A Pilot Study

Jonathan Willis
May 01 2014 12:09PM

Team-5

Statistical analysis of NHL hockey has come a long way, even in the relatively short period of time that I’ve been writing. But where should it go next?

There is a lot of information that our current knowledge doesn’t capture, and I have an idea to remedy some of that ignorance, at least for one team.

Background

I’ve spent that last few seasons hand-tracking various stats. In 2012-13, I recorded zone entries, determining who got the puck into the offensive zone, how he did it and what the outcomes were afterward. This season in Oklahoma, I hand-tracked unblocked shot attempts (Fenwick) while Barons players were on the ice. I’ve done things too like track every puck movement in a playoff series, and naturally I’ve covered scoring chances for years.

It’s something I encourage anybody interested in the game to do, because it lends focus to observation. There’s so much going on in a hockey game that it’s hard to catch and remember it all; the enforced discipline of something as simple as following scoring chances has made following the game a richer experience for me personally.

Of course, that’s one benefit; the greater one is gathering useful information.

There is a lot we can do with statistical analysis in its current state. Tyler Dellow has moved to the next critical step with Corsi – breaking it down situationally and combining it with video to determine what has happened (this for instance, though not including video, is awfully cool).

But there’s also a lot that we can’t do.

One remarkable example is the work of Eric Tulsky and others on zone entries (moving beyond play-by-play data and into privately-recorded stats). The latest evolution of it to suss out defensive performance is a fantastic additional refinement. This is all data that goes beyond what the NHL tracks, and that helps tell us not just how a player is performing but starts offering us glimpses into why.

As I write about the Oilers, I’m naturally interested in the same sort of information about them, but I wanted to expand the scope to capture more data. The following is what I have in mind.

The Test Run

83-Hemsky-6

I went back to the game between the Oilers and Senators on March 4 (Ales Hemsky's final game - might as well pick one of the entertaining contests for an exercise like this), and broke down the following from the first period:

  • Every territorial change or attempted territorial change (i.e. moving from the defensive zone to the offensive zone) 
  • Every possession change (turnovers, takeaways, etc.) 
  • Every shot attempt (goals, shots, misses and blocks)

There were 258 such events in the first period of the game; it took about three hours to log them all (if history is any guide, I can cut that down as I get better at this). In addition to time-stamping each one, I noted who was on the ice, which Oiler was closest to the play and added an explanatory remark to the play.

The Results

2-Petry-4

The things we can take from this kind of data are, in my view, exceptional. Consider these three examples:

  • Getting into shooting lanes. In our 20 minute test run, a shooter to whom Jeff Petry was closest tried to shoot the puck four times. Of those four shots, two were blocked by Petry, one went wide, and in a fourth case Petry was able to force it to a bad angle but couldn’t close off the lane. In contrast, Mark Fraser (who played fewer minutes) was the defending Oiler on two Ottawa shots; both times the Senators got the puck on net.
  • Holding the defensive blue line. I’m stealing this idea from Tulsky and co. because it’s an excellent one. In our 20 minutes, the Senators attempted to gain the Oilers’ zone six times on Martin Marincin’s side of the ice. Three times, he broke up the play and once he pressured them enough to force a dump; the other two times they gained the zone with possession couldn’t stop it at the line. In contrast, Mark Fraser was on the receiving end of four of these and in three cases the Senators gained the zone with possession.
  • Turnovers. We aren’t just capturing turnovers and takeaways (something the NHL is brutally inconsistent at) but we’re capturing context, because we can compare them to exits and entries. We know Andrew Ference made three zone exits and two zone entries, but we also know he lost possession of the puck three times – once by losing a puck battle, twice by making poor passes. Over time, we’d be able to compare how frequently players make bad possession decisions relative to how much of the puck-moving load they’re carrying.

One game provides an interesting snipped, but over the course of the season we’d be able to learn a lot about the players involved – including items like defensive performance that can be hard to measure. This should also make our current statistics more valuable – for instance, a player who consistently plays too conservatively at his own blue line is going to run up a terrible Corsi, even if he’s great in other areas.

