One of the hottest debates in hockey lately surrounds the use of advanced statistics to evaluate teams and players. Regardless of what side of the debate you are on, one of the important factors in discussing its value is how much it is being used by actual teams in the NHL and which ones.
Most teams are quiet on their use of analytics, while some are outright chest-puffing about their lack of belief in them like the Toronto Maple Leafs' front office and coaching staff (how's that working out?). The general belief, however, is that most teams use some sort of analytics. The New Jersey Devils even publicly announced they were looking for someone to run an analytics department a few months back.
Even so, few general managers have been outright vocal in their support of or use of advanced analytics. That's what makes some of the revelations Chicago Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman made in an interview with the Chicago Sun-Times so enlightening.
Bowman admitted the team uses analytics and has for some time. Though he would not get specific in order to keep what he considers a competitive advantage over his fellow general managers, Bowman did explained why the team believes in them and in some less-comprehensive terms how they are using the numbers they're getting.
“Stats are what they are,” Bowman said. “There's no disputing who scored the goal, or who was on the ice for the goal. That's fact. What you do with that is sort of the real value. And I think there's an art to it. The analytics themselves are very objective. But then you have to do something with them and draw conclusions.”
While the Blackhawks utilize stats, Bowman says they are different from the popular advanced analytics like Corsi and Fenwick. He wouldn't come close to saying what they are, only that he prefers what the Blackhawks have over what is readily available to the public at sites like behindthenet.ca or ExtraSkater.com.
“What we do is different,” Bowman told the Sun-Times. “I think it's better, but I guess it's a matter of opinion. It's also a competitive advantage. That stuff's readily available, but what we have is more proprietary. Which is why I'm really trying not to talk about it. I think what we do gives us an advantage over other teams. They might say I'm wrong, but we're pretty confident that what we have works.”
The proof may be in the results. Since Bowman took the reins in 2009-10, the Blackhawks have won two Stanley Cups, the second of which came after the GM had to dismantle the first team to stay under the salary cap. The fact it only took three years to get back to the top, making some shrewd decisions at the draft and with trades over the last few years, is another reason that maybe other teams will want to try to follow the Blackhawks lead, even if Chicago won't be helping them.
This was probably the most enlightening quote of the entire piece, which you should definitely read in full (here is the link again):
“You can get bogged down in stats and analytics,” Bowman said. “That's the concern, it's still a dynamic game, there's still an awful lot happening. It's a quick, reactive game. It's different than some other sports that are a little more static. So there might be a limit to how much you can use analytics. They don't replace anything for us. But they do complement and supplement.”
Now the Blackhawks haven't been perfect with some of their decisions. Looking at the contracts doled out to Corey Crawford and Bryan Bickell after the team's Cup run remain perplexing even as the team gears up for another postseason march.
That said, what Bowman says about a marriage of new ways to break down the statistics, while keeping an element of subjectivity shows that there is room for compromise in hockey. There is room for stats and “the eye test” and they probably don't work if you don't make good conclusions from both.
Having at least some idea about the process of one of the more successful teams in the NHL in this ever-evolving world of more and more information, is pretty intriguing.
In a lot of ways, the 2013-14 season could be a great sample year for the value of new stats.
The Toronto Maple Leafs and Colorado Avalanche's seasons were really interesting to watch in the face of the advanced analytics debate. The Maple Leafs were getting by with terrible possession numbers before plummeting late in the season and missing the playoffs. The Avalanche not only made the playoffs but finished with the best record in the West despite similarly bad possession marks. They got dominated in the possession battle in their first-round series with the Minnesota Wild and are out of the playoffs.
Possession is a huge key in hockey and possession statistics like Corsi (measures total shot attempts) and Fenwick (total shot attempts minus blocked shots) have some great predictive value. But they aren't always going to predict the outcome and no one suggests they are supposed to. That's why there is a need both for stats and the evaluations of experienced hockey executives, scouts and coaches.
There are interesting data points for both sides of the debate, but to have a respected GM of a good team express his belief in the numbers and have success while using them is a major sign that the stats movement is very real and is likely to become only more prominent as the years pass.