Talking Advanced Stats with Elliotte Friedman

You all know Elliotte Friedman – he’s the Hockey Night in Canada Broadcaster who happens to write the best English language hockey column in the world. His 30 Thoughts go up every Monday (they’re rarely delayed, but when they are, Twitter has a panic-attack). No one captures chatter from the rink quite like Friedman does every Monday. It’s those insightful tidbits that make his 30 Thoughts columns indispensible to NHL fans. When 30 Thoughts returned from its summer hiatus this year, I noticed that Friedman was talking about zone-starts and hockey analytics in a way he previously hadn’t done. I thought perhaps there had been a change in his thinking over the summer in regards to fancy-stats, so I decided to e-mail him and see if he’d talk “moneypuck” with me. Elliotte agreed, and while I had my Wayne Campbell meeting Alice Cooper moment, we set the date of the interview for this past Tuesday. On Tuesday, Elliotte’s wife gave birth to the couples first son – but Elliotte e-mailed me the next day and was still interested in talking about hockey-stats. On behalf of the Nation Network, I’d like to extend my gratitude to Elliotte for his candor and class, and our congratulations to him and his wife on the birth of their son. What follows is the conversation we had:

Thom Drance: Elliotte, one of the main reasons I wanted to speak with you was the appearance of advanced metrics in your regular 30 thoughts column beginning last month, I’m curious, how would you describe your interest in these number?

Elliotte Friedman: I’ve always been interested in statistical analysis and what it can mean. I think that, in this day and age if you’re not open-minded to something – it’s a bad thing. You have to be open minded to all ideas and theories to see if they really make sense, and can help you judge players, teams or whatever. For me it was just a matter of having the time to figure out what they were trying to do, and if they made any sense.

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My dad for example is a CFO of a company, but that numerical gene has kind of skipped a generation. So it takes me a little bit longer. This summer while we had a bit of down-time, I was able to look at some things and sort out, you know, this makes sense to me and this doesn’t, and I think this works and that this doesn’t. Some of things Gabe uses I thought made a lot of sense. So that’s basically what has happened, I had a chance to sit down and figure out what I like, what makes sense to me and how I can use it in evaluations and reporting.

TD: I’m curious, was there an article or a piece of evidence that really grabbed you, or has the increase in attention you’ve given to this sort of analysis developed more gradually?

EF: I think it’s a few things. Number one, anyone who read Moneyball probably thought, “what does this mean? Is it only baseball, or does this apply to other sports?” Whether you think the Moneyball ideas are smart or stupid – there’s no doubting they exist. I think if you’re an executive for a team, or even a reporter covering games, you’re probably not doing your job if you don’t at least investigate whether or not they’re useful tools.

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Number two, I read Kukla’s Corner a lot, and he has a lot of people on there who use Corsi numbers, and Gabe Desjardins used to do a thing, and initially you would read it and your eyes would glaze over not understanding it. But eventually as you plow into it, you try to figure out “what does this mean, what are these guys talking about?” Number three; I like a challenge so I thought, “okay can I figure out some of this stuff.”

The last thing is, Ron Wilson is a guy who is big into statistical analysis and some of the coaches I’ve dealt with have their own ways of using stats. Like Butch Carter when he was with the Raptors, one of the stats he used to evaluate big-men was something called “rebounds per minute.” So if you have a coach who believes in a certain stat, it gives you a pretty good insight into what kind of player he likes. Whenever the Raptors were looking at a player or I thought there was a player they would look at – I could calculate his rebounds per minute, know what the number was, and determine “this is a Butch Carter type player, or this isn’t a Butch Carter type player.” I think in this day and age, you have to have an understanding of the teams you cover. I used to cover the Raptors a lot, and that was one thing that said to me, “if I know this coach likes this kind of stat, lets look at available players and see where they fit.” And I found it gave me a greater understanding of which type of player he would think was valuable.

