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Player tracking systems in NHL could advance how game is analyzed

By Chris Peters | Hockey Writer

Advanced tracking systems may be able to help break down NHL games better. (USATSI)
Advanced tracking systems may be able to help break down NHL games better. (USATSI)

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The future of advanced statistics in hockey is going to be fascinating. As of right now, a lot of the advanced metrics available to the public come from the use of the NHL's live event statistics, tracking every shot attempt. That data is then turned into Corsi and Fenwick numbers that are used as a proxy for possession. They've become more widely accepted in a contentious climate between old-school and new-age thinking in professional hockey.

But what if there was no proxy required? What if every team and every player's possession number was exact? That may be brought forth by the evolution of player tracking. It's something the NBA is already using as SportVU has become the official tracking system of the league.

NBA teams are getting more data than ever before on their players from touches to shot selection to distance traveled in a given game. Something like that could be coming to hockey in the near future.

The NHL has approved testing of player tracking systems next season and if successful, new systems could be in place by the 2015-16 season according to a report from the Globe & Mail. Teams saw player tracking system examples at the NHL's Board of Governors meetings, but until the experiments show what can be taking from NHL games via a player tracking system, it is unclear if and how the NHL will adopt such technology.

Though it is not known which system the NHL will go forward with testing, SportVU, which is utilized in the NBA currently uses six cameras that track every movement of players and the ball on the court during NBA games. It can break down so many things and provide data from where shots are taken, how long a player is possessing the ball, how fast a player is running, how much he is running and host of other things. There are also advanced tracking systems being used in professional soccer.

Something similar to these systems in hockey could be a real game-changer in terms of how players are evaluated and how teams strategize from game to game.

Though there isn't a lot of info about how SportVU would transfer to hockey, one company is trying to show how player tracking could make an impact on the winter sport.

That company is PowerScout Hockey, run by Marc Appleby. He was a guest speaker at the Joint Statistical Meetings in Boston Monday to talk about his program which uses three cameras to track players and the puck on the ice.

In a recent interview with the Dallas Morning News, Appleby explained what his product can do:

PowerScout uses a three-camera system to track every player's and the puck's movement on the ice. With that data, PowerScout's computer can deduce skating speed and distance skated, pass/shot speed and percentage, takeaways, shot attempts and a range of other analytics.

Corsi and Fenwick, now used as proxies for possession, are unnecessary, according to Appleby. A player tracking system could give exact possession data.

“This is kind of the holy grail,” Appleby said. “There's nothing left to measure. This I think will fundamentally change the way that teams will look at (hockey).”

Using an example of Dallas Stars prospect Jason Dickinson in a game PowerScout Hockey tracked with its system between the OHL's Guelph Storm and WHL's Edmonton Oil Kings at the 2014 Memorial Cup, Appleby gave the Morning News a sample of the data that came out of the game:

In that game, Stars prospect Jason Dickinson, playing for Guelph, tied for the fastest top speed at 22.6 miles per hour. His average shot speed ranked 11th in the game at 51.05 mph. He had a 51-percent passing percentage, which also ranked 11th in the game, and connected on passes with fellow forward Scott Kosmachuk more than any other teammate.

Guelph's heat map revealed that it relied on the right side of their goaltender to both break out of the defensive zone and bring the puck into the offensive zone.

The last bit is rather fascinating. Every coach in the league analyzes game film and will maybe come up with the same conclusions, but they have an easier way to look at the frequency a team tries certain things, which provides a ton of information in how to prepare for that game. Something like that still requires human analyses, but it's a wealth of data to analyze.

There's also useful data coming out of the individual player numbers that can aid coaches in evaluating and teaching.

Here's a sample of what the real-time tracking looks like on the PowerScout system (via Sporting News):

At the JSM conference, Appleby said the NHL is about three years behind the NBA on player tracking.

Considering the NHL's current real-time stats vary from arena to arena and therefore are forcing teams like the Stars to collect their own data, a league-wide tracking system would have a lot of benefits. That's especially true if some of that data is managed to be made public, even in its most basic forms of the real-time stats the NHL currently distributes.

There is still a alot more testing that will have to be done before the league adopts something of this nature, but the possibilities of what these systems claim they can do are certainly intriguing.

The game is always evolving and so is how it is analyzed. If there's a way to bring this kind of data to the league, it's bound to be a great thing for the teams, the players and hopefully the fans can get in on it, too.

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