We’ll also be able to compare the Oilers to their opposition, because we have all this data for the other team.

What It Looks Like/Suggestions

5.1.14 OTTEDM

The shot above shows how I tracked the data; the sequence is from the Oilers’ first period power play. Apart from what we’ve already illustrated above, we get an idea of the Oilers problems. The Oilers scored here, but the gaps between their entries and the Senators’ exits – four seconds, four seconds – show how they struggled to get setup in the zone. Even on the goal, Hemsky carried the puck in on the rush and scored three seconds later; it was a moment of personal brilliance rather than power play efficiency.

I’ve put this here in a search for suggested improvements. I’m hoping to do this kind of breakdown for all 82 Oilers games next year, and it would be great to know what other information would be considered valuable.

RECENTLY BY JONATHAN WILLIS

74b7cedc5d8bfbe88cf071309e98d2c3
Jonathan Willis is a freelance writer. He currently works for Oilers Nation, Sportsnet, the Edmonton Journal and Bleacher Report. He's co-written three books and worked for myriad websites, including Grantland, ESPN, The Score, and Hockey Prospectus. He was previously the founder and managing editor of Copper & Blue.
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#51 Ontarioil
May 01 2014, 05:06PM
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Just as a break from all the (mostly) constructive criticisms in the comments here, thanks so much for this all the fantastic work you do!

One of main reasons I still follow and support the Oilers after leaving Edmonton and enduring all these years of misery and ineptitude, is people like you and others doing such a great job exploring and explaining new analytics. It makes the game more enjoyable to follow, and has made these last years (barely) tolerable :)

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#52 Mitch
May 01 2014, 05:38PM
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I think it’d be interesting if you applied a subjective ranking and observation to every point an Oiler or OKC player receives. The ranking could be from a simple scoring system to gauge how clutch you thought a player who received a point actually was to getting the puck in the back of the net. The observation could be a few words that describe the player’s role in the play that got the goal. It could provide good material for detailed player breakdowns at the end of a season: How does this guy get his points? Is he actually good or just riding coattails?

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#53 v4ance
May 01 2014, 07:08PM
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Funny enough, I was pondering this same issue for the past month:

Shots are the results of possession but they don't measure actual possession events. The actual process is Gain possession, maintain possession while advancing the puck thru multiple zones and then converting possession into an actual shot.

So the metrics I was thinking of were, passing efficiency (passes made/passes attempted), pass receiving efficiency (passes received/passes attempted), and zone entries. All these can be blended to measure Puck Movement efficiency.

For transitional states where possession can be won or lost, I termed them as Puck Battles. They can be board battles, open ice puck battles (tipped/ blocked passes where possession is lost, blue line stands, takeaways, etc.) and faceoffs which are just set piece puck battles.

Also, free puck races, where no team has definitive possession, should be tracked to see who is helping to start a new sequence of possession.

I thought of Hemsky as an example of a player who may actually be a good possession player but doesn't convert enough possessions into shots. To my eye, he takes and makes passes at higher rate than an average NHLer and he advances the puck into the O-zone often but loses possession before he can get off a shot/corsi event.

Thinking about the Puck battle metric, I was thinking specifically of Yanic Perrault. Faceoffs are only one possession event of many that occur between whistles. The time from starting and the stopping the clock, a player can be involved in many many different puck battles over the ice. Even if you are an exceptional on faceoffs, you need to be able to gain possession of the puck via more than just faceoff skills.

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#54 Quicksilver ballet
May 01 2014, 07:21PM
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Another statistic that has a dramatic impact, is having a trained killer type in your lineup. A guy who's willing to do anything to win.

Matt Cooke, takes out the Avalanches best blueliner early in the series and Minnesota narrowly prevails over the Avs. That hit made the difference in that series.

Brent Seabrook takes a three gamer on David Backes rendering him out of the lineup or far from 100% for the rest of the series. Chicago prevails after taking Backes out of the picture. Another illegal play that turned a series.

The LA Kings take the Sharks premier blueliner Vlasic out in game 5 and they prevail in that series.

