team hones the scouting process by virtue of setting AI guardrails to identify players that adhere to their curated style. They select the player. They then set milestones for that player to achieve based on other development paths, can benchmark when to promote or trade a player before his value diminishes, and then predict and project when to sign a player and for how much.

Does that sound far fetched? Is that where the Blackhawks are heading?

The Blackhawks have hired six full-time developers and data scientists from a variety of backgrounds, most of them working on-site in their United Center office, but AI isn’t the goal. At least not initially.

“We’re not trying to create a video game,” Greenberg said. “We’re not anywhere close in hockey. This is a really demanding sport played by human beings and you need that constant feedback and communication. I think the focus for us is on those basics. There will be problems that we’re going to try to solve for and questions we’re going to try to answer.

“But it starts with having these conversations: What do we value? What are we looking for? What does development look like?”

What the Blackhawks endeavor to avoid is that scene in Moneyball where the Athletics scouts’ heads are spinning and someone says: “What the bleep is going on here?”

That’s because Davidson says he sees “huge value” in the old-school scout. And two, the Blackhawks don’t have anywhere near enough information gathered yet to begin making decisions about anything one way or the other as to what is valuable or not. They’re still attempting to capture information and find out what it means.

“I think the assumption when people say AI is that [baseball] teams are just throwing information into a black box and it spits out whatever and teams are making a decision based off that,” Greenberg said. “I don’t actually think that’s the case in baseball. I think the teams that do it best in baseball are still blending the objective with the subjective. Sure, they’re trying to curate frameworks to make better decisions. But I think the frameworks are there to cut down on some of the noise and some of that bias. 

“To get those frameworks right, scouting is essential. There are things we need in that framework that you’re not going to get in AI and I don’t see that changing. If anything, I think understanding how to use those voices – to supplement those pieces, understanding where we have blindspots – and figuring out how to tie those things together is what we’re trying to do.”

There seems to be a race to develop AI characteristics in hockey data departments, almost all of it kept hush hush and proprietary. But the truth is, even if everyone had the same AI available to them to aid in answering questions, each team might process or interpret that data differently based on their own individual team circumstance. Are we rebuilding or contending? How would this player fit in our style of play? How will our coach utilize this player? Very similar data and information is available across baseball, yet there is still a clear pecking order in the standings. Will hockey ever grasp the same level of understanding held in baseball?

“Probably not, honestly,” Greenberg said. “I don’t think we’ll ever get to where they are now. And that’s OK. That’s not a bad thing.”

Davidson agreed. “There’s always going to be that feel, that mystical art of scouting that is always present because you cannot get to that science-based evaluation fully.”

Eliminating Bias and Learning How to Measure Development

Madhouse will be at the center of so many facets of the Blackhawks’ approach. One of the biases that Davidson and the Blackhawks have consciously worked to eliminate in the scouting process stems from opinion of the decision-makers.

Invariably, when scouts get wind of a certain player or prospect that the GM or Director of Amateur Scouting has taken a liking to, the supposedly neutral ratings or reports from scouts tend to chart more positively in subsequent viewings. That can be tracked effortlessly on Madhouse.

It’s a basic human instinct. Employees want to please the boss. That’s why Davidson says he is careful to not share opinion, but rather ask questions.

“I’ve made other people in the room very conscious that we’re listeners. We’re just gathering information to make a decision at one point,” Davidson said. “There’s an art to that, fostering an environment that’s safe to be at different ends of the spectrum on a player that you can leave in that room when you walk out. It’s healthy. There’s a lot of trust and ability to stay true to beliefs and opinions. That’s the gold you’re trying to find in those rooms.”

Before the Blackhawks can think about teaching computers how to consume hockey, they are seeking in Madhouse a place to pull together disparate sources of information and attempting to build connective tissue between all of those different areas. It’s a place to house that information, consume that information, make it accessible, user-friendly and agile.

One part of a player’s profile in Madhouse might house a player’s off-ice evaluation. Some teams now are leveraging testing data in an attempt to determine a prospect’s mental acuity, dedication to the sport, resilience and social maturity. That’s been done in other major professional sports, but not as widely in hockey. And it may turn out to be a more valuable tool than just during the Draft process, but also in trading for (or avoiding) players later in their career. The Hawks are engaged with a number of different third-party providers trying to find out more information on that front.

“We don’t think we necessarily have one that is the magic bullet that’s going to give us everything we need, or give the most trustworthy evaluation,” Davidson said. “It’s being a healthy skeptical in everything you test to try and get the one that you really do trust that you can leverage in your process of trying to build a profile of a player.”

