New-age NHL? Get ready for more visibility for ‘advanced stats’
Starting Friday, if you go to NHL.com you may see some new information. As first announced by league COO John Collins during the 2015 All-Star weekend in Columbus, the league’s site will be adding "advanced statistics" to the data it provides online.
"It’s great that (advanced stats) are going to be so accessible," said Josh Flynn, the Blue Jackets director of hockey administration and point person for analytics. "It’s great that the NHL is buying into it and getting the data to their fans this way."
According to TSN hockey insider Bob McKenzie, it is anticipated that 35 advanced metrics, including Corsi, Fenwick and zone starts, will be added to NHL.com with a second phase of data, including complex filters and visualization, slated for April.
While names like Corsi, Fenwick or PDO may sound foreign to some fans, the things these numbers track — total of all shot attempts with (Corsi) or without (Fenwick) blocked shots and the sum of shooting percentage and save percentage (PDO) — have found meaning in the hockey community talking about possession and "puck luck" respectively.
"The explanation of these statistics is actually very simple — it’s telling us what happened in the game aside from goal action," said Andrew C. Thomas, one of the founders of War-on-ice.com, a leading site for hockey statistics and analytics. "I think acceptance of these numbers would be better if it we get better at explaining why these numbers matter."
To perhaps accelerate understanding of what these numbers mean, the NHL reached out to a group of thought leaders in the hockey analytics community to gather feedback on changing the names of these measures to make them more intuitive to fans.
"They reached out to a large number of Internet hockey providers to get their impressions because (the NHL) really does care about how it’s being presented," Thomas said.
Thomas, who has a PhD in statistics from Harvard, said he doesn’t yet know what the league has decided but it seemed likely some names would change.
"I know things I would prefer," Thomas said. "Come up with names that are pronounceable and help people understand why they matter."
With the addition of these advanced metrics, themes such as possession and shot rates may become more prominent in hockey conversations — but for those who have worked in this field for some time, they are adamant that these numbers don’t replace the value of watching the game.
"(Stats) can never replace watching the game in this sport," Flynn said. "I think if all you do is look at numbers and try to make determinations based on numbers you’re going to miss the boat, and I think if you watch the game and totally ignore the numbers you might miss the boat. I think the two compliment each other, I’ve always felt that."
For Flynn and Thomas, advanced statistics provide a way to validate what you see in a quantifiable way and provide a means to predict what may occur in a game or come from a player based on what has already happened.
"When I watch the game I see what’s going on," Thomas said. "I’m pretty good at watching the game but I can’t get everything — especially on TV. Statistics help you to go back and look at information during the game, to remember, "Oh yeah, that lines up with this, that’s what happened, this is likely to happen — oh yeah, we would have expected this to happen.’"
But with the introduction of new statistics to NHL.com, the challenge will be for the NHL, teams, broadcasters and other advocates to share the meaning of the data. A common misconception that advanced statistics has faced is the idea that one number is the focus of analysis for a player or a game.
"I always bring it back to what story are you trying to tell," Thomas said. "If the story is who won the game, then goals are important. If you’re thinking about where did you spend the most time in which zone that’s a question for which Corsi is a very good answer.
"Every fan has many different observations about the game. That should be the focus — what questions do you have about the game and what would be the best way to look at all the numbers to address that."
For people who are interested in learning more, Thomas believes that the best thing to do is to find those who are telling good stories with the data and learn from those. Thomas thinks about the future of war-on-ice.com a lot and said one potential evolution could be to have a complimentary magazine with articles exploring the stories the data tells.
And should you not want to take on a new set of number crunching, Flynn said that’s OK too. He compares the implementation of stats in hockey to baseball, another sport that has experienced a period of analytical innovation in recent years.
"If you want to go to a baseball game and sit back, enjoy the game and have a drink and watch a guy hit a home run nobody will think any less of you," Flynn said. "If you want to talk about the percentages of this happening or that happening, I think it’s the same thing."
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