Who says crime doesn't pay? Oilers could use a guy with Killer instinct like that. If the Oil ever make the post season again.

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#55 Ari Gold
May 01 2014, 07:34PM
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Great statistical analysis idea! Keep posting the eviction of this measure!

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#56 vetinari
May 01 2014, 07:48PM
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pelhem grenville wrote:

it was better when there was dolphins...

The dolphins left just before they demolished the earth to make way for the intergalactic spaceway.

Also, remember the first rule of intergalactic travel and being an Oilers fan: Don't Panic!😉

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#58 v4ance
May 01 2014, 08:22PM
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So to go thru a sequence of Possession events, in game 82, Edm VS Van from the start of the game.

#17Kesler (Faceoff) FO+1 Van #51Lander FO-1 Edm.... #17Kesler (Zone entry/exit) ZE-1 Van.... #6Weber-#23Edler Pass+1 Van.... #24Edler-#14Burrows Pass+1 Van.... #14Burrows (Open ice Battle) OIB-1 Van #19Schultz OIB+1 Edm.... #57Perron (Free Puck recovery) FPR+1 Edm.... #57Perron-#94Smyth Pass+1 Edm.... #94Smyth-#57Perron Pass+1 Edm.... #57Perron-#84Klef Pass+1 Edm.... #84Klef-#19Schultz Pass+1 Edm.... #19Schultz Shot+1 Edm.... #51Lander FPR+1 Edm.... #51Lander Pass-1 Edm (Gave full demerit to Lander for bad attempted pass to Smyth).... #6Weber(Board Battle) BB+1 Van #94Smyth BB-1 Edm.... #6Weber-#40Zalewski Pass+1 Van.... #40Zalewski ZE+1 Van.... #40Zalewski-#17Kesler Pass+1 Van.... #17Kesler ZE+1 Van.... #19Schultz BB+1 Edm #17Kesler BB-1 Van.... #19Schultz-#57Perron Pass+1 Edm.... #57Perron-#4Hall Pass+1 Edm.... #17Kesler BB+1 Van #4Hall BB-1 Edm.... #17Kesler-#14Burrows Pass+1 Van.... #14Burrows Shot+1 Van.... #19Schultz FPR+1 Edm.... #19Schultz-#84Klef Pass+1 Edm.... #84Klef BB+1 Edm #46Jensen BB-1 Van.... #84Klef ZE+1 Edm.... #84Klef Pass or attempted dump out-1 Edm.... #2Hamhuis FPR+1 Van.... #2Hamhuis-#22Sedin Pass+1 Van.... #22Sedin ZE+1 Van.... #22Sedin-#46Jensen Pass+1 Van.... #46Jensen Shot+1 Van.... #33Sedin FPR+1 Van.... #46Jensen BB+1 Van #4Hall BB-1 Edm. (debated whether to give Jensen credit for receiving pass from #33 but he never had full possession).... #33Sedin-#22Sedin Pass+1 Van....

So that recaps just the very first minute of the game. Possession Van= +15 events (62.5% Possession) 2 attempted shots Possession Edm= +9 events (37.5% Possession) 1 attempted shot

You can then break down the Puck battles and pass efficiency numbers by individuals or team wide to look for insights.

If a penalty is called, I'd mark the player who took the penalty with a -1 Possession event or if someone shoots the puck over the glass, that's a -1 as well to represent another possession event that was lost.

Looking at just Kesler, he had one faceoff and 7 total possession events in under 45 seconds of icetime. This kind of indicates why faceoffs are an overrated stat since there CAN be so many other possession events that can occur in a very short period of time.

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#59 Old Retired Guy (A.K.A. Die-Nasty)
May 01 2014, 08:39PM
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Jonathan Willis wrote:

Slightly off-topic, but your comment about penalties reminded me of this write-up by Scott Reynolds on Kyle Bigos, the one-time Oilers prospect:

Roughing (x8); Cross-Checking (x8); Boarding (x4); Hooking (x4); Hitting from Behind (x3); Hitting after the Whistle (x3); Unsportsmanlike Conduct (x2); Interference (x2); High Sticking (x2); Elbowing (x1); Holding (x1); Slashing (x1); Tripping (x1). And just so you know, he also had majors for Contact to the Head, Grasping the Facemask, and Hitting from Behind.

