Not all coaches are the same. Some value analytics more than others, but I’ve always wondered how much or little coaches use analytics.
The game is fast. It features numerous unscripted and unplanned events. Some coaches will look for matchups as often as possible, while others will only do so when it doesn’t interrupt the flow of the game or their bench management, and having last change will impact their lineup decisions even more.
I’ve long believed hockey is such a fast game with so many uncontrolled situations that it is very difficult to look at one specific analytic stat, or even multiple ones, to extract the exact value of a player, but I wanted to ask a coach who could give an honest answer without worrying about it impacting his team.
Coaches are always looking for an advantage and often they won’t give us the real answer when asking about specific matchups or players. I understand why the do this, and that’s why I asked a former NHL head coach his views on analytics.
Adam Oates is a regular on my show every Tuesday. We discuss a variety of topics and last week I asked him a few about analytics.
Gregor: When you
were a coach, how did you view analytics and how did you use them?
Oates: It’s suddenly become the
rage. There are some good parts of it, and there are some bad parts of it. It
is data, and unfortunately I think that data should have been private for the
general managers and for the scouts in terms of how they measure guys, and it
became public, which I think is wrong.
As a coach,
there is not one second of the game where you don’t have your own internal
analytics going on. You’re changing lines, you’re watching the play, you’re
watching flows, and you’re watching guys, thinking, ‘Who’s having a tough
night, who is not?’ You know which line is up next and you want to give
this line a shift, but all of a sudden there is a face-off in your end, and you
change your mind because the face-off is to the right of the goalie instead of
the left. You put your guys on, but you’re not sure who he’s going to put on. Your
mind is constantly going. And it’s all the stuff that we’ve talked about.
don’t realize is that sometimes you have a guy with a seven year contract.
He’s playing. He may be having an off night, but he’s playing. These are all
things that you factor in as a coach. That’s why I think some of these things
should be private. A guy might have good CORSI number, but there are
extenuating circumstances that lead into that.
pressure with that, and players talk about it. One thing I don’t like
personally is when a guy is coming down the ice and gets it to the right winger
for example, the winger skates in and he’s taking wrister into the goalie. Okay,
it’s a shot on net, but I think that shot is awful. There’s not a goalie in
this world that’s letting that in, or else he’s getting demoted. You just give
the goalie the puck that he freezes. You may have been the first line out there
against a tired third line. You never know, right? Now you give them a chance
to get the matchup they want. How do you factor that into a CORSI rating?
**Coaches are very protective of information getting out as you can see in Oates first response. But I do agree with him that some players are influenced by the data that is out there. Some coaches are as well, and when an active coach starts discussing his individual player’s Corsi it can have more negative impact than positive.***
Gregor: How do you incorporate things that can’t be tracked by data, like
emotion, as a coach?
Oates: Coaches don’t really
believe in Corsi. We have to talk about it, but we don’t believe in it for individuals. We have our own
internal thing going on for exactly what you just said. There are subjects that
don’t show up that we can’t bring up to the media. I met with a player a couple of
weeks ago, and I showed him a face-off where he lost the draw at his own blue
line, and because he lost it, they dumped it in and he spent forty seconds in
his own end and the other team had five shot attempts. The next time he got on the ice, it was in the offensive zone, he
won the face-off and they scored within two seconds.
Two totally separate entities. Because you lost
the draw the team spent forty seconds in your own end. You won a draw, and got
an assist in two seconds, but your Corsi will be worse because of shot attempts despite you helping in scoring a goal.There are so many crazy little things that go on,
you have to think of the big picture. It’s a little bit like plus-minus. That used to
be the old version of it. But it’s tough, because the data is important, but
you have to keep it in perspective is the best way to put it.
