By the numbers

The ongoing debate between advocates of advanced stats in analyzing player performance and “traditionalists,” those who primarily base their opinions on what they see and more simplified numbers, is one I’ve never had any real interest in entering. Still don’t.

Obviously, though, I did exactly that when I agreed to do a Q&A with Sundeep Mahli over at PunjabiOil back on March 19 and answered a question posed to me about advanced stats.

The question and answer was:

Q: On the Oilogosphere, many references are made to advanced hockey statistics such as EV/60 (Even-strength points per 60 minutes), PPP/60 (Power play points per 60 minutes), EV+/EV- (+/- after filtering out empty net goals for/against situations). These numbers are updated daily.  How interested is the media in finding out more about these numbers? Do GM’s take these numbers into account, or do they take more of a conventional “Eye-based” scouting approach when negotiating contracts and signing free agents?

A: “I’m not the least bit interested in these numbers. I know what I see and I know what I think. I’ll go with that over pages of statistics any day. As for GMs, that’s a broad question. I suspect there’s a wide range in answers for that.”

Jackass revisited

Journal reporter and Edmonton Oilers fan David Staples revisited that comment this week in his popular Cult of Hockey blog, when he wrote: “Veteran hockey writer Robin Brownlee of OilersNation is in this camp. Recently asked by Sundeep Mahli of Punjabi Oil what he thought of the advanced stats, Brownlee said…”

I guess six months ago is “recently,” at least relative to the 24 years I’ve been a sportswriter, but now, just as back when I made the comment, it’s drawn a predictable response from the many people who put a lot of weight in advanced statistics.

How could I be such an arrogant jackass? Who am I to dismiss out of hand the analysis of intelligent people who’ve put in a lot of work to find ways to provide a clearer, more accurate picture of player performance? You get the drift.

That wasn’t my intention, but having never been long on tact or diplomacy, it’s no revelation to acknowledge that my answer to the question could be and was taken as a slight by “stats guys.” In the name of clarification, I’ll say the following about the stats I use and why.

Tools of the trade

First and foremost, as a long-time beat reporter covering the Oilers, my reason for drawing a pay cheque was straightforward—generate column inches of copy, and plenty of it. The Sun or the Journal, it didn’t matter. Even when news holes shrunk during times of decline in advertising, you could write your face off when it came to the Oilers and NHL.

I’ll be the first to admit much of that copy is a dumbed-down version of analysis when compared to what’s out there now.

But, to emphasize, the mandate of the beat man isn’t to break things down to anything approaching the level of analysis being done now, it’s to find the best story, the nut of truth and the best quotes and generate copy on the fly, complete with advance stories, columns, preview boxes and sidebars. And we need it now, please.

So, as you jet into Denver or Tampa Bay or San Jose or wherever and head to the rink for the morning skate, you’re looking for the story of the day. How about Jumbo Joe’s Slump? Will Sakic kill the Oilers yet again? What’s this I hear about Kevin Lowe looking for a shutdown d-man and why was he in Chicago for two straight games watching the Blackhawks?

Boxcar bum

With that in mind, I answered Mahli’s question, admittedly ham-handedly, based on my circumstances, not those of somebody taking a longer look at trends and numerical data. The stats I use are pretty simple:

  • Boxcar stats. Self-explanatory.
  • Ice time at even strength, shorthanded and on the power play.
  • Point streaks. Who’s hot, who’s not? Likewise, shutout streaks, PP and PK streaks
  • Power play and penalty-killing numbers, both in terms of league standing and against a particular opponent.
  • Career scoring against opponents and opponents scoring against the Oilers. Why do some guys look like Rocket Richard against the Oilers and Richard Simmons against the Flames? Trends.
  • Past and current injuries. Who’s durable and who’s got the pain threshold of a (sorry, Joni Pitkanen) a four-year-old girl?
  • Career milestones. It’s an easy sidebar when you know so-and-so will hit 500 goals or 1,000 points, whatever, with a goal or an assist in the game that night.

Eyes and ears

In short, I’ve always used statistics that easily translate into generating stories, with the emphasis on “easily.” In my business, though, the numbers I checked and relied on were always a distant third in terms of churning out copy.

First in that regard is what I see. Second, hands down, is the information I can gather because I have a press pass and access to coaches, players and general managers around the league.

While advanced stats might provide insight into a 17-game points scoring streak by Sidney Crosby, people, by and large, would rather hear what Sid The Kid has to say about it, even if it’s somewhat mundane. “I’m just feeling super-confident right now…” or “Hey, if they want to concentrate on shutting Malkin down, I’ll be open all night long…” It’s the beat man’s lot in life to provide it.

Advanced stats, at least for an old school guy like me, aren’t the No. 1 tool when it comes to doing that because I have that access. It’s not a leap to suggest most bloggers rely more heavily on numbers because they have to—they don’t have the same access.

That DOESN’T, however, translate into me thinking advanced stats are invalid. If you look at my reference to whether or not NHL general managers use them, you’ll see I’m hardly dismissing advanced stats. For my gig, at least my old gig, they didn’t come into play very often.

—Listen to Robin Brownlee every Thursday from 4 to 5pm on Just A Game with Jason Gregor on Team 1260.

  • pDan

    Usually the fact that one has a life and isn't living in their parents basement means you don't have the time to break down faceoff win percentages of tucked vs untucked jerseys. The stats things sometimes go overboard. To some of the uber-stats guys I say get a life and get a wife.