Bigos is in the ECHL these days, but what a brute he would have been if he'd turned out in Edmonton.

Also off topic....

I've been asking to see Bennett's penalty record to see if they are aggression penalties or lazy penalties. Someone named James McKinlay posted this elsewhere:

"Was interested to see how Bennett's pims compared to Draisaitl's pims. I wanted to break down penalties into aggressive and non aggressive. Aggressive include goalie intrf, roughing, fighting, high sticking, crosschecking, charging, slashing and unsportsman/match penalties. Non aggressive, for lack of better description, were the so-called lazy penalties, holding, interference, tripping, hooking etc..

Draisaitl had 12pims in aggressive penalties and 16pims in non aggressive type. 6 high stick, 2 crosscheck & 4 slashing. 6 tripping, 4 interference, 2 holding and 4 hooking.

Bennett had 74 aggressive pims plus 1 fight major and 3 unsportsmanlike/match penalties. He had 34pims of the non aggressive type. This kid has anger issues: 24 roughing, 22 high stick, 10 cross checking, 4 charging, 12 slashing and 12 goalie interference. 16 tripping, 6 interference and 14 holding/hooking pims.

Of course this is all very scientific (not), but it paints a picture of the two very difference styles of play between these two. Bennett scored as many goals in fewer games than Draisaitl and did it with 4 times as much time in the penalty box. 24 roughing, 10 crosscheck and 4 charging to Draisaitl's 2 crosschecking pims. Size won't matter because no one will escape Bennett unscathed. Draisaitl might be bigger but who cares if he never uses the size.

I never saw Bennett play and only saw Draisailt in 5 games all year. So I'm not able to compare apples to apples but from a stats pov, Bennett is a beast."

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#60 Old Retired Guy (A.K.A. Die-Nasty)
May 01 2014, 08:50PM
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I'm having some kind of non-sensical intuition telling me the Oilers are going to get Ekblad at number 3.

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#61 Quicksilver ballet
May 01 2014, 10:01PM
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Old Retired Guy (A.K.A. Die-Nasty) wrote:

I'm having some kind of non-sensical intuition telling me the Oilers are going to get Ekblad at number 3.

With Draisaitl still on the board at 5, Oil make a deal to get that 5th selection and end up with both Ekblad and Draisaitl.

Never give up hope!

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#62 Fish
May 01 2014, 10:32PM
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@Jonathan Willis

One thing I'd definitely look at off the face off win or loss is the wingers contributions to the event. I hated playing centre with certain wingers growing up and loved others. Weak plays or lost battles by a winger sometimes chalk up as a loss to a centre when we wasn't the one to blame on the play. Some wingers make a habit of either strong or weak plays over time and it does have an impact on the game. Nothing worse than a partial win to your teams side and still have a winger lose control to the other team.

Additionally, have you considered including some of David Staples breakdowns of true plus minus? Might be something to consider. The info is there and he's doing the work on that for you.

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#63 v4ance
May 02 2014, 05:52AM
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Jonathan Willis wrote:

Really great take.

One of the problem with tracking passes - and you have to track both passes and skated advances in my view - is that so many plays are routine moves made without pressure.

When we did the Tarasov project in 2012, my impression was that the signal:noise ratio was out of whack. Prior to that project, I would have agreed wholeheartedly with your view.

Again, our minds seem to be on the same wavelength. Speaking of Tarasenko,I was actually thinking of the old school russian style of making many passes in the defensive or neutral zone but turning back instead of trying for a tough zone entry into the o-zone. It's true that they would have a great passing efficiency but not "valuable" possession if they can't convert all those completed passes into entering the o-zone and generating a scoring chance. That's why I agree with you that a Puck Movement metric has to incorporate Passing/receiving stats combined with zone entry data. One good stretch pass to get into the attacking zone is better than 20 completed passes in the d-zone.

