EDMONTON — There’s a proverb that perfectly summarizes the Edmonton Oilers hiring Michael Parkatti as senior director of analytics and data, which was announced Thursday.
The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second-best time is now.
That’s Jeff Jackson’s line of thinking, too. Jackson has been unwavering in his desire to create an analytics department since he was hired as CEO of hockey operations on Aug. 3. He calls it a “super important tool,” one where “you can develop proprietary programs to set the course of your organization.”
“Why waste any more time?” Jackson said.
It’s not like the Oilers have been completely devoid of analytically oriented thinkers in recent years.
Tyler Dellow was a prominent voice in the Craig MacTavish and Dallas Eakins era. Brad Holland, along with Justin and Shaun Mahé, have laid the groundwork for rebuilding the landscape decimated by Peter Chiarelli. That re-emphasis has been most noticeable over the last 15 months since Holland was promoted to assistant GM and director of pro scouting.
“But they’d taken it to a point where they didn’t have the expertise or the technical skill to take it further — and they recognized that,” Jackson said.
So, bringing in someone like Parkatti, hired full-time by Holland with Jackson’s backing, to lead the creation and operation of an analytics department represents a sea change for the organization. It’s something that’s long overdue.
The Oilers have had a reputation around the NHL as a team stuck in an old-school approach, one that doesn’t just use “gut feel” — to borrow a term used by GM Ken Holland — to make critical decisions but almost solely relies on it.
That approach began under Chiarelli, who began stripping apart the analytics department spearheaded by Dellow almost from the moment he became manager in April 2015. Parkatti was part of that group. He’d worked for the club since the 2013 season doing ad hoc work after winning a competition called Analytics Hackathon where he used data to project on-ice outcomes. Chiarelli canned Parkatti shortly after his arrival. Dellow was let go after the season when his contract expired.
“I didn’t look at it as a criticism of the Oilers per se when I was outside, but I do know lots of other teams have various sized departments and use it effectively,” Jackson said. “And I did know that the Oilers were ahead of the curve years ago.”
Between that point and the start of last season, the Oilers have struggled mightily with player evaluations — especially when making trades. Even the most casual fan can list off head-scratching examples of the Oilers either coming out on the wrong end of a deal — sometimes embarrassingly so — or getting key players like Adam Larsson or Duncan Keith but giving up too much.
Continuing to change that narrative is only a small part of Parkatti’s responsibilities.
Known as a mathematically inclined problem-solver, Parkatti is an Edmonton-area-born-and-raised Oilers fan. The 42-year-old has worked for the province government doing analytics and data work. He also has a Bachelor of Commerce from the University of Alberta, a Masters of Science in Operations Research from the London School of Economics and a Masters of Science in Analytics from Georgia Tech. He’s leaving behind a job at Suncor Energy in Calgary.
“He’s got a really good skill set,” Jackson said. “He’s had a couple of really big corporate jobs where he’s run and built departments.
“We didn’t want to waste any time and we wanted to get that in place before the season started.”
Parkatti will work closely with Brad Holland and others to aid the Oilers in the following capacities.
The Oilers are a veteran team with their core locked up past this season. The only pending UFAs are Connor Brown, Warren Foegele, Mattias Janmark and Vincent Desharnais. In a perfect world, the Oilers would have hired someone like Parkatti a few years ago when there was more of a chance to shape the roster.
“That’s just one element,” Jackson said. “Analytics isn’t a magic bullet.”
And don’t forget that proverb.
It’s worth noting Dylan Holloway, Raphael Lavoie and Philip Broberg are RFAs after this season. Ryan McLeod and Evan Bouchard are in the same category the next summer. That’s when Leon Draisaitl can be a free agent. Connor McDavid, Evander Kane, Mattias Ekholm and Brett Kulak are eligible to hit the open market in 2026.
Parkatti will play a major role in setting the parameters for contracts offered to current Oilers players.
The same goes for other free agents down the road.
“We’re going to use him for helping us figuring out contracts — maximum peak performance of players, when they drop off, aging curves,” Jackson said. “He’s the right guy to build that out in a very structured and efficient way.”
Speaking of efficiency
Why bring in several people when one will do? That’s part of the thinking of Jackson and ownership because of Parkatti’s expertise.
“He has the technical ability and the ability to know how to build a department in a way where we don’t have to go hire 10 people or have a big outside consultancy agreement with a third party,” Jackson said. “We want to own the data and we want to own the programs, and he’s going to build it. We think with his experience in the corporate sector that he’s well positioned to do that.”
Of course, there’s more to it than that.
When it comes to streamlining things, Parkatti will be asked to put his data to use to assist with narrowing the scope for targeting players via trade or free agency.
With the salary cap tight and few prominent openings on the roster, finding low-cost players is high on the agenda.
“We’re always looking for value at the lower end of our lineup,” Jackson said. “That’s where he’ll probably come in over the next two or three years — and more targeted scouting.”
The Oilers executives and scouts will tell Parkatti the types of players they’re looking for. He’ll then “build a program to narrow the focus” of the search, Jackson said, to cut down on time and travel expenses.
Targeted scouting applies to another area, too.
Tracking prospects and providing predictive data for the draft was one of Parkatti’s main responsibilities in his previous part-time tenure with the Oilers. The results there were stellar.
The Oilers chose Darnell Nurse seventh in 2013. Parkatti was monitoring Draisaitl closely the following season and advocated for the Oilers to select him third. McDavid was taken first in 2015 — a no-brainer selection — but Edmonton also nabbed defencemen Caleb Jones, Ethan Bear and John Marino with its next three picks in rounds four through six. Those three players represent one of the best post-first-round draft hauls in club history.
Parkatti is expected to be in regular contact with new director of amateur scouting Rick Pracey.
It’s all about winning in the NHL, particularly for a win-now team like the Oilers. So, Parkatti will be involved at a more granular level, too.
Providing the coaching staff with advanced stats that can inform their decisions is part of his portfolio.
(Photo of the Oilers’ table at the 2022 NHL Draft in Montreal: Bruce Bennett / Getty Images)