If the Oilers’ advanced stats are so good, why don’t they win hockey games?

Dallas Eakins 19

The comments section on this website was a little testy yesterday, and analytics in hockey were a target for many. It’s understandable; there has been a lot of talk about the Oilers’ improved underlying numbers while at the same time the team isn’t winning hockey games. So what’s going on with that anyway?

An Early Hole

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There are a lot of things going on that simply saying “the Oilers have improved underlying numbers” doesn’t cover. Among them is that brutal run at the start of the year.

*Need a quick Fancy stat tutorial before reading, click here.

Edmonton started the year with five losses. Outside of the debacle in Los Angeles the Oilers were not bad; competitive against Vancouver (both of those games were one goal losses) and the superior team in many ways against Calgary and Arizona. However, the goalies posted a glorious 0.845 save percentage in that span and no team wins games when that is happening. Some of that is on them (Scrivens and Fasth both legitimately struggled) and some of it is on the defence (Dallas Eakins said his team had to find a way to eliminate “the big mistake” and he was right on that) but the Oilers actually did a pretty decent job of spending more time in the opposition’s end than in their own end over that stretch.

That’s my view; nobody here is required to accept it. But assuming for a moment that I have it right on those contests, here’s the thing: when a team plays pretty well and has five losses, there isn’t a grand and impartial board of judges who will make sure that the team will make up those points later. The dice have no memory. So when a team starts five games below 0.500, if it wants to be above 0.500 by the 20-game mark it needs to go 15-10 the rest of the way, winning 60 percent of its games.

In other words, the big problem with an early hole is it can be awfully hard to recover from it. Edmonton has gone 6-6-1 in the 13 games since; in that span their even-strength Corsi has been 49.7 percent and their even-strength Fenwick number has been 49.4 percent. That to me looks a lot like a slightly below average team going just slightly under 0.500.

Analytics & Schedule Effects

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None of these things happen in a vacuum, and while the numbers are absolute truth (X happened; we can disagree about the reasons or the importance of it, but it happened) it can be difficult sometimes to interpret them correctly.

For example: Schedule effects. I was harder on Ralph Krueger than I really should have been during 2012-13 because I failed to properly account for the fact that the Oilers were playing solely against Western teams. That matters to results.

Edmonton has played one game total against clubs that were in the playoffs in the West last year. If we continue to isolate those 13 games, they’re running a touch under 0.500 in a schedule that featured a friendly 8/5 split between home games and road games and saw the meet the following clubs:

  • 2013-14 Eastern teams that made the playoffs: Tampa Bay, Montreal, Philadelphia, Boston, N.Y. Rangers
  • 2013-14 Eastern teams that didn’t make the playoffs: Washington, Carolina, Buffalo, Ottawa
  • 2013-14 Western teams that made the playoffs: None
  • 2013-14 Western teams that didn’t make the playoffs: Nashville (x2), Vancouver, Arizona

We can talk about the hot starts in Vancouver and Nashville, but even so that isn’t exactly a murderer’s row of opponents. Eight of the 13 games came against teams trying to climb back into the postseason, and the Oilers had the additional advantage of catching New York in the second half of a back-to-back.

This has been a favourable chunk of the schedule, the part of the year when the Oilers needed to go well above 0.500 if they were in actuality a 0.500 team. Instead, they are sitting with a 6-6-1 record and even-strength possession numbers that show they’re basically full value for it.

There are some complications to putting it that plainly. The power play is on a cold streak and probably deserves better than it’s got so far; over the 13-game stretch we’re looking at the Oilers have all of five goals on 66 shots, a 7.6 shooting percentage which is well below the norm and which will probably come around.

Even so, that doesn’t excuse a pretty mediocre performance at evens over a soft part of the schedule.

The Numbers are Crap!

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No, they aren’t.