Other tidbits that were floating in my mind were that on passes, sometimes, it's a good enough pass but the receiver still fumbles it or it's a bad pass and the receiver has no chance to maintain possession. So when counting the passes, I would consider +1, +0.5/+0.5 (a completed pass gives half credit to passer and receiver) or -1 possession event depending on the circumstances of the pass.

With enough data, good metrics should be able to demonstrate how much better or worse Hall is as a passer than Eberle even if the margin between their skills is slim. Just to throw out hypothetical numbers, maybe Hall is a 60% passer and a 65% receiver and Ebs is 62%P/60%R. Then if you show that Fraser is 45%P/45%R, you can correlate the "wisdom of the eyes" with the wisdom of the numbers.

The end goal is more accurate player evaluation. Without being able to quantify (sometimes) marginal advantages of one player over another, we are left to rely on visual conclusions from scouts (or fans {shudder})who have biases, whether they know it or not.

Is a player actually good at board battles or is he living off his reputation of having a big body while losing more than 50% of his encounters? Is a player actually driving the play as a playmaker or is he living off he skills of a linemate (ie, Gretzky's left wingers)? Is a faceoff man actually "winning" the draws or is he a beneficiary of a good team system that should credit the wingers more often for the win and a positive possession event?

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#64 K_Mart
May 02 2014, 06:55AM
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Wow. Great stuff JW. Things like this are exactly where stat tracking in hockey needs to go next.

When it comes to deep analytics there's no question in my mind that baseball has come the furthest, but to see people like yourself taking the initiative to push the issue is really encouraging. Great stuff!

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#65 K_Mart
May 02 2014, 07:11AM
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I've always thought a play completion% would be a great stat for hockey players.

I would break it down to six categories based on where the play is and which player has the puck. 1.Offensive zone/with possession: example: Eberle has the puck at the half wall. If he completes a pass(regardless of difficulty) it is 1/1. If he gets the puck on net it is 1/1. Anything else is 0/1. If the pass is good but his teammate bobbles it, I would charge that player with an error.

2. Offensive Zone/ without possession: The non possession part is tricky. If a player has an opportunity to create a turnover and fails, that is 0/1 (criteria would need to be made very clear for what is considered 'an opportunity)

3. Neutal Zone/with possession 4. Neutral Zone/without possession 5.Dzone/w possession 6.Dzone/without possession

Knowing a player's likelihood of completing a play or creating a turnover is huge in my opinion. Over time, the value of all the plays would hopefully balance out, although some players tend to take risks more than others and I'm curious what that would mean for the numbers.

Something I hate about corsi is: When a team holds the zone for 3 minutes and only generates 1 shot, but the opposition may generate 3 shots with only 20 seconds of zone time. Corsi doesnt factor that in at all.

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#66 Brian
May 02 2014, 07:42AM
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Yawn.

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#67 Benhur
May 02 2014, 08:06AM
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One area I have tracked has been Own Zone turnovers. I felt that this was the key to transitionning to offence. The Oilers have been very poor compared to their opposition in turning over the puck and often the advantage of the opposition is overwhelming. If you look at the top teams their breakouts are much better against high pressure teams. The Oilers look like a Keystone cop film. This is one area where data could help identify the issue and coaching strategies implemented to improve.

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#68 Mike
May 02 2014, 09:26AM
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This is a horrible organization from the top to the bottom.

Res ipsa loquitur

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#69 Zarny
May 02 2014, 11:02AM
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Quicksilver ballet wrote:

With Draisaitl still on the board at 5, Oil make a deal to get that 5th selection and end up with both Ekblad and Draisaitl.

Never give up hope!

It would be smarter to trade whatever you think will get you the 5th overall pick for Ryan O'Reilly, Sean Couturier or Braydon Schenn.

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#70 MattL
May 02 2014, 11:32AM
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@Jonathan Willis

Hey Jonathan,

Do you think it would be possible to get any information about how the Oilers fared with their advanced stats competition that they held pre-lockout and if they had any luck with that company that won the opportunity to provide analysis for them? did they employ them for this season? do you know what they were hoping to predict? what their experience was like working with the Oilers?

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