TD: What particular hockey metrics are you familiar with and how do you view their relevance and utility?

EF: One thing I believe in a lot is zone-starts. That was a big thing in Vancouver last year – the twins for example would go to Vigneault and say “we’d like to kill penalties” and Vigneault would laugh at them and say “no I want you concentrating totally on offence,” and you’d look at the zone-starts and there they were: starting if the offensive-zone all the time. That’s really interesting, I like to know which players teams are putting on the ice in certain situations. What it also helps you with, is if something different happens in a game. If you’re used to a certain player being used in a certain spot at a certain time, and all of a sudden he’s not there. It shows you something is up. So I find zone-starts to be very helpful and fascinating.

I’m still trying to get more of a grip on quality of competition. You have guys and you’re told they’re great defensive forwards – well are they? While coaches maybe don’t believe in a shut-down line, they believe in putting “best on best”, because they feel if their best guys have the puck, your best guys aren’t going to be able to get it. I would say the zone-starts, and the quality of competition and team stuff is the most interesting to me.

TD: While particular individuals have been tracking things like this for decades, hockey as a whole has been generally slow to embrace analytics. It’s only really been in the last couple of years that these “moneypuck” principles have gained momentum. Why do you think hockey has been slower to embrace this stuff than the other major North American leagues?

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EF: You know what, I’m not 100% certain that’s true. I’ll tell you why, James Mirtle did a piece a couple weeks ago in the Globe, and they talked about how only some team’s used them. I think that’s false – and not because of James – but because some teams won’t tell you.

The Vancouver Canucks do a lot of different things – last year I did a piece on the sleep bracelets – and we have barely scratched the surface of what we know about what they do. Fear the Fin did a really interesting interview with Doug Wilson a couple of weeks ago, and he tried to ask about statistical analysis and Wilson shot him down almost at every turn. I think most teams are probably using something, and maybe, though I can’t with any certainty, have been using some statistical analysis for longer than we’ve been aware of. But because some of these teams like to keep these things a secret, we just don’t know the full extent of what they use.

Like Ron Wilson, he apparently has a series of stats he uses that he believes are a great window into a player’s abilities and level, but the one time I asked him if I could find them out, he wouldn’t give them to me.

TD: The role of a hard-cap, do you think it has worked as a sort of: “necessity is the mother of invention” factor?

EF: There are a couple of things… Number one, with the salary cap and especially for teams with smaller budgets – every GM is going to make mistakes, it is inevitable. What you have to do is make sure those mistakes hurt you less often, and happen less often, than they might. That’s the key thing – managing mistakes. The easiest way to avoid making mistakes? Ask: “do we know everything we could possibly know about what we’re looking at?” And the more ways you can come up with of quantifying it – the better you are. I really believe that.

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It’s like, what’s the most important thing? Preparation. If you don’t have good preparation you can’t succeed. And you can’t fault people for coming up with newer and different ways to prepare. You just can’t afford to make a lot of mistakes whether there’s a cap-system or not – you have a budget and you can’t afford to blow it. You will – but you have to mitigate it, because in some cases it’s impossible to avoid making mistakes, but what you’re looking for is more analysis to help you avoid it.

And the other thing, I think is general competitiveness. How can you think of other ways to beat your opponent? Is there something you can create that they don’t have. Do you look at another organization and say, “they have things we don’t have. How do we change that? How do we get what they have, and how do we improve on what we think they have?”

There are a lot of really smart people in the game who are always looking to be challenged by a new line of thinking, and they’re always looking to say “is there something else we can use to evaluate?” If you’re not evolving, you’re falling behind. That’s the way it is now, you’re constantly looking for new ways to get an edge on your opponent, and so you’re always trying to think of new ways to get that edge.

TD: One of the best things about your thirty thoughts columns are the oftentimes anonymous opinions you get from players, coaches and decision-makers. In your experience, which teams, do you think look the most for these new ideas, or have that competitive edge to the highest degree?

