Like it or not, analytics are here to stay in the NHL and Ron Hextall is bringing them to the Philadelphia Flyers. Hextall is a smart executive and plans on building from within, a deviation from the normal course of action the Flyers have taken.
Part of his vision is using analytics to determine the worth of current and future players.
@DNFlyers: Hextall on analytics: “That’s where we’re going. It’s going to be a huge part of what we do going forward.”
That quote should be music to the ears of Flyers fans.
The obsession with numbers in sports became famous thanks to Michael Lewis’ book “Moneyball.” Since its release, analytics have become more common in the front offices. Sam Hinkie, GM of the Philadelphia 76ers, plans to build the Sixers into a winner using advanced statistics. So far, it seems to be working.
Analytics in the NHL, however, is either met with open arms or with an angry mob. A happy medium does not exist, which is the only way advanced statistics will work and will be embraced.
Steve Simmons, who has covered hockey for the last 30 years, published an article for the Toronto Sun on Tuesday afternoon. Simmons criticized analytics for not telling the whole truth of games. One of his main criticisms was that “sample sizes” only told a small portion of what transpired on the ice.
Simmons pointed to how the ‘stat mavens’ were more than happy to point out how Corsi and Fenwick stats predicted the collapse of the Maple Leafs, but these same people were not so accurate about the Colorado Avalanche in the regular season.
The playoffs for the Avalanche was a much different story.
While Simmons is correct that analytics do not always correctly predict what team will win and what team will lose the game at hand, advanced numbers are more of a long-term statistic to consider. If a player or a team show poor Corsi and Fenwick numbers on a consistent basis, it is a sign that all might not be well.
More than half of the teams in the NHL have an analytics employee. Out of the 16 teams that made the 2013-14 playoffs, nine of them use analytics in some form. *Three of those teams came from the Eastern Conference, six came from the Western Conference.
Like all data, Corsi and Fenwick numbers should not be taken at face value. There are underlying circumstances that affect each stat and context must also be considered as well. Sometimes the puck bounces right when it should go left. Sometimes the defenseman makes a blind pass or an ill-advised clearing attempt that ends up in the back of the net. Sometimes the hockey gods intervene. But while these, among other limitations, are the drawbacks of advanced statistics, the good can outweigh the bad.
Let’s take a look at the team Paul Holmgren left to Hextall:
(*Screenshot from ExtraSkater.com)
Concentrate on the two columns highlighted. The players are rated by the amount of games played. This makes it more simple to eliminate the outliers.
Let’s focus on Sean Couturier for the moment. Couturier’s Corsi stats — Corsi 49.1 percent, Corsi Rel -1.2 percent — tell us more shots are directed toward the Flyers net net when he is on the ice. When looking just at these two numbers alone, an average fan may think Couturier is a detriment to the Flyers. What the stats do not reveal is that Couturier is the shutdown center for the team and faces the toughest competition out of anyone on the team. With this context, Couturier’s stats are impressive.
Now let’s breakdown another situation with Brayden Schenn and Wayne Simmonds. Both of these players have poor Corsi statistics as second-line players, but Schenn and Simmonds spent a majority of their season playing with Vincent Lecavalier, whose possession numbers are among the worst on the team.
Looking for this context is also known as the eye-test, it is the other half to the happy medium executives, analysts and fans must find. Statistics only reveal so much about a player. They do not reveal creativity on the ice, nor do they credit hockey sense or mental makeup to measure the worth of a player.
Despite playing less than 19 regular season games with the Flyers, MacDonald helped stabilize the defensive unit with his skating ability, poise with the puck and defensive acumen. Luke Schenn, who had had a terrible season and was often paired with MacDonald, regained some of his form we saw during the lockout-shortened season.
Advanced statistics are not perfect. They will not guarantee what team will win the Stanley Cup at the end of the season, but they can serve as an indicator. Hextall’s belief in analytics is a step in the right direction for the Flyers, but he cannot solely rely on Corsi and Fenwick statistics to build a Stanley Cup contender. He and his team of executives need to rely on the eye-test as much as they will rely on the fancy stats. Finding the middle ground is key to a parade down Broad Street.
*The nine teams that made the playoffs and use analytics.
Tampa Bay Lightning
Los Angeles Kings
San Jose Sharks
St. Louis Blues