ADVANCED STATS: DO THE MATH . . . OR NOT

Robin Brownlee
August 18 2011 11:23PM

Some hockey fans put a lot of weight in advanced statistics. Other people, not so much. The debate about the value of all the numbers out there, or lack of same, and which ones are useful in evaluating players is fodder for countless websites, including this one.

While the discussion between the math-inclined and the I-know-what-I-saw crowd tends to get tedious -- I find many numbers guys a touch strident in pushing their views about the value of advanced stats -- I do find it interesting when somebody who actually makes a living from the game of hockey, particularly at the NHL level, offers his take.

Edmonton Oilers coach Tom Renney certainly qualifies as somebody gainfully employed in the game of hockey, so I listened with interest when he talked about advanced stats on the Jason Gregor Show today.

While Gregor's interview with Renney was far from an in-depth look at the numbers during a wide-ranging interview, Renney did offer his take in a segment you can find here: http://www.jasongregor.com/radio_shows/tom-renney-john-shannon-nhl-research-and-development-camp/show_clips/tom-renney-august-18

The following are excerpts from questions Gregor asked and how Renney answered.

BY THE NUMBERS

GREGOR: How much do you study advanced statistics?

RENNEY: "Quite a bit, you know. I do. I look for trends as much as anything. I think we can't rely only on our gut which, for the most part, is pretty accurate and one of those things you can't gauge.

"That's what's interesting with the whole dynamic now of the way statistics are being taken is that, standing behind the bench and having a gut-feel for something or having your finger on the pulse of the game and the dynamic of it and whether or not so-and-so is available to you because he's got a broken skate blade or a bad shoulder or ill or just having one of those nights. You don't always see that type off thing.

"You know, we've got to be very, very careful of that. At the same time as I say that, yeah, I do, I pay attention to a number of statistics, you know, that help me prepare a team, coach a game and prepare for the next one.

"I think that's important. I think what we have to do is make sure we're measuring the right stuff and not get so bogged down with all kinds of information that we, too, as coaches are removed from sort of that spontaneity of coaching. if you can't play it, you want to coach it. That's the best seat in the house and we can be so consumed by those types of things that we lose the flow and the tempo and the pace of the game ourselves and actually hinder its progress."

WHAT NUMBERS MATTER?

GREGOR: "Tom, is there any specific one or two of those advanced stats that you do look at that maybe carries a bit more weight in your mind?

RENNEY: "Like everybody else, we all pay attention to chances-plus/minus, you know, and the synergy between yourself and a defence partner or the synergy between a line, the synergy between a group of five guys, and what does that chance total look like at the end of the period, the end of a game, the end of a segment?

"Those types of things. I do pay close attention to that and spend a number of hours after each game sort of reviewing the game and looking at chances for and against and try to identify the synergy that might be taking place. That's important to me.

"Others things, obviously, there's things like your face-off percentage and success and, you know, your shot totals are important, yes, but, you know, more so than that your chance totals. Those are key to me.

"Time on ice and deployment of people, you know, is something I pay attention to and recognize that we can overplay some people, we can underplay others that might have it going that particular night.

"Things like that. There's just so many things available to us. There's a catalogue of things that we pay attention to as a coaching staff that we believe are relevant. I've identified a couple of them for you."

GUT-CHECK TIME

GREGOR: "When you look at those stats after the game, do you ever find that your gut-feel of how you felt a player played was a lot different than the stats or are they normally rather similar?"

RENNEY: "They usually line up pretty good. I have to be honest with you, and that's not to take any credit for that. I think that, by and large, NHL coaching staffs will tell you, 'Yeah, that's sort of what I figured,' you know, where we were in that particular instance under that circumstance for that statistic.

"I think the one thing that's very dangerous is to, at the conclusion of a game, and especially after a loss, is to try to evaluate those things still having a huge emotional connection to the game. I think that, often times, you look at the video that night, you're still kind of attached to it.

"Whereas, maybe the next morning after you've had a night to kind of get over it, come back to work and you might see that you actually performed better than you thought might have. Or, maybe you weren't quite as good as you thought you were.

"At the end of the day, as much as statistics are great, you know, pictures don't lie. Again, we can be so consumed by statistics that we kind of lose sight of the feel for the game. I think doing your video work at the appropriate time is probably as important as anything we do."

Listen to Robin Brownlee Wednesdays and Thursdays from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. on the Jason Gregor Show on TEAM 1260.

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A sports writer since 1983, including stints at The Edmonton Journal and The Sun 1989-2007, I happily co-host the Jason Gregor Show on TSN 1260 twice a week and write when so inclined. Have the best damn lawn on the internet. Most important, I am Sam's dad. Follow me on Twitter at Robin_Brownlee. Or don't.
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#51 OB1 Team Yakopov - F.S.T.N.F
August 19 2011, 08:51PM
Trash it!
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Death Metal Nightmare wrote:

one of the best posts ever put up on here "hockey related". huge chunk of humble pie to the geeks who want to turn hockey into baseball.

we could only wish hockey was as boring and static - with a sick 37 calorie burn per game (while offsetting it with treats and garbage sports drinks) from the non-pitchers/catchers.

Interesting, I'd say it's actually humble pie for the geeks that think only an eyeball can tell you effect hockey vs ineffective hockey.

I didn't see one mention of chaos or vulters from Renny... maybe that's the irrelavant non-sense?

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#52 RexLibris
August 19 2011, 09:08PM
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@dawgbone

I agree, it's a simple game and it comes down to, as my dad says "they don't ask how, just how many". My point about TV was how thin the line is between superstition and saw him good can be. A few years ago when the Flames traded for Kotalik I was reading a Flames fan's comments on HB (I know, my own fault), and he went on about how well Kotalik had played and said he would be Sutter's next Kiprusoff, book it. His screen name was Stubby in case you want to take him to task on that little prophecy. So with that in mind, yeah, the stats are all trying to look deeper into the story of the game, to try and quantify how one team scored more so that they can replicate it. My point with mentioning the book is that an underlying danger of citing statistical averages and so forth is to create a reality that simply doesn't coincide with what happens on the ice. I think a balance has to be found between the two arguments, or if you're going to use math use it appropriately and completely. Don't cherry-pick stats or try to extrapolate from too small a sample size, which is kind of what you're saying about the sh%. I like what LT does with the math in his RE series every summer. He takes the data, interprets it with an objective eye, and uses comparables that aren't contemporary in order to slot people into a (wait for it) reasonable expectation of what their performance might be. Take Teemu Hartikainen as an example: I love the player and am excited to see him play. Some people I've read on hockey forums talk about him being as good as Tomas Holmstrom. I'd love that and part of me, the part that still cheers like I did when I was a kid, thinks that too. But, some of that comes from his play last year which was 12 games played, 3-2-5. And I have to remind myself that he might not be our Holmstrom, he might just be Hartikainen. The instinct guys say they saw him and it was the way he played. The stat guys might talk about his ZS, or CorsiRel, or linemates, etc. The point is it was only 12 games. Let's give him a year and see what happens, both mathematically and in our own experience of watching him.

At least there's one thing that we can all agree on, regardless of whether you're a stats guy or not: that when Flames fans talk about their prospects it's hard not to laugh so hard you're milk shoots out your nose.

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