EF: Well Vancouver certainly does – there’s no question about that. San Jose certainly does… I’ll give you another example, I think that one of the reasons Calgary hired John Weisbrod is because he’s one of the guys who believes in that, and they wanted to bring more of it into their organization. I think Boston has certain ways that they do some things – I really got that impression. I don’t know about Toronto’s management staff, if they’re big into it, but their coaching staff certainly is. The Penguins would be for sure, they’re the most open about it. I also think Detroit, probably a little bit more than they let on.

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TD: I’d like to share a couple of contrasting quotes with you, and get your take on them. The first is Brian Burke when he appeared on the B.S. Report in May. Bill Simmons asked Burke: “the whole statistical movement… for some reason hasn’t trickled into hockey like it has into some of these other sports… is hockey just a sport that you can’t really measure with statistics.” To which Burke replied, and this may be turtling: “I keep looking at these things… the sport that lends itself best to statistical analysis is baseball. It’s a series of one on one confrontations that are repetitive… Our game is way more spontaneous, we use films for systems and tendencies, but great players aren’t going to do the same thing every time so I don’t think it has the same benefit”

The other quote is from a Dave Feschuk article about Canucks defender Chris Tanev – who could be a poster-boy for the “moneypuck” movement. Feschuk quotes Tanev’s father, and his father chalks up his son’s passing ability, and poise with the puck partly to the time he spent playing roller hockey; but also to the families application of baseball principles on ice. “Baseball teaches you situations — ‘What are you going to do with the ball when the ball comes to you? I introduced that system to Christopher when he was 7 years old — ‘What are you going to do with the puck when the puck comes to you?’”

So which take on hockey – that it’s “largely spontaneous and immeasurable” versus “in subtle ways – it’s in fact repetitive and predictable” strikes you as more convincing?

EF: Here’s the thing with me, and the problem with the whole “statistical movement” versus “non-statistical movement” thing. I don’t know why this has happened, maybe it’s because of Moneyball and people just don’t like Billy Beane. I mean, Billy Beane does sort of come off as an arrogant guy in that book. But I just don’t understand why people have to say it’s one or the other, and I’ll tell you this, some of the worst people when it comes to arguing about that – are some of the people on either side of the debate.

To me they’re probably both right to some degree. Brian Burke is right in that there are a lot of things in hockey that maybe you can’t predict for like you can in baseball. But I also think that Mike Tanev is right in the sense that you have to ask yourself okay, when you’re in this situation, what are you going to do? I mean, why do people practice – it’s because it’s repetition.

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I think part of the problem is that people who believe solely in statistical analysis forget an unquantifiable thing called “heart.” I can’t tell you how many times, when I’ve had conversations about this, people who believe in statistics don’t believe in heart, or they don’t believe in pressure. And I hate that, because the reason they don’t believe in it is because it’s foreign to them, and non-quantifiable. And I think that’s terrible, and really dumb thinking. To me I think the right answer is somewhere in the middle.

If I was a general-manager or if I was developing a player, I would be looking for everything. I want to see how a player competes, I want to see how a player battles, I want to see who is a good teammate and who isn’t. If you just hand me a spreadsheet…

Like the whole thing about the way the A’s drafted Jeremy Brown, is so crazy to me. I mean with a spreadsheet, and Paul De Podesta’s laptop – and the guy never makes it, because they don’t know what he’s prepared to handle. To me the A’s drafted the guy and ruined his career in the same moment. In the same moment they destroyed their own asset. I look at that and I say “you know what, that’s outrageous.”

So to me the answer is in the middle – if you have the number one overall draft pick you should be looking at “so who is this guy, what is he all about, what are his strengths and weaknesses,” and then you should have somebody who is in charge of analysis saying, “well this is what we’ve learned about him, and this is what our concerns are, and now we have to figure out how to address that.” If you’re not using everything, you’re not being good at your job, that’s what I believe.

