Hockey analytics movement continues to grow amid turbulent summer

The summer of 2014 changed the state of hockey analytics forever. A slew of teams brought on full-time stats guys in hopes of either catching up or getting ahead of the competition.

Since then, there’s been some well-documented cases of things not working out between traditionalists and numbers guys. Most prominently, analytics consultant Matt Pfeffer was fired by the Montreal Canadians for advising against the P.K. Subban/Shea Weber trade. Additionally, stats pioneer Tyler Dellow didn’t have his contract renewed by the perennially incompetent Edmonton Oilers.

Of course, it’s always bigger news when there’s drama. It’s easy to forget how many teams are still receiving input from the analytically-minded. Florida and Arizona have all but handed the keys to young stats guys while Toronto, the center of the hockey universe, has analytics believer Kyle Dubas in “the room where it happens”, as it were.

[link_box id=”22277″ site_id=”17″ layout=”link-box-third” alignment=”alignright”]Even Colorado, head-in-the-sand specialists, brought in the young and brilliant Arik Parnass to advise on number-related matters. This is all to say, while there is still pushback to the movement, it is still growing and evolving.

What many who aren’t well-versed in stats might not now is how quickly things change. Outdated beliefs and tired methods are left behind just as soon as there’s a slightly better way of doing things. Anyone interested in the movement would tell you things are evolving and the methods are branching out far beyond Corsi and PDO.

This was abundantly clear to anyone who attended or watched the RIT Hockey Analytics Conference on September 10th. The combined 11 panels and presentations showed off how the field is advancing and the ways in which it is mirroring other sports.

Visualization: I can’t say this is my area of expertise, but it seems Mara Averick, Micah Blake McCurdy and Meredith Willis did a fantastic job explaining the importance of portraying your data the right way in charts, graphs etc. The human mind can have a difficult time conceiving of seemingly-small differences in numbers, especially stats it’s unfamiliar with. For those who aren’t proficient in math (so the vast majority of the sports world), a quality visual could be the difference between someone seeing the point being made or brushing if off as “nerd math.”

Micro tracking: TSN’s Scott Cullen called this “the next wave of hockey analytics” in his recap of the event. One of the examples from the conference was from John Fischer of SB Nation’s New Jersey Devils blog “All About the Jersey.” He analyzed the Devils’ penalty kill and the specific players they used and what success those players had. Breaking down numbers on this small of a level is something that’s already common in the other three major sports. It will only become more common in hockey in the coming years, especially as more become interested in hockey stats.

(I also highly recommend Ryan Stimson’s passing project, which can be found on HockeyGraphs.com.)

Coach Involvement: The conference featured a panel of coaches from Cortland State, RIT, Oswego, Canisius and Geneseo. They talked about their processes and the way analytics can be beneficial to them. Convincing coaches to believe in analytics is a good thing for obvious reasons. They’re the ones who end up making most of the decisions. But there’s more to it than that. At the NHL level, you don’t hear much analytics talk about former coaches in the media or from current coaches when they aren’t specifically asked about it. In basketball and other sports, there’s a bridge between the stats community and the fraternity of current and former coaches. You won’t see Jeff Van Gundy staying up all night looking at Microsoft Excel, but you’ll hear him drop analytics-based tidbits while broadcasting games on ESPN. It seems like a small thing, but it lends credence to stats-based analysis.

Media: There was also a media panel, featuring Scott Cullen (TSN), Alison Lukan (Bluejackets.com), Bill West (Pittsburgh Tribune) and Carolyn Wilke (Editor of Today’s SlapShot). The panel discussed the different ways each person incorporates analytics into their work. As with coaching, having those in the highest level of the media believe in stats makes the movement seem more legitimate and helps it grow. We’re not there yet, not really close, but having a group of bright mainstream media members buying in is a good sign.

Branching Out: Another theme at the conference was attempting to use stats to answer questions and solve problems that come up, even if they don’t relate exclusive to on-ice play. The best example was likely McCurdy’s analysis of the long-discussed Gold Plan (a proposed to change to the draft lottery that would give the first pick to whichever team gets the most points after being eliminated from the playoffs). He found that it could potentially increase parity and theoretically make games for fun and meaningful down the stretch for fans whose teams have been eliminated. Shane Doan voiced his support for the idea at the end of last season.

I strongly recommend anyone interested in hockey stats to check out the full conference when it becomes available on YouTube.

My main takeaway is that things are headed in the right direction. Even through the hopeless incompetence of a few Canadian franchises and the typical “nerds!” comments are always lingering, the movement is growing. There are more people doing stats-based hockey analysis than ever before. That’s a good thing. Some minor and major disagreements about certain stats or methods is a good thing.

Even though the advancements aren’t as publicized as they were two years ago, progression is happening.

About Taylor Nigrelli

Former below-average winger. Current hockey blogger and Sabres fan. Fan of advanced stats, sabermetrics, analytics or whatever you'd like to call them. Brett Hull's foot was in the crease.

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