***To clarify, Oates did mention coaches look at team Corsi as a much better indicator than individual Corsi. Some players can have a less favourable Corsi because of matchups and zone starts, but team Corsi will give a coach a better overall view of his team.**
Gregor: What was one thing you
didn’t want to discuss when you were coaching because you felt like people
would twist the words, or wouldn’t understand the importance of it?
would be a guy with a good Corsi rating, and what some wouldn’t notice is that I would
never let him take a draw in his own end. Ever. He was new to the position, and
I didn’t want to put him a position where he could fail. Anytime the face-off
was in the other teams end, he could go. That would never be factored into the
Corsi rating. Ever. It is why I believe you can never look at one rating to
evaluate a player. You have to combine all of them, and you still have to
factor in the feel of the game, matchups and what you see on the ice. At the very least you’d have to combine his zone starts and even look at where he took his faceoffs.
Gregor: Possession is discussed a lot in hockey. Can you coach it?
give you the best example. We all talk about possession and how we want
possession, yet every single team in this league — with a face-off in their own
end — they will design a play so if they win the draw the defensemen shoots the
puck off the glass and out, and they try to get into a foot race for the puck.
It is hard to
beat five guys from an organized position. So you win the draw, but those five
guys are organized, so your defensemen goes behind the net and he’s got
pressure on him. It’s hard to come up the ice. Yet we talk about how we want
possession. Well, you have possession, yet you’re giving it away. Every single
team in the league does this. Sometimes the number is skewed because it’s hard
to beat five guys when they are standing right in front of you, so sometimes we
give them the puck and play a little counter attack.
I like to hear various people’s thoughts on different hockey topics. We all have our opinions on players, teams and certain statistics. We will agree on some and disagree on others. For me, it is interesting hearing from someone still involved at the NHL level and what he sees/believes.
Oates is an individual skills coach for many NHL players. He works with Alex Ovechkin, Steven Stamkos, Mark Scheifele, Teddy Purcell, Matt Hendricks and many others. He is a strong believer in using the proper stick.
He is adamant that many players are using the wrong stick, whether it is too long, they have the wrong curve, incorrect lie or the wrong flex. After speaking to many NHL players about their stick, I tend to agree with Oates. Most of us were never measured/fitted properly for a stick.
Think about it. When we were kids, our dad, or mom, would have us stand up and the stick was cut off somewhere between our chin and chest. It was not an exact science. Most of us never knew what lie the stick had — was it a five or a six?
Oates recommended less curve for kids because they can handle the puck better, but the most important factor is to have the proper length and lie.
I asked him for any tips on how to fit your child’s hockey stick.
“It is not easy, it really isn’t,” said Oates. First off when you go to the store your son or daughter is not in their skates so you are eyeballing it based on them standing on their tiptoes.
“Nowadays everyone uses the a composite stick. The composite stick has made everyone shoot it harder, but one of the things I think it has hurt is people haven’t focused as much on their backhand. Our generation grew up with wood sticks and we played on the street or in ball hockey, and most could move it on their forehand and backhand. Nowadays very few kids can handle the puck on their backhand effectively.
“My best way to measure a stick is this: Take your son or daughter to the store, put a puck in front of them and make them go to their backhand with the puck. Do they lose their balance? If he loses his balance, if his head goes down, then something is probably wrong with the lie. His head can’t go down, because that creates blind spots on the ice. You want to be able to go forehand, backhand under control.
“A great example is Patrick Kane on a shootout. He comes in, slows down and goes backhand to forehand ten times to freeze the goalie. It requires skill, or course, but also the ability to go from his forehand to backhand and back to his forehand without losing his balance or posture. He doesn’t have to put head down, because he has the right lie, and subsequently the correct posture, and that enables him to keep his head up. That is the kind of look you want in the store. Can your son or daughter do that controlling the puck? You need to look at their posture and head positioning,” Oates explained.
He also said in an ideal world you should bring their skates to the store and have your child handle the stick and puck while wearing their skates. He also mentioned this is just one technique, and there are other factors, but if your child has a properly fitted stick it will improve their ability to handle the puck, but it will not automatically make them as adept as Patrick Kane.
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