TD: Lots of stat geeks looked at this years Selke nominations and were shocked. Toews and Kesler, for example, were not even the “elite defensive centers” on their own teams. Do you think we’ll reach a point where the PHWA is prioritizing zone-starts and events against, so that hockey can have a Frans Nielsen, “Felix Hernandez” type Selke winner?

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EF: Yeah I think absolutely it will get there. I tell you, when I was voting last year (and I think I voted for Kesler) I remember I was being lobbied for Frans Nielsen. I had a few people that said to me well look at Frans Nielsen. I did. It’s not like I didn’t consider him. But one of the reasons I voted for Kesler over Malhotra myself, is that I think being a defensive player isn’t only about being a defensive player. I think if you’re a two-way player, and an offensive threat – to me you’re automatically a better defensive player.

Everybody knows what a great defensive player Pavel Datsyuk is – but why is that? It’s not only because he back-checks, it’s because he’s always got the frigging puck. You can’t take it off him, no matter where you are on the ice. So if he’s playing against your best players, and you can’t get the puck, he nullifies your guy. I think a guy like Kesler is not in Datsyuk’s class – but I think about it that way. If this is a guy who is a 40 goal threat, and is a threat to score more than Malhotra is, does that not make him automatically, if they’re both really good defensive players, doesn’t that make Kesler better?

To get back to Nielsen – last year, there were a few people, and Islanders fans saying, “look at him.” I think you’re silly if you don’t listen, and people were constructing some reasonably good arguments, so I watched a few more games in depth, and he looks like he could be a really good player.

I think sometimes people take it as an insult “oh my guy didn’t win – these reporters are morons and they don’t know anything.” I understand sometimes that people look at us reporters and say “they’re not into statistical analysis” and I would probably agree to that to some extent. When you’re a man or woman who covers a team everyday – you’re probably going more by feel than you would be stats, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. I do find that I read more people who use some of these statistical arguments, and make sense with them. And I think there are some reporters who are more open-minded. But it’s hard to be when you’re following a team around every day, and you watch 80, or 100, or however many games it is, and you’ve got somebody telling you “no, you’re an idiot! You should be watching Frans Nielsen, instead of somebody else” – I understand how people would say, “well I’m not listening to that jerk.”

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TD: I definitely think an issue with stat-heads to some extent is our lack of political savvy… Sometimes we fail to calibrate our arguments in a way so as to not make the person hearing them defensive, thanks Elliotte.

EF: No worries Thomas.

** Thanks again to Elliotte for his time and exceptional answers.

    • Like it or not, HNIC is big money broadcasting, very profitable, lots of big talent. I’d say Jim Hughson is the best PBP guy in the game and he’s on the mothercorp. Makes sense to have one of the better analysts there too.

  • ” I definitely think an issue with stat-heads to some extent is our lack of political savvy… Sometimes we fail to calibrate our arguments in a way so as to not make the person hearing them defensive.”

    Case in point, Mudcrutch79. 😉

  • On the “heart” point… Naturally, I disagree with Elliotte, on the very principle that “heart” isn’t anything quantifiable. If a quality doesn’t lead to goals or lead to wins, by definition it doesn’t matter. I think that the most undervalued players in the league are the ones who are viewed to not have “heart” but have the skill-set to compete. They just aren’t political enough to get themselves into top-six minutes.

    I remember something Bryan Murray said last year about wanting to be the team “taking the shots” when he signed Sergei Gonchar. Obviously that didn’t work out, but this summer he took a flyer on Nikita Filatov and got him for cheap. I think that while both moves were made under the same principle, he overpaid for Gonchar and underpaid for Filatov.

    Lots of great stuff in here. Good interview, Thom.

    • “If a quality doesn’t lead to goals or lead to wins, by definition it doesn’t matter”

      That the quality cannot be measured is exactly why you cannot link it to goals and wins. What is there to link? You have a number of goals or wins in one column, and something that cannot be measured in the other. It is an unknown.