  • pDan

    Also, I've been a diehard follower of CoveredInOil since '06, but due to the quality of the writing here (hat tip to LoweTide, Brownlee, Wanye, DJ Spin, Willis) I'm switching to this site. Great job guys.

  • mc79hockey

    Great post Robin and it's hard to disagree with, even if I'd like to see "better" analysis in the paper, in the sense of pointing out when coaches or players are spouting nonsense.

    Advanced stats, at least for an old school guy like me, aren’t the No. 1 tool when it comes to doing that because I have that access. It’s not a leap to suggest most bloggers rely more heavily on numbers because they have to—they don’t have the same access.

    This is the only part I disagree with. It's telling, I think, that it came right after you talked about getting quotes like "I’m just feeling super-confident right now…" I won't pretend to speak for other Oilers bloggers but I'd much rather deal in numbers and facts than discussions about how super-confident a player says he is. If I had the opportunity to get those quotes, I don't know what I'd do with them; it's just not of interest to me. I appreciate that there's a market for it but it certainly isn't that interesting to me.

    I really like the stuff that Staples has done the past two years; that sort of stuff is fantastic and, in my mind, really shows what access can do – Nichols suggesting in one breath that Pronger should have honoured his deal and in the next that should have got divorced; that was a fantastic piece of insight. Same goes for this year, when you had LaForge and Nichols explaining the genius of spending Smyth's money on Souray. On a daily basis though, the quotes and what not don't do it for me.*

    (*MacT not included. Even if he's not saying anything insightful, he's a witty guy.)

  • Rick

    mc79hockey:(*MacT not included. Even if he’s not saying anything insightful, he’s a witty guy.)

    I don't know, I think over the years he (Klowe as well) have provided alot of information in terms of how they approach the game and strategize. It's certainly not in every quote but it does seem to come out in with regular frequency.

    Maybe it's all in how you look at it but on those occasions where he does tell us "why" he did what he did or in Klowe's case when he says why he likes a certain player (I found the Garon explanation last year very interesting) it can be even more insightful than any of the stats.

  • RobinB

    mc79: I'm sure you and a growing number of people like you are more interested in data that backs up a perception in place of another, "Yeh, we just seem to be clicking together right now" quote, and I get that.

    I've actually been caught and shat upon by more than one player for rolling my eyes in a scrum when reacting to yet another quote that offers not one shred of insight — or when I've known the line "that's clicking" is doing so only because it's faced injured, road-weary or inexperienced opponents in matchups for three straight games. Those are factors advanced stats can and do show.

    The problem comes in the translation and the simple fact beat guys have to take the path of least resistance in terms of time spent filling space. Truth is, I'll often try to point out the same thing advanced stats do without using many of the terms you do or going into as technical a breakdown.

    There were times when I'd have preferred to file a 12-unch game story without quotes because the quotes I had were drivel and the space would have been better used with more statistical analysis, but in the real world of the beat man, the desk and the majority of readers expect to hear "Big win tonight . . .," so that's what you deliver.

  • Fiveandagame

    Stats that matter. WINS/ LOSSES.

    I don't care how we win, or why we win as long as we win. The detailed stats that fans use to prognosticate is ultimately for their own entertainment. I say let Huddy worry about the EV/60's, I think us as an Oiler nation should get down to the task at hand and that is…

    Find Sam Gagner the hottest smartest hometown girl that wants to have 12 kids. Imagine in 20 years when the Oilers could ice 4 lines of Gagners!

    (Oh and she should also have some sort of disease that prevents her from leaving Edmonton for extended periods of time…either that or she could just genuinely like the place, what ever is easiest. I expect Wanye Gretz to be working on the Virus in his basement as we speak…er type)

  • There's value in stats, and I think the value increases when you don't get to watch a player game in and game out over a season. My respect for the statistically-inclined has gone up the more I read their stuff, and I am grateful both for their efforts and for the medium of cyberspace.

    But imo statistical analysis helps more in deciding the value of someone out there that you might want to trade for or sign as a free agent, or in projecting the value of a draft choice. It is about history not the present. The story of how they contribute to the actual team (or not) gets written based on what is happening today here in meatspace.

  • Vic Ferrari

    I don't think bloggers are talking about the game more analytically because they "have" to, Robin. It is (was) a community of hockey fans that entered into the numbers side of the game from different directions, and enjoyed talking to each other about the great game.

    More than anything, a community that really loved and knew the game.

    The way that Staples presented it really did make you come across as an ass. Thanks for clarifying.



  • oilman


    There is a large community of fans that really love and know the game but aren't familiar with the new stats. I've never understood the attitude of the stats community that doesn't want these people around. BOA is doing a good job right now at simplifying and explaining the stats for the vast unwashed. Had that been done a year ago, I'd think a lot less people would get their panties in a bunch at the mention of dice in relation to hockey outcomes. I mean you guys aren't just sharing e-mails – you're blogging, so you must want people from outside the original group to be introduced to this stuff – don't you?

  • David Staples

    Good work, Robin. Excellent clarification.

    Having on a few occasions seen what you beat guys have to do, I have a ton of respect for the people who do that job. And you've done an excellent job here of explaining what that job entails.

  • David Staples

    On the Internet, who knows, eh?

    But yes, that was really me.

    Want proof?

    My favourite player is Ladislav Smid.

    I guess that's not really proof, though.