If you're an avid follower of hockey pundits on Twitter, or just the game in general, you probably know that hardly a day goes by without an impassioned debate regarding the validity and use of advanced statistics. It's not unlike the debate that flooded baseball over decades culminating in the publication of Michael Lewis' best-selling book Moneyball.
The major difference now is that there is Twitter, so everything is kind of out in the open even more than it was previously and pretty much anyone and everyone can chime in. It's not exactly conducive to constructive argument. There are plenty of folks who have little belief in the numbers, but it seems that fewer within the hockey industry are among them.
Take Dallas Stars general manager Jim Nill for instance. Known as a progressive thinker, Nill has been vocal about his diving into the numbers in helping make more informed decisions. In fact, he's given two interviews this month where he went into more detail than most executives would about the role analytics play in the Stars' decision-making process.
From Michael Florek of the Dallas Morning News:
Nill and his staff now use a computer program that does the work of at least 100 college students: it measures Corsi, giveaways/takeaways, scoring chances and a host of other stats. After each game, the coaching staff reviews the numbers then goes back to the film and tracks its own stats to look for any discrepancies.
The numbers flag certain elements the Stars staff might miss. From there, the staff examines the aspects further and comes to a decision that could determine a player's future.
"If it's a number you get out of right field, I think it's great for analyzing that," Nill said. "Why such a difference? If the numbers are closer, now you've got more of a comfort level to say, ‘OK, yes. There's something here. We made this decision as a staff and the numbers back it up.' It's a lot easier to make a decision then."
The Stars' system also does not rely on the sometimes unreliable statistics recorded by the NHL. Giveaways and takeaways, something the Stars' program records, is one of those game events that can be viewed differently by different stat takers. The club feels those are more reliable for their use to have their statistics recorded in house.
It's hard not to be fascinated by what Nill is talking about.
In combining the human aspect of the coaches' review of the game with what the computer program spits out, the Stars are able to get an objective sounding board for what they see with their own eyes.
One of the misconceptions about the statistics is that whatever the eye sees doesn't matter to the statistical analysts. Not even the more ardent of stats pushers are going to tell you that watching the games is irrelevant. It's the marriage between the two that makes for more effective analysis, in fact.
Not everyone is going to interpret the numbers the same way, just like not everyone is going to see the same thing happen during the same play, but more information is generally better than less. That's especially true when there isn't any secret formula that will tell the whole story. Creating levels of analysis like the Stars do helps mitigate some of the inherent biases in human analysis and if nothing else, gives a second opinion through objective means.
The Stars don't just value the opinions held internally, either.
Nill recently admitted in an interview with Travis Yost of Sporting News that he and his staff read the statistical blogs out there to see what others are saying. It's all in an effort for more information and more opinions.
"We are always — we are all trying to get 3-5% better. It's a cap world and we are limited. We are always looking for the next thing. That's the best part of the game."
"There's amazing stuff in the blogosphere. We sit down all the time and analyze it. Lindy [Ruff] and I are on the plane all the time and looking at this stuff – we look at it and track it to see if there's something there. Like I said, we're all very competitive, and we are all looking for the edge. And whatever's gonna help us is great for the game."
The revolution of analysis in sports, where anything and everything can be measured, really seems to be upon us. A look at how the Stars have been reformed under Nill in just over a year and how they're continually evolving as a team is yet another data point in the argument for more information and analysis. It's clear this is a franchise headed in the right direction.
Is it all analytics? No, but it's helping and that's enough.
Though a lot of teams have been quiet about what kind of systems they are using to evaluate players and whether or not they're using advanced statistics, there's mounting evidence that many are putting more emphasis on numbers-based analysis.
Looking at the Maple Leafs recent hire of numbers-savvy Kyle Dubas as assistant GM, the New Jersey Devils creating a position specifically for analytics and the Chicago Blackhawks revealing they use proprietary numbers to aid in their decisions, teams are definitely diving into more advanced numbers and evaluation practices. That's only a small sample of what is currently known in the public sphere.
With the advancements in technology and companies currently racing to find better ways to track sporting events, it seems the way people analyze sports is still only at the tip of what is possible. As more is discovered, the game will evolve and so will the opinions surrounding this hot-button topic.