      You are looking at it and saying that it doesnt lead to wins without even realizing that you simply lack the tools to even make that judgement.

      There is no EA sports Leadership, Character, or Heart stat to even draw a line between them and wins or goals. How could you conceivably come to the conclusion that one has nothing to do with the other given that you lack the information required to make that calculation?

      • Oddly enough, to an extent I agree with you.

        There certainly is no tailor-made EA Sports style stat or attribute for any of these things and it’s so tough to see that its there. One of the best arguments I’ve seen for “grit” element is that “I can’t describe it, but I know when it’s there”

        What’s our definition for “grit” or “clutchness” thus far? A guy who speaks up in the locker-room or a captain who fights? Losing teams tend to have these sorts of players too. The fact that we can’t define exactly what it means to have heart and it’s not anything we can look for means that it may be something we should put to the wayside.

        I think that a player can develop leadership over the course of the season, and you can give a guy like Nikolay Zherdev a real chance, sit him down and have an honest conversation and he will buy into the system. There’s no more way to disprove that notion than to say “Zherdev doesn’t have intangibles”.

        • “The fact that we can’t define exactly what it means to have heart and it’s not anything we can look for means that it may be something we should put to the wayside.”

          I have to disagree. That it is difficult to define just makes it something that is impossible to tackle using only empirical methods. It does not mean that it might be something we should put to the wayside. Maybe those who solely focus on stats should put it to the wayside, since heart and character dont play nice on Excel spreadsheets. However, there is still a place for heart and character in the analysis of hockey players.

          Heart and Character are subjective, but so are the interpretations of corsi, qualcomp, and every other stat available. I mean, you yourself wrote that based on the numbers you thought Omark should have been the Oilers Selke nominee. If that’s not proof of the inherent subjectivity in these statistics then I dont know what is.

          Bottom line is that even the things we can define are subject to enough interpretation and viewed through enough filters that what they represent is as difficult to nail down as the meaning of “heart”.

    • The '67 Sound

      “Naturally, I disagree with Elliotte, on the very principle that “heart” isn’t anything quantifiable. If a quality doesn’t lead to goals or lead to wins, by definition it doesn’t matter.”

      How do you know that heart doesn’t lead to goals or wins? You just inadvertently reinforced Elliott’s point.

  • Max Powers - Team HME Evans

    Great guy. My wife and I got a chance to meet him and most of the HNIC crew last year at a Heritage mixer and he was fantastic. We were being all shy not wanting to bug the NHL players on staff and Elliotte made us feel right at home. Introduced us to everyone and made us feel like we knew him other than him being a forced host at CBC media event.

    Can’t say enough about the guy and not surprised he took the time out to go over and above even after his child’s birth. CBC scooped him from the Score a few years back and with his work it won’t be long until one of the big 2 Sports networks get their claws into him.

  • I was thinking about the question regarding the approaches to the game (Burke’s answer versus Tanev’s). From a defencemans perspective you want structure, “when you see this, do that”. You may not have time to think so you want it to be instinctive.

    From the forward perspective you are trying to break down the structure of the defense to create a hole or get someone out of position. A lack of pattern, creativity is the need there, which reflects what I think Burke’s position is in his response.

    Friedman’s answer of both being part of the answer makes sense to me, viewing it from that sort of approach.

  • EF has been the premier sports reporter in Canada for the last 5 years. He does his homework and is always a delight to listen too. If CBC is smart they will pay him a mint to keep him, because he`s essentially MacLean replacement in ten years. CBC`s lost many of their good guys. MacLean, Oake, Friedman, Hewsen and the Don are the only ones I got time for anymore. The rest are weak (don`t get me going on PJ Stock, worst commentary in hockey today), and if TSN ever gets their claws into EF, I`d love the to hear the insightful debate between Mackenzie and Friedman. It would not get any better then that.