It’s often said that unlike baseball, which is highly repetitive, hockey is super random and difficult to analyze. That’s self-serving nonsense from the Luddites and should be disregarded. Hockey is a series of constantly repeating events, like so:

  • A team that doesn’t have the puck in the defensive zone has twin objectives: prevent a good scoring chance and regain possession. This happens at least dozens of times in every single game.
  • A team that has the puck in the defensive zone has one objective: to advance it to the neutral zone. This happens at least dozens of times in every single game.
  • A team that doesn’t have the puck in the neutral zone has twin objectives: prevent an opposition zone entry and regain possession. This happens at least dozens of times in every single game.
  • A team that has the puck in the neutral zone has one objective: to advance it to the offensive zone. This happens at least dozens of times in every single game.
  • A team that doesn’t have the puck in the offensive zone has twin objectives: prevent an opposition zone exit and regain possession. This happens at least dozens of times in every single game.
  • A team that has the puck in the offensive zone has one objective: to create a scoring chance (well, actually to score, but this is done by taking shots from a dangerous area). This happens at least dozens of times in every single game.

This happens quickly, and the tactics teams use to achieve their objectives can vary, and special teams need to be accounted for but it’s not like we’re trying to analyze Calvinball here. The game can be broken down into discrete moments, and a team’s performance in those discrete moments can then be analyzed. It’s extremely time consuming (I’d hoped to break down the game in exactly this manner this year, but simply don’t have the time to do this much manual tracking) but it’s entirely possible and when the NHL brings in its new analytics package this is the way every numbers guy on the internet will be studying hockey, no matter how much Brian Burke huffs and puffs.

In the meantime, we use things like Corsi and Fenwick as shorthand. It’s not perfect, but it does capture a lot of the above simply by explaining how often given teams (or given players on given teams) are succeeding in the core objective of getting to the offensive zone and delivering the puck/preventing the opposition from doing the same.

And that matters a lot. Teams that constantly let the opposition setup shop in their own end lose games because no matter how good their defensive structure is they’re setting themselves up for failure by conceding the territorial battle. Hot goaltending or a good structure can cover that for a while, but not forever. The same is true for teams that can’t manage to get to the opposition’s end with high frequency; really good shooters (or a run of pucks going in) can cover that up for a while but it’s hard to win games consistently without an offence that can create chances in volume.

Looking at the numbers, the Oilers certainly seem to be better at those two things than they were a year ago. They’re not good enough at it, and it’s a good bet they’re going to get worse when they start playing against good teams, but as unpopular as it is to say they are making progress. But while ‘just under 0.500 in a soft part of the schedule after an 0-5 start’ technically represents progress it understandably doesn’t make the fans very happy. I’ve hand-waved away that 0-5 start to some degree in this piece, briefly explaining my view of what happened without going into a ton of detail, but regardless of the cause those five games form part of the team’s record. They also go a long way toward explaining why Edmonton is where it is despite improved (but still not great) possession numbers.

RECENTLY BY JONATHAN WILLIS

  • Dwayne Roloson 35

    Yeah losing suck and pre season optimism is always high but this was expected. we are slightly better than last year. If we had goaltending wed be a bit better.If we had a #1 d-man we might have a chance. the top 6 is still one of the youngest in the nhl. We could probably even say the top 9 is the youngest or close to. We are still a year or 2 or 3 away from being good if we can find the right pieces.

    • Yes. It’s called “penalties in the offensive zone”. Calculating it can be tricky. What you do is add up the number of times he took a penalty in the offensive zone. Then you write it down. You could also type it if you prefer. Some people just remember it, but that might get tricky if you are tracking a lot of players, so I recommend a pencil. That way you can more easily correct your mistakes than with a pen, and it’s much lighter than laptop. That being said, tablets could be a real game changer here.

  • Nice article Willis! A healthy dose of logic and reality for all, and a Calvin and Hobbes reference to boot. Well done.

    You reference a new advanced stat package – can you tell us a little more about that (like when, what kind of stats, who is doing the counting and keeping the books, etc.) or point us somewhere that describes this?

  • brodiesten

    Good article, solid explanation.

    But the Oilers need to focus more on creating scoring chances and scoring in the offensive zone than retaining possession/cycling and then shooting from low scoring areas.

  • brodiesten

    the name of the game is hockey, not keep away. It doesn’t matter if the team possesses the puck for 58 minutes, if they don’t score, they don’t win.

  • brodiesten

    The only good thing about this article is it didn’t involve you whining about Marincin sitting out. Advanced stats are useless if you watch the game.

    • brodiesten

      That’s what Steve Simmons said last year when he was doing his utmost to “justify” why advanced stats didn’t apply to the Leafs. The Oilers outshot the Leafs the night before 43-26 and won the game 4-0 but gosh darn it, Steve Simmons “watched” the game, and the Leafs were not a lucky team and were certainly not outplayed.

