The future of advanced statistical analysis in hockey is happening right now. The only problem is that it’s happening in basketball.
There are two massive obstacles to the advancement of statistical analysis in hockey, in my opinion. One is the speed and complexity of the game, which makes it difficult to track and isolate specific events. A game like baseball lends itself well to advanced statistics because it is so easily parsed into individual events that can be quantified and analysed. In hockey, it’s extremely difficult to isolate events beyond the obvious, like faceoffs and shots. It’s one of the reasons why a lot of advanced statistical analysis revolves around attempted shots: they’re one of the few isolated, individual events that are available to be analysed.
The second obstacle is the accuracy of the data. Because statistics are compiled by human scorers at each rink, human error and bias enter into the picture, making it difficult to trust their accuracy. For instance, Colorado Avalanche scorekeepers tend to record significantly more shots on goal than league average, while the New Jersey Devils scorekeepers significantly undercount shots. Madison Square Garden scorekeepers consistently get shot location wrong, sometimes by as much as 20 feet, and NHL scorekeepers as a whole apparently can’t even decide where the faceoff dots are.
The technology for overcoming both of these obstacles already exists: it’s called SportsVU and it is currently invading the NBA. While it has a lot of potential to revolutionize basketball statistics, the potential for the technology in hockey is even greater.
SportsVU is based off what was originally military missile tracking software, but is now used to accurately track the location of players, recording their every move 25 times per second. It was originally applied to soccer in Europe, but when Stats brought it to North America, they moved to applying it to a more popular sport on this continent: basketball. Currently, 10 NBA teams are using SportsVU technology in their home arenas and making use of the data, including the Dallas Mavericks, Oklahoma City Thunder, and San Antonio Spurs.
In order to track player and ball movement, 6 cameras are installed in the arena. With just those 6 cameras and the high-powered SportsVU software, they can create a mountain of data. ESPN the Magazine did an article on SportsVU a year ago and highlighted how far down the rabbit hole goes:
Against Denver on Dec. 25, for example, [Kevin] Durant’s box score line read 44 points, seven boards and four assists. SportVU, meanwhile, detailed that the Oklahoma City small forward held the ball for a total of 2:51, averaging 2.3 seconds on his 75 touches. He was good for 0.6 points per touch, just up from his season mark of 0.5. He ran 2.8 miles in all, averaging 4.1 mph. But the really interesting discovery was that Durant dribbled 96 times, or 1.3 dribbles per touch, and that the more he put the ball on the floor the worse he shot: 55 percent with zero dribbles vs. 3 percent with six or more.
The technology can easily track a player’s most frequent shot locations and from where he’s most likely to score. It can track exactly where a player is most likely to turnover the ball, how much time he spends in specific areas of the court, who he passes to most frequently, and how likely a player is to score after receiving the ball from a specific teammate.
Really, that’s barely scratching the surface. But what gets me excited is imagining the possibilities when applied to hockey.
At a basic level, tracking puck possession would become far more precise, both on an individual level and on a team level. The shot location problem that plagues attempts at assessing shot quality, as the software would provide an exact location on the ice unaffected by scorer bias and human error. From there we can get into player and team shooting tendencies, not to mention better assessing how well a goaltender does on stopping shots from different locations.
Do you want to prove that a certain winger does have a tendency to stay on the perimeter instead of driving hard to the net? Do you want to know which defencemen are the best at moving the puck out of the defensive zone with possession? We know which players spend the most time on the ice, but what about the players that cover the most distance in a game? Want to know if your team is more likely to score if one player controls the puck more often on the powerplay than another player? Which defenceman is on the ice for the most completed passes by the opponent? Which defenceman is on the ice the most frequently when the puck is in the slot for the opposition?
These are all questions that could be answered by incorporating SportsVU technology into hockey. Sure, some of the answers might not end up being useful, but the ability to slice hockey up into individual events would be unprecedented. In addition, the accuracy of the data would be immensely improved. For teams, it would reduce the amount of time spent analysing video: instead of watching game film after game film to see what breakout a team uses the most often, what if you could just call it up on your laptop and immediately see the most frequent paths the puck and players take when heading out of the defensive zone?
Currently SportsVU is only available for soccer and basketball, as well as a limited application to football. It seems like it would be simple to adapt the technology for hockey, though I wonder if the small size of the puck might cause difficulties, as well as the fact that hockey players normally touch the puck with the stick rather than their feet or hands. Considering everything else the software can handle, however, that doesn’t seem like an issue that couldn’t be resolved.
Instead, I’m guessing the main issue will be money. Hockey just isn’t as big as basketball and football in the US, so Stats will target those two sports first with SportsVU. They’re avoiding baseball entirely, simply because there are a lot of companies doing similar work in baseball already, but that still means some time before they’re likely to put much time, money, and effort into targeting the hockey market.
With that said, a rich NHL team looking to gain any advantage possible might be able to convince them otherwise. Might a team like Vancouver, with its deep pockets and willingness to go outside the box(see: mind room), look to use SportsVU in the future?