Random Thoughts - Dawning of the Age of Fancy Stats

Kent Wilson
May 07 2014 08:24AM

It's been a pretty weird year for those of us who were around the the beginning of hockey's "advanced stats" movement. At the start, there were never any thoughts about popularizing their use or getting them into the NHL executive offices. It was simply a collection of enthusiasts asking questions, gathering data and arguing over the implications. That's why the nomenclature is so odd - Fenwick, Corsi, PDO - the stat names were simply shorthand monickers that stuck. There was no consideration about accessibility (ie; marketing).

Now national broadcasts are mentioning these odd words during games. Pundits argue their value and utility between periods. The esoteric debates of a handful of guys with silly handles on blank template blogspot sites has somehow trickled upwards into popular consciousness. It's somewhat gratifying to know that the off-hand dismissals and lots (and lots) of hate mail which was the coin of the realm for stats writers for many years wasn't all for nothing.

- The big test case which seems to have moved the needle in favour of the nerds is, of course, the Toronto Maple Leafs. Toronto came into the season with inflated expectations after an outburst of percentages during the lock-out shortened year saw them break into the post-season. Their awful underlying numbers caused the stats oriented amongst us to be far more circumspect about their chances, of course. Bodog had the Leafs season point total at about 96 before the puck dropped on October. I happily bet the under. 

- It's not just that Toronto finished the season with just 29 regulation wins, 84 points and a -25 goal differential...it's because they failed in such dramatic fashion. Their last quarter collapse wasn't specifically predicted by their lousy possession rate (aside from the fact that getting horribly out-shot simply makes a collapse more likely), but the NHL's biggest franchise wheezing to a halt five feet from the finish line seemed to put an end to the debate with an emphatic exclamation point.

- Of course, the debate isn't over as far as some last holdouts are concerned (see: Steve Simmons, Damien Cox, Dave Shoalts and the two thirds of FAN960 morning show), but it is over in all the ways that matter. The utility of possession can be ably demonstrated with studies and evidence. People like Ray Ferraro are going on record as in-favour of the new stats. Journalists like James Mirtle and Bruce Arthur with national publications frequently integrate evidence-based analysis in their work. Nate Silver's 538 was scooped by ESPN and is at the forefront of "data journalism", where testing assumptions with quantitative inquiries and making predictions is the new normal.

- Perhaps more telling is that the insights gleaned from online Corsi talk has started to infiltrate not just the newspapers and TV broadcasts but the executive offices in hockey arenas as well. The last, best rejoinder in the stats debate for those opposed was always "why don't the people who are paid to do this use this stuff?" For a long time, the only response was to point at the evidence and shrug. But that's changing.

The Hawks don’t call it Corsi or Fenwick. They have their own terminology and methodology. Bowman hinted that the fundamental goal of the Hawks’ analytics is the same as the more commonly accepted ones, but he wouldn’t go into any more specifics.

“What we do is different,” Bowman said. “I think it’s better, but I guess it’s a matter of opinion. It’s also a competitive advantage. That stuff’s readily available, but what we have is more proprietary. Which is why I’m really trying not to talk about it. I think what we do gives us an advantage over other teams. They might say I’m wrong, but we’re pretty confident that what we have works.”

That's from a recent Chicago Sun-Times article noting how analytics have become a big part of the way the Blackhawks do business.

- Related - if you missed it, Josh Weissbock published something on the possession rates of AHL teams entering the post-season. I can tell you he was contacted by at least one curious NHL organization about his method for determining the numbers.

- Kyle Dubas, the young GM of the Sault St. Marie Greyhounds, discussed yesterday how his organizations' focus on possession has led them to change their emphasis from dump-and-chase hockey to carrying (and keeping) the puck as much as possible. Justin Bourne sums it up like this:

[T]he best teams remaining all have stars who can handle the puck. Their defensemen can (Doughty, Keith, Chara, Subban, Letang), and their forwards can (Kane, Kopitar, Crosby, Getzlaf, Bergeron). You can go pretty far down most lineups before coming across a name that makes you skeptical. You have to be able to handle the puck to play in the NHL today (very few exceptions), and it’s going to be more important going forward.

If you want to make players better, if you want to make teams better, you have to understand that possession is at a premium. Players are too good these days to just give them the puck and assume that they’ll lose it back to you shortly.

When you have it, keep it. That’s the way it’s going to be in the new NHL.

- The emphasis on carrying the puck across the blueline rather than the "chip and chase" strategy comes directly from the work of Eric T, whose zone entry project and studies showed that controlled zone entries led to double the possession rate as the classic bang and crash method. This, of course, is the next frontier of advanced stats - not simply broad brush correlations and general, long scale predictions, but actionable insights born from a marriage of quantitative analysis and scouting/observation.

