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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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"Statistics have value; ignore at your peril," said Calgary Flames president Brian Burke at this year’s Sloan conference. "But it’s still an eyeballs business."

Still, those eyeballs might not always see the entire picture. And for those who are willing to study the numbers, they can be revealing.

"We had a player that was supposed to be a great, shut-down defenceman," Phoenix Coyotes head coach Dave Tippett told The Arizona Republic last April. "He was supposedly the be-all, end-all of defencemen. But when you did a 10-game analysis of him, you found out he was defending all the time because he can’t move the puck.

"Then we had another guy, who supposedly couldn’t defend a lick. Well, he was defending only 20 percent of the time because he’s making good plays out of our end. He may not be the strongest defender, but he’s only doing it 20 percent of the time. So the equation works out better the other way. I ended up trading the other defenceman."

"It’s fun when you go to a sports analytics conference and you are having a conversation and someone from a team casually throws out, ‘Oh yeah, like you said in that article about (New York Rangers’ goaltender Henrik) Lundqvist a couple of months ago.’"

-Eric Tulsky

"It’s never about analytics or a skilled qualitative person," adds Boyle, of the Sports Analytic Institute. "It’s always about both. We’re never suggesting analytics replaces a scout and I don’t imagine a world where it does. At the end of the day you always need experts.

"It’s just maybe their roles change and they become better at what they do when those analytics as a structure in part of their decision making."

That’s critical here in pro sports teams understanding where to take all this in the future because even the most-fanatical analytics disciple will admit that all their data and research still has to be weighed against human factors.

Indeed, for as much as players are more and more being defined by their numbers — including those on the back of their jerseys — there is still a heart beating at the front.

"I’ve never really subscribed to the idea that anything in life is absolute," said Cheveldayoff. "You approach this in the same fashion. For the people that just want to throw it out, they’re missing the boat. For the people that want to use it as gospel, I’d caution buyer beware. It’s somewhere in the middle.

"You can get too immersed in it and fail to see the other things that matter. You can’t be afraid of it. It’s another piece of information. I don’t know if there is anybody in hockey yet that has found the utopia of statistical analysis.

"At least," Cheveldayoff added, "not yet."

ed.tait@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @WFPEdTait

Further reading:

Check out these analytic-themed websites:

nhlnumbers.com

extraskater.com

somekindofninja.com

behindthenet.ca

fivethirtyeight.com

hockeyanalysis.com

arcticicehockey.com

hockey-reference.com

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