ADVANCED STATS: DO THE MATH . . . OR NOT

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.

  • striatic

    i know the link to the radio clip in the post here isn’t properly formed and doesn’t work when you click it, and that actually listening to the interview puts the quotes into better perspective.

    advanced stats are as serious a business there is in a game that’s about sliding around on ice and shooting rubber discs into metal nets using wooden sticks with crooks on the end.

    but ..

    Tom Renney is a Coach. Tom Renney is not a GM. if he were the GM, his focus on video as opposed to advanced stats would trouble me, but his job is not so much to look at the statistical results, but improve player performance by looking at specific mistakes and come up with specific solutions.

    here’s a clip from NHL 24/7 which shows the pittsburgh coaching staff doing what i think coaches should do. it’s not about stats, but it IS analytical, and it is fascinating to listen to the Pen’s assistant coach describe how going over the video allowed him to revisit and change his ‘gut’ feeling from the night before – which is very much how Renney describes his use of stats and video – to keep his subjectivity in check .. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c3569L0-eSI

    in the coaching environment, it is quite possible that an overemphasis on stats might obscure other forms of evaluation that are more pertinent to the coach’s job. that’s exactly how Renney describes it and it don’t bother me a bit.

    but ..

    if Steve Tambellini had the same attitude to statistics as Renney and talked about going with his guts and stats sometimes getting in the way and whatnot, then i’d probably want to reach through the aether and throttle the guy.

    i believe that as a GM he should be leaning on every statistical tool available to evaluate players. Tambellini is supposed to play the long game and anything that offers insight into player performance over large sample sizes should be of intense interest to him. i worry that his level of interest is not on the leading edge in this area.

    i’m much more interested to see Tambellini’s responses to these types of questions than Renney’s. Renney’s attitude seems fine to me, and similar to that of successful NHL coaches.