CAPTAIN VIDEO AND FANCY STATS

Roger Neilson

Having more information to draw on when you’re building or coaching a NHL team is never a bad thing, be it in the form of grainy VHS videotape or advanced stats and analytics.

Almost 40 years ago, Roger Neilson was hailed throughout the hockey world as an innovator and a pioneer for using videotape as a coaching tool. Breaking down tape of games he’d just seen with his own eyes earned him the handle Captain Video. Cutting edge stuff, it was.

Decades later, with videotape long having long given way to the digital era and teams employing full-time “video” coaches for years now, Neilson’s “innovation” is as much a part of NHL hockey life as sharpening skates and taping sticks. Doing so isn’t news. Not using it is.

In that regard, employing advanced stats and analytics as a tool to provide a more complete picture beyond old-school boxcar numbers is today’s version of videotape. “Fancy stats” have been in use to varying degrees around the NHL for some time, but not to the point where the hiring of Kyle Dubas as an assistant GM by the Toronto Maple Leafs this week wasn’t news.

Five years from now, a hiring like this will be a sidebar.

INFORMATION AGE

UnderwoodKeyboard

I’m not a progressive guy. At 55, I’m a product of my generation. Hell, when I graduated journalism school we were using typewriters and carbon paper in the classroom, although there were bread-boxed sized laptops being used at the Pacific Coliseum and B.C. Place when I started covering the Vancouver Canucks and B.C. Lions in the early 1980s.

Advanced stats? I’d covered baseball, where statistics had long been in broader use than in hockey, with The Edmonton Journal from 1992-96, but when I was asked about advanced stats as part of an interview with the blog Oilgasm in March of 2008, I pretty much blew them off.

Q: On the Oilogosphere, many references are made to advanced hockey statistics such as EV/60 (Even-strength points per 60 minutes), PPP/60 (Powerplay points per 60 minutes), EV+/EV- (+/- after filtering out empty net goals for/against situations). 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.”

Hardly a warm embrace of advanced stats and analytics, although in the context of covering a team day-to-day as a beat writer with daily deadlines as opposed to building a team or compiling data to look more deeply than “who’s hot and who’s not,” I hadn’t delved into them.

Now, seven years removed from the daily grind of the beat, I find myself considering the merits of advanced stats far more than I did when they actually might have helped me get a clearer picture of what I was seeing and writing about. In that, I’m clearly not alone.

HERE AND NOW

The use of advanced stats has come a long way even since I was asked about them in 2008. It’s an evolving field of study with refinements being made on an almost daily basis. There’s a long way to go to sort the meaningful from the meaningless, but teams committed to doing so already and those in the process will have a leg up on stragglers who don’t.

There are a lot of people, many of them right here in Edmonton, doing the kind of work that pushed Dubas into the spotlight with the Maple Leafs this week. The Edmonton Oilers are among the growing number of teams taking advantage of that brain power. There are more hires to come.

Separating the useful from the useless will play itself out in good time, likely sooner than later. What has merit will stand, what does not will fall. There is more information to be had, and that’s a good thing. Neilson understood that 40 years ago. Some of us are just getting it now.

Listen to Robin Brownlee Wednesdays and Thursdays from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. on the Jason Gregor Show on TSN 1260.

  • A philosopher once said “there are lies, damn lies and statistics”. If a person wants to, one can make statistics back up almost any argument one might want to put forth. We see that on this site on a daily basis.

    Statistics are a tool when used properly can be helpful, but are only tool. Like any tool you need a skilled person to get the desired result.

    • Confirmation bias is a huge problem in the stats world. There’s something greasy about a writer who has a theory and then proceeds to manipulate the stats to fit the theory.

      Dellow’s new article on the Leafs and the Kings was well done though. But it is definitely not the norm.

      There’s just too much info out there to know who has it right.

      For example, on one hand you have people saying that corsi and scoring chance differential would be comparable over a long period of time, on the other you have Staples saying J.Schultz’ scoring chance+/- was the best of all the D on the team, yet his corsirel was brutal. Not sure how unbiased and objective his counts are for contributions to scoring chances, but that goes for any person tracking any stat.

      It’s nice to see that the hockey world is finally starting to use more in depth numbers though.

    • That philosopher you quote is generally recognized to be Leonard Courtney, the same Leonard Courtney who was President of the Royal Statistical Society, a professional body for statisticians.

      It was popularized by Mark Twain, who made it pretty clear that even someone like himself, who was ‘often beguiled by figures’ could tell the difference between senseless and sensible statistics with a little bit of thought.

      • I’m not trying to say that only a very few people “skilled in the art” can get some meaning out of looking at stats. Although the more complex stats become the more this will be the case.

        Rather if a person comes in with a conclusion in hand and only looks for stats that support his conclusion, he can probably find something.

        EG If Taylor is good player? No way!!!! he lead the league in give-ways. Don’t say that he was also 4th highest in take aways.

        • That’s a fair comment in a lot of ways.

          The one thing I’d add is with regard to the really complex stats. I wouldn’t trust something too complex to be explained to the average fan – if there’s value there, it should be demonstrable.

          • Serious Gord

            Then why did the leafs hire the guy? Complex stats, just like complex engineering formulas are highly beneficial in the right hands – you trust them every time you turn on the lights or start your car.

            But in both cases it is the trustworthiness of the analyst that matters – and that’s the point of the quote of Leonard Courtney.

        • justDOit

          And people who try to use one stat to prove their point are very quickly exposed.

          As in your example, give-aways are tied to puck possession – you can’t give the puck away if you don’t already have it. Puck possession is generally regarded as a good thing, and you’ll find that the top ‘give-away’ artists in the league are also the top players in the game. So by digging a little, you can actually use that person’s argument against them.

          So arguing that stats can be used for whatever purpose the presenter has in mind, is ridiculous. Interpretation of all the data soon reveals the truth.

      • ubermiguel

        “In that regard, employing advanced stats and analytics as a tool to provide a more complete picture beyond old-school boxcar numbers is today’s version of videotape. “Fancy stats” have been in use to varying degrees around the NHL for some time, but not to the point where the hiring of Kyle Dubas as an assistant GM by the Toronto Maple Leafs this week wasn’t news. “