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The art of hockey analytics

NHL teams are crunching numbers like never before

Welcome to the NHL of the 21st century — an analytics arms race where the 30 teams are not only waging war on the ice, but looking for every kind of advantage they can find off it by crunching numbers on their players into a variety of metrics

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"The 9000 series is the most reliable computer ever made. No 9000 computer has ever made a mistake or distorted information. We are all, by any practical definition of the words, foolproof and incapable of error."

— Hal 9000, the computer from the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey.

FACT #1: The game stats sheet from the St. Louis Blues 3-2 win over the Jets on Oct. 29, 2013 lists both teams as having just one giveaway each.

FACT #2: The 10 games this season in which the Jets were credited with the fewest giveaways all came on the road.

FACT #3: Twice in one month — on Mar. 14 and Mar. 16, both at MTS Centre — the two teams combined for 32 giveaways. (Wpg 18/NYR 14 on the 14th; Wpg 17/Dallas 15 on the 16th).

THEORY #1: The Jets played a near-perfect "road game" in those 10 low-giveaway games (they went 6-3-1).

THEORY #2: There are some inconsistencies from NHL building to building in what constitutes a "giveaway."

"The NHL pushes out a stats package after every single game that is standard," said Cheveldayoff. "But the game is watched by humans and the numbers are input by humans. And there’s lots of statistics that are arbitrary. Is that a face-off won or lost? Is that a hit? In some buildings it’s not a hit. The shots on net, what makes up a blocked shot? There’s lots of things left to interpretation that go into that stat package that means you have to have an asterisk beside it."

Here’s where two philosophies occasionally collide: those "old schoolers" in the game who trust their eyes more than any numbers and the "fancy stats" crowd who roll their eyes at anybody not open to examining their work.

An example: Jets defenceman Mark Stuart has a Corsi For percentage of 47.6, which ranked him 335th of the 437 players measured by the website extraskater.com. And yet the Jets just signed the veteran defenceman and assistant captain to a contract extension.

"What the numbers don’t tell you is who Mark Stuart is matched up against or playing with or is he with the first line or third line?" said Cheveldayoff. "What are the other teams matching up against you? Are they hard matching, are they checking a certain line hard? There’s an art to how each coach approaches a game in those respects and so a guy like Mark Stuart... he’s not the most prolific puck mover or distributor, but Corsi and Fenwick don’t talk about the hits he has every night or the blocked shots.

"There’s value in all those statistical analyses, but there is also an arbitrary nature to it. It’s like plus-minus... plus-minus tells you a part of the story, but it doesn’t tell you the whole story.

"Look at Andrew Ladd... he played 233 games in a row before he went home to be with his wife to be with his baby. You don’t think there were nights where there was no way he should have played? But he did. Statistically he might have looked horrible that night, but he played. What about a guy that has the flu and he guts it out to play?

"To me that’s part of what makes the sport exciting. You can’t sit there and say, ‘This guy is statistically better than that guy, they’re going to win tonight.’ At the end of the night you’re saying, ‘Huh, I never saw that coming.’"

And therein lies both the beauty and the mystery of sports, particularly hockey, where A+B doesn’t always equal C. The power of analytics is it provides a layer of information, it can back up an argument, refute another.

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