Madhouse can help in something as simple as communication, which is a big part of the Blackhawks’ plan for developing players once they’re in the organization. It can act as an internal channel to direct communication between GM and development coach, the coaching staff in AHL Rockford and the NHL bench.

“So there is consistency in the message,” Davidson said. “It can’t be one person thinks he needs to work on this, another person thinks he needs to work on this, so he has these competing and different thoughts on what he needs to work on – and it becomes he needs to work on everything. It ends up being very pointed and specific. Whatever it may be, it’s all understood throughout the chain. Everyone has got to be on the same page.”

Development is hard, if not impossible, to measure in hockey. The Blackhawks are well aware.

“Information technology is great, but how does that fit into the grand picture of how do we get this player from Point A to Point B?” Davidson said. “That’s a very human endeavor. Data has a role in that, but there’s a player and coach and a lot that goes into that, and that’s what we’re trying to get right.”

One thing is for sure, the Blackhawks want to change the narrative around the NHL’s development model. In baseball, there are often five or six levels of professional play between the low minors and the major leagues. In hockey, not only are players outside of organizational control for part of it, but there is a thought process that if you’re spending time in the AHL that you’ve somehow failed as a highly touted prospect. Rockford is going to be a major proving ground for Chicago.

“There’s a lot of guys that could come up and play for us, or Anaheim or Arizona right away at the NHL level, but is that really what’s best for him or us?” Davidson asked. “It’s not about us trying to be bad, or trying to lessen their earning power. It’s actually about trying to increase their earning power [later] by making them better for when that contract comes up. That’s the only place, the only chance for us to have hands-on development.”

Baby Steps for the Blackhawks

The Blackhawks’ plotting and planning and hypothesizing was temporarily put on hold on May 8 during their amateur scouting meetings, the same day of the NHL Draft Lottery. Davidson didn’t know it then, but it would become one of the most important days in recent franchise history and likely one of the seminal days in their rebuild.

Chicago had positioned itself to be in the running for the No. 1 pick. But so did the Anaheim Ducks and Columbus Blue Jackets. Davidson said it was “a total shock” when the Blackhawks won the lottery and the right to select Bedard. They came about it honestly, knocking off two playoff hopefuls in the final weeks of the season in Pittsburgh and Calgary.

“I spent weeks and months trying to put the No. 1 pick out of my mind, to take our prep in another direction given the realities,” Davidson said. He actually instructed his scouts to not focus on any of the first three picks of the Draft earlier that day, knowing the Blackhawks were most likely to pick fourth or fifth. It was in 2015 that the Edmonton Oilers had the third-best odds to win the lottery of all lotteries and draft Connor McDavid.

Every evaluator and executive says the same thing about Bedard: He’s the sort of franchise-changing talent that can make an instant impact in an organization’s path to prominence. It’s why Davidson said winning the draft lottery is a blessing. But to win it in a year when a player the caliber of Bedard is available? That’s different. 

“If you’re going to build a team, within it has to be star-level talent,” Davidson said. “It does check a box, likely ultimately the hardest box to check.”

The Oilers have enjoyed the spoils and nightly magic of McDavid eight years now and that their quest for hockey’s holy grail drags on is a stark reminder that the work in Chicago is only just beginning.

Bedard arriving in Chicago provides reason for optimism, but that does not mean Davidson and the Blackhawks will abandon pragmatism. Davidson vows the Blackhawks’ approach will not change, aside from potentially integrating a few more support pieces on short-term deals at more expensive cap hits than they’d originally budgeted to pay. Process trumps all.

The only thing that Davidson is ready to guarantee is a blank slate for Bedard like the one afforded to Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews some 16 years ago. There will be a clear opportunity for Bedard to mold the Blackhawks into his own alongside Chicago’s other top prospects. Davidson wants to afford them the space to run and grow organically. It will start in Nashville with the steps to the podium to announce they have drafted Bedard with the first pick. They’ll shake hands, exchange hugs and pose for photos with Bedard in a Blackhawks sweater while he holds his index finger in the same way many No. 1 picks have done before him.

As for what happens in the next steps when they come down from the podium? The Blackhawks want the Madhouse to be mad again, their app’s name to be a call to action and not a reminder of what once was. They crave to be a consistent contender. They want to arrive there methodically and intentionally. And they know that the only easy decision in front of them is the choice they’ll make on Wednesday.

“There are no cheat codes,” Greenberg said. “There’s no secret formula. It takes a lot of work, and even when you get it right, it’s on the margins, often not what’s sexy … We’ll grow, but there’s a lot of open questions that are still questions, and we’ll fill as we figure it out. What that looks like? I don’t even think we know yet.” 



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