Friday, February 20, 2015

The Corsi argument is over: NHL.com adds analytics to their stats page

Kyle Dubas giving a speech to the MLSE board
Adapt or Die

Those words were uttered by Brad Pitt's reincarnation of Billy Beane in the 2011 film Moneyball, based on Michael Lewis' 2003 novel of the same name. The book examined Oakland's on-the-fly inclusion of analytics in their talent evaluation, and how they used non-traditional techniques to improve their club. After the book's release, teams started embracing the same philosophies pioneered in Oakland, and advanced stats became mainstream. 

Now, a decade later, hockey is on its way. 

The National Hockey League is adding 30 new statistics to their website, notably corsi, fenwick, zone starts and PDO. Starting today (Feb 20), you'll be able to not only find the +/- and hit totals for your favourite 4th line grinder, but see just how little possession he drives. Incredible!

The reason why it's such a big deal that NHL.com is doing this is that advanced stats can now be used in arbitration cases with restricted free agents (hint: Nazem Kadri this summer) and as a negotiating tool between agent and team. That's literally mind-blowing when you consider it was only a little while ago that hockey analytics weren't promoted by anyone other than a group of bloggers and relatively unknown twitter accounts. 


A few years ago, the corsi's and fenwick's of the world were commonly cited in fan posts, analyzing players in a light that differed from the traditional leadership-narrative-hard-work B.S. that consumers put up with for, well, ever. 

PDO (on-ice shooting percentage + on-ice save percentage) could explain "puck luck", with overwhelming evidence to suggest high PDO's meant "clicking on all cylinders", and low PDO's meant "not getting the bounces". For many fans, a quick PDO lesson replaced "WELL HE HASN'T SCORED IN THREE WEEKS, IS THERE A LACK OF LEADERSHIP IN THE ROOM?". And we're all better for it. 

But the biggest obstacle was breaking through the niche barrier and gaining respect from those who worked inside the game. General managers and coaches often mocked advanced stats -- just like in baseball -- calling them "useless numbers" and "irrelevant", laughing at the idea that spread sheets and data crunching could replace a scout's eye and "knowing the game". 

One of the common mantras of the anti-stats crowd was "Watch the game!", which is funny, considering the early supporters of these numbers had to watch a game about five times to confirm the data they compiled. 


Mainstream media also tore apart anyone who supported analytics -- just like in baseball -- obvious that they were frustrated that a bunch of 20-somethings on their laptops in their mom's basement could write something on the game that provided more insight than the 
quote-riddled pieces we were fed. 
There was thousands of examples of bloggers on twitter getting into heated back-and-fourths with media conglomerates, putting writers and columnists on notice for what the future held. There was a visual evolution of what the average hockey fan was going through; ideologies and common misconceptions of the game were being put to the test. 

"He turns the puck over a lot" slowly became "You need to have the puck to turn it over".

"He blocks a lot of shots" turned into "They give up a lot of chances in their own end". 

+/- went the way of the dodo bird, proving not to be a reliable evaluator of talent, and rendered useless by many reputable sources around the game. 

Goals against average (G.A.A.) was determined to be more of an indication as to what kind of blue line you had in front of your goaltender, while save percentage was now the top goalie stat (more specifically, 5 on 5 save percentage, taking man-advantages out of the equation). 

For a full recap as to what the NHL is doing for their new "enhanced stats" page, read this inside look from Greg Wyshynski on Puck Daddy.

The game done changed. Teams started hiring bloggers to work as a consultant or as "Director of Analytics". The Toronto Maple Leafs bought out the top-advanced stats website on the internet in Extra Skater, creating an analytics department in the process. Players were becoming aware of what the stats were and what they meant. Coaches, instead of ridiculing corsi, used it or variation of it to analyze their lineups. 

After NHL COO John Collins announced during the 2015 All-Star weekend in Columbus, Ohio that the league would be adding an analytics stat page to their website, the nearly-decade long battle over math and hockey was over. 

The nerds won. 

With the league recognizing "enhanced" stats as legitimate, hockey finds itself where baseball was in the mid-2000s, still trying to educate the common man and slowly integrating its ideologies into the mainstream. It won't be long before European and minor and junior and college leagues start compiling advanced stats, bringing in a whole new wave of hockey knowledge for the next generation. TV networks are beginning to weave insider analysis (y'know, a former pro-turned-talking-head) with data analysis (hopefully a poindexter in a bow-tie reciting the highs and lows of PDO). Sports writers under the age of 45 are now citing possession metrics in their columns. 

Bob Cole said it best, "Everything is happening." And it is. Now might be the most exciting time to be a hockey fan, with not only the game being faster and more entertaining than its ever been, but the way we look at players and games is changing at an even faster-pace. Facts and data are replacing gut-feelings and hot takes. 

Kudos to the NHL for, even if they're a little behind, catching up to the rest of the blogosphere and modernizing themselves. Every so often, even the big boys need to adapt.

If you want to check out the NHL's new "enhanced stats" page, click here

Hunter Crowther covers sports for several different website and currently studies journalism in college. You can follow him on twitter @HunterCrowther or email him at hunter.crow@hotmail.com

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