For another example of this kind of stuff, be sure to check out Tyler Dellow's recent work with how different face off tactics can have strong effects on possession rates. 

- Although the fight over whether Corsi and such is relevant is mostly over, the truth is we're really only scratching the surface when it comes to rally understanding this stuff. In addition, the game constantly changes and evolves, so the need to challenge assumptions and inspect the market for inefficiencies will never ebb. 

- Finally, Corey Sznajder of Shutdown Line is embarking on a project to watch over 1,000 games this summer and record detailed zone entry information which he will eventually make publicly available. This kind of info will be immensely useful, so I urge you to swing by this link and drop a few bucks to help him fund this thing. 

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Former Nations Overlord. Current FN contributor and curmudgeon For questions, complaints, criticisms, etc contact Kent @ kent.wilson@gmail. Follow him on Twitter here.
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#51 Kevin R
May 08 2014, 12:13AM
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Sean Bennett wrote:

Totally unrelated, but I'm curious as to what kind of job opportunities are available to people that graduate with a bachelors degree in "Industrial/Environmental Psychology". More to the fact, what the hell is that?

Hahaha! Well it was basically a Psychology degree with many courses in Organizational Behavior & Design, Industrial & Environmental Psychology. It was geared at creating best performance, looking at the work setting & geared in a Human Resource type of career. Looked at personality types ie. Fear of Failure/Need to Achieve profiles. I also was able to take Sport Psychology & was really interested in that field but very limited opportunity in Calgary. Now keep in mind I graduated in 1982 right about the time Trudeau gutted the Oil Industry with the NEP & career opportunities went out the window. 1st departments that were eliminated were the HR & out there stuff I wanted to do. Funny enough I wound up being a licensed Private Investigator (Jim Rockford only I drove a Camaro instead of a Firebird) & then eventually got into the money business & own a Brokerage Company & do some loan sharking on the side. What can I say, I don't even think the type of courses & programs I took back then are even offered at the University's anymore. Sometimes I feel like that old guy that never got to bat in Field of Dreams, but I have no regrets. I find this site interesting because I had always been interested in predicting & enhancing performance & the interaction within the workplace. Don't think analytics in hockey quite have it down yet but there is a place for analytics in hockey. Anyway, you asked, don't get me going, I like to ramble. :-}

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#52 Mort
May 08 2014, 01:03AM
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Walter White wrote:

Another "relevant fact": teams that scored more goals than their opposition during this time also won more games!!!!!!

Don't confuse "correlation" with "causality" kids.....

WW

There there WW, I know advanced stats hurt your brain, but just follow me down this ladder for a second:

Nobody disagrees that goals/goals against are the direct cause of wins/losses. But how do you get goals? By shooting the puck (that's where Corsi comes in!). How do you prevent goals against? By stopping the opponent from shooting.

Now, WW, I hope you're still following. How do you get shots? Well, if you don't have the puck, you can't shoot it, so the most important thing in that regard is possession. Now, how do you stop your opponents from getting shots? By maintaining possession! Here we are! We made it! We figured out why possession is important! Yay!

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#53 KetchupKid
May 08 2014, 02:40AM
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Burnward wrote:

So, I assume all the advanced stats guys are making a killing in Vegas?

I've won two playoff hockey pools in the last 4 years based mostly on Kent's predictions. Does that count for anything?

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#54 Burnward
May 08 2014, 03:34AM
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@KetchupKid

So, it's even odds using stats or not? Ha!

Don't get me wrong, these advanced stats are awesome and I love them...but they're not changing the world.

It's a very good way to quantify what could previously only be viewed, but the sport is not a math equation.

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#55 Walter White
May 08 2014, 06:24AM
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Mort wrote:

There there WW, I know advanced stats hurt your brain, but just follow me down this ladder for a second:

Nobody disagrees that goals/goals against are the direct cause of wins/losses. But how do you get goals? By shooting the puck (that's where Corsi comes in!). How do you prevent goals against? By stopping the opponent from shooting.

Now, WW, I hope you're still following. How do you get shots? Well, if you don't have the puck, you can't shoot it, so the most important thing in that regard is possession. Now, how do you stop your opponents from getting shots? By maintaining possession! Here we are! We made it! We figured out why possession is important! Yay!

Dear Mort.

My point is not that there are no causal relationships in this world, My point is; just because there is a correlation between 2 events (A and B occur together a lot) does not mean that A causes B.

There are other possible explanations, for example: Maybe B causes A, or C causes both A and B, or A equals B, or your sample size is not big enough and the correlation is a coincidence.........

Let me give you an example:" studies have shown that people who have more birthdays tend to live longer!!!!" Are we to conclude that birthdays are good for your health because there is a strong correlation? You have just found the fountain of youth my friend!!!

