The MoneyPuck Era

Analytics May Be The Most Talked About Aspect Of The Game That Nobody Wants To Talk About

It may be the worst kept secret in hockey: National Hockey League teams are using advanced statistics and technology to improve their players’ performance, both on and off the ice. 

The Los Angeles Kings and Chicago Blackhawks, who were some of the first users of advanced statistics, have won four of the past five Stanley Cups. 

It’s no surprise then that the other 28 teams are connecting the dots and jumping on board as well. Yet, even with more teams turning to analytics, franchises are still reluctant to speak publicly about the subject, with the Kings, Blackhawks and Buffalo Sabres declining to comment for this story about their icy trade secrets.

In NHL circles, the world “analytics” is the biggest buzzword and hot button topic since the advent of the modern stats movement in 1997. At that time, the league stationed stats trackers in each city in order to record blocked shots, hits, shot attempts and a few other telling stats. 

With a number of NHL teams devoting their recruiting efforts to building a robust analytical team this past summer — including the Toronto Maple Leafs, New Jersey Devils, Philadelphia Flyers and Florida Panthers — one thing is certain: the modern “Moneypuck Era” has arrived. 

“Analytics is where we’re going. I’m very interested. I think it’s very intriguing,” Ron Hextall, the Flyers’ former goalie turned general manager, told Philly.com. “You can’t overvalue it, but in my mind, it’s going to become more and more valuable. I wouldn’t say it’s a huge part, but it’s going to get bigger and bigger.”

NHL coaches and front office personnel are still grappling with what to do with this potential treasure trove of new information, which examines puck possession, zone starts and other complex data. Coaching staffs and management teams are applying advanced stats for in-game adjustments, trade deadline acquisitions and on draft day, with the end goal of assembling a future Stanley Cup-winning franchise.

“It’s really exploded the last nine to 12 months,” says Michael Schuckers, an associate professor of statistics at St. Lawrence University.

Los Angeles Kings Goaltending Coach Bill Ranford and the rest of the coaching staff have used analytics to help develop a winning formula to help the Kings win two of the last three Stanley Cups.Los Angeles Kings Goaltending Coach Bill Ranford and the rest of the coaching staff have used analytics to help develop a winning formula to help the Kings win two of the last three Stanley Cups.

According to Schuckers, having a complete picture with different pieces of information provides teams a potential competitive advantage versus those who maybe aren’t receptive to the modern stats movement. 

Some self-proclaimed “old school” coaches, like the Sioux Falls Stampede’s Cary Eades of the Tier I United States Hockey League, are taking a more patient approach to how to incorporate analytics into their tried-and-true ways of evaluating talent. 

“I think it’s an area of the game, as far as measurable and statistical analysis of a hockey player, that has a ways to go yet to be fully functional in my mind,” Eades says. “…There’s just so many individual personal traits that a coach likes in a player and/or you’re looking for in a player to fill a certain role.”

Despite not having a system in place to incorporate advanced statistics into their repertoire at the present time, Eades expects the Stampede to continue the conversation internally, too. 

Danton Cole, head coach of the U.S. Under-17 Team, says that because the National Team Development Program only has its players for just two years, it’s harder to implement any widespread practices. Still, he thinks there is certainly a heightened interest at the NHL level rather than in the Junior ranks. 

“Coaching is both an art and a science,” says Cole, who added that some nights a coach might rely on his gut instincts, team chemistry or going with a hot player versus relying on stats alone.

While analytics are better known for their use by coaching staffs, general managers and stats gurus, there’s another school of thought that thinks that analytics can help in the prevention of injuries. 

One company that is leading the charge is Catapult Sports, who uses GPS tracking devices to monitor things such as a player’s on-ice fatigue level, heart rate and stride length. 

Ben Peterson, sports performance manager with Catapult, compares its technology to a dashboard on a car that tracks a player’s performance so that he is operating at optimum levels and not over-exerting himself on the ice. 

“If you just go, go, go and you’re not mindful of changing the oil or if you’re riding the car really rough, it’s more likely to break down on you,” he says. “You see that a lot in hockey players. It’s not having a good pulse and understanding the loads players are accumulating while they are playing hockey.”

As Peterson explains, the data isn’t meant to tell a coach he’s wrong or his gut is giving him poor information. It’s meant as an “extra tool in his toolbox” as he continues his job as a coach.

“Always listen to your gut but make sure your gut is agreeing with the information,” he says. “If the data is telling you something else, now you can make a better-informed decision off of what you know.”

Issue: 
2014-12

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