“Not very successfully right now,” suggested Brian Burke to a few laughs when he was asked at the MIT Sloan Sports Conference about how he evaluates players.
I mentioned on Friday the notable differences between the style of management between Brian Burke and Peter Chiarelli, the other NHL general manager who appeared on the panel alongside Toronto’s Burke. Chiarelli, Boston’s guy, not only won a Stanley Cup, but did so with a team that was supposedly going extinct, brash, bruising brawlers and bullies.
There is a wealth of free information available online that has the capability to give managers and coaches some insight into what goes on when a player is on the ice. It isn’t perfect, and never will be, but it’s useful to know where the puck will be when Greg Zanon is on the ice as a supplement to “well he skates like so-and-so and he hits like so-and-so” which, until only a short while ago, was the norm around the National Hockey League.
Do successful teams keep track of data points that will help their team succeed and properly evaluate their players? Absolutely. Critics tend to see statistics as an attempt of controlling the game with a calculator, and argue that mathematics can’t account for intangible factors present in sports. But those critics fail to understand exactly what a statistic is. It’s just another form of taking notes.
(There’s the old anecdote of Walter Gretzky walking in the living room and seeing his son Wayne trace the location of the puck across the ice on a sheet of paper, so Wayne would know at which spots on the ice he was more likely to grab the puck. This is an early example of advanced analysis, simple note-taking for data that is otherwise unavailable anywhere else.)
Chiarelli was far less dismissive of advanced stats, according to the Edmonton Journal’s David Staples of the Cult of Hockey blog, who noted that Chiarelli uses “different kind of plus/minus numbers” and characterize different situations internally. There’s no specific example listed there, but different kinds of plus/minus numbers could range anywhere from scoring chance differential to Corsi numbers to both.
Corsi, a metric named for its creator, Jim Corsi, a goaltender coach with the Buffalo Sabres, is the simple measurement of all shot attempts, including missed shots and blocked shots, directed at the opponent’s net when a player was on the ice minus the ones directed at its own. Alone, Corsi isn’t perfect, or anywhere close to being perfect. There are so many factors that can influence a player’s Corsi number, but as a standalone stat, it is a surprisingly effective proxy for determining in which zone the puck spent the majority of the time when a player is on the ice.
Now, there are some players whose job is to score, so a good Corsi number won’t satisfy the fans who demand more, but for a player such as Mikhail Grabovski, his strong play, as a two-way guy, will be reflected in a strong Corsi number, which it has for the last two seasons.
Whether or not Burke re-signs Grabovski in this summer will be an excellent notice as to whether or not Burke uses any sort of advanced data. Whoever does, in fact, sign the underrated Belorussian, will probably be a team that uses numbers to some extent, numbers that show off hidden defensive attributes for the centreman who also has 45 points this season. These are attributes that may not be visible to everybody who watches hockey regularly.
It’s all about process, not necessarily production. I blog for about eight or nine different Vancouver Canucks blogs and am usually recording something of some effect when watching a game. As a result, I would not be able to tell you which players have been scoring goals or are in slumps as of late because I’m so wrapped up in the process of the game. What are the plays that players are making? Are they creating scoring chances, are they moving the puck forward, are they restricting opponent possession, are they eating up tough minutes? It caught me off guard Sunday morning when I suddenly found myself having to defend Henrik Sedin’s play on Twitter because, who knew, apparently he hasn’t been getting many points lately. I’d been so wrapped up in the plays he’s made that usually lead to goals.
You often hear about how baseball lends itself better to advanced statistics because the situations are mostly one-on-ones. I think that baseball lends itself better to acceptance of advanced statistics because the general fan is more willing to accept that sports are played on an individual basis. A player can make a fine play and do everything expected of him, but his teammates may turn over the puck, or not capitalize on a very fine outlet pass to set up a scoring chance.
This was discussed at some length on a terrific radio segment between a couple of Edmonton Oilers’ blogosophere mainstays Allan Mitchell and Tyler Dellow Saturday afternoon:
MITCHELL – “For example, I want to know how many successful passes out of his own zone Tom Gilbert made in a season. We might be able to quantify at least a little bit of the difference between him and [Nick] Schultz.”
DELLOW – “Oh I agree with that, and you’re on Twitter and I don’t know, there’s a guy Derek Blasutti, he’s got a good eye for the game and he commented last week that he could see why Nick Schultz had such a low turnover number compared to Tom Gilbert: because Schultz never passes the puck more than six feet. You know, having that data and understand that data would be fantastic, and [inaudible] that would help us tell what the difference between those two players is.”
Staples, who attended Sloan and wrote much of the hockey stuff that I read this week, is notoriously critical of using team total events for Corsi or scoring chances or +/- to determine a player’s value. Certainly there needs to be some individual aspect involved. Staples counts something called “Neilson numbers” named after Roger Neilson, who modernized video analysis and went through the video tapes after games to count which players made plays that led up to scoring chances, or made mistakes that led to chances against. I’ve hypothesized, however, that Neilson kept the count to only one or two players for each scoring chances due to time constraints.
But when you hear that Chiarelli has internalized some data that he hasn’t released to the public, and Burke goes off pretty convincingly against the statistics, (calling much of it “horseshit” and falsely states that “nobody has ever won a championship with Moneyball”) and looking at the position of those two teams in the standings, it’s apparent that there’s at least some value to this.
As a fan, perhaps it takes a little away from a certain magic of the game, but a grasp of a few of the concepts that are explored in hockey’s numerical blogosphere can still create insight on why certain teams make certain trades, or why your favourite team keeps giving ice time to that guy who sucks.