For the advanced stat community, this post is entirely entry-level thinking, but outside of that annoying niche group of hockey fans (ugh, they’re just the WORST, those guys), there’s a large misconception about how to best understand the simplest numbers we pile up over the course of a hockey game. And, there’s no reason to feel ashamed about that. I’ve played for some pretty decent coaches who weren’t exactly up to speed on things either, but times are changing, so maybe your thinking should too.
Below, I’ll take a look at a few categories of in-game statistics, and try to lay out where many of us have been misusing them.
The first thing we all need to agree upon before moving forward is that having the puck is a really neat-o thing, correct? Most rational thinking humans would agree that having the puck, rather than not, gives you a better chance to score goals. I think we’re on the same page so far. That “having” of the puck is simply known as possession. You know this. I’m not trying to be patronizing, just making sure we’re on the same page. In general, the team who maintains possession more over the course of the game will have the best chance to win. No chart, no graph, that just makes logical sense.
Let’s continue down the yellow stat road.
“Score effects,” or “game states” as it’s known in European Kick Hockey (that’s how we refer to soccer around theScore offices) is the idea that when a team is up a goal or two or three, they are more likely to give up more shots and chances. That’s the very general idea, anyway. There is plenty of data to back this up, but I’m just trying to lay this out logically, because it does make absolute sense.
In some cases, hockey teams in the lead will switch from their 2-1-2 foreceheck to a 1-2-2 to make sure they don’t give up any glaring chances (because they’re trying to protect the lead). The dialed back forecheck leads to less possession (but again, hopefully less clean chances against too), which means the losing team has more possession, which means they get more shots. From an individual standpoint, if you’re on a team in the lead you don’t want to be the guy to give up the glaring chance, so maybe you play more conservatively, leading your team to get hemmed in more. And if the lead is big enough, guys will still play more positionally conservative, but knowing they have the lead, they may do so with less fervor than they would in a one-goal game, and suddenly it looks like the team in the lead is getting smoked, and there go your shot stats.
There is data to back this up the idea of score effects, but again: logically, the team in the lead is going to retreat and protect the net more which leads to more shots against, whether it’s a tactical decision or a psychological one. And the more that team leads by, the looser their play gets, and the more shots they give up.
This is why, on occasion, fans think “boy, our boys sure rallied and almost completed the comeback!”
No they didn’t.
Or, “boy, we got robbed, we outshot them and still lost by a couple!”
There’s a reason for that.
I don’t know if the Leafs changed tactics up 4-1 in the third period of Game 7 in playoffs, but the team definitely sagged while Boston pushed, which resulted in a memorable final 10 minutes.
So yeah, “score effects.” If a team is down 3-0 and being outshot 15-3 after the first, you’re safe to bet your buddy that the losing team outshoots the leading team on the way in. They likely will.
Other stats are skewed by the score and possession too. Don’t get caught misusing them. OF NOTE:
One coach I played for used to lay out nine goals that we had to meet every game. If we didn’t, we had to bag skate for five minutes per missed category during the following practice. I don’t remember them all (I have it written somewhere), but I remember the basics, which were shots (30 or higher), hits (75 or higher – we had a maniac team and loose hit definition), blocked shots (I believe it was something around 7-9 or higher) and on and on and on.
The problem, you see, is that when you utterly own your opponent all night and have the puck for the entirety of the game, you don’t get many chances to block shots.
THIS IS WHY when Don Cherry or some Good Canadian Analyst tells you that a team isn’t willing to sacrifice because they don’t block many shots, there’s a realistic possibility that they’re just a really good hockey club who dominates possession. Among the league’s bottom-feeders in blocked shots during last season? Chicago (19th), St. Louis (20th), Ottawa (21st), Boston (25th), Detroit (26th), Vancouver (27th), and Los Angeles (29th). Not a bad cluster at the bottom of the league.
In sum, a strategy of “just block a ton of shots” in your own zone means a ton of pucks are being directed at your net, meaning your giving up a lot of chances for pucks to go in. We’re on the fringe of talking about an advanced stat here, so let’s rein it in.
Hits works on the same premise. Teams that are trailing are told, implicitly, that they need to get out there and lay the body to change the flow of the game. Teams that never have the puck have endless opportunities to hit people, because y’know, when you have the damn thing you don’t hit anyone. The team without it is always the one doing the hitting.
Sooo teams that lead the league in hits… not necessarily the toughest to play. Of the teams who finished in the top 10 in hits last season, only two earned home ice in the playoffs, and they barely sneaked into the top-10. They were Pittsburgh who finished 9th in hits, and Boston who finished 10th.
This doesn’t mean that being physical is bad. Being physical is GREAT. You just have to note that if being physical results in turning more pucks over and having it more, a good physical team may finish the game with less hits than the less physical team, because they earned the puck. You with me on that?
Having the puck equals chances to score. Not having it equals chances to hit. Therefore a higher hit count might not mean that one team is more physical than the other, just that they had the puck less.
Blocking a shot can be a huge, gutsy play for a team. Teams should block shots.
You should not say that a team is good because they block a lot of shots. It might be the opposite.
Hitting is a crucial part of the game. Teams should hit at every reasonable opportunity.
You should not say that a team is good because they have a lot of hits.
And with score effects, human nature and coaching combine so that leading teams are going to back off, which can skew a game’s stats.
So while stats are important in hockey, so are their context. Make sure you understand what the numbers are telling you. Sometimes that involves thinking a sliver deeper than you used to.