You know how sometimes you read something somewhere and it peaks your interest? Of course, you never seem to be able to find it later when you are looking for it. I was sitting in the doctor’s office a few years ago reading a Sports Illustrated article about advanced statistics in MLS soccer. One of the stats was Touches Converted to Shots on Goal Percentage. In other words, the number of touches a player makes that resulted in a shot on goal divided by the number of touches in total. It turned out that David Beckham, who was playing for the LA Galaxy at the time, had a percentage twice as high as the next best in the league. I found this a fascinating statistic. As an opposing coach, I might be pretty keen to keep the ball away from Beckham!
As a kid, I grew up playing every sport under the sun. From soccer to cricket, squash to downhill skiing - we seemed to always be playing something somewhere. But, my true passions were playing hockey and baseball. They complimented each other in that they rarely overlapped during the year. Only when I was in my 20’s, when university hockey started on Labour Day and senior baseball playoffs played through September, was there much conflict.
I am also a math guy and I loved the way baseball embraced the use of statistics so much. I would spend an inordinate amount of time pouring over baseball numbers. They fascinated me - even in that pre-computer era when we actually had to do the math ourselves to find Pete Rose’s batting average or Ron Guidry’s ERA. Today, we can crunch so many more numbers with the use of computers and generate statistics like P/PA (pitches per plate appearance), BABIP (batting average on balls in play) and WPA (win probability added) (and I have no idea what that means or how it’s generated).
Hockey has only recently availed itself to what we refer to as advanced or enhanced statistics. Traditionally we have tracked goals, assists and points, penalty minutes, shots and faceoffs. Now, the NHL is generating statistics such as Time On Ice per Game Played, Unblocked Shot Attempts Percentage While Ahead and Missed Shots that Hit the Post. As a coach, I am not sure what value there is in knowing that Alex Ovechkin led the league last season in Missed Shots that Hit the Post (14) but there are certainly some very important pieces of information that can come in handy as a coach.
Of course, statistics can only be analyzed if they are actually recorded. Some of us have the luxury to have video in order to see everything again. Most coaches however don’t have that luxury or simply don’t have the time to watch and record statistics from it. There is also the issue of having and generating statistics that will be meaningful - stats that will help in making decisions both in game and otherwise.
The game sheet is a terrific place to start with generating statistics. If you don’t keep stats on goals, assists, penalty minutes and simple goalie statistics you are missing out on a lot of information. If you don’t have a list of your top scoring performers then I know you will find it fascinating once you do. There will invariably be some players who you expected to be at the top of the list not there, and a few players much higher up the list than you expected. From the game sheets, you can also do some analysis on who does better against stronger opponents. Do your top players score against good teams as well as weaker teams?
After the game sheet, the next layer of statistics will have to come from someone in the stands. If you can enlist a stats person to record in game, faceoffs and shots would be the next important pieces for a coach. Knowing who is winning faceoffs and who is generating offence by shooting the puck on the net can really change who you might have on the ice at certain times. If your stats recorder can also digest where the shot was directed on net, you might realize that a top shooter may only be shooting into the goalie’s glove six times a game and not generating any secondary chances when the opportunity is there.
The last minute of the game is a good example of when you might be able to use these statistics. You have a faceoff in the offensive zone, your goalie is out and you are down one goal. I know there is a lot of art to putting players on the ice but sometimes a little science comes in handy. I certainly want my best faceoff person to be taking the draw. I might also want my next best out there in case the first player gets thrown out. Next, I want my best scorers and top shooters on the ice. All of these things can be dictated by keeping rudimentary statistics.
Clearly there are a lot of insights available through the use of statistics. What is important is that the use of the analysis has to be worth the effort to generate the stats. I will circle back to this topic next week with more insight into the use and generation of more advanced statistics.