The problem with advanced stats is not the "advanced stats"........it's that the people using the stats may not be "advanced"......

Who's brain is hurting now??

WW

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#56 Justin Azevedo
May 08 2014, 07:32AM
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@Burnward

67% v 55% seems like a pretty big difference to me.

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#57 Justin Azevedo
May 08 2014, 07:34AM
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@Walter White

you're being purposefully obtuse about this. please stop.

these arguments, on both sides, will continue ad infinitum - but it doesn't matter. the war's over. if you don't think this stuff has more value than what you've thought about hockey all of your life, you're wrong.

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#58 Justin Azevedo
May 08 2014, 07:38AM
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Skuehler wrote:

How does the Higgs Boson relate to the rebuild exactly? Is good for rebuilds, or bad? Or indifferent?

making fun of people isn't a good tact to take here, especially when the people you're making fun of run the site.

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#59 Walter White
May 08 2014, 07:55AM
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Justin Azevedo wrote:

you're being purposefully obtuse about this. please stop.

these arguments, on both sides, will continue ad infinitum - but it doesn't matter. the war's over. if you don't think this stuff has more value than what you've thought about hockey all of your life, you're wrong.

No , I don't" think this stuff has more value" than what I have thought about hockey all my life.......I think it "adds to" what I have thought about hockey all my life!

Why do you run a piece on advanced stats if you don't want us to debate the merits of them???

WW

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#60 Burnward
May 08 2014, 08:49AM
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@Justin Azevedo

Itchy trigger finger there Sheriff?

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#61 Justin Azevedo
May 08 2014, 08:59AM
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@Burnward

based on?

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#62 Justin Azevedo
May 08 2014, 09:00AM
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@Walter White

i'm not running the piece. but you people are arguing over something that's decided and it's frustrating for me to read.

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#63 Burnward
May 08 2014, 09:59AM
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Walter White wrote:

Dear Mort.

My point is not that there are no causal relationships in this world, My point is; just because there is a correlation between 2 events (A and B occur together a lot) does not mean that A causes B.

There are other possible explanations, for example: Maybe B causes A, or C causes both A and B, or A equals B, or your sample size is not big enough and the correlation is a coincidence.........

Let me give you an example:" studies have shown that people who have more birthdays tend to live longer!!!!" Are we to conclude that birthdays are good for your health because there is a strong correlation? You have just found the fountain of youth my friend!!!

The problem with advanced stats is not the "advanced stats"........it's that the people using the stats may not be "advanced"......

Who's brain is hurting now??

WW

Don't make him put his hat on.

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#64 BJ
May 08 2014, 04:53PM
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@Parallex

How many goals did you score in junior?

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#65 Mort
May 08 2014, 07:19PM
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@Walter White

"'Studies have shown that people who have more birthdays tend to live longer!!!!' Are we to conclude that birthdays are good for your health because there is a strong correlation? You have just found the fountain of youth my friend!!!"

Maybe you just can't tell whether goals produce shots or shots produce goals. Fortunately, WW, I'm here to tell you that shots definitely cause goals, and not the other way around! :)

Anyway, I would hope that anyone who isn't a moron could see that living longer will bring about more birthdays. So, if for some reason, you made it a goal to have more birthdays, you would have to live longer to achieve that. How do you live longer? Different people say different things, and you can go with whatever you think is right.

The point is, birthdays do not beget birthdays. Goals do not simply occur from nothing. For every effect, there is a cause. Advanced stats is an effort to examine the causes.

"The problem with advanced stats is not the 'advanced stats'........it's that the people using the stats may not be 'advanced'..."

Have you ever heard of "argumentum ad hominem"? :)

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#66 v4ance
May 09 2014, 04:11PM
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Advanced Stats proponents can be arrogant and condescending just like people who don't believe in the advanced stats. The difference is that people like Wilson, Mirtle, Charron, mc79 and others can show that they've figured out some predictive factors, but they recognize how much more they don't understand.

The stat based analysis that is going on is just scratching the surface. We use shots as a proxy for possession but that is just showing the results of possession.

Taylor Hall mentioned that he has looked at the stats stuff and hasn't made up his mind yet. The reason is that the current metrics don't show HOW to get better, or as Wilson stated, "actionable insights born from a marriage of quantitative analysis and scouting/observation". Every player wants to put more shots on net but the way forward is how can we use current analyses or new metrics that haven't been developed yet to find out ways to increase that shot volume, individually, or as a team?

To compare it to the Greenhouse gas debates, we can measure the CO2 (the results) but we don't know how to reduce them yet or make it better (actionable). BUT at least we can see the icebergs on the horizon (Toronto Maple Leafs 2013-14, even if the captain of the ship is asleep at the wheel (Carlyle)

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