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Are advanced hockey stats just a trend or the real deal?

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No I get it. Life is made up of numbers and binary code. It really does not matter what profession or circumstance you are in, numbers rule our world when you think about it. All these 0s and 1s in the computing and telecommunications domain represent possible values and can therefore correspond to a variety of different symbols, letters, or instructions. Simplifying a bit more and numbers are all around us. Whether it is the budget forecast at work, the cost of goods at the grocery store, the channels/frequency on the television or radio, or merely the time of day. We have been and will forever be surrounded by numbers and the hockey world is no different – just evolving.

For many decades coaches, scouts, and managers have evaluated or gauged players and teams success with such statistics like goals, assists, points, plus/minus, save percentage, goals against average, power-play percentage, etc. Now these stats really do paint a good picture. Just because they are older, less modern-day flash numbers and confusion, does not mean they are not essential to the game still.

But now today the approaches of evaluation are starting to change. People that are obsessed with the game and mathematics are devising methods of analyzing the game and players. Today you read and even see between periods of broadcasts the Corsi and Fenwick numbers. The Twitter biosphere is going crazed as well with banter on advanced stats.

For me I get the stat craze to a degree -- but only to a degree. No I am not going to go all Brian Burke on the advanced statistics as there is obviously some value. Though, the hype of revolutionizing the game and scouting may be a bit of a push.

Yes, the game and the players are changing. The clutch-n-grab, chip-n-chase, throwing punch-for punch days are slowly evaporating. As I have written before the game is about skating, puck skills, and high hockey IQ. Just look how many governing hockey bodies are developing players with small area games, and within USA Hockey the American Development Model (ADM) and Long-Term Athletic Development (LTAD) are being promoted in the States.

I recently watched a National Junior Camp practice in Lake Placid a few weeks ago and the traditional break-out is being tweaked. Traditionally the defenseman would retrieve the puck on the breakout and go up strong side to winger on the boards then winger over to the center. Now days, the winger sends it in the defensive slot to the off-side defenseman who then goes up and out to the other winger and that D-man continues on by getting on his horse in joining the play. Teams like USA U20s will also play a reverse by the initial puck retrieving defenseman to the center coming low now, below the goal line to then make the outlet pass. Sure the traditional reverse to one’s defensive partner is still part of the game, although coaches and managers are showing innovation of utilizing all five skaters on the ice simultaneously.

So as mentioned, in order to execute these plays you need players that can skate with good mobility big or smaller, excellent puck handling, passing skills, and most importantly the head for the game who can make quick, accurate decisions with great adaptability at a spilt second. Yes, good ole hockey sense.

Call it old school thinking, call it what you want. Statistics do not lie and paint a pretty good picture. Not here disputing statistics. But ultimately it is the human element of knowing players as a general manager, coach, or scout. Stats do not tell you about the individual in the locker room or on the bench. If some Ivy Leaguer or Naval Academy genius comes up with a quantifying measurement to the intangibles than I will be a 100% believer in the advance statistics matrix. Sure it is just a matter of time until players in the National Hockey League wear “Smart Jerseys” with chips embedded in the fibers for stat tracking purposes. You know that’s coming next.

One advantage to utilizing the advanced stats is gaining a better understanding on players you certainly do not see on a daily basis, especially for the free agent or trade markets in the NHL. If you are smart and know your player personnel well, no Corsi or Fenwick number should really come to a surprise to you. The usefulness comes also for NHL teams looking for additional information that may uncover a talent or second the notion on a player in the AHL that can possible transfer to the next level.

The Edmonton Oilers are one team in the National Hockey League that is adopting the advanced hockey matrix. Some off-season, free agent acquisitions in Mark Fayne and Benoit Pouliot may have been piloted by analytics. The future for some players may be “make-or-break” for their contracts based on how much teams perceive and regard these statistics. In Fayne’s and Pouliot’s case, it worked into a four and five-year contact, respectively, making $3.5 million and $4 million.

So in this case for the pro scout and general manger, the advanced statistics perhaps can paint a clearer picture and influence a decision somewhat on a player.

Although there is a simply reason why the best players are the best players. Their skill sets, their approach to the game, and thought processes are a step ahead of the others. That is why they score, set-up plays, take key face-offs, possess the puck, “make things happen”, and make players around them better.

Take Boston Bruins centerman, Patrice Bergeron, for instance. He led the NHL with a Corsi scoring of 61.2 percent, marking the third straight year in which he's finished in the top 10. This means that he was the best possession player in the league during the 5-on-5 situation. Also, he ranked second in CorsiRel at +9.7 percent, which measures a player's Corsi when he is on the ice vs. the team's Corsi when he is not. Bergereon also placed at the top for Fenwick and FenwickRel statistics. The Fenwick stat computes shots and shots missed by a player. Again, the relative number measures a player's Fenwick when he is on the ice vs. the team's Fenwick when he is not.

Overall, did Bruins bench boss Claude Julian and management learn anything new upon Bergeron and his play from these advanced statistics. Or would it surprise you that Jonathan Toews plays against the toughest competition as he led the league in QoC TOI%, a.k.a. Quality of Competition measured by Time on Ice. How about that Alex Ovechkin leading the way as a power play specialist with highest percentage of team’s power play ice time? These are probably not that all surprising. Just as it would not amaze you that the Stanley Cup Champion, LA Kings, were the best puck possession team while cellar dweller Buffalo Sabres were the worst in the league.

Statistics certainly tell a lot and this is a nice step in the right direction for supplemental information. There is no question the data is useful especially in conjunction with live viewings and inside info, but I am still going with the pure hockey eye of knowing players, teams, systems, etc.

If you are going to tell me that it took advanced stats for Chicago Blackhawks coach, Joel Quennville, to figure out he should play Duncan Keith on the first D-man pairing with skilled forwards on the power play so he can display his offensive instincts and counter balance with Niklas Hjalmarsson on the defensive, shutdown responsibility then I will buy that bridge in Brooklyn you have for sale.

The majority of the personnel in coaching, management, and scouting played the game at some high level capacity. It does not necessarily have to be in the NHL, but the fact that their brain has been training on the game probably since age five. They have acquired knowledge and expertise from various and numerous situations on the ice, in the locker room, behind the bench, or in the stands. It is not number crunching, it is not percentages, and it is not statistics. It is simply pure hockey.

It is also interesting on how a player like Logan Couture of the San Jose Sharks recently described in an article how he has never discussed these analytics with the coaching staff.

I, myself thought that I was losing it because it seems every article you read or tweet you see these days is about advanced hockey stats and how it is changing the world. So I reached out to a network of hockey personalities from an Assistant NHL GMs, to handful of NCAA D1 and ECHL coaches, and to other NHL and independent scouts. I wanted to see their perspectives on the topic.

It was unanimous about in the response. All agreed that you cannot quantify the “it” factor as the human element is always the last word.

Another issue that comes up is consistency. It seems when talking with personnel the information varies from rink to rink. Where some statistician might call a shot on net the other clearly sees the play as a dump in where the puck was going wide, yet the goalie played. It will happen in all facets of the game so the data may be skewed a bit, although as time moves on the consistency and reliability will increase.

And as one NHL dad told me when I asked him about the topic, who stated he is a firm believer in the statistics, is that the biggest stat of them all is opportunity. If opportunity is not measured then all the other statistics mean nothing.

Don’t get me wrong, I think innovation and elaboration of advanced stats can be beneficial. The ‘Moneyball’ approach was that outside the box thinking you need these days to help win a championship as there is much parity in the league today. Although I am still waiting for the Oakland A’s or even New York Mets for that matter to win a World Series Championship – haha!

You can follow Russ Bitely for more hockey news, comments, and articles on Twitter: @russbites

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