  • Max Powers - Team HME Evans

    EF should be a politician. “Question: Do you prefer A or B? Answer: I like both A and B…”

    He really comes across as an intelligent person. Could he have a future with an NHL team as a management-type or are those spots saved for the Lawyers/Ex-NHLers?

    Great article Thomas, thank you for the insight.

  • thymebalm

    Thanks for a great read. Glad to hear the Flames are looking for that edge with Weisbrod. Flames have a busy travel schedule, and that sleep system seems incredible, do the Flames operate one as well? Their travel is nearly as bad as Vancouver’s.

  • Herbert Vasiljevs

    Awesome stuff, Thom.

    I’ve had a brief interaction with Elliotte that paints a pretty good picture of the man.
    When I was interning for the Hockey News earlier this year I had a chance to cover a Boston – Toronto game at the ACC and during the scrums I got cut off and shouldered and elbowed out of the way by several reporters during the mad scramble to get to the front of the scrum, save for one reporter who saw me in the back looking pretty helpless and removed himself from the scrum and allowed me to go into his position of prime real estate to the left of Patrice Bergeron. It was Elliotte Friedman who didn’t know me, or who I was reporting for. I was a nameless face in the crowd. A terrific reporter and a compassionate man.

  • MC Hockey

    Agree with Elliott’s balanced approach to the meaning of statistics and doing an analysis of players and how to develop them using strengths and weaknesses. EF’s sincere “niceness” as a man comes through in his broadcasting work and he does prepare well and thus the great informatino he gives.

  • Never great to be on the other side of Elliotte in a hockey debate, but I’m pretty comfortable saying what I wrote was accurate.

    There are definitely quite a few teams making only the most basic use of stats in a Moneypuck sense and that alone puts hockey behind the other big three sports. This is changing, but right now, there’s plenty of resistance in orgs to this type of thing.

    Just look at the story Gabe relayed about a GM basically writing off his work as a gimmick. And even with teams like the Pens, there’s widespread skepticism (in and out of org) whether what they’re doing is of value.

    Long way to go.

  • The '67 Sound

    I wonder if the apparent difference between Mirtle’s reporting and Elliotte’s views lies in what truly constitutes “advanced stats”. I don’t know what precisely Elliotte thinks teams are tracking, but maybe it’s analogous to Joe Girardi thinking he relies on “statistics” because he leans heavily on batter vs. pitcher matchups (which sabermetric types scoff at because of sample size issues).

    Of course Friedman admitted it was largely speculation since most teams deny any use of advanced stats.

  • The '67 Sound

    “I think part of the problem is that people who believe solely in statistical analysis forget an unquantifiable thing called “heart.”-Elliot Freedman


  • The '67 Sound

    Wonderful, wonderful piece. The balance and sense of context shown by Elliotte Friedman are 1st rate and it is wonderful to see ON pursue this sort of conversation.

    This is the sort of piece that could benefit from national exposure, yeah?

  • The notion of “Heart” or “Grit” being unmeasurable is a bit misleading. “Heart” and “Grit” are often terms used for players with a hard working, focused, never give up attitude on the ice. Those terms are often used for players that don’t necessarily have the natural talent of some, but get the job done through hard work. In that sense of the words, “grit” and “heart” will show up in stats. If such qualities do in fact exist and matter they will show up with more hits, shots, and goals for and fewer against when the player is on the ice.

    What may not show up in stats is leadership and/or ones influence on his teammates that he isn’t on the ice with. Can a player, in some way influence the play of his teammates when that player is not on the ice with them? It is certainly possible. One players hard work and dedication may rub off on his teammates. A quality veteran may act as a mentor to younger players. Or conversely, one bad attitude may spoil an otherwise cohesive team. But generally speaking, I don’t think any one single player can have a significant impact on his teammates performance when not on the ice together. I am rather skeptical that “heart” and “grit” are completely unaccounted for in a statistical evaluation of players.