          • brodiesten

            No, I am not backing up what you said. The Leafs, suck, and fancy stats told everyone that last year. Well, everyone but you and Steve Simmons, I guess. The Oilers are handicapped this year by below average goaltending. The Oilers haven’t been that bad, but, maybe they really do have a “losing culture.” I don’t know.

          • ubermiguel

            Actually I could have told you the leafs were brutal because I watched them play. Not sure why you’d assume I ever said anything about the leafs being a good team. Don’t just make things up to back up your point.

            And the oilers haven’t been that bad? Clearly you haven’t watched enough because they’ve been awful. Sure the goaltending had been bad but leaving guys wide open in the slot does not equate to not being that bad. Showing up 20 minutes after the game starts doesn’t mean “haven’t been that bad”. And not being able to score a goal doesn’t equal not being that bad.

            Try putting the stats away and watching a game and maybe your comments won’t be so wrong.

  • brodiesten

    The only stats that matter are wins and points. We have failed to produce either. Any other mention of advanced stats merely serves as a red herring to distract the public with something positive. In reality, the flames are above the playoff line and we are yet again, flat-out the worst team in the west. But our corsi…

    • ubermiguel

      Exactly,advanced statistical analysis is deceptive and misrepresentative and excustory by prozy.

      Traditional stats like wins and losses are absolutes,non-debatable numerical representations of dynamic actions nd their results.

      As soon as you add the BS term “advanced statistical analysis” you create a window of opportunitty for debate and disconnects,this is because these BS intentionally fabricated stats terms and ideas cannot do anything but cause confusion,they are fluid and the answers they provide are alwasy concocted to fit the questions,fake and artificial.

      You cannot use numbers to represent dynamic actions in an accurate functional manner,never could and never will.

      Stats can ONLY represent the impacts of dynamic actions,they are the witness to the crime,they are records of what happened, so if the goddam detective is deaf and blind they do him no good,and the good they do must be used within 60 on-the-fly minutes during each individual game,the stats in their traditional form if properly used will lead you to patterns which can then lead you to indicators of causality within the parameters of that individual game dynamic,but there is no way to transcribe those records of past results into usable anticipatory functional assets at game-speeds,there is no process capable of matching an opponent coaches mind,all you do by trying to do this is add extra volumes of low value disconnecting distracting data which finds its way to the Coach at the worst times.

      • So:

        Traditional stats like wins and losses are absolutes,non-debatable numerical representations of dynamic actions nd their results.

        But:

        You cannot use numbers to represent dynamic actions in an accurate functional manner,never could and never will.

        Got that everyone?

        • Kr55

          This isnt a cross-examination ha ha ha.

          You arent talking to the Jury,ha ha ha.

          Dynamic actions and their results ,as in the results of the dynamic actions….what did you take out of that? Two things-dynamic actions-… and…-their results- as seperate entitys?

          I should have said the “results of dynamic actions” MyBad.

          You cannot use numbers to represent dynamic actions and their processes in an accurate functional manner,never could and never will.All you can do with numbers is represent the “impacts” or “end results” of dynamic actions and the processes which create them.

  • Bicepus Maximus - Huge fan boy!

    The Oilers corsi is not contributing to wins for one reason. We don’t get any traffic in front of the goalie when shots are fired. This leads to the goalie making an easy save. However if there was traffic in front of him maybe these easy saves would be more difficult and result in more goals. When you have lines where players appear allergic to the crease you need to mix a few of the skill players with players who will go to the dirty areas. That is why Eberle, Nuge and Hall will never work as a line. Nuge is the set up man, Hall is the trigger man and Eberle needs to be the guy who drives the net and works the boards. He isn’t ever going to be a player who does that. SWITCH UP THE LINES ALREADY!!! Our mix on the first line is a microcosm of what’s wrong with our team. Too much skill, no grit. Other lines have better mixes but no centre. Need to mix up the big three, mainly Eberle for Perron in my opinion.

  • brodiesten

    Holy crap you must be kidding me with this question!

    WE HAVE THE LAST PLACE RANKED COACH IN THE NHL!!!!!!!!!!

    Who happens to be the a genuine turkey (deep fried if you look at his hair job) and you wonder why we lose……..

    FIre Eakins FFS………..

  • M22

    Wait, did the season start already? How are we doing? I’ve been really really really looking forward to……what’s that?….we’re 18 games in? And we’re 2 points up on Buffalo? And they’re last in the league? And we’re 10 behind Calgary?

    F*ck.

  • ubermiguel

    I would like to submit a new fancy stat for review. Call it the #HereComeTheOilers or the Yakity Sax stat.

    It counts those broken plays that end up as hilarious photos on #HereComeTheOilers and are best set to Yakity Sax.

    You know the ones I’m talking about – where all of the Edmonton are below the hashmarks while an opposing player or three are having tea in the slot.

    When three Oilers are sitting on top of their own goalie with the puck still in play.

    When three guys chase one skater into the corner and the puck still gets passed to the wide-open shooter.

    When they don’t just lose, but lose in humiliating fashion.

  • elpol

    JW, that was a very thoughtful and well-considered blog. I disagree with you. For one reason: Wins are all that matters. Its time for this team to show something now, or all of the brain trust will be fired. Hahaha, its not like this will ever happen with the Oilers. After all, we have a team president who knows something about winning…

  • MLAC 77

    Lets face it the oilers have found a way around advanced stats but yet fail to compete night in and night out and actually do the things you need to win this absolutely shows that these stats are helpful in painting some of the picture but there are non negotiable s that these players need to bring or they will never be successful.

  • One of your best articles Willis.

    Many of the comments shows the difficulty many people have with “advanced stats”. How many people have stated “well if the Oil advanced stats are so good why are they still loosing”.

    Willis never stated they were “so good”, he basically said in the last 13 games they were average (i.e Corsi, Fenwick almost exactly 50%)and this correlates very well with a 6-6-1 over this period.

    He also mentions that the quality of competition over this period was not good and that this is a concern as the competition will get tougher.

    Honestly people if you can’t read why do you even come to this site?

  • I know that Corsi and Fenwick didn’t exist in the 80s so there wouldn’t be any record for the 84 though 88 Oil but I wonder what their advanced satts would have been. I suspect that group would have been an ongoing anomaly with not great advanced stats but winning 4 cups in 5 years. I recall the Oil did not outshoot their opponents with great regularity, but they didn’t need a lot of shots to score. The Soviet teams of the 70s had a similar record, low shot totals but no shortage of goals.

    But the Oil of the mid 80s were an anomaly with Gretz, Messier, Kurri, Anderson and Coffey you didn’t need many chances to score.

  • pkam

    ‘If the Oilers’ advanced stats are so good, why don’t they win hockey games?’

    I have a stupid answer but I worry it may get the record of most trashes.

    Here it comes:

    Because advanced stats don’t win games, only goal differential does.

  • Kr55

    The Oilers may be playing with corsi/fenwick in mind which completely skews their advanced stats now. Those stats only matter if you want to compare yourself to other teams if you’re just playing your game and trying to generate high quality scoring chances and also trying to prevent them against. If you change your goal to just trying to get corsi’s and hope that the league average shooting % will just gift you all the goals you need, then you’re doomed.

    You know an awesome way to be the best corsi team ever? You let teams constantly set up golden scoring opportunities in the slot, let them get big leads without them having to take many shots and then after they sit back and give their top players a rest, you just throw any garbage towards the vicinity of the net with no regard if it has a chance to go in. Of course that’s an extreme example and no team would do it, but it’s still a possible thing to do to get good corsi stats which shows it can be a badly flawed statistic, especially if teams become more concerned about it than creating/preventing good scoring chances. A corsi can be anything from a goal to a 15 foot wide shot taken with your eyes closed from 50 feet away from the net. And in the corsi world, 2 Ryan Smyth muffins from the blue line with 0% chance of going in are worth more than 1 shot taken in a wide open side on a 2 on 1.

    In any case, I expect our advanced stats to drop to at least the bottom 1/4 of the league during this run of games vs the West.

  • Burnward

    Hello, thanks for the article Jonathan.

    A quick question:

    What does the Oiler’s CORSI tell us about the quality of shots for and where they were taken, and the quality of shots against and where they were taken? The usefulness of CORSI seems questionable if we are to conclude that the Oilers played well because they floated 10 pucks on net from the perimeter but allowed 5 breakaways against. At least the Oilers outshot the opposition!

    I ask because a Calgary fan told me that Paul Byron gets around 1 breakaway per game.

    Thank you.