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Advanced Stats Are Changing the Game

By Scott Billeck – @scottbilleck

This will not, under any circumstances, be an attempt to promote the concept of advanced statistics in hockey. Not by any stretch. What it is, is a skeptic’s look at the game’s so-called “fancy” stats and how even the staunchest of conservatives can be reformed.

The idea of advanced statistics lasting in hockey was a rather fleeting idea for me. It’s not that math is hard, nor is it that I hate numbers. However, having played the game at various levels, the idea of making myself — and much better players than me —  into numbers, wasn’t appealing.

Think this man cares about his Corsi? (Photo by Jeff Miller)

Think this man cares about his Corsi? (Photo by Jeff Miller)

Statistics are something that often come with negativity in the culture we live in — 3,000-plus people died on Sept. 11, 2001. One in five Canadians will suffer some form of mental illness in their life-time. Ten percent of the world’s population is obese.

Those statistics simply illustrate how people are turned into a digit, void of any personality and worth.

Logically, in my mind, the advancement of advanced statistics in the hockey would simply follow this trend. No hockey player, young or old, NHL or beer league, wants to be labelled with a number.

So yeah, I was skeptical. The worth of a hockey player can be expressed in more ways than what a spreadsheet can tell you. After all, on Wednesday night against St. Louis, Chicago captain Jonathan Toews had no goals, no shots and no hits — and was the game’s third star.

What I have come to accept (and have slowly started to embrace) is the idea that these numbers can be an instrumental tool in evaluating a player. The numbers don’t tell the whole story, but they add something to it that can help explain what the eyes cannot.

Surely, if you put myself on a line with Sidney Crosby, Steven Stamkos and had Drew Doughty and Marc-Edouard Vlasic behind me I’d probably have a decent Corsi. But my eyes, and everyone else’s for that matter, would tell me how bad I was as a player next to those four guys.

Statistics will never be able to calculate the heart of an individual. Statistics cannot determine why x player goes out and practices every waking moment or why x player seems to be able to bring it every night. These are what we call intangibles. There are many like it and it’s  impossible to assign a number to them.

The idea that a spreadsheet can sufficiently illustrate the game of hockey is a false one. The vibe I get on social media is that some put all their eggs in the analytic basket. It’s unfortunate. The people that tow the proverbial party line are the ones who will bring analytics to a place they need to be.

This isn’t a one-way street. Not by any stretch of the imagination. Mark Stuart was a poor player for the Winnipeg Jets based on hockey analytics. Some say he kept Trouba from shining in his full glory. The Jets, in turn, signed him to a contract extension. Why? It’s because Stuart is more than a number. Stuart brings much to the team that cannot be calculated. There is not a statistic for leadership qualities or what a veteran can bring to a team.

Winnipeg Jets defenceman Mark Stuart brings more to the table then a spreadsheet of numbers. SHAWN COATES PHOTO

Winnipeg Jets defenceman Mark Stuart brings more to the table then a spreadsheet of numbers. SHAWN COATES PHOTO

I have no doubt that the Jets look into advanced statistics. I have no doubt that all teams are doing the same thing. But teams are going to keep their cards close to their chest. No one wants to divulge their secrets. Professional sports is a cutthroat business, one where any advantage can be the difference between winning and losing.

What I have learned, reluctantly and otherwise, is that the numbers do mean something. I don’t have it all down, not by any stretch, but the basics aren’t hard to learn. CorsiFenwick and PDO have a reasonably easy learning curve attached to them.

Sure, you can easily delve into the world of what I call ‘obsessive’ advanced statistics, but for the average fan to get something out of statistics, learning the basics is the first step.

These statistics will not just disappear. They have shown their value enough at this point that they won’t be a momentary fad. It’s still going to take awhile. Old school thought patterns are a stubborn bunch. But there is hope. I know, I fall/fell into that old school stubborn lot.

A Greek philosopher, Heraclitus, once said that “change is the only constant in life.” Indeed, the way we look at hockey is changing